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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Pasteboard Mask: Our Lady Leviathan

By Laurence Ross

This is the fifth piece in our series on the video for “The Edge of Glory.” Click here for the first piece, here for the second, here for the third, & here for the fourth..

Your tail will then split in two and shrink into what human beings call pretty legs. But it will hurt.
– the Sea Witch

“Well, I would kill for fashion.”
– Lady Gaga

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks … Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough … Talk to me not of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
– Ahab

There are two music videos for Lady Gaga’s newest single, “The Edge of Glory”: the one that exists and the one that does not. This is not exactly a lamentation for a reality that could have been. More so, this is a Borgesian analysis, a deconstruction of the imagined work, an essay at assaying the untaken path in the garden of forking paths.

The First (Second) Version, Which Exists:

If the aesthetic of “The Edge of Glory” is more reminiscent of MGM studios than of New York, it is for good reason – the video was not shot in New York. Moreover, there seems to be little attempt at making this set feel like New York. In what reality is there a street in New York (much less one with a burning building) that goes unpopulated for more than five minutes? Even as Gene Kelly sings and dances in the (artificial) street in the (artificial) rain, there are passersby, and Gaga, in taking a spin around the lamppost, is undoubtedly echoing this performance.

Perhaps that MGM context is the context in which this video should reside, the context in which we should approach our appreciations, lamentations, and critiques. Gaga, as always, is delivering a performance. She is on a set, a set whose artifice is purposely showing its seams at every edge. Gaga emphasizes this artifice, this edge, from the very first shot of the video: her hand emerges from behind the edge of the street-corner building, an edge we cannot see beyond. The second shot? Gaga’s hand running along the edge of an open window frame, an open window that leads into a room in which we can see nothing.

The antiquated and stark aesthetic of this music video – especially when compared to the super-saturated confections Gaga has been feeding her little monsters – seems to have caused a wide-spread reaction of being served a stalk of broccoli for dessert. But a music video made with the aesthetics of another time, (let’s say for example, since everyone is saying it anyway, the 80s), means something much different when the video is produced in 2011 rather than, well, the 80s. The video is, perhaps, less so an homage, and more so a new thought. The video wears the mask of antiquity, putting forward the question, what (if anything) is behind the mask? After all, we are looking at a stage set, the mask of a building, a building that is simply a façade, a shadow, an imitation of the real life thing.

The Second (First) Version, Which Does Not Exist:

Of that which does not exist, we have shadows, we have ghosts, we have specters. We have been the spectators of a handful of live performances of “The Edge of Glory” that complicate the existent video, creating a labyrinth of imagery. On “Le Grand Journal” (15 June, 2011), Gaga is literally spun around toward the crowd, revealing Lady Gaga-as-mermaid. She is half human/half fish. She is, from one aspect, a monstrous mutation. From another aspect, she is beautiful, born that way. And from yet another aspect, she is both, simultaneously. Your fish tail, which we find so beautiful, looks hideous to people on earth. Lady Gaga-as-mermaid is a paradox. And if Gaga is consistently anything at all, she is a paradox. Here is her stage, her performance with all the layered, mirrored complexities we expect Gaga to be continually birthing.

Lady Gaga-as-mermaid is out of water; she is out of her natural habitat. The mermaid is attracted to the surface world as Gaga, in “The Edge of Glory,” is attracted to the Other world, the world on the other side of that edge, whatever that world might be (be it death or simply the other side of the window, the turn around the street corner). Lady Gaga-as-mermaid needs a mask to breathe in this Other world, yet seems unwilling to actually use it. She seems committed to a type of death, a voluntary drowning in air, as she momentarily stares at and sings to the device that could give her life, give her breath, before discarding it. Or, conversely, the mask is a necessary device that facilitates her surgery. The mask is an anesthetic mask, one that will allow her to cross the line from water to land, from tail to legs, from one side of the water to the other, one that will allow her to cross the edge that is the water’s surface. And Gaga sings with eyes half-mast, already in a state of sedation. There are the doctors/angels dressed in white and aquatically moving at the foot of the operating table, offering masks up to Gaga – offerings of life and/or death, offering the paradox that one must die in order to live.

This performance contains many of the elements that exist in the nonexistent video, a video (not) directed by Joseph Kahn. Mermaids, dancing doctors, the menacing tray of surgical instruments, the metallic operating table. The aquamarine wig – a color that simultaneously conjures images of the ocean and of hospital scrubs. We watch (or would watch) this spectacle as the captivated audience seated in the amphitheater of a surgical concert/Sea World show with the captive creature (the captive Gaga) as its centerpiece. We watch this performance from our seats, spectators hungry for spectacle, our bags of candy in hand, and we are tickled pink or blue or maybe both.

The Duality/Singularity of Gaga:

The existent version of the “The Edge of Glory” video is not without its complexities. The outfit/costume Lady Gaga wears throughout the entire video is a piece by Versace. Versace’s logo, the (disembodied) head of Medusa, adorns the outfit/costume. The Medusas are layered: one Medusa strung on a necklace and hanging free as an ornament, the other tightly affixed to Gaga’s throat on a choker. And the old woman clamped eight big oysters onto the princess’s tail to show her high rank. “Ow! That really hurts,” said the little mermaid. “Yes, beauty has its price,” the grandmother replied. Versace’s logo is often encircled in a wreath and represented as a coin. And as with any coin, there are two sides, one edge, and the viewer can only view one side at a time. To see the one side is to give up the other.

The box Gaga has painted on her cheek as a beauty mark signifies a container, a confinement, though this box is not filled in. The box is an open box, an open window of sorts, a third eye (as we have seen before in the “Born This Way” video). The box is simultaneously a symbol of constriction (a prison, a coffin, a vagina) and of freedom (an open space, a gateway to the soul, a vagina).

Medusa herself embodies a feminine paradox. She is a powerful, allegedly beautiful figure; though, if she is imbued with the desire to be with a man (as Gaga’s lyrics to the song are imbued), that desire would be unquenchable in her current, monstrous form. Any man that gazed upon her would turn to stone. Her one consolation was sitting in her little garden, with her arms wrapped around the beautiful marble statue. Medusa’s power is simultaneously a curse, her hair producing loneliness and amplifying longing. Medusa’s hair constitutes her (dual) identity. “I am my hair, I am my hair,” sings Gaga. “I’m the spirit of my hair, it’s all the glory that I bare.” And if Gaga is her hair and Gaga’s hair is conceived as all her glory, then that glory (identity) must be two-toned, two-toned as the half-black-half-white hair she bares throughout the existent video.

And though there is only one set in the existent version of “The Edge of Glory,” there are actually two Gagas: the Gaga on the fire escape and the Gaga on the street. The Gaga on the fire escape seems reluctant to escape the burning room she emerges from – and in fact, does not, first climbing up the ladder of the fire escape rather than down, and then re-entering the burning room at the video’s close. Meanwhile, the Gaga on the street is supposedly removed from the danger of the flames behind her. Both Gagas are backlit by red light (“fame hooker, prostitute wench,” “it isn’t hell if everybody knows my name tonight”), though the Gaga of the fire escape seems content to dance with the (artificial) building while the Gaga of the street kisses the very (artificial) street she walks on. Both Gagas seem to be egging the viewer on, beckoning the viewer to follow (and indeed, the viewer/camera does follow).

Then there are the lyrics of the song itself, which present two conflicting sides/stories to reconcile. Or perhaps not to reconcile, but to co-exist. There is the story of the song’s origin (the death of Lady Gaga’s grandfather) that Gaga delivered during her Google interview. And then there is the narrative that is most explicit in her performance on American Idol (25 May, 2011): a story of two lovers, which, if the lyrics are interpreted from a certain perspective, transforms the song into a type of murder ballad. Gaga sings, “Another shot before we kiss the other side / I’m on the edge of something final we call life tonight.” The shot being either (or both) the shots of tequila that Gaga and her father drank in the wake of her grandfather’s death, or the shots of a double-suicide (the needled syringes of a couple of Darvon cocktails, or Gaga and her lover falling together from the edge of the crag). Both videos, the existent and the non-existent, seem to trace the narrative of the lover and the idea of wanting to follow someone into death, of giving up one’s life in its current form to be with another, and of (a type of) suicide. Death is present, by revolver or le petite mort – take your pick. Or pick both. But whichever you pick, death in this way, from a Christian perspective, is noted as a sin (“I’ll be dancing in the flames tonight”).

Think of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, a poem in which a woman in heaven presses herself against the very edge of the rampart, the golden bars, in longing for her lover who is still stuck on Earth. She is unsatisfied with a heaven where her lover is absent; she wants, “Only to live as once on earth / With Love – only to be, / As then awhile, forever now, / Together, I and he” (lines 128-132). This is a type of love Rossetti recognized as pride, (granted, pride in one’s love, but pride nonetheless), and pride is the sin of Lucifer, the sin that is the origin of hell. Love and sin, for Rossetti and for Gaga, become fused into one desire, one action. Gaga then muses, “It isn’t hell if everybody knows my name tonight,” implying another form of prideful love: self-love. You might call it vanity. But is loving one’s self such a terrible thing? In “Born This Way,” Gaga sings, “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,” and we are left with yet another paradox: love as sin.

Guillotining Gaga:

There is one other performance of “The Edge of Glory” to consider: the guillotine-lined stage of Germany’s Next Top Model (9 June, 2011). The entire performance begins with a Gaga in shadow, a ghost-Gaga (“Scheiße”), then transitions into a dualistic-Gaga, Gaga at the piano (“Born This Way”) looking at herself in the mirror (the boudoir, the vanity), and then she walks through the three guillotines of sex, money, and vanity (“The Edge of Glory”). Beneath the guillotine in which she is finally beheaded (the one labeled vanity), she lays back in a facsimile of a hair salon’s shampoo chair, as if she is getting her hair cut/washed/altered/styled (a creative act, an act of life in spite of death, “that I’ll die living just as free as my hair”) instead of suffering an execution, a beheading, a death in the same vein as Medusa. The little mermaid was also beheaded, not in Hans Christian Anderson’s fiction but in our own reality. The statue of the little mermaid that resides in Copenhagen has had its head sawn off twice, a statue that is already a reproduction of the original, a copy, an artifice that can be continually replicated and recast. And of course, through Gaga’s execution, Gaga does not die, but instead survives. The little mermaid drank the bitter, fiery potion, and it felt to her as if a double-edged sword was passing through her delicate body. She fainted and fell down as if dead. Gaga executes yet another birth. There again are two heads: the old head and the new head, the real head and the false head. “Beauty is a lie!” Gaga screams, baring the severed, false head for all to see. There is, once again, Gaga after Gaga, Gaga bearing Gaga, Gaga both employing and exposing artifice as the means of her identity/hair/art/fame/act/reality.

Similarly, at the end of the existent music video, the final shot is of Gaga’s head in reverse, hanging upside down, loose and swaying, before she rights herself again and crosses over the threshold of the window frame.

“I’m on the edge of something final we call life tonight,” she sings. But what is on the other side of the edge? Now you mustn’t think for a moment that there is nothing but bare, white sand down there. Oh, no! The most wondrous trees and plants grow at the bottom of the sea, with stalks and leaves so supple that they stir with life at the slightest ripple in the water. Gaga still stands after the fall of the guillotine, still baring her hair, and bearing another Gaga in the process. Perhaps the other side of life is not death, but life. Perhaps the two sides of a coin are the same. Perhaps there are double-headed coins (Versace). Perhaps the tail is an illusion. Perhaps the mermaid, in this reality, does not exist.

Note: The italicized portions of the text are lines taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.


Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Bain, Becky. “‘American Idol’ Finale: We Judge The Performances.” Idolator. 26 May 2011. Web. 19 June 2011.

Bain, Becky. “Lady Gaga Almost Loses Her Head On ‘Germany’s Next Top Model.’” Idolator. 9 June 2011. Web. 19 June 2011.

Bain, Becky. “Lady Gaga Is A Little Mermaid On ‘Le Grand Jounal.’” Idolator. 15 June 2011. Web. 19 June 2011.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. New York: New Directions, 2007. Print.

Born This Way. Dir. Nick Knight and Lady Gaga. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2011. Film.

Daw, Robbie. “Review Revue: Critics React To Lady Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory” Video.” Idolator. 17 June 2011. Web. 19 June 2011.

Lady Gaga. “Born This Way.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.

Lady Gaga. “Hair.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.

Lady Gaga. “Judas.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.

Lady Gaga. “The Edge of Glory.” Born This Way. Interscope Records, 2011. CD.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2002. Print.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “The Blessed Damozel.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. E. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 1446. Print.

The Edge of Glory. Dir. Lady Gaga. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2011. Film.

The Edge of Glory. (Not) Dir. Joseph Kahn and Lady Gaga. (Not) Perf. Lady Gaga. (Not) 2011. (Non-existent) Film.

Wieselman, Jarett. “What went wrong with Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory’ video?” New York Post. 17 June 2011. Web. 19 June 2011.

Writer Bio:
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Mason’s Road, Bluestem, and elsewhere. He has recently completed a novel, Also, I’m Dying, in which characters deliver performances of crisis, education, anarchy, vanity, husband, wife, child, and alcoholism, among other things.

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  1. Could you please post a link of the Gaga performance where she is a mermaid? With all the contention around the music video, I can't find the link to the performance you reference in "The Second (First) Version, Which Does Not Exist". Thank you!

  2. Unfortunately, the video seems to have been stripped from the internet, effectively making that (real) performance (about) as real as the nonexistent music video itself.

  3. I found a stray recording that has yet to be erased. If you can suffer through the acoustic detritus and the hazy visuals, you can get the idea. Watch while you can. Here is the link:



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