"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gaga Stigmata: Yale's The American Scholar Magazine

Gaga Stigmata was featured in the Autumn 2011 issue of Yale’s The American Scholar Magazine! Editors Kate Durbin and Meghan Vicks were thrilled to speak with AS about Lady Gaga, 21st-century celebrity and scholarship, and Gaga’s relationship to academic studies. Check out the piece below:
Since March 2010, the online journal Gaga Stigmata has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on the singer. The editors are Meghan Vicks, a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Kate Durbin, a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. “When Gaga’s videos would come out,” Durbin says, “there would be such a response online. It was frustrating to think that I would have to wait five years to read something about it in an academic journal. So, I thought, why not help criticism catch up? Let’s see if we can shape pop culture and critique it.” Indeed, the digital immediacy of Gaga Stigmata suits the pace of 21st-century celebrity, allowing readings of the singer to update as fast as her own reinventions. “When the meat dress happened,” Durbin says, referring to Gaga’s garb at the MTV Video Music Awards last September, “we posted stuff a week later.”

In academe, Vicks says, she dreams of lecture halls in which scholars dress conceptually, like Gaga: “While I’m in the classroom explaining how the procession of simulacra works, Gaga is showing it on the street. High theory dictates how you view and understand the world, and what is high theory but discursive spectacle?”

Are academics unduly gaga over Gaga? “She’s really adamant about serious meaning and high art,” Durbin maintains. “That may be her one entirely new thing. Warhol brought pop into the museum; Gaga is bringing high art into pop culture.”

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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Warrior Queen: Marry The Night, Trauma, Regression, and Recovery

By K.M. Zwick

This is the eighth piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.
– Sigmund Freud

When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened. It’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie is much more honest, because I invented it.
– Lady Gaga, “Marry The Night” Video

Sigmund Freud posited that sex (creation/joining) and violence (destruction/separation) are attractive to the most primal and perhaps truest internal aspects of all of us. He called us “polymorphously perverse,” which means that we are fundamentally pleasure-seeking, through libidinal as well as aggressive drives. What we really want is often considered “perverted,” linking sex, fetishes, violence, comfort, nurturance, joy, and death together in so many different ways and, ahem, positions, that our unconscious is basically a clusterfuck of perversion, desire, and fantasy. Modern-day analysts might suggest there is no such thing as perversion, per se, in terms of what is desired within the mind, because perversion is so ubiquitous. Additionally, what is consensually enacted between two (or more) individuals might not be considered perverse as much as it would be considered honest – an honest engagement with what is often a combination of sex and death. Simultaneous creation and destruction. Our libidinal instincts intertwined with our aggressive ones can create powerful wishes, fantasies, fetishes, and proclivities that are not only intensely sexual but are also intensely mortal; that is, destructive. It is, perhaps, the constant repression of our deepest fantasies that leads to neurosis; it is, perhaps, the denial of the interplay between sex and death – pleasure and aggression – that results in anxious and escapist symptoms in so many. Telling ourselves that sexual and aggressive fantasies are “bad” or “wrong” is likely to lead to puritanical subversion of what is most basic, and therefore authentic, in us. Freud might have argued that we are not sick when we are in touch with our most primal instincts (in safe, consensual fashions) but rather that we are most sick when we deny their existence, relevance, and the pleasurable effect of such instincts.

* * * * *

As I watch the video for “Marry The Night,” I don’t care, particularly, if Lady Gaga knows a lot about psychoanalysis or not. I think that she might, if not because she has read about it then because she has lived it to some extent. But even that – Ms. Germanotta’s autobiography – I don’t care about, per se. I have read the accounts that this video is about the worst day of her life: the day Def Jam dropped her. This video, however, uses explicit imagery related to trauma (destruction) and re-invention (creation) that hits a pre-verbal, regressive libidinal and aggressive chord. And this is what I find so rewarding and authentic about many of her videos, but most especially the video for “Marry The Night.” I care, as a trauma therapist and as a trauma survivor, that the art she makes and the world she inhabits in her music and especially in this video open up a universe for the viewer in which violent trauma, transformation, sex, mortality, creation, destruction, re-creation, and re-destruction are exposed, claimed, and normalized. That gutted psyche is Lady Gaga’s normal world.  

To say she glorifies sexuality and mortality, or trauma and sex, would be a mistake. The desire to combine those two aspects of life is so normal as to be quaint, in terms of an analytic reading of basic human psychodynamics. To label what Lady Gaga is doing with trauma, sex, death, and invention “bizarre” misses, I believe, how essentially basic and deeply human her themes are. 

What I find perhaps most pleasing about Gaga’s self-transformation in the “Marry The Night” video, which I will explore in more detail below, is that she is bringing to the fore an innocent reveling, often childlike, in fundamental and common intra-psychic processes. Not only is she a gorgeously unhinged libido and aggression, but she is also imaginative, she makes of herself and her world the imaginary, arguably engaging in something akin to pop music play therapy. She aligns herself with her internal complexes and makes art with them. She is pleasure-seeking, even through pain, perhaps particularly through pain. She is polymorphously perverse, but rather than being ashamed of it, she is proud of it.

* * * * * 
In small children, psychoanalysis posits that, especially prior to the phallic stage of psychosexual development, wishes to join (sexual) and wishes to destroy (aggressive) are uncomplicated by the superego. The internal life of a small child is, according to Freud, a life of unrepressed libidinal and aggressive desires, many of which are acted out: sucking a mother’s nipple, playing in the mud and water (metaphorical feces and urine, another form of “playing with oneself”), enjoying unfettered nudity, reacting intensely when feeling threatened, attacking others by biting, hitting, shunning. It is a life before shame, before guilt, before punishment, and often before words. This internal life is not erased with the pressures of social and familial norms or with the activation of the superego (or, the conscience); it is, analysts generally posit, repressed.

Such intense libidinal and aggressive desires and actions resurface during the teenage years, when the latency (repression) stage is coming to an end. Teenagers are, in many ways, like small children, activated again by sexual and aggressive tendencies, destroying close bonds with their parents while they create pleasurable bonds with love interests, friends, and activities outside the family. The destruction of the pleasurable parent-child closeness is a necessary component of the creation of a pleasurable self outside the home. Aggression and pleasure are linked. Of course, healthy development will find late-age teens able to hold the two sources of pleasure at the same time – a self that bonds with parents in a new and different way, and a self that bonds with those outside the nuclear family. Re-creation occurs, re-definition, and what was destroyed was necessary to destroy in order to transform and grow. The sexual and aggressive drives, creation and destruction, seem often to be crucially linked and intertwined at turning points for development, self-discovery, self-expression, and transformation, as well as intertwined in developments that help us form bonds with others. 

In this, I am merely speaking of normative psychological development. When we add into the mix trauma in childhood, we add new layers of destruction and creation that are difficult to tease apart in a general sense for the purposes of this piece. However, broadly speaking, severe psychic and physical trauma – such as early abandonment by a parent, sexual, physical, or verbal abuse, generalized emotional neglect, divorce – brings with it new forms of joining and destruction. Trauma can be so powerful, and can create such intense (sometimes self-)destructive pure id tendencies in the child or even the grown person, that the desires related to the trauma will be sometimes permanently repressed and find expression in seemingly unrelated feelings and behaviors. Additionally, trauma often triggers regressive states in the victim, dragging a person back to an earlier and more childlike psychosexual stage of development – often oral and/or anal – and again, defensive behavioral patterns may emerge to deal with these regressed states, to both avoid and survive them. Furthermore, pleasure centers are often stimulated even during traumatic experiences, further fusing together destructive and creative drives. Symptoms of self-mutilation, displaced anger, substance abuse, eating disorders, and obsession and compulsion that are seemingly unrelated to anything in particular – all these may arise to help repress the libido and aggression triggered during the original trauma. There are also “socially acceptable” forms the repression might take – e.g. becoming a cop or a soldier as a way to acceptably exert authority and aggression, becoming a doctor who, essentially, invades bodies for a living, or becoming a trauma counselor who bears witness to the trauma of others.

Those deeply in touch with their internal creative forces – like artists – often make something from the destruction they have experienced. I would not argue these artists always repress less, but they may expose more of what is true not just for them but also for many others – expose unspoken truths, histories, pain, and joy that hit the centers of unassuming witnesses. An artist may not even be aware of what she is exposing and communicating; she offers palates to be projected onto, imagery and ideas that may appear disjointed but that nonetheless resonate on some deep, gut level with those creation and destruction forces that are so inherent in human experience, whether one has been deeply psychically traumatized or one has merely experienced the normative trauma and recovery of living in a mortal, unpredictable, pleasurable, and terrifying world.

* * * * *

While the videos for “Yoü and I,” “Telephone,” “Bad Romance,” and “Paparazzi” also conjure the gutted and exposed libidinal and aggressive psyche, in no music video of Gaga’s is her transformation through trauma, sexuality, destruction, and creation so clear, exposed, and moving as it is in her new “Marry The Night” video. I have read a couple of initial reviews that describe her as self-indulgent and navel-gazing in this video, and one that criticized her acting chops in the opening sequence.

To these critics, I say, “For shame.” Her opening voiceover is nothing less than brilliant, as she tackles the slippery psychological process of remembering trauma. She rightly claims that trauma is the ultimate killer; it does something that could be considered worse than death – it allows one to live with a shaken psyche, sometimes without full memory of the trauma and without ability to make any sense of it.

In the opening, she presents herself as a recent victim, apparently assaulted and perhaps raped. She is told she cannot be “intimate” (read: have sex) for two weeks. She notes that she has lost everything. But she notes this in the context of great hope: she says that she will be a star because she has nothing left to lose. She points out that she has created this depicted trauma and has used things that bring her pleasure to do so – the mint gauze caps, the nurse on the right with the great ass, the next season Calvin Klein. She has been, in a sense, destroyed. And while acknowledging this, tearfully, she holds on to a reality within her that tells her she can do something with this destruction; she can create. She can hold death and life, destruction and creation, pleasure and mortality, at the same time.

What she has lost here is her innocence; it has been forcibly taken from her and that is physically manifested as opposed to just psychically manifested. Gaga is fairly genius at making her internal world external. She shows her polymorphously perverse nature, and it strikes me as quite the opposite of self-indulgent: she gives her viewers total permission to enjoy her perversion, thereby owning – not even vicariously, because her cinema is so sensorily pleasurable – their own perversions. She invites the linking of libido and aggression; she invites the dynamic interplay of sex and death. She doesn’t just show you it; she is fairly certain you’ll love it, that you will join her in that linking. 

When we then see her in her flat, defending her artistry and essentially displaying a mental breakdown of anguish, anger, and despair – clearly externalizing regressive states of sexuality and aggression – I cannot help but notice that her eye make-up positions her as potentially lending a nod to Amy Winehouse. Whether this was an intentional reference to the deceased pop star who struggled with addiction or not, this is certainly a plausible reading of her internal existential crisis in the flat. Ms. Winehouse was found deceased in her flat; she was a vocalist of epic proportions who brought joy (pleasure) by writing and singing about pain (destruction). The song “Rehab” was at once tragic and impossible not to dance around to, singing along. That Gaga might identify with Ms. Winehouse or feel a need to pay subtle homage to her does not surprise me. They are two women who bare something of the gutted soul for mass enjoyment.

Gaga, in the midst of this crisis in her flat, has two choices: give up or change. She chooses change. Because she has felt through the trauma – has allowed herself to regress as she flails about nearly nude with a box of cereal (here she is in an oral psychosexual moment, the first of the infantile stages of development: grappling with what should nurture her, grappling with trust, using her mouth for pleasure and aggression) – she is empowered to then have these options. She dyes her hair – connoting metamorphosis – in her bathtub, naked, again mixing destruction and sexuality together, primal and pre-verbal (now she is playing at anal stage themes of controlling the body and bodily functions), and we hear a voiceover of Gaga quietly singing some lines to what later becomes an enormously popular hit single “Marry The Night.”

As she later leaves the building (brothel? hotel? hospital?) of women, some prim and proper ballerinas, some indistinguishable, she says, “You may say I lost everything. But I still had my bedazzler.” And there it is. I laughed out loud when she said this, because, hey, it’s hilarious. It’s also another claim on transformation: she possesses the tools – metaphorically a machine that tacks rhinestones onto clothing – to transform harsh and traumatizing realities into something if not conventionally beautiful then at least beautiful to her. Destruction and creation. Sex and death. This burst of laughter and understanding instantly reminded me of Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, wherein humor fashions itself as simultaneously revelatory of inner conflicts and reveling in them. Additionally, she is arguably progressing through the phallic stage of development as she exits a re-fashioned woman, claiming her gender by dressing it up, quite different from the tomboyish brunette we first encountered in the clinic.

Is she navel-gazing? Is she self-indulgent? What human being shouldn’t be, in the midst of internal and external crisis? If one does not feel through such events – which may, in the face of great trauma, include intense regression to infantile stages of development – accepting the destructive forces and the effects those have on one’s intra-psychic and possibly physical self, one represses. One denies. One acts as if nothing happened. And in this way, trauma, violation, and destruction win. When one does this, one loses the opportunity and authority to create in the middle of what is destructive, loses the opportunity to take these new pieces of reality and transform them, to dominate them, to integrate them into a newly made world, and to even find pleasure through them.

Gaga goes on from exiting the building to offer us one of the most gratifying music videos I’ve seen from her. As we see her in her Firebird Trans Am, she is now at the final psychosexual stage of development, the genital phase: she is not merely woman, but sexual, empowered with her ability as a mature woman to create. The video is evocative of not just the music video for “Thriller,” but of the entire movie The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which takes us behind the scenes – like Gaga in the dance studio – and onto the street with a crew of dancers who back up her vision for her life, macabre and transformative, creating sex and pleasure in the midst of grit, destruction, and trauma. Just as Michael Jackson somehow made the threat of zombie attacks and death a pleasurable and erotic experience for the viewer, Gaga, in essence, takes back the night, whatever “the night” means to her. She won’t give up on her life. Her story, rather than ending in a clinic with bruises all over her back, surrounded by crazed young women and doped up on morphine, began there. Creation from destruction.  

* * * * *

As with the trope that “white” is culturally invisible, so too is it generally true that the “white male” form is invisible, especially in the United States, and is treated in the popular mainstream eye as a blank canvas onto which we can project our fantasies and desires, wild, tangled, and disturbing, joyous and free. Historically, the female form has been more difficult to digest as a blank canvas, as it has been so very objectified and imbued with what that form must mean to the ruling class. For a female pop artist to become a blank canvas – as I believe Lady Gaga is becoming in each of her videos and especially in “Marry The Night” – that is available for all kinds of projections and deeply felt visceral responses is a revolutionary and radical gift to audiences of any gender. We see Lady Gaga in “Marry The Night” as trauma victim, androgynous, naked, costumed many times over, masculine, feminine, sexual, aggressive, innocent, outcast, leader. She is believable in all of these roles.

That Lady Gaga occupies intense libidinal and aggressive drives in a female body – and that her persona more and more presents a duality of masculine and feminine – in a world that traditionally responds primarily to men as having the power and authority to do this is, again, revolutionary and radical. It is not that Lady Gaga has invented this revolution or the themes and complexes she presents in the “Marry The Night” video. Those who have followed transgressive female artists who transform the female body, like Cindy Sherman, would rightfully skewer me if I said Gaga invented this. But what gets me, and why I felt the need to write this piece, is that much of the entire world is responding positively to what Gaga is offering; that level of responsiveness appears unmatched in this time and place. 

It seems to me that the world that loves her so inexhaustibly is crying out, in part, for the “radical” notion that the female form (and any minority body) is not simply a subjugated object for white straight men – or anyone else, for that matter – to control, subject and violate. She has made her form a blank canvas in many ways, which she strips down, bares, mutilates, rejoices, births, re-creates. 

I refute any claims that Lady Gaga is merely another pop sex object in this video because she struts around half-naked and depicts a primal sexuality, especially in the sequence in the hotel room/flat. As she uses her own form as a carrier of multiple meanings, in this as in many of her videos, it is not a fair assessment to claim that any woman who shows too much flesh is bowing to the patriarchal male gaze. Lady Gaga’s persona is a subject of her own making; it is fiercely in touch with her libidinal and aggressive forces, sometimes mutilating and morphing her own obviously gorgeous female form (throwing a box of Cheerios on her naked body, stuffing her face; bowing to ballerina perfection, which many understand to be painful and sometimes destructive to the ballerina’s body) to present us with an external version of internal conflicts and wishes, fantasies, and desires – perhaps our own. To ask that she de-sexualize herself would be to halve what is so universally appealing about her, just as it would be antithetical for her to tone down the gritty, destructive, masculine forces within her – with which she grapples, and which she so brilliantly enacts. 

And while there is arguably a certain level of trauma just in being born female – or “different” – in a society in which minorities continue to be more often objects than subjects, Gaga claims that very trauma as a tool for her own self-actualization. And she offers that claiming of trauma, that re-invention of trauma, to her wildly devoted fans. I believe this all resonates viscerally, not necessarily intellectually, which is, ultimately, its genius and its profundity.

I’m convinced Freud would have utterly loved her and might have claimed she is offering some solution to neurosis and posttraumatic stress through popular art that no other pop star of her generation with her level of success is currently offering. She regresses in the face of trauma, and she imbibes the raw vicissitudes of mortality and sexuality. She aligns herself with fundamental complexes, so essential to the grappling of any trauma, to transform herself, to cathect, and catapult from infantile regression to a position of subject, power, authority, and invention.

Bravo, Gaga. Navel-gaze all you want. Self-indulge. And transform our pain again, as I know you will. I’m a 32 year-old little monster, with my paws up. 


Freud, A. (1966) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. Executors of the Estate of
Anna Freud.

Freud, S. (1962) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Sigmund Freud Copyrights

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Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. (eds) (2006), Media and Cultural Studies. Blackwell
Publishing Limited: Massachusetts, United States.
Mulvey, L. Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Rothenberg, P.S. (ed) (2004). Race, Class and Gender in the United States: An
Integrated Study. Worth Publishers: United States.
McIntosh, P. White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.

Figley, C.R. (ed) (1985). Trauma and Its Wake. Brunner/Mazel: Pennsylvania, United
Eth, S. & Pynoos, R.S. Developmental perspective on psychic trauma in

Author Bio:
K.M. Zwick, MA, is a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery, addictions and group dynamics, a gender theorist, columnist, and essayist in Chicago, Illinois. Find her opinions run amok on http://thehumbleopine.blogspot.com

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MtN’s Tour de Negative Femininities

By Samantha Cohen

This is the seventh piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

The home-chopped bob with too-short bangs has always been my favorite haircut. It screams teenage theater girl or aspiring mental patient. It makes me think of knives. The girl with the home-chopped bob is so angry she’ll take a scissors to her hair, cut right into it at random, and probably use the scissors on other things, too. The bob chopper’s given up on being a good female – she’s given up on being pretty. She takes her emotions out on the very symbol of her good femininity: her hair. She externalizes her badness, advertises her desire to fail. And so she is institutionalized.

Only she hasn’t given up on being pretty, not really. The scissored-at-random look is different than the razored-all-over look. Her little bangs ask those who gaze upon her to still find her cute. Recognize my anger, her hair says, recognize its manifestation on my body, but adore me. The home-chopped bob externalizes the ambivalence and pathos of being female.

And so, in the mental institution with home-chopped Gaga we begin the “Marry the Night” video’s grand tour of negative femininities.

The mental institution has always been a fantasy space for me. I sort of blame the movie Girl, Interrupted for this.

Angelina's home-chopped bangs!

The mental institution is a place for unchecked feminine expression and sanctioned hysteria, a gathering space for failed females. It’s a lesbian separatist experiment-come-true. In Girl, Interrupted, Winona and Angelina sneak out for acoustic guitar sessions and eye sex. In “Marry the Night,” patients cavort madly in matching thongs, imaginary slumber party-style.

Gaga’s in the institution because she took a knife to her hair and then her body; because she couldn’t be a good female – “a saint” – like her mother.

But one must fail at femaleness in order to create. Creation is a selfish act, and the good female is unselfish. Gaga must accept herself as a failed female before she can be an artist, and so the mental institution is necessarily the first stop on her journey.

Gaga is not at the hospital to be restored to good femininity, like Winona in Girl, Interrupted, but to accept her failure. She just has to turn on some dramatic piano music and waltz into a studio apartment that, bathtub-in-the-kitchen, is the very signifier of glamorous New York artistic poverty, and that’s in some ways, an extension of the institution – a place for expressive seclusion.

And so she finds herself in the next incarnation of failed femaleness: the cloistered impoverished artist. She practices ballet, does performance art involving maxi pads and Cheerios, and writes songs in the kitchen bathtub as she bleaches her hair. Strutting around with a censoring black bar over her nipples, she even has an imaginary audience. Her speech is subtitled.

But Gaga’s already told us she’s beautified her past. Of course, real art poverty is the same as all other poverty. There’s no audience, and after awhile, it becomes difficult to imagine one.

And so, Gaga joins the world again, now as an artist. Which she can do, because she still has her bedazzler. She still has the tool to make herself into her own glittering object. And so she does.

And then she does “what any girl would do.” But what is it that any girl would do? She says it’s “start(ing) all over again” but her face tells us something different. 

Do you see it? It’s subtle. It could almost be that Gaga’s gum is stuck in her teeth. But, no. Gaga is going to suck cock. She’s going to embody yet another form of negative feminine: the whore.

Oh yes. She’s entered the capitalist/patriarchal system and she’s ready to sell herself to that ultimate patriarch: the Papa Paparazzi.

Gaga’s subtlety with her cock-sucking face is telling – she’s skilled at making her signals apparent only to those who know how to read them. This kind of coded signaling is itself a feminine form of communication. Men, Real Men (who may of course be women, too), the ones who run shit and to whom Gaga must whore herself are, as centuries worth of jokes and satire tell us, unobservant. Almost intentionally so – they wouldn’t want to be accused of the feminine activity of reading into things. And so, by convincing Real Men, at a glance, that she’s whatever they want her to be, Gaga gains the freedom to speak honestly, if clandestinely.

So Gaga’s a whore, but she can’t just be a whore. Like (Catholic schoolgirl) pop stars Britney and Christina, she must embrace both sides of the Madonna/whore binary. She must, too, be a saint. She clues us in on this in the same moment that she signals her intent-to-whore. Her studded denim, blonde 80s look alludes to Madonna, making a kind of visual pun that allows her to embody both the Madonna and the whore simultaneously, to effectively become a Madonna/whore hologram.

Unlike Britney and Christina, though, whom Real Men turn into whores and Madonnas in image only, Gaga becomes a real Madonna (more on this later), and a real whore. She “throw(s) on some leather and cruise(s)…in (her) fishnet gloves, (she’s) a sinner.” And it’s by embodying at once these opposing figures that Gaga has the freedom to create herself in her own image, to use those shiny patches.

By actually inhabiting both sides of the Madonna/whore binary, Gaga is able to become, while in the world, something that’s almost unfemale. By the time she’s ready for the world of the actual music video, she’s abandoned her uncontrolled, emotional femininity. Her movements have become precise, rigid, fierce. Her gaze is direct and unsmiling. She makes fists. She blows shit up. She’s become something that’s so far from popular representations of the Madonna and the whore that it’s not quite recognizable as female, so far from these representations that, upon her debut, U.S. audiences speculated about whether she was a man. In fact, she’s a Gaga. And it’s once she’s become a Gaga in this video that the actual music video can begin.

Throughout the music video, we see what it is to be a Madonna.

Whoring gives Gaga the freedom to return to the bathtub, to her space of creation, which is also her space of baptism.

Gaga purifies herself in order to “make love to this dark,” to create. In Gaga’s bathtub, the Madonna is not all about piety and selflessness. This Madonna communes with the divine, with the mystical, with the dark, in order to create. This is not a new idea of course – the Virgin Mary herself communed with the divine so hard, got so deeply in touch with the dark otherworldly, that she got pregnant with an actual baby who was part-human, part-divine. Gaga restores the image of the Madonna to what she is: another embodiment of the negative feminine.

Gaga’s Madonna is not a Madonna that the U.S. Christian right (who are almost synonymous with Real Men) would approve. She’s in touch with the dark, with the unconscious, with the frightening spiritual world.

Real Men are content, Gaga implies, as long as their cocks get sucked. And thus, Gaga turns the Madonna/whore binary on its head, making saintliness encompass emotion and darkness and everything scarily feminine, while the whore gives Real Men what they want, gaining freedom as currency.

And the chorus of “Marry the Night” sounds to me like an imperative as well as an invocation. I hear Gaga invoking Mama M-Mary, the night. Mary the dark, Mary the source of magical creation. But I also hear, “Mama m-marry the night,” which sounds to me like it sounds when I hear LA Latina mothers call their daughters mama, a term of endearment, a recognition of their inescapable femaleness. Mother monster is dispensing some advice. She advises us to marry the night. To embrace inner darkness and create from that darkness. To commune with the otherworldly, to reinvent ourselves. To turn tricks and be tricksters. To embrace solitude as well as the bedazzler. To do the home-chopped bob if we need to, but to eventually become so tough and glamorous in the world that we’ll be allowed space to return to our own rooms for emotional/psychotic/hysterical creation.

And with the Mary figure at the end of the video, Gaga offers us a god to worship. This Mary’s hard and shiny, content alone in the darkness, transmitting signals from her satellite head, knowing they'll be properly received.

Author Bio:
Samantha Cohen, creative editor of Gaga Stigmata, is a writer living behind the Scientology building in Los Angeles. Her fiction can be found in PANK, Black Clock, Storyglossia, The New Orleans Review, and Mary Magazine. She teaches a class called Semiotics of Fashion in the Critical Studies program at CalArts.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Cross is My Anchor: On Learning to Dance Again

By Peter Kline

This is the sixth piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
– 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, 25

“Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.” 
                                                                                    – T. Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love

“I wish that I could dance on a single prayer.”
– Lady Gaga, “Scheiße”

“Together, we’ll dance in the dark.”
– Lady Gaga, “Dance in the Dark”

Back in September of this year, we lost a little monster. Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, took his own life because he finally could not shake the messages he heard from his peers that his life was not worth living. Jamey was an avid Lady Gaga fan. Among his last words was an expression of gratitude to Mother Monster for fighting the fight he found he could no longer fight. Jamey was buried in a Lady Gaga t-shirt bearing the words, “Born This Way.”

Suicide, particularly when it strikes young people, forces a mirror up to ourselves and to our world. What kind of world have we created that someone would want to force himself out of it after such a short amount of time? How could it happen that a 14-year-old boy could experience such a profound loss of hope? Why wasn’t this precious and vulnerable child more fiercely protected? I LOATHE REALITY. On September 21, in response to Jamey’s death, Gaga tweeted the following: “The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling. I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone’s life.” During her iHeartRadio set a few days later, she performed “Hair” in tribute to Jamey. “Jamey,” she sang, “you’re not a freak.”

I begin here with a reminder of what is at stake for Gaga in her art: life and death, real bodies, real persons. We miss a great deal in our analysis and reception of her art if we don’t register its driving passion: the yearning to make true the lie that this broken and darkened world is yet worth living in with abandon and joy. I’M A WARRIOR QUEEN/LIVE PASSIONATELY TONIGHT. Just a few days ago, responding to the moving video of another gay teenage boy, Jonah, courageously telling us his story of being bullied and his resolve, despite this, to keep living, Gaga tweeted: “Please everyone, take a moment to watch this. This is why I work so hard, this is why it’s wrong to hate.”

How does beginning here affect how we might view this remarkable new video Gaga has given to us? What we’ve been given is an intimate glimpse into the passion that drives this woman’s work. And I mean “passion” here in its literal sense – suffering. What we see in this video is the story of love being forged through suffering, strength being given in weakness, life finding its anchor in and through death. In an earlier essay, I suggested that Lady Gaga undertakes her art as a work of love for the Jameys and Jonahs of this world, for those who find themselves weak, low, and despised – in a word, monstrous. Where does such love come from? I’M GONNA MAKE IT…YOU KNOW WHY? BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.

Perhaps the answer is this: it is when life ceases to be the pursuit of things and becomes instead the pursuit of nothing – no-thing – that life opens up as hopeful possibility, as new creation ex nihilo, as a movement into the bedazzled darkness of love. LOVE IS THE NEW / DENIM OR BLACK. The line between despair and hope is razor thin. Both face the future anxiously as a kind of empty darkness. The only difference is that whereas despair cowers before the darkness in fear, grasping for some-thing to stabilize the dizzying anxiety (gummy bears? a knife, maybe?), hope leaps forward, dancing into the darkness with an inexplicable expectancy that love is present and that love will come. I’M GONNA MARRY THE DARK / GONNA MAKE LOVE TO THE STARK. Love is the impossible possibility of dancing the night away on the razor, treating it not as the precipice of despair, but as the edge of glory. I’M ON THE EDGE WITH YOU. (And there you have the whole sweep of Born this Way, from its first to its last track).

This video, at its heart, is a story about dancing. It is about losing the ability and the drive to dance, but then finding one’s feet again through love. The video opens with Gaga knocked off her feet, being wheeled into the clinic on a gurney. She comments on her heels CUSTOM GUISEPPE ZANOTTI (a glimpse of what is to come perhaps, a remembering forward), but her feet hang there motionless and stiff. Her whole body lies motionless and stiff. A turn in the video happens when Gaga tells us, “I have nothing left to lose.” “Do you need anything else?” the nurse asks. What does someone who has lost everything need? Some-thing? No, for things will eventually just be lost again. Things don’t bring healing; things don’t bring freedom. “Juste un petite part de la musique,” “Just a little bit of music,” she replies. What Gaga needs are her dancing feet, and so she asks for music, for an invitation to dance. As Beethoven’s Pathétique begins to play, she raises her hands over her head into a dance position and elegantly falls back into her pillow. Even at her bleakest point, stabbed in the back, even surrounded by madness, not least her own, the dance is present, the dance is possible, and she desires its call. But how? How could such possibility be present amid such despair? Notice the crosses on her bed. One at her head (as if a saint’s halo), one at her feet, anchoring her, bearing her burden, loving her. She utters, “I have nothing left to lose,” as the cross cradles her.

(I danced on a Friday when the world turned black 
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on)[i] 

We are then ushered into a dream-like sequence with Gaga dressed as a ballerina. Ballerinas are the most rigorous of dancers. To be a ballerina requires perfection – physical, psychological, emotional. It is significant that Gaga has said on a few occasions that she regards dancing to be her least developed skill. Compared with her musical ability, she thinks of her dancing ability as something of a weakness. And so we find this ballerina standing in impossible shoes, dancing tentatively a dance we’re not sure she can pull off. Gaga has said these shoes represent the “Everest of [her] existence,” the impossible obstacle that occasioned her downfall. In the next scene, we witness the downfall. The call that knocks her off her feet, the anger, the yelling, the destruction, the nothingness of little zeros filling her mouth and covering her body (h/t Laurence Ross). The whole scene comes across as a dance dissolving into chaos. It is interwoven with shots of ballerina Gaga alternatively falling, hanging upside down, lying at the feet of other ballerinas, looking up at them in despair. She finally falls into her bathtub as if dead, drowning in the waters of baptism – “baptized into…death” (Romans 6:3).

Halfway through the video at this point, the decisive turn takes place. Beethoven’s song ends, and we begin to expect Gaga’s own. We’re not told or shown how the turn happens – one could never see the transition from death to resurrection, for it happens “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52) – we just see Gaga sitting in her baptismal/bathtub, somehow raised to life, her hair teal with the transition from brunette to blond, “Marry the Night” gently floating in the background. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). And then the next scene opens and we see them…the heels. Gaga on her own two dancing feet, striding confidently into the dance studio, once again looking up at other dancers, but no longer with the despair of failed perfection. She’s not haughty or over-confident, though; we can still sense some anxiety. But it is an anxiety full of expectancy, not knowing what will come, yet open and ready nonetheless. Notice that the camera focuses on one of the dancers on the balcony, a ballerina. Gaga once again looks up and faces her Everest, the obstacle of perfection. But her face says it all – no downfall this time. I WON’T CRY ANYMORE.

Whence this newfound strength? The courage to “[do] it all over again,” to bedazzle the scraps and fragments of her shattered life? There is writing on the wall in this scene, which typically signals impending judgment or doom. But significantly, the writing here is reversed (h/t Meghan Vicks). What might be a message of judgment is actually a message of hope. But this is hidden from us initially; to see it, we have to look in reverse, a conversion has to take place. The message on the wall itself bears this reversal, this conversion. Flipped around, it reads: “The Cross is my Anchor.” The cross? That instrument of torture, death, and shame? How could this become an anchor, a source of strength? For the New Testament, the cross is a source of strength because the death of Jesus is that moment in history when the tender heart of God is thrown open to the world, never to close. Here God bears eternally the weight and nothingness of the world. Its brokenness and violence are now forever cradled in the outstretched arms of that “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). For those who will relax into such love, as Gaga seems to do in the clinic – I’LL DANCE… / WITH MY HANDS ABOVE MY HEAD… / LIKE JESUS SAID – weakness and brokenness become no longer a threat, no longer an occasion for rivalry or mistrust. Rather, you are free, as Gaga has said in a recent interview about her video, to “trust yourself to make mistakes,” free to face your obstacles, internal and external, with expectancy, with hope, even with laughter. (And of course with a bedazzler).

And so we’re taken out into a moonlit night to watch Gaga marry it, to watch her bedazzle it, to watch her dance out into the darkness with abandon. Initially, we come upon what looks like wreckage and carnage – cars burning, Gaga thrown upside down, hanging out of the Trans Am, knocked off her feet. We’re reminded of the opening scene where Gaga’s feet lie motionless and stiff. But here there is movement, restlessness. Then a surge of life, her legs writhing in search of some ground, some anchor, on which to dance. She flips herself over, and the dance begins. TURN ON THE CAR AND RUN.

The video then moves into what is for me its most moving and significant sequence. We’re taken back into the dance studio to watch how Gaga inhabits and lives into her newfound courage and strength. She enters the company of dancers not out in front, but as one of them, with and among them. There is no presumption that she deserves to be a star. She has to prove herself. Before the dance begins, she lies low, nervously looking up and around, but with a quiet determination. She stands, takes a deep breath, and the dance begins. A break in the dancing occurs, and she looks relieved, but still nervous. What will they think of me? Was I good enough? She wanders around looking for someone to say something to her. Finally someone does, presumably selecting her for a smaller dance group in which she is now out in front – next to the ballerina. The dancing begins again. But then a stumble, a fall. The ballerina, that image of poise and perfection, shows herself less than perfect. She is fragile, broken. A reversal has taken place. It is now the ballerina who lies at Gaga’s feet, looking up in despair. And what is Gaga’s response? She bends down, picks her up, and kisses her. The one who could most easily become an enemy, an object of rivalry and contempt, becomes instead a friend, an occasion to give love. I’M GONNA MARRY THE NIGHT. The dance Gaga now dances is one of love, love for the broken, for the fallen, for the low and despised. Significantly, the ballerina Gaga stoops down to help appears to be transgendered or in drag, a “freak” in the eyes of the world. Marrying her own pain and suffering has freed Gaga to give herself to, to dance with, “the least of these,” to those languishing in their own nights of pain, suffering, and rejection. Her kiss says, “You’re not a freak.”

The dance begins again, and it eventually breaks out into an improvised celebration around Gaga, full of joy. Such joy can’t be contained in a dance studio, and so it spills out into the streets, into the night. Gaga now leads a group of dancers unafraid to be out on the streets at night, unafraid to find joy in the darkness, unafraid to be monstrous. I can’t help but notice her teal lipstick here, the same color as the dye she uses to turn her hair blond. Her mouth once full of the zeros of nothing has been freed to sing, now teal with the promise of joy. THIS IS MY PRAYER / THAT I’LL DIE LIVING JUST AS FREE AS MY HAIR. She pulls off her sunglasses and looks straight at us, as if to say: come dance.

[i] Sydney Carter, “Lord of the Dance,” 1963. Hymn.

Author Bio:
Peter Kline is a Ph.D. candidate in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His real love, though, is a little church in Nashville where he and his wife serve as ministers.

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