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Monday, June 27, 2011

Take Gaga Out Tonight (One Song on the Edge of Glory)

By Derritt Mason

This is the eighth piece in our series on “The Edge of Glory.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

My initial response to “The Edge of Glory” was fairly standard, as far as my initial responses to Lady Gaga videos go.

“Where have I seen this before?” I thought to myself, confronted with another Gaga-ian pastiche of instantly familiar yet not readily situated images. Certainly, the brick façade and fire escape are reminiscent of any number of films set in New York City. Perhaps I was thinking of Tony and Maria’s enchanting West Side Story duet “Tonight,” wherein our star-cross’d lovers grasp longingly for one another amidst iron bars not unlike the ones upon which Gaga grinds her spectacularly vejazzled crotch:

Or perhaps, due to my indulgent consumption of serialized television programming, Gaga’s apartment entryway smacked of the portal to Carrie Bradshaw’s Shrine to Shoe Fetishism:

Still, no. Where had I previously seen another woman, similarly en deshabille, transform a brick-backed fire escape into her own personal dais of erotic dance?

Aha! I was thinking of Mimi, the HIV+ heroin-addicted heroine of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical RENT (1996) – and specifically the number “Out Tonight,” Mimi’s paean to living in the now, an expression of the show’s oft-repeated tagline: “No Day But Today!” Visually – especially in terms of setting and choreography/movement – and thematically, the similarities between “The Edge of Glory” and “Out Tonight” (I’m posting the 2008 RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway version) are striking:

... and grew increasingly striking as I watched and re-watched the pair of clips. Gaga’s echoing refrain of “tonight, yeah baby” and suggestion that “you’re who should take me home tonight” certainly recall the chorus of Mimi’s number and her repeated invitation: “Let’s go out tonight / I have to go out tonight.” Both women also plan to dance in/around fire: Gaga, “Put on your shades, cause I’ll be dancing in the flames”; Mimi, “Get up, life’s too quick / I know someplace sick / Where this chick’ll dance in the flames.” And both risk encounters with danger: Gaga, “It’s hard to feel the rush / brush the dangerous”; Mimi, “My body’s talking for me / It says, time for danger.” Most notably, however, “The Edge of Glory” could be read as a response to the ostensibly present-oriented temporality of “Out Tonight” and RENT more generally. Gaga’s lyric “I’m on the edge of something final I call life tonight” could be comfortably imported into “Out Tonight” or the subsequent number “Another Day,” where RENT’s mantra of “no day but today” appears alongside the equally present-oriented lyrics: “There is no future, there is no past / I live this moment as my last.”

So what? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but my sense is that we’re on the edge of something interesting (if not glory in the strictest sense), and the undeniable thematic and visual similarities between “The Edge of Glory” and “Out Tonight” warrant further investigation. For the moment, I will make the precariously undeveloped claim that Gaga provocatively toys with temporality in “The Edge of Glory” in ways that pay tribute to while complicating RENT's focus on the present as an ideal temporal orientation.

Set in the late 80s/early 90s, RENT explores the effect of HIV/AIDS on a group of twentysomething bohemian New Yorkers. The show’s live-in-the-now themes emerge from the way HIV/AIDS dramatically alters how those affected by the crisis perceive time. In In a Queer Time and Place, Judith Halberstam describes this shift as a sense of “constantly diminishing future” that “creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment and [...] squeezes new possibilities out of the time at hand” (2). While RENT’s lyrics reflect precisely what Halberstam is describing, the “now” in RENT, I would claim, operates in service of a hopeful future, one glimpsed at the end of the show through Mimi’s survival, her coupling with Roger (RENT’s angsty musician), and the queer family they establish through the course of the play.

Gaga’s relationship to time in “The Edge of Glory” seems more complex. The song itself and her stripped-down video are rife with nostalgia for the 80s and 90s (the saxophone solo, her wardrobe choices), yet as I have already described, her lyrics are similar to “Out Tonight” in their celebration of the present moment. Like RENT, however, “The Edge of Glory” seems to contain traces of futurity: we are, after all, always on the edge of glory and “hanging on a moment,” suggesting that our achievement of glory will be perpetually deferred. Unlike RENT, however, Gaga’s emphasis on the future via the present exists by virtue of her incorporation of nostalgic elements into the song and her video. Given more space and time, I would argue that Gaga’s video is in line with what José Muñoz describes as queer utopian thinking, “a backward glance that enacts a future vision,” one that locates potentiality in a previous era and uses it to conjure a hopeful version of a future-to-come (4). For Muñoz (and Gaga, it would seem), “the present is not enough,” and it is only by maintaining a “relation to alternative temporal and spatial maps” that we can begin to disrupt linear, straight time and imagine a queer future (27). Although I’m not currently certain what kind of utopia we could imagine through “The Edge of Glory”, Gaga’s video is quite queer: it is set in a space that is simultaneously no-place and every-place, both outside of time and located quite specifically in a particular decade, and empty (only Gaga and Clarence Clemons appear in the video) but filled with desire that manifests itself, through Gaga’s Mimi-esque dance moves, as a relationship between Gaga and her invisible spectators and Gaga and the urban New York-ish landscape.

My sketchy argument is complicated by the fact that, as RENT continues to run off-Broadway and through a number of national tours, it now operates and signifies quite differently than when it initially opened in the mid-1990s. What does it mean, for example, that RENT is a present-day phenomenon that is now (like Gaga) drawing on a previous era to relay its message about present(/future)-oriented living? This warrants further consideration at some point in the not-too-distant now. Until then, I suggest we take Gaga “Out Tonight” (maybe even to the Cat Scratch Club?) and see what unfolds.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

Muñoz, José. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Print.

Author Bio:
Derritt Mason is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta. His article “Queer Exposures: Anti-Gay Violence and the Landscapes of Wyoming” recently appeared in The Brock Review, and he has forthcoming publications on childhood and perversity, and narratives of mobility in the It Gets Better project.  Derritt is currently obsessed with the song “Scheiße.” This is Derritt’s second article for Gaga Stigmata; his first can be found here.

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  1. Thanks for your analysis. There are two things you said that stood out to me in particular. You said, "we are, after all, always on the edge of glory and “hanging on a moment,” suggesting that our achievement of glory will be perpetually deferred" followed by, "my sense is that we’re on the edge of something interesting." These quotes stood out to me because I've been wondering since the beginning of the Born This Way era what exactly Gaga has up her sleeve.

    She seems intent on toying with our expectations far more than ever before, even to the point of intentionally confusing and frustrating many of most devoted fans. There was the second BTW video that was announced but never came, the artwork for Judas and the new album that both came across as intentionally amateur, and now the teased mermaid-themed Edge of Glory video that was scrapped in favor of the video discussed above.

    Was the second BTW video scrapped due to time constraints or some other practical problem, or could it be that she never intended to make a second video? Was she really "quite certain" everyone would love the artwork for the album as she says, or did she want people to scratch their heads? When she promised her fans "the album of the decade," did she mean it, or was she trying to set herself up for a backlash? As for Edge of Glory, it would appear that Gaga did in fact hire Joseph Kahn to direct a mermaid-themed video and even did a full day of shooting for the video. However, I can't help but wonder if Gaga had planned all along to "change her mind" about the video at the last minute and make a different one?

    This begs the question: Why? One could argue that Gaga wants to temper expectations in order to give her some more creative breathing room (i.e. not feeling like she needs to keep topping herself.) However, this video and your analysis of it makes me wonder if all of these supposed mishaps and changes of plans are part of a greater performance art piece that we don't yet understand.

    She did at one point say that she wanted the performance art aspect of her BTW promotion to unfold slowly and make more sense as more and more pieces of the puzzle were revealed, and she has a track record of doing things that seem nonsensical or foolish at first but make sense in hindsight. I remember when she went from wearing sexy leotards to wearing neck braces and muppets and people thought "What the hell is she thinking?" Of course, everyone looks back on that transition now and sees it as both a clever marketing ploy and a performance piece. I also remember hearing how Gaga had "jumped the shark" when her video for Telephone came out, but within months people were calling it a quintessential Gaga video.

    So, what am I getting at? Well, I'm not entirely sure. I have a strong suspicion that all of her biggest supposed "missteps" during her current era have been completely intentional and have worked out just as she had hoped and expected them to. Beyond that, I really don't know but I do think she's given us a handful of pieces to the puzzle already. The four most obvious pieces are her three BTW-era music videos and the album itself. Two other notable pieces come in the form of things she has said. There was her announcement of an impending "cultural baptism" before the release of her video for Judas and her statement that she has to "make the music industry bleed to remind it that it's human."

    (Please forgive the horrendous grammar. I'm extremely tired and am writing this as a sort of stream of consciousness before going to bed. Thanks again for your analysis.)

  2. Dear Anonymous. Thank you for the above. I'm a die hard little monster and was actually shocked to find TEOG very boring when it aired on So You Think You Can Dance as I was expecting mermaids, surgeons, militia, an over the top video, and then was really let down by this video, which I do find rather bad, regardless of Stigmata's analysis. So perhaps she's making missteps (bad BTW album cover, TEOG) and frankly, her BTW videos are not nearly as brilliant as her fame and fame monster era videos, to keep things more grounded, to "make the music industry bleed to remind it that it's human".

    For instance, it's impossible to keep topping yourself and by releasing videos that really aren't up to her standards,to be honest, then out of the ashes, arise the phoenix and hopefully she'll come out with a spectacular video that will be even more striking in juxtaposition to the let downs of her BTW videos. For instance, Gaga is continuously criticized for "trying too hard" so she is proving the critics wrong with TEOG, and then will blow them away with the next video of her single?

    At least that's what I'm hoping. After all, her live performances are still superlative and ground breaking especially the MTV Japan Aid performances, I was awestruck.


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