The following is the sixth piece in our series on Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I.” For previous analyses, click here.
The ghostly masochistic bride means everything and her brawny sadist groom nothing. The guests, well, they might be disappointed. In juxtaposing the earthy, country ballad “Yoü and I” with the violent, mythological landscape of its video, Gaga masterfully detourns from within the patriarchal longing of the quintessentially American starlet. Rather than simply undermining or opposing the fantasy of redemption in the arms of a male savior, Gaga maps out the tantalizing and emancipatory possibilities of being the objectified female subject.
The male savior appears in Gaga’s vision as the sadist lab technician who converts the liminal, mythological figures of the mermaid and the phoenix into the ghostly, bride-object of every Cinderella tale. Although positioned as the subject, this hunky characterless shell of a man remains captive as a kind of personal assistant to the objects he penetrates, cares for, and tortures. The ghostly aura of the bride that emerges from this lab reflects the doubleness of a human self bound to the inhuman and mythological space of the beyond. With its focus on the production of this wife-to-be, Gaga’s video redirects the desire expressed in the phrase “Yoü and I” from the expected object of the external lover to the hybrid figures of myth that reside in the interiority of the bride’s self. Subsumed in the narcissistic landscape of self-production, the love relationship in Gaga’s video becomes a wholly internal process that centers on the pleasure derived from returning to and replaying the violent process of one’s own formation as a subject. In affirming and enjoying the sadistic constitution of her latest persona, Gaga develops a strategy for accessing the monstrous, plural, and mystical others that lie within every seemingly normalized subject. “Yoü and I,” in other words, has a message for its country starlet: accept your perversion and make your love narcissistic.
By representing the mythological figures of the mermaid and the phoenix as sources for the construction of the objectified bride, Gaga suggests that at the extreme limit of the self-contained, narcissistic self lies an opening to the absolute outside, whether that be the sea, sky, or heavens. The oddly placed umlaut in the title “Yoü and I” brings the object of the singer’s longing inward to “Yüyi,” Gaga’s now established mermaid persona. Gaga’s definition of Yüyi in a tweet earlier this summer reiterates her status as a metaphor for the formation of Gaga as a subject: “A reincarnation of my birth+artistic spirit. In incubation, awaiting a human lover to save her.” As both beautiful woman and fish, the hybrid figure of the mermaid embodies the possibility of human life coexisting with the ultimate symbol of its other, the sea. In his political history of the globe Nomos of the Earth (1950), the legal theorist Carl Schmitt celebrates the sea as the great limit of human civilization prior to the emergence of maritime powers in the sixteenth century. Standing in opposition to the ordered domain of land, the pre-modern sea was a site in which “there were no limits, no boundaries, no consecrated sites, no sacred orientations, no law, and no property” (60). Hailing from this ancient zone of lawlessness, the mermaid must be transformed into an object of science in order to become a part of the modern subject. The impossibility of the sexual encounter between the male lab technician and the mermaid’s scaled bottom half highlights the tenuousness of this transition to modernity. Although subjected to the erotic gaze of science, this hybrid object remains forever capable of a narcissistic withdrawal. Bound to the inhuman realm of the sea, the captive mermaid remains just beyond the penetrative desire of her human master.
Gaga peers into the pool of Narcissus in “Yoü and I” and becomes mesmerized with the multiple and hybrid origins of a self which is not one. The splitting of her bride into a multiplicity of hybrid figures represents a renewed critique of the Freudian concept of narcissism that stems from Ovid’s myth of the Greek hunter fixated until death on the beauty of his own image. Returning to an early stage of childhood development, the narcissist according to Freud withdraws his or her libidinal energy from the external world and transforms the self into the sole object of erotic interest. Freud draws the following now infamous consequences in the essay “On Narcissism” (1914):
We have discovered, especially clearly in people whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, such as perverts and homosexuals, that in their later choice of love-objects they have taken as a model not their mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object, and are exhibiting a type of object-choice which must be termed ‘narcissistic’. (87)
The heteronormative sexuality that ensues from Freud’s theory of narcissism merely extends the binary between self and other on which it is based. Gaga stages a return to the metaphorical landscape of her modern American self precisely in order to upset the subject and object opposition that gives rise to the binaries of man/woman, sadist/masochist, and self/other. In dramatizing the production of her self from ancient figures of hybridity, Gaga contributes to the effort of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida to reconceptualize the self as the site of irresolvable difference rather than reassuring familiarity. With her libido fixated on the mutilated objects of science that constitute her new ghostly self, Gaga discovers the possibility of converting the male agent of this subjectivizing process into a vehicle for her at once masochistic and narcissistic desire.
Beyond reinforcing the plural and transhuman makeup of Gaga’s latest persona, the golden phoenix in “Yoü and I” crystallizes the narcissistic withdrawal inherent in this origins narrative. After living for hundreds of years as brightly colored spectacle of the sky, this mythical bird would burn itself and its nest in order to produce an identical offspring. In response to the beheading of King Charles I during the mid seventeenth-century English Civil War, royalists printed the phoenix on the coin below to portray the ascent of Charles’ son as an inevitable consequence of the indivisible and divine sovereignty of the English dynasty. Gaga prints the same image on the back of her male lab assistant in the form a tattoo that becomes apparent only once he engages in an impossible sexual act with his captive mermaid. The marking of this lab assistant with an image of a creature he holds in bondage further underlines his role as a mere agent of the masochistic desires of those he imprisons. Without parents, Gaga’s ghostly bride emerges like the newborn phoenix from the violent consumption of the very objects that constitute her self.
There is no true “you” in “Yoü and I,” only a multiplicity of personas populating the landscape of a single self. The ghostly bride, however, occupies a privileged position within this panoply because she represents the ultimate object of longing that animates the form of the country ballad. As a human figure enshrouded in a veil of death, this bride and object of ideological longing exemplifies the monstrousness of a human subject that is never quite as familiar or human as some may like. In exposing the construction of this bride from mythical creatures of history, Gaga insists that even the most seemingly complacent of contemporary subjects are intimately connected within the depths of their subjective interiority to the strangest and most distant of creatures. Rather than piously directing her libidinal energy towards her male savior, this unruly bride transforms him into the sadist agent of her masochistic and narcissistic desire. She withdraws into the landscape of her quaint American self in order to recover the supreme pleasure of her perverse and painful origins.
Spencer Jackson is a lapsed communist and doctoral student in Comparative Literature at UCLA. He works on early modern English literature as well 20th century philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Bataille. He has an essay in a recent SubStance and a forthcoming one in Studies in Romanticism.
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