This is the second piece in our series on "Marry the Night." For the first piece, click here.
From the playful kiddie pool scene in “Just Dance” to the tub of transformative trauma in “Marry the Night,” containers of water, bathtub and otherwise, constitute an important visual motif in Gaga’s aesthetic project. The image of a splashing Yüyi the Mermaid in “Yoü and I,” the reperformative washings in “Judas,” the white tub within the installation-art futurism of “Bad Romance,” and the pool setting of “Poker Face” all point to this interest in wet spaces. Appropriately titled “In Lady Gaga’s Wake,” the new Vanity Fair cover article (Robinson 2012) opens with a photograph of the pop star poised rather precariously on the railing of the Staten Island Ferry, the foamy waves behind her leading to a blurry New York skyline in the distance. A flimsy reading of such imagery would involve casually tossing around phrases about cleansing the self, purifying the body, and so on. I am more interested, however, in linking this motif to what I see at the core of Gaga’s creative ventures: the possibility of an endless renewal of identity and its consequences for contemporary culture.
“The Prelude Pathétique,” the spoken introduction to the “Marry the Night” video, extends the premise that Gaga has already laid out in interviews and her Manifesto of Little Monsters: her career and the persona that enabled it are examples of the essential human struggle to make lies true, to posit future versions of our selves, and to consciously realize desired fictions. In “Marry the Night,” she applies the same logic to her history. If the future can be willed into existence, why not the past? As she declares, “And truthfully the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it.” Indeed, memories “can be lost forever.” Gaga thereby aestheticizes “memory loss” and upholds its potential for individual agency and boundless creativity. This perspective opens up an alternative outcome for what George Orwell’s 1984 called “the mutability of the past,” the ideological foundation of a dystopia in which any artifact of an event or person deemed inconvenient to Big Brother’s dictatorship was simply dropped into a nearby “memory hole.” “Marry the Night” is thereby the Janus-faced product of Gaga’s artistic remembrance: the Mother Monster is imagining her past self preparing a future that is now her glittering present.
Pop culture offers other instances of fungible pasts. The DC Comics graphic novel The Killing Joke (Moore and Bolland 2008) provides a sinister look at the origins of the Joker, Batman’s great nemesis. The whole attempt at revelation, however, is ultimately cast aside. While taunting Batman about his depraved past, the Joker declares, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Said to have been influenced by The Killing Joke, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) enacts this preference for imagined histories: Heath Ledger’s Joker gives his victims different accounts of how he was scarred. Here critics may step back and see a slippery slope toward a solipsism that negates the existence of any fixed, commonly shared reality. But in the hypermodern age of social media and mobile technologies, such a concern is as fruitful as discussing the merits of dial-up modems or beepers. What else are Twitter and Facebook, updated incessantly by smartphones, but opportunities to endlessly reboot one’s identity, to self-curate our past and present, to invent and perform new selves as we please?
Whether based on superheroes, revolutionaries, or rock stars, the origin myths of most legends are steeped in the narrative power of a traumatic but necessary moment that elevates the ordinary into something far greater. The murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s uncle trigger the careers of costumed crimefighters. In authoring her own origin myth, “Marry the Night” provides a glimpse of Gaga’s past trauma but culminates in the image of her apotheosis, a red-and-blue superwoman emerging phoenix-like from the fire of her years of toil. That journey has, of course, led to her victorious present, although some have an enduring preoccupation with the ordinariness possible in her extraordinary existence. This tension is lavishly depicted in the Annie Leibovitz photo spread for “In Lady Gaga’s Wake.” She dons couture while standing in a laundromat or eating a hot dog but wears nothing but heels and sunglasses while being sketched by none other than Tony Bennett.
At the beginning of “Marry the Night,” moments after declaring that she will become a star because she has nothing left to lose, Gaga requests a bit of music while mentally disturbed patients prance and stagger around the hospital ward. The scene is reminiscent of the concluding scenes of Amadeus (1984), in which an embittered Antonio Salieri finally accepts the collapse of his own bid for stardom as he stands in the shadow of Mozart’s superior musical genius. Declaring himself to be “the patron saint of all mediocrities,” he assumes the role of champion for the deranged inmates at the asylum in which he resides. The contrast is clear. Salieri’s doomed musical career ended among quivering lunatics. Gaga’s stay in the mint-tinged ward was a mere step in a journey that led to her current place as one of the most celebrated recording artists in recent memory. Although not discussed in the Vanity Fair article, Gaga has also left a string of resentful Salieris in her wake, especially in New York. If they are DJs they do not play her music. They pretend that she does not exist, even when she sells out Madison Square Garden, when her image graces newsstands on every corner, when everyone from my students to my eighty-something Mexican grandmother is interested in what she is wearing.
Naturally, bitter detractors are as much a part of stardom as are magazine covers and red carpets. The curious development we see in “Marry the Night” is Gaga’s willingness to push aside the cloying gripes about authenticity and instead demonstrate her commitment to “show biz.” The aestheticized depiction of her trajectory from rejection and hospitalization to a glowing spot in the pop firmament has demonstrated the irrelevance of preoccupations with perceived realness. This is yet another indicator of why Gaga may appropriately be called Andy Warhol’s greatest inheritor. Films by Warhol and Paul Morrissey have become so celebrated precisely because of their conscious blurring of lines between the Superstars’ on-screen performances and off-screen personas. What was real? Consider the recently re-released biography of Superstar Joe Dallesandro (perhaps best known for the Flesh, Trash, Heat trilogy). As his biographer writes, “With the low budgets and improvisational nature of these movies, with an array of curious personalities parading before the camera often calling each other by their actual first names, as well as with the Warhol brand and the growing mythology of his Factory, the line between what was acting and what was real had been blurred to the point of obliteration” (Ferguson 2011, ii). When being interviewed, Dallesandro himself is said to have told reporters, “Whatever isn’t there, just make it up” (Ferguson 2011, 1).
I once interviewed a Warhol contemporary who expressed concern that Gaga’s stage persona had somehow eclipsed Stefani Germanotta. Definitely, I thought, just as the thirty-year old sociologist version of my self “eclipsed” the high school student version or the undergraduate activist version. I thought back to the interviewee’s comment while watching the enactment of Gaga’s honest lies in “Marry the Night.” Gaga states, “It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting and as the artist of that painting I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again.” Watching Gaga apply her wet gloss to a bedazzled past revealed the best answer to the question posed by the Born This Way album. Born what way? This way, this particular version of a self that one decided to make real, a fiction that became true. It’s a challenge as much as a question. And that too lies in her wake.
Ferguson, Michael. Joe Dallesandro: Warhol Superstar, Underground Film Icon, Actor. Michael Ferguson, 2011.
Moore, Alan and Brian Bolland. Batman: The Killing Joke. DC Comics, 2008.
Robinson, Lisa. “In Lady Gaga’s Wake.” Vanity Fair 617, 2012.
Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., (http://victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He received a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia and a B.A. in sociology from Yale. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
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