This is the fourth 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.
Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.
– Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism, 1891
On my first listen, “The Edge of Glory” instantly brought to mind Berlin’s “Like Flames,” from the 1986 album Count Three & Pray. Though their melodies differ, both songs share the same soaring, triumphant pop sensibilities. Musically, they are both songs that celebrate; they are ending-credits songs. Lyrically, they are both about liberation. Terri Nunn sings about collaboration against oppression, using “we”:
The freedom bought, changed hands, was sold
The heat of love has turned ice-cold and
We never learn but we know too well
Heaven’s died and gone to hell
And Gaga counters with individual assurance, using “I”:
Put on your shades ‘cause I’ll be dancing in the flames
Tonight, yeah baby, tonight, yeah baby
It isn’t hell if everybody knows my name tonight,
It’s hardly surprising, then, when Gaga appears in the video for “The Edge of Glory” with her Terri Nunn hair and her pink-smoke city-street backlot, in a vivid callback to an era of new-wave ego-driven ambition. This video is the anti-Gaga: restrained, minimalist, sticking to one idea, free of heavy-handed symbolism and plot. It is arguably one of the most unexpected and astonishing things she’s yet done.
It would be easy to pin “The Edge of Glory” down to pure 80s nostalgia, and it definitely evokes such memories. When MTV first launched in 1981, many of its early videos were minimalist in the extreme, not as an artistic statement, but because artists lacked either the motivation or the financial wherewithal to do more with this strange new marketing tool. That said, it didn’t take long for some artists to embrace the medium. Only a year into MTV’s dominance over pop music, we would see Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” envisioned as a World War II themed epic in which Benatar, playing a bored factory worker, imagines herself as a fighter pilot in Europe alongside then-unknowns Judge Reinhold and Bill Paxton. Benatar would follow this up in 1983 with the seminal “Love is a Battlefield,” believed to be the first video to feature acted dialogue outside of the music it’s supposedly promoting. Of course, some artists resented the sudden pressure to produce visuals when all they wanted was to make records, resulting in fuck-you offerings like The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” a “video” that simply shows a stereo playing the song. Fact is, music videos have always been serious business.
The biggest cultural change wrought by MTV has become the standard for pop stars today: music videos turned artists into brands, and gave their audiences the opportunity to fixate as much on the individual as on their music. This not only meant that talented stars could build their fanbase (see Michael Jackson), but also that artists with less raw talent but an interesting “look” could top the charts (see Madonna) even while efforts rooted in musical substance over video style foundered. The MTV era not only supported but helped to create the 1980s investment in individualism, one that persists today, by inventing artists whose “unique” personal style was as important, if not moreso, than their cumulative artistic output.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Gaga obviously does not lack the funding to create another video epic, so we can assume that “The Edge of Glory” was a conscious stylistic choice. And it seems that the video for “The Edge of Glory” was originally planned to be something bigger – something mermaid-themed, in fact – but the production was shut down after the first day, owing to an argument between Gaga and the original director. In this context, “The Edge of Glory” has as much in common with “Bastards of Young” as it does “Papa Don’t Preach” – it is not a video that doesn’t care, but rather it is a video that cares deeply. “Bastards of Young” stands today not as a careless effort, but as a firm statement against forced participation in visual culture. “The Edge of Glory” is far less dramatic in its approach, but it likewise shrugs off expectations and fiercely goes its own way, dispensing with costume changes, product placements, backup dancers, and multiple sets.
Instead, this is a video of ones. Gaga has said that “The Edge of Glory” was written about the death of her grandfather, and the referenced “edge” is the edge of life, over which we all slip just before passing on, the final journey which we all undertake alone. Instead of spinning a tale, “The Edge of Glory” captures a single moment in time. In it, Gaga is mostly solitary, save for the company of kindly brass-wielding angel Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophonist who himself slipped over the edge this weekend in a sad and unpredictable synchronicity. Gaga wears only one outfit in the video, of vintage Versace, borrowed from Gianni Versace’s last collection before his murder in 1997. The entire video happens in one place. Gaga lip-syncs to the camera and dances recklessly, unchoreographed, as she might have in the privacy of her bedroom in less-famous days. The whole video feels like an improvised experiment in solitude and self-reflection. She is a wayward club kid on a Monday night; she is a bored teenager looking for an outlet; she is all dressed up with no place to go, and no one to go there with anyway. And will you look at her now.
Among the original attractions at the 1955 opening of Disneyland was a dark ride called “Snow White and Her Adventures.” Many park visitors found the experience bewildering, in part because it was quite scary for children, but mostly because it seemed that Snow White herself was absent from the ride. There was a reason for this: the ride was designed with the intention that the passengers would take on the role of Snow White as they adventured along through the woods. This was a little too existential for your average Disney park guest, and so after several years of terrifying children and perplexing adults, the ride was revamped to lighten the mood and to drop in a few cursory appearances by the titular character. The original interactive “participation” of the ride passengers was lost in favor of an omniscient viewing experience not unlike watching the film on which the ride was based, except in this case the story stands still while the audience passes through it.
“The Edge of Glory” provides a similar experience, of a story standing still, and of the viewers’ position as somewhat undefined. Is Gaga singing to us, we wonder? Or to a mirror, or to a camera? And what is the difference? “The Edge of Glory” is about death, according to Gaga, but this video is also about youth, and the individual, and that (forgotten, for some) adolescent confidence that we are uniquely important and precious, with endless possibilities open to us (even though, for too many, this is simply not true). In direct contrast to Gaga’s usual presentation at the head of a gaggle of supportive backup dancers, “The Edge of Glory” removes her self-assigned status as leader and thereby makes the video in which only Gaga exists less exclusively about Gaga than any other video she’s made – without an adoring public, without a backup squadron, without her little monsters, who is Lady Gaga? And what is the difference?
Many a disappointed response to “The Edge of Glory” referenced the video as “basically me dancing around my apartment” and that may be the point. Gaga lip-syncs along to the music, alone in her safest space, as many others have done, but she is not singing to us. Perhaps we are singing to her. Perhaps in “The Edge of Glory,” we are encouraged not to admire Lady Gaga but to be her, an embodiment of Wilde’s disturbing and disintegrating force, fierce killers of homogeneity.
Lesley Kinzel is a writer, lapsed academic, cultural critic, and fat lady extraordinaire. She writes about popular culture and body politics at http://twowholecakes.com, and is currently working on her first book for The Feminist Press. She lives just outside Boston, MA with her husband and three very spoiled cats.
Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Twitter.
Click here to "like" Gaga Stigmata on Facebook.