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Friday, August 26, 2011

On Plastic: The Endless Garment

By Laurence Ross

The following is the seventh piece in our series on Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I.” For previous analyses, click here.

Imagine (if possible) a woman dressed in an endless garment, one that is woven of everything the magazine of Fashion says, for this garment without end is proffered through a text which is itself unending … This endless garment has a double dimension: on the one hand, it grows deeper through the different systems which make up its utterance; on the other hand, it extends itself, like all discourse, along the chain of words.
– Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

It’s not meant to be an answer … it’s meant to be a perfuse number of questions.
– Lady Gaga

Despite the fact that Jonas Åkerlund did not direct “Yoü and I,” the video seems like the third chapter in a continuing narrative that the Åkerlund-produced videos “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” began. There is Lady Gaga’s glamour-infused romance (the result of which is death), Lady Gaga’s release from jail (the result of which is death), and then Lady Gaga’s escape to/return to Nebraska (the result of which is death). Yes, there is a repeated (rebirthed) theme, but there is also a (funereal) procession, a narrative extension on the discourse. Gaga leaves one man for another, moves from one prison to another, transitions from one state to the next. Gaga is continually killing one version of herself so that the next may be born, which implies two paradoxical sides of Gaga: one that wishes to live and one that wishes to die. “Yoü and I” simultaneously exhibits the separation (Lady Gaga and Jo Calderone) and the synthesis (Yüyi) of these two (seemingly) opposing sides of Gaga’s self. There is the Gaga who wants to be with the lover, submissive and secluded in the Nebraska barn, and the Gaga who wants to be the spectacle, the pop star, the one with agency.

I’ll Follow You Until You Love Me:

Lady Gaga stalks in her stilettos and her Chanel pants past the cornstalks. She stalks toward the one she loves, the one she had left. (“It’s been two years since I let you go.”) She is adorned in funeral garb that echoes her final outfit in “Telephone.” (A video at the end of which she says, “Now let’s go far, far away from here.”) She drops a dark flower to the dirt, because a flower, in the strictest sense, is not what she is offering. (Though, as I have suggested before, there is a Steinian aspect to Gaga’s project/narrative: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”)


When Gaga arrives in Nebraska, she still seems dressed for the part of the spectacle. Her Chanel and her stilettos stand in stark contrast to her rural surroundings. She is not, however, dressed in the makeshift, more avant-garde attire of the previous two videos. In comparison to fashion adorned with grotesque ruffles and Mickey Mouse print or fashion constructed from caution tape and flags, Chanel is quite tame. As Barthes points out in The Language of Fashion, “There is however a price to pay for the Chanel style: a certain forgetting of the body which we would say takes refuge, is absorbed in the social ‘distinction’ of clothing” (108). In wearing Chanel, the figure (the spectacle) of Gaga becomes less prominent. Gaga’s choice of fashion – away from the makeshift and toward the readymade – brings Gaga one stilettoed-step closer to the generic available to us all.

In the opening scene, Lady Gaga is also once again portrayed as part cyborg, with her exposed mechanic arm and a metal chin above a (heavy) metal voice box. Gaga has played the cyborg before, in her gold-plated attire of “Paparazzi” and with her robotic stutterings – both vocal and physical – in “Telephone,” though in those lavish and urban settings, she is clearly meant to be the centerpiece of those theaters. When Gaga arrives in Nebraska, however, she arrives alone.


Just as there is a price to pay for Chanel, there is a price to pay for Nebraska. A price that Gaga now seems willing to pay. (“But this photo of us, it don’t have a price.”) No backup dancers, no entourage, no spectators. Gaga, as spectacle, as pop star, is already fading away. (“I’ll be a girl backstage at your show.”) Even in the video’s opening shot, she is a blur, a wisp, a haze. In entering Nebraska, in pursuing her lover in Nebraska, Gaga ceases to pursue the stage. The flashing cameras and screaming crowds are replaced by the naked sun and the whistling wind.

We’re Plastic But We Still Have Fun:

In “Yoü and I,” Gaga is ready to give up the spectacle of herself. As Gaga uses her one arm to forcibly raise the other (opening her arms to be embraced?), she sings, “I’d give anything again to be your baby doll.” A doll to be played with, manipulated, and dressed up like any number of plastic toys, a doll to be experimented with. And as Barthes writes in his essay on plastic, “Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic … is in essence the stuff of alchemy” (Plastic 97). Gaga, in the video, seems initially torn by the idea of the doll, even as she sings of her desire to become one. Gaga struggles with the notion of the doll just as Gaga both embraces and rejects the actual doll she is offered by the menacing ice-cream truck driver.


But it is once inside the barn that the real transformations begin. Gaga transfers her agency as a performer to the lover: Gaga becomes the one performed upon. The lover sprays and injects (“Silicone, saline, poison, inject me.”) The first redesign turns Gaga into a being that resembles a yellow canary, a songbird/showbird/jailbird bound and retrained by her captor/curator/lover. “Fashion (as we conceive it today) rests on a violent sensation of time. Every year fashion destroys that which it has just been admiring, it adores that which it is about to destroy” (Language of Fashion 106). Gaga-as-canary is caged, pinned down, in the process of being domesticated. (The harness, the hairpin glasses.) The domesticated canary is the canary that needs to be bred, that needs to be engineered by an engineer.


The triangular shape of the shoulder pads the lover engineers recalls the memory of yet another jail suit – the black-and-white striped ensemble Gaga wears at the beginning of “Telephone” as she is placed behind bars. And the long collar constricting her neck recalls yet another constriction – the neck brace Gaga wears in “Paparazzi” after falling from the balcony. Here, in the laboratory of the lover, Gaga is not the creator, but the created; she is not the visionary, but the vision; she is not the artist, but the art.


In the process of change, of becoming domesticated, Gaga becomes less and less human. In a way, less and less alive. (“Dress me, I’m your mannequin.”) The dark-haired intermediary figure Gaga becomes between her canary form and Yüyi is the most lifeless of the three, and, in a way, the most artificial. “At the sight of each terminal form … the mind does not cease from considering the original matter as an enigma. This is because the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels” (Plastic 97). Her movements in this intermediary form, despite the absence of any visible cybernetics, are quite mechanical, her eyes often vapid. She seems, in her floral-coated attire, as severed from life as the flower Lady Gaga drops to the dirt in the beginning of the video. There is nothing left here of the pop star, the spectacle as agent. (“So put your dreams up for Nebraska.”) Nearly all of her human skin is masked, her legs now sheathed in boots and stockings that foreshadow the mermaid’s tail.

Gaga’s final transformation into Yüyi, however, presents us with an unexpected shift. Yes, on the one hand she is literally legless, immobilized, contained within a large bucket, and reliant on the lover to breathe, which is perhaps the epitome of a lack of agency. But on the other hand, Lady Gaga has transformed into a mermaid, a fairytale figure of myth. Once one is in the world of Faerie, the rules of our world, the “real” world, cease to exist.

Gaga may no longer be human and her breasts may now resemble plastic more than flesh, but there is a freedom granted by this transformation. “And as the movement here is almost infinite, transforming the original crystals into a multitude of more and more startling objects, plastic is, all told, a spectacle to be deciphered: the very spectacle of its end-products” (Plastic 97). By muting the initial spectacle of herself and allowing herself to be molded, Gaga gains a mutability that allows her to become the spectacle once again. Once one enters the world of Faerie, one can become anything.

We Are the Crowd:

In comparison to Yüyi who stands out (without legs) as spectacle, the Gaga who dances in the barn is merely one of a larger crowd. The Gaga performing choreography, while perhaps striving for spectacle, ultimately fails. Barthes, in his essay on the striptease, writes, “The dance, consisting of ritual gestures which have been seen a thousand times, acts on movements as a cosmetic, it hides nudity, and smothers the spectacle under a glaze of superfluous yet essential gestures” (Striptease 85-86). The aura of the striptease in these scenes is first generated by the costumes in which Gaga and the rest of the dancers perform (clad in bondage straps and Gaga with cuffs dangling from her hips) and is solidified by the ritual gesture of pole dancing.


Gaga is multiplied in these dance scenes by the rest of the dancers who replicate all of her movements and serve to distract the spectator from Gaga herself. (This distraction stands in direct opposition to “The Edge of Glory” video, in which the stage was Gaga’s and Gaga’s alone.) The camera angles in these dance sequences do not follow and focus on Gaga in the ways we would expect. At one point the camera abruptly tilts and Gaga is out of the frame, the focus instead on the dancers above her head. Gaga may be wearing her aquamarine wig in these dance scenes, but these are the scenes in “Yoü and I” in which Gaga as spectacle is the most obscured, the most diffuse, and the most generic.


Gaga does eventually lose all of her clothing, though it is not on the dance floor. By the time Gaga becomes Yüyi, she is not wearing any garment at all. Or, perhaps, she has (for the moment) become the garment, the accessory to the lover. There is a scene where the lover and Yüyi appear to be having sex, though whether or not they are actually having sex is questionable. (At least sex in the heteronormative, penetrative sense of the act.) The very fact that Gaga is decidedly not human in this form raises the question, is such sex even physically possible? “Feathers, furs and gloves go on pervading the woman with their magical virtue even once removed, and give her something like the enveloping memory of a luxurious shell … the nakedness which follows remains itself unreal, smooth and enclosed like a beautiful slippery object, withdrawn by its very extravagance from human use” (Striptease 85). It is also feasible that at the end of “Yoü and I,” the lover no longer desires sex in the traditional sense. He is no longer naked, but wears rain boots (adapting to her circumstance) and shorts. He is no longer standing above or hovering over her, but curled almost in the fetal position at her side. The scene shifts from one that is overtly pornographic in its intention to one that is much more tame. In this scene, one in which both parties appear to be content, it seems compromises have been made on the behalf of each. Gaga as Yüyi not only regains herself as spectacle, she regains her agency in the relationship. The lover still holds Yüyi at the end of the video, though this hold is no longer a restraining one. The hold is now one of mutual embrace, as Yüyi is also holding him.


This scene of the mutual embrace represents the ultimate synthesis of the two disparate yet co-existing sides of Gaga – the Gaga the lover and Gaga the spectacle. In her song “Fashion,” Gaga sings: “You are who you wear, it’s true.” And if this statement is indeed a truth, then Gaga is her truest self in this scene as Yüyi. As Yüyi, Gaga is wearing nothing (and no one) but herself.

Yellow Dance and We Turn:

There is one more Gaga presented in the video who is arguably the most lifeless – the Gaga in the wedding dress. This Gaga wears the pallid face of a dead woman, her cheeks not rouged but drown in blue. In the context of the spectacle, death is, perhaps, our final show. There is our viewing, and, if we are lucky, the ray of sun(spot)light that pierces the forest canopy to shine on our glass coffin. There is our final application of make-up, our final moment on the stage before we are born forever out of sight by our pallbearers. The Gaga in the wedding dress, the most traditionally domesticated vision of Gaga we are given, is presented as a symbol of death: the corpse. But this Gaga-as-corpse is animate, not lifeless. One life (New York) is given up for another (Nebraska). Though she is filmed in the final scene with a ghostly transparency, the expression she wears on her face seems not so grave. These scenes seem more like a dream than a reality, and in the final scene, the dream (the wedding dress) overlaps the reality (the Nebraska barn). One dream (the pop star) is given up for another (the lover). And if we are merely (and perhaps endlessly) swapping dream for dream, dress for dress, does it matter which we choose?


Barthes concludes his essay on plastic with this thought: “The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas” (Plastic 99). Lady Gaga, in placing herself in the generic, domesticated role of the bride, shows that whether she chooses to be the pop star or the lover (or anything else for that matter), she can remain our spectacle. As Yüyi, embodying the conflicting sides of herself, Gaga shows that it is possible for us to have our frosted cake and eat it too. That it is possible for domesticity and agency to co-exist. That Lady Gaga can be (and is) both the artist and the art. And that, in a plastic world, if Lady Gaga can become our spectacle, we have the capacity of spectacle as well.

Bibliography:

Åkerlund Jonas, Dir., Telephone. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2010. Film.

Åkerlund Jonas, Dir., Paparazzi. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2009. Film.

Barthes, Roland. “The Fashion System.” Trans. Matthew Ward. London: The Trinity Press, 1985. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Language of Fashion.” Trans. Andy Stafford. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “Mythologies.” Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995. Print.

Formichetti, Nicola. “Yoü And I / LADY GAGA / FASHION CREDITS!!!!!.” NICOLA FORMICHETTI’S BLOG!!. 16 Aug. 2011. Web.

Lady Gaga. “Dance in the Dark.” The Fame Monster. Interscope Records, 2009. CD.

Lady Gaga. “Fashion.” Confessions of a Shopaholic. Hollywood Records, 2009. CD.

Lady Gaga. Interview by Sway. MTV. 18 Aug. 2011. Television.

Stein, Gertrude. Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas, 1922. Print.

Yoü and I. Dir. Haus of Gaga and Lady Gaga. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2011. Film.

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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2 comments:

  1. A fantastic, concise, and insightful analysis! I am delighted that you pointed out the connection between this video and the two previous Åkerlund-produced videos, from the costumes/accoutrements to the continuing narrative and themes. I would only add to that list of similarities the music (for starters, the layering of the synthesizer ostinato [the artificial] beneath the acoustic piano [the natural/human], and so on and so forth)...

    Also, I am impressed with the connection you made to Barthes. I have only previously read excerpts from his works that relate to music, and now you have inspired me to read further because it seems as though Gaga and Barthes are an analytical match made in heaven.

    On a somewhat tangential note, would you view Gaga as a 21st-century musical/artistic (Barthesian) "scriptor"?


    All the best,
    Ayah

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ayah,

    I like the idea of Gaga-as-"scriptor" (a merge of sculptor and scripter?) as I think she has created (thus far) a continuous project which has not only a narrative arch, but a thematic one, as her album titles suggest. And recently, I think that her fashion, more than ever, has been amplifying this. Gaga has been primarily wearing Versace and Chanel as of late--two companies who sport logos of duality and narcissism,, but companies that also provide an element of accessibility in the availability of the brands to the (albeit wealthy) public. (This accessibility may have reached a new level with Jo Calderone wearing Brooks Brothers pants to the VMAs). What Gaga understands, as Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Roland Barthes, and countless others understand, is that what you wear is inextricably tied to your identity. It is a medium of communication, just as prose is a medium of communication. And as Gaga, for the moment, has been focusing on the idea of continually birthed identities linked in a clear (and often narrative) trajectory, Barthes's notion idea of an endless garment seems particularly apt, as does the analogy of Gaga's project to the written word.

    Thanks for the comment,

    Laurence Ross

    ReplyDelete

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