Back in May 2011, Spex Magazine interviewed Gaga Stigmata editors Kate Durbin and Meghan Vicks. Excerpts from this interview appeared in a roundtable discussion in Spex #333, which also featured exclusive images of Lady Gaga by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Below are our responses in full to Spex’s questionnaire. Excerpts from this interview were translated into German for the 15 June 2011 edition of Spex.
1) Why should we care about Lady Gaga?
Durbin/Vicks: We get this question so often that we decided it would be interesting to ask our readers to answer this on our journal/blog. Here are a few of their fantastic responses:
Here’s how I would answer: The issue isn’t ‘why we should care?’ But ‘how do we care?’ The former question requires of us to give reasons, extraneous to our experiences, in order to account for the validity of the experience. But that is not what Lady Gaga’s music and art of pop make available. More than any other artist right now, Gaga’s work puts experience in and of itself at the forefront of our engagement with the work, and thus compels us to have to come to terms with the ‘how’ of attention – that is, her work makes a claim on our attentions, variously conceived, and in doing so, it invites us to come to terms with the partitions – and the limits of the partitions – that structure our modes of attending to the experiences of a world that appears. In this way, the question is not the normative, moral question of ‘why should we care?’ but the more pressing aesthetic and ethical question of what are the structures of concern that make it possible for our attending to Lady Gaga’s works. This means, first and foremost, that there will be no answer to the ‘why should we care?’ question that will satisfy. The fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t care – in the sense that there is nothing in the work that insists on the normative ‘should.’ And yet we do care by attending to the work, by allowing it to be a site of experience. To come to terms with the ‘how do we care?’ is the curatorial ethos at stake in Lady Gaga’s works.
It isn’t a matter of caring, specifically, so much as not dismissing the girl as the sum of her clothes and wigs. Her musical and artistic influences are so readily worn on her sleeves that her every performance is a veritable I Spy game of cultural/historical borrowings – a truly fascinating and intelligent mosaic of visual metaphor played out on the largest media stage ever seen. That’s the draw – her outrageous image, love it or hate it, renders you incapable of ignoring her; you simply can’t not look at her. But her genius is in the interplay she has developed with her army of fans – her invitation to project the image you wish to become, just as she as done with her fashion armor. She wants so much for you to follow her down the rabbit hole.
Deeper than that, though (and the heart of the matter), is the fact that anyone willing to look past the facade of her extreme fashion sees a good kid who has used her unprecedented fame and influence not to lock herself away in multi-million dollar mansions, but to make the lost (and not so lost) among her fans feel like a million bucks. For those of us whose heart seams she has popped, you root for her because you get the very real sense that she’s rooting for you.
Should we care? You’re either drawn to the girl or you aren’t. The question is does she matter? And the answer is yes.
We should care because as an artist, Lady Gaga is obsessively studied, extensively thoughtful, and unblinkingly honest... as well as disarmingly charismatic. By choosing as her medium the most insipid form of popular stardom (thereby showing herself a master of, among other things, one of the most vilified and envied forms of expression: commercial dance pop), she manages to communicate with more people than any artist could ever dream of reaching. And what she communicates is positive in a way that is cathartic, complex, and all-embracing. Fascinating and important.
Sean Reynolds (TMD):
The question is at once banal and arrogant, profound and necessary. It asks as much from the fan as it does from the artist. Communication/connection is liquor of the soul and the poet above all others distills this spirit offering it up as appeasement/sacrifice/celebration. Gaga has built an organic massive platform in this age of corporate–driven massive platforms. Her ability to connect/communicate is limited only by her strength of individualism. She has reached a level very few poets/artists attain. Her performances and work have the potential to affect millions and given that she is the principal driving force behind her work; (not promoters/record label execs etc) as concerned souls striving to understand, celebrate and participate in the grand conversation… We Should Care.
Because she is the first star in a very, very long time that has made a legitimate connection with her fans, particularly her young LGBT fans. For people like me, who can’t find support from their friends or family, going to the Monster Ball is like being hugged for the first time in your life. She creates a safe space of love and support that means the world to me and all the other little monsters out there. The world’s a scary place, but you damn well know that if you see someone else wearing a prayer bracelet or a Gaga shirt, you’ll have something to talk about.
THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION
2) Divas and pop stars have always been group projects (you can’t become one without managers, writers, composers, stylists, choreographers, public relations people, etc.). Yet usually this doesn’t get acknowledged aside from a couple of thank yous at awards ceremonies or in interviews. The star is the one that gets all the attention. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, does nothing to obfuscate that she is the product of collaborative work. There’s even a fans’ website exclusively dedicated to the people around her. It seems, her fans don’t obsess about her private life, about what’s behind the facade, but about how this facade is constructed. Is Lady Gaga the pop star who shows and discusses how the system of the pop star works, the first “meta pop star”?
Durbin/Vicks: Gaga certainly is a “meta pop star,” if not the first. In fact, Gaga Stigmata was the first place to coin that term in regards to her. One of Gaga’s earliest projects was to explore how fame is constructed and obsessed over through the figure of the pop star. To this end, Gaga claimed as her own all the trappings of fame before she was technically “famous”; her debut album, The Fame, adopted fame not just as a thematic but also as Gaga’s performative lifestyle, as her declarative identity. She and her Haus studied and analyzed fame, popped its hood and deciphered its components, and thereby became masters of fame.
So yes, she’s definitely a pop star who displays for all to witness just how the mechanics of pop-stardom function. Her Haus has often been dubbed “The Fame Factory” (direct nod to Andy Warhol); her ongoing video series, GAGAVISION, features Gaga behind the curtain of her fame, designing costumes for “Poker Face,” putting the final touches on the cover art for Born This Way, or lamenting the “Judas” leak; Gaga has spoken (and performed) extensively about how she uses and controls the paparazzi to construct her own image; we know Dada made her disco stick, Klein forced her to wear minimal makeup for the “Alejandro” video, and Gaga told her Haus to figure out a way to set her tits on fire. Many of Gaga’s narratives are metanarratives about the pop star, fame’s beautiful side, and its monstrous underbelly. Her 2009 VMA performance displayed the death of the pop star, hung up by her adoring fans; the video for “Bad Romance” tells the story (among others) of a pop star bought and sold like any other commodity; her 2010 Grammy performance featured a “Fame Factory” set that produced Lady Gaga like any other industrial/commercial product.
As a “meta pop star” and “fame factory,” Lady Gaga and her Haus demonstrate how the image dictates and rules who we are and what we understand. They are adamant about the power of the image to create reality. On the one hand, they view the image as an incredibly positive and empowering tool: through it, we can become our own rock stars, they maintain. But on the other hand, they recognizes the sometimes-pernicious and enslaving power of the image, how we become slaves to certain images even to the detriment of our own well being. Lady Gaga herself signifies how images at once empower and enslave: she performs fame, and thereby becomes famous, but she’s also a slave to the images of fame.
3) How’s that connected to shows like American Idol that tore down the idea that being a star was about spontaneity and genius in the first place and instead propagated it was all about hard work, discipline and control?
Durbin/Vicks: Well, of course it’s similar to a show like American Idol; like AI, Gaga and her Haus illustrate the construction of fame. But the performers on AI are not in any kind of control: they are at the mercy of the judges, and at the mercy of the AI viewer. In contrast, Gaga claimed and asserted her own fame, took it under her own control and manipulation, before it was given to her. She crowned herself. It’s as if Gaga is both the idol contestant, and the judge who legitimates her: she legitimates herself.
Also, it’s interesting that when Gaga recently went on AI, she refused to take on a judge’s position; instead she insisted on taking on a “friend” role to the contestants, mentoring and encouraging them to also legitimize themselves. Everything Gaga does is intentional; the biggest misconception about Gaga, perhaps, is this idea that she is not doing everything on purpose. She is. And as someone who refused to be produced by another’s fame factory (instead creating her own fame factory and thus her own production), and who refused to be judged as a piece of meat (unless, of course, she herself is wearing the meat to beat us to the punch), there is no way she is going to do that to anyone else! However, she still believes in pop music, and the positive aspects of AI; as she says, it gives kids a voice who would otherwise not have one. And for that reason, she still went on the show – she just did it the Gaga way.
4) One thing we liked about popular culture was that you didn’t have to properly learn anything. Being a pop star wasn’t about skills and craft, at least not in the traditional sense. Madonna, who she is often compared to, does not sing well, she plays no instrument and writes her songs with the help of other musicians. Lady Gaga on the other hand excells in everything she does (apart from dancing, maybe). She knows how to sing well, how to compose, she plays the piano. Isn’t that quite reactionary?
Durbin/Vicks: One of the first things that made Gaga exceptional was not, actually, that she excelled at everything she does – though you are correct that she does – but that she recognized that being a pop star is, as you say, not so much about skills and craft these days, but about “the fame.” Gaga studied “tabloids like textbooks,” examining people like Paris Hilton, who, while not a successful pop singer (though she did have that one summer hit), is famous for absolutely nothing of so-called merit, but simply because she learned the art of the fame and projected it into the world and the world responded. Gaga’s entire first album is a conceptual pop album, or a conceptual art piece that the world reads as pop.
At the same time, we think you are right that there is a sense that Gaga is doing something reactionary, or at least that she is responding to this fame culture by complicating our notions of what fame can and should be. She acknowledges the superficial aspects of fame culture, such as Hollywood, while at the same time embracing the fact that one can harness one’s own inner superstar no matter who you are. That is the positive aspect of the fame, and even of someone like Paris Hilton. But Gaga is also old-fashioned, in that she embraces what she calls “showbiz” and insists that current pop stars are lazy. She states that we really don’t want to see pop stars taking out the trash in sweatpants, but that we want to see the spectacle 24/7, which is both an old-fashioned and revolutionary idea at the same time. Gaga hails people like Grace Jones, Freddy Mercury, and Michael Jackson – all incredibly talented musicians as well as icons – because the truth is, it actually was expected that pop stars be truly talented, once upon a time. Just look at Elvis! In many ways Gaga is like those old school stars, in that she believes absolutely in that level of excellence.
The thing that makes Gaga so interesting, however, is that she took this very old-fashioned idea of showmanship, and revolutionized it so that there is now no difference between the street and the stage. That’s why you see this seamless blending between what she, for example, wears on stage and what she wears to bed – she often sleeps in her stage gear! Because, to Gaga, that is true showmanship – never leaving the show, or, in essence, revealing that the show is life itself. And so if the show is life itself, it should be done excellently, and, most importantly, consciously through free will and the harnessing of one’s own inner fame. So in that sense it’s the opposite of being reactionary – Gaga is incredibly pro-active as a pop star, in fact, more active than any pop star who has come before her! When talking about her album cover for Born This Way, Gaga stated that she refused to become a part of the music machine; instead, the machine must become a part of her (the album cover features a Gaga/motorcyle hybrid). No one can make the music of your life for you; you have to make it yourself. And you should play it as well and as hard as you can!
GENDER & IDENTITY
5) The intriguing thing about Lady Gaga has been for a long time that she just wouldn’t pull back the curtain. There was no telling who the “real” person behind her is. Yet more and more, she reveals personal things. In Vogue, she’s been talking about days when she can’t get out of bed, elsewhere she discussed her dad’s heart surgery, her love of yoga, and she took Anderson Cooper to come and see the apartment she lived in before becoming Lady Gaga. Is this a detrimental to her project, necessary or plain unavoidable?
Durbin/Vicks: This claim that Gaga, for a long time, would not reveal her “real” person behind her spectacle is false, and discloses a widespread misunderstanding of Lady Gaga and her project. Even in her earliest interviews, Gaga was adamant that Stefani Germanotta is Lady Gaga; that Lady Gaga is her “real” identity, and that she isn’t hiding a more “true” and “essential” self behind the facade. In other words, the facade, spectacle, artifice, performance – all these are Gaga’s essences, her fundamental components, how she was and is born. This has been a constant idea since The Fame and up through the present Born This Way era: life is art.
So to ask Gaga who’s the real Gaga is to ask a question that completely misses the point. She’s been abundantly forthcoming about her “real” self since day one – has openly displayed it every day in her performances, interviews, fashion shoots, walking down the street, flipping off the paparazzi at a ball game. Gaga’s never been in any kind of closet that cloaks her “real” identity, and yet people keep trying to drag her out of it one way or another. People refuse, again and again, to take her answers seriously; they refuse to accept her driving principle that fictions comprise real existence, that essential life is built up of performance, spectacle, costumes, gestures, poses, glitter, makeup... The amniotic fluid (afterbirth, which she recently utilized in a performance piece of “Born This Way”), this immanent muck of essential existence is exactly the performative choice, the costume, the style. In the Anderson Cooper interview that you mention, when Cooper asks a version of the question who’s the real Gaga, Gaga responds by pointing out, yet again, that the real Gaga is right here, and moreover, she’s already repeatedly revealed her most “personal” (read: “true”) history:
“Photographers say this to me all the…‘I want to photograph the real you.’ I'm, like, ‘What the hell are you looking for? I’m right here. You’ve seen me with no makeup. You’ve asked me about my drug history, my parents, my bank account.’ I mean, how much more real could I be?” she replied.
“People obviously think that you're not being who you are because you are, wearing a lot of makeup and always, you know, presenting yourself in a different way,” Cooper said.
“This is what I’m really like. This is exactly what I’m really like. This is the cup I drink out of every day, this is the diamond I put in my coffee when I get nervous. It’s not a real diamond, it’s fake,” she said, as she dropped a large stone into her cup and starting drinking.
Your question proposes that Gaga has revealed more of her “true” self in recent months than she has in the past. We don’t think this is an accurate claim, given the above. Moreover, any revelation of her “true” self is not at all detrimental to her project, as her project has always been about such a revelation and exploration of the self: how the true self is repeatedly born anew, maybe through fashion, or maybe through something else – whatever one wants. One constructs one’s own fame.
6) “Mother Monster”: What does it mean that Lady Gaga styles herself the mother of her fans, as a life-giver, confidante, protector, supporter – rather than playing the role of the “girl next door”?
Durbin/Vicks: Gaga is fully embracing the very ancient role that culture has always projected upon someone or something, only now it’s projected upon celebrities: this role of a god-like figure, such as the Virgin Mary, the Magdalene, or a Greek goddess. Most pop stars, especially female pop stars, shy away from this role to try and claim instead, as you say, the role of the girl next door, or the sexpot, which is of course is a denial of power, a sort of self-deprecation that culture expects from powerful women. They claim that no one should look up to them, that they are just “normal girls” – even though you only need to look at a teen girl’s bedroom wall, or the rack of magazines at the drugstore, to know that that is nonsense.
Gaga knows that being looked up to is part of the job, so to speak, and Gaga fully embraces all parts of the job – even going so far as to become precisely what we expect her to be (in this way she is a mirror of our projections). In line with her earliest (Fame-era) understandings and embracing of the workings of fame culture, she has embraced the role of the mother goddess figure, even to go so far as to call herself Mama Monster, to wear very explicit Virgin Mary-inspired attire, and, most recently, to pose in a full pregnancy belly on-stage at the BBC Radio 1 festival. Gaga sees fashion as a kind of talisman, and the pop star as a shaman – she is our spiritual hologram. Because she becomes what we need her to be – which is, in essence, what we perceive her to be – as she interacts with us she becomes that. In fact, her Mama Monster identity developed as a result of her fans adopting and proclaiming the identity of Little Monsters for themselves, so there is a real back-and-forth here. As she claimed in a recent youtube video to her fans: “Thank you for growing with me...thank you for supporting my artistic vision and letting me always be myself. I will always fight to the death for you to be yourself.”
We should also add that Gaga is complicating the role of motherhood, because she sees her fans as giving birth to her as much as she gives birth to them. She is also a corpse mother...death is always a prominent feature in all of her birthing imagery on-stage and in videos. The “Born This Way” Grammy performance is a perfect example of this – while she was birthed in the performance from a vessel by Hussein Chalayan, she was surrounded on stage by funereal accoutrements. She has been wearing funeral garb for much of the promotional interviews for BTW, and recently during the BBC Radio 1 festival, she was birthed (abundantly pregnant) from a casket to perform “BTW.” In this way, Gaga reveals the essential connection between life-giving and death that occurs not only in nature, but in the evolution of the artist.
7) If we assume that pop stars embody ideals that set standards to measure yourself, is Lady Gaga an emancipatory force because time and again, she celebrates being a “freak” instead of some unattainable ideal beauty, success and proper manners?
Durbin/Vicks: Absolutely. As one of our contributors, Becca Klaver, says, “When an artist like [Gaga] comes along to declare, to the tune of incredibly catchy pop, that we’re all freaks, made of fake parts in authentic assemblages, the whole world sits up and listens.” The idea is that Gaga demonstrates how we’re all, to a certain degree, freaks – we all have shades of grey, contain both fake and real multitudes, and don’t fit strict categories of identity. This is what defines freaks and monsters – those beings that we don’t know how to categorize because they blur distinctions between human, animal, robot, male, female, plastic, flesh, etc.
Gaga has taken the space of the pop star and made it a space for the freak as well as the beautiful, thereby making synonymous freakishness and beauty. In this way it is emancipatory and empowering. It’s also a way of declaring one’s own legitimacy and beauty, rather than allowing others to declare it for you. If Gaga can position herself as a freak who has become the world’s biggest pop star, why can’t one determine his or her own beauty or celebrate his or her own freakishness?
8) Lady Gaga fuses “low brow” dance music with “high brow” visual references (e.g. wearing a hat designed by Frank Gehry while playing on a piano designed by Damien Hirst at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art; referencing Tarantino, Hitchcock and Fellini in her videos; wearing conceptual costumes; provoking comparisons to Andy Warhol; etc.). She creates something of her own by making connections, setting links, if you will, steering her fan’s attention through a superabundance of cultural symbols. Is she the Google of pop?
Durbin/Vicks: She is the trickster of pop. Trickster figures also are a coincidence of oppositions, and reside in ambiguous liminal zones. Likewise, as you point out, Gaga embodies a number of oppositions: “high brow” and “low brow,” sacred and profane, man and woman, sexy and horrifying, human and monster, etc. Her performance continually underscores her ambivalent nature; she cannot be defined. Because of this, she makes problematic categories that we normally perceive as stable or firmly-defined. For instance, Gaga as the ambiguous trickster problematizes categories of gender (masculine or feminine?), sex (does she have a dick, or not?), body (where does her body end and costume begin; recall her hat that’s made out of her own hair, or the lyrics of her newest single “Hair” where she claims “I am my hair”), commercialism (fake and real products are both placed in her videos), human (is she human or monster, is there a difference between the two?), etc.
Gaga is also a reflection, a “spiritual hologram,” of pop culture. By embodying a superabundance of cultural symbols (as you rightly point out), she thereby reflects our current cultural condition – all that our culture is composed of. In the “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” Gaga dubs herself the “devoted jester” (i.e. trickster) of her little monsters’ “spiritual hologram”; this “spiritual hologram” is all we perceive ourselves to be, the sum of our cultural influences and makeup. As a way of devoting herself to this “spiritual hologram,” Gaga has fashioned herself as a mirror, or as a direct reflection of the person before her (e.g. Gaga styled herself as Larry King for her interview with him; she dressed up as a queen when she performed for the Queen), or even (like in the video for “Born This Way”) as an infinite reflection of herself (recall the mirror placed at her birthing vagina in that film). When talking about herself as an artist, she tells us:
It’s not a secret that I have been inspired by tons of people. David Bowie and Prince being the most paramount in terms of live performance. I could go on and on about all of the people I have been compared to – from Madonna to Grace Jones to Debbie Harry to Elton John to Marilyn Manson to Yoko Ono – but at a certain point you have to realize that what they are saying is that I am cut from the cloth of performer, that I am like all of those people in spirit. I was born this way.
She was born this way – organically fashioned from the cloth of the performer. Gaga’s use of these wide-ranging cultural quotations and references implies that she is unequivocally the offspring of these cultural giants, born in their images, created from their influences.
In this respect, she may definitely be considered the Google of pop – if we understand Google as the sum of all the information, spectacle, opinions, and images out there. Great term, Spex!
9) What does it mean that she switches between acoustic songs played by herself at the piano and digitally created effect-overladen dance songs; and between being half-naked in a bikini and fully costumed? In what way do these contrasts matter?
Durbin/Vicks: Once again, we believe that Gaga is intentionally exemplifying the fact that these binaries between “real” and “fake,” “famous” and “non-famous,” “costumed” and “naked,” are false binaries. The contrasts matter only in as much that Gaga can pick and choose from them at will. During her recent interview with Google, Gaga stated: “My tits, ass, and brain are very proud to be here today.” She said this after acknowledging the fact that blond pop stars are held to a very low standard, and are essentially seen as bimbos. But it’s important to note that she didn’t protest by railing about how smart she is, and wishing that her tits and ass weren’t on display – she claimed her “tits and ass” as well, just as she does when wearing lingerie to the gym! The whole package matters, and she doesn’t have to choose between being a sexy pop star and a brilliant artist.
Also, Gaga’s acoustic songs reveal that she is in fact an incredible musician, and that these so-called “fluff” pop songs have real soul to them. She has said since the beginning that “pop music will never be low brow,” and in her HBO documentary she stated that it hurts her when people don’t recognize how much “genuine blood” is in her spirit. Because culturally we associate acoustic songs with “soul music” and something more “genuine,” we are able to better perceive Gaga’s genuineness when she plays her songs in this way. But make no mistake – the soul is still ever-present in the poppiest and most electronic of her performances. She has said time and again: “I still believe in you, MTV.” The acoustic and the pop are part and parcel of the same soul – the same Gaga. That is what she has been trying to show us all along.
Most recently, Gaga has been problematizing and deconstructing such contrasts as death and birth (just this week she began a performance of “Born This Way” by arriving in a coffin dressed in a black latex pregnant suit), forgiveness and betrayal (regarding the video for “Judas,” she commented that betrayal and forgiveness go hand-in-hand), and essential and performative identity (“Born This Way” declares that how one chooses to be is how one is born). Again, these contrasts are made not so much to distinguish the oppositions, but to demonstrate how these oppositions are inseparable, fundamentally the same. As Eddie McCaffray recently wrote in his analysis on the “Judas” video for Gaga Stigmata:
In a song and video that set up an opposition so often treated as the ultimate black-and-white – Jesus and Judas – and then profoundly blurs the distinctions and identities involved, might [Lady Gaga] not be suggesting that […] her perception of duality is a weakness or a misunderstanding? Are her demons and her virtues, her weaknesses and her strengths, her fears and her hopes, really one and the same?
10) In 2010, Lady Gaga asked her fans to call up their senators and ask them to help abolish Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The black-and-white video shot by Terry Richardson shows her modestly dressed in front of a stars-and-stripes backdrop, speaking very solemnly. In a way, this seemed like a letdown – like an acknowledgement that all along she’d only been goofing around and once you want to achieve something serious, you need to straighten up and become like the square world she seemed to help to overcome. Is this a legitimate concern? (cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG5VK2lquEc) And is she running a similar risk when she makes other political statements – f.ex. when in her new Song “Americano” she criticizes American immigration laws or when she comments on Osama Bin Laden’s death on Twitter as being a “historical moment in the fight against hatred”?
Durbin/Vicks: This is a great question. If Gaga is, as we stated earlier, cut from the cloth of the performer, even her political gestures are a form of performance, or drag. If anything, Gaga’s youtube performance about DADT (yes, we are intentionally calling it a performance), as well as her speech “The Prime Rib of America” at a pep rally in Maine, illustrate this truth about politics generally: what are politics, other than a huge spectacle that everyone takes seriously? She is wearing the attire of the politician, much as she wears the attire of the rock star – these things are not exclusive, but part and parcel of the drag show that is life. In fact, one of the things we noted about her youtube video was how much it was a campy and purposefully over-the-top political appearance: the flag, the makeup, the wig, the tie, etc. It makes sense that this video and the speech could be read as overly-serious – and, in fact, one of our critics at Gaga Stigmata, Vanessa Place, has expressed a similar concern. However, Gaga switches just as seamlessly between the serious and the non-serious as she does between the naked and clothed. And, in fact, this gets to the notion of the trickster’s function. As Gaga mimics political leaders such as Obama by dressing in their garb, she mirrors back to us our expectations of what a political leader looks like and does in a very humorous manner (the trickster, or jester, is always funny). And, frankly, “The Prime Rib of America” is a hilarious speech title – it echoes the “Telephone” video in some ways by being overtly “American” in its references, by over-identifying with Americana. In fact, there are quite a few funny things about these political gestures of Gaga’s. Or, we should say, these overtly political gestures, because another binary Gaga is breaking down that between politics and art (as she is breaking down the binary between art and life).
Gaga’s essential truth, if we could pin her to one, is that everything matters because life matters. Everything is political, just as pop is not merely throw-away fluff – it’s art. We can't compartmentalize importance, much as we might like to think we can by turning on the boob tube at night and zoning out. People listen to pop stars; they have an enormous platform. So of course they should give political speeches, just as they should recognize their spiritual or shamanic cultural role. Just as we, in our ways, should recognize ours. But not, as you say, without a sense of humor. And it seems Gaga, in her funny nerd glasses at that political rally in Maine, still has her sense of humor intact. You may have to look a little harder for it in certain moments. Luckily, though, she just made a video where Judas poured beer on her butt. I doubt we have to worry about her becoming too square!
11) Lady Gaga seems pretty shameless about plugging products in her videos. Yet, this doesn’t seem to harm her credibility. Why?
Durbin/Vicks: Well, first of all, not all of her videos are filled with product placements: for example, the videos for “Born This Way” and “Judas” pretty much lack product placement of any kind. Secondly, the videos that do incorporate product placement do so in an ingenious way that ties the product placement to the narrative or thematic thread of the video. For example, the video for “Bad Romance” presents Gaga as a commodity herself, and illustrates how our culture buys and sells women as we buy and sell vodka or ear buds or fashion. In “Telephone,” Gaga’s product placement of many iconic American brands ultimately tells the story of a poisonous and deadly America, which culminates in a mass murder in a ma-and-pop American diner. Moreover, “Telephone” utilizes product placement in a way that actually parodies the enterprise. As Meghan wrote in her breakdown of the “Telephone” video:
The video is peppered with both real (e.g. Miracle Whip, Wonder Bread, Polaroid, Chanel, Diet Coke, Virgin, Plenty of Fish) and fake products (e.g. Poison TV, Double–Breasted Drive–Thru, CookNKill Recipes). This combination of real and fake allows the video to both enjoy the benefits of product placement, and parody the enterprise in the same swoop. Once again, we're dealing, I think, with a carnivalesque aesthetic, or a type of conceptualist art that parodies by displaying too loudly or too blatantly that which is being mocked (overidentification). The comfortably familiar form is being used to market poison, and at the same time its used to promote Polaroid. Gaga’s having her cake and eating it too.
12) What do the tears mean that Lady Gaga is shedding in her videos? (In “Bad Romance” we saw her cry, now in the new clips for “Born This Way” and “Judas” there’s both times a tear in the end.)
Durbin/Vicks: Isn’t there something utterly heartbreaking about Gaga’s project? In each of these videos – “Bad Romance,” “Born This Way,” “Judas” – Gaga’s love precipitates some kind of evil or sadness. In “Bad Romance,” the lyrics speak to this: she wants obsessive, dark, unfriendly, even deadly love. In “Born This Way,” the birth of a new race free of prejudice necessitates the birth of evil to protect “something so beautiful.” And in “Judas,” Gaga’s love is torn between (or perhaps, composed of) what is virtuous (Jesus) and demonic (Judas). Love, beauty, freedom – all these demand tears.
Tears also accompany Gaga’s conception of identity as an infinite birth, or as continual rebirths. Postpartum depression. Such infinite births demand that we’re always “kissing good bye” our former selves, or shedding a tear for that which we once were. In embracing an always-changing, always-becoming identity politics, she’s also embracing something ontologically transient. Doesn’t the idea that everything will sooner or later pass away make you want to cry?
She could also shed tears for her own downfall generated by our sins: by the public’s constant attempts to tear her down, throwing stones at her (as we see in the video for “Judas,” which certainly echoed the metaphorical stones thrown at Gaga surrounding the video’s release), praying that she’ll disappear, that she’ll just shut up! As she told Anderson Cooper, the public wants to see her dead. She bled to death at the VMAs in an homage to Princess Diana, who suffered a similar fate. We take pleasure in wrecking her, as we take pleasure in the downfall of all our superstars. So perhaps, she sheds tears for us, cries for the sins we wish and commit upon her image and her body. She functions as a kenotic figure who sheds tears for us as we sin against her.
13) When Lady Gaga dressed up as a nun in “Alejandro,” she seemed to be playing with the Freudian Madonna-Whore-Complex. When she mentioned God in “Born This Way,” one could assume that this was an off-handish colloquialism. Yet with “Judas” there’s no denying anymore that Lady Gaga is well versed and interested in biblical imagery. This is obviously not just done for shock value. What does this seemingly increasing focus on biblical imagery mean? Why (only) now?
Durbin/Vicks: The reason Kate originally chose to call the journal Gaga Stigmata was because she perceived foreshadowing of biblical imagery in Lady Gaga’s first VMA performance. In this performance, Gaga bled to death onstage for five minutes in a stigmata-like fashion, in a sense bleeding out our cultural wounds as a pop-star/martyr of fame. Since that time, Gaga’s biblical references have been increasingly pronounced, as you say. It’s unlikely that Gaga planned this all along, but her work has indeed evolved in an increasingly spiritual manner. She’s been referring to the Monster Ball as a “exorcism” for awhile, and she keeps saying “let the spiritual baptism begin.” She has spoken of having various spiritual epiphanies as well, and from the beginning she has referred to herself as a “good Catholic girl,” while at the same time she has spoken out against the Catholic churches prejudices, in particular their prejudices toward the gay community.
We’re glad you think it’s obvious that Gaga is not using biblical imagery for the purpose of shock value – Gaga is, in fact, a shock artist, but if anything her use of biblical imagery is risky because it is so familiar, not because it’s so shocking. We’ve seen it all before with artists such as Madonna (“Like a Prayer,” etc.). And as you pointed out, “Judas” contains overt biblical imagery, to the point of appearing much like, as Gaga herself has said, a religious “fresco come to life.” The imagery Gaga is using is very old, and very, very Catholic (although she also utilizes other religious imagery as well, such as the third eye, etc.), and yet it is as simultaneously personal/performative as anything else Gaga has done. As she sees her role as increasingly spiritual (in the sense that she is a role model for so many), it makes sense, given her background, that she would explore religious iconography with increasing intensity. Iconography has been very important to Gaga since the beginning – she studied Warhol’s process of creating an icon via repetition – and so her utilization of our own ubiquitous religious images, particularly given our culture’s emphasis on a very rigid, judgmental Christianity, is important. She seems to be purporting a new sort of religion of acceptance and tolerance, by hijacking the old symbols and re-appropriating them. And yet she is not doing this in a completely overt way; the sheer beauty of these overly-familiar images is made anew in Gaga’s “Judas” video, for example, which, as Gaga herself claims, is only controversial inasmuch as it contains “Christian Lacroix and Chanel in the same frame.” There is little left to shock as far as hijacking religious imagery goes – but Gaga’s new religion is about acceptance, in which case she is free to celebrate many of the meaningful and beautiful symbols of Christianity in all their richness, freely. However, Gaga also knew that people would react to the use of Christian imagery before even seeing the video, which is why she put the stoning of the Magdalene scene at the end.
14) One of the most popular notions seems to be: Lady Gaga’s interesting, too bad her music is crap. Do you think this notion is true or false?
Durbin/Vicks: This statement is usually made by those who misunderstand Gaga’s project. For one, the fact that she’s had many #1 hits worldwide seems to be completely dismissed when calling her music “crap,” as if a hit song is just garbage that any music factory team could spew out (of course Gaga commented on this criticism with her fame factory piece during her 2010 Grammy performance). It also neglects the fact that Gaga wrote each of her songs herself, unlike, as you pointed out earlier, most, if not all, pop artists working today in her sphere. She is aware of everything she does – it is not being done for her, or, more precisely, to her. Or, as Gaga herself has said, she is not a part of the machine; the machine has become a part of her. She’s even written songs for other artists such as Britney Spears. She was musically trained since childhood, and she knows the kind of music she is making, and she is doing it on purpose. She’s sung her songs at the piano, acapella, etc., and they are glorious popular songs influenced by classical music, and we are certain that if she wanted to write something more like Bjork’s or even M.I.A.’s music, she would.
The fact that Gaga is in fact a pop musician who claims that territory – who insists that pop music will never be low brow – is entirely overlooked in the criticism that Gaga’s music is “crap.” The simple truth is that in its current evolution, her project would not work if she were writing avant-garde music. Well, let us rephrase that. Like all true conceptual artists, Gaga has actually made pop music avant-garde, by re-framing it and pushing the boundaries of what it is by turning it into an art form with its own criteria. As one of our critics at Gaga Stigmata, Davide Panagia, has said, “Lady Gaga has transformed Pop into an art with a set of aesthetic convictions, possibilities, and ambitions all its own.” So, in essence, if Gaga wasn’t writing number one pop hits that are in a very necessary sense, familiar, she wouldn’t be doing something truly avant-garde. That’s not just bullshit to cover Gaga’s back, it’s as true as Duchamp’s fountain (which Gaga has, of course, also referenced with her own urinal collaborative piece with Nick Knight, “Armitage Shanks”).
Frank Zappa notoriously said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Meaning, in one sense, that our relationship to and appreciation of music operates, to a certain extent, on some kind of gut level, beyond or before the analytical. Personally, we both love Gaga’s music. But we also think that Gaga’s music is too-easily dismissed, just as all of pop music is automatically labeled as trash. Or people hear a synthesizer, and instantly hear popular garbage. It’s as if the label “pop music” and certain instruments primarily associated with pop music render people incapable of actually listening to pop music. So many people have said to us: Gaga’s project is awesome, but her songs and her lyrics are just so simple and awful. To which, we say, Did you catch any of those references to Hitchcock in “Bad Romance”; Did you hear Gaga sonically quote a piece by Vittorio Monti in “Alejandro” (in addition to Abba and Ace of Base?); even “Just Dance” – Gaga’s pop party song – contains the line “control your poison, babe / roses have thorns, they say,” does that read as a cheap lyric to you?
Our reactions to pop music are grounded in deep seeded patterns and “knowledge” about what pop music is and sounds like (trash and trash), “knowledge” that never seems to allow, even slightly, that pop music could ever be other than trash, could ever not be “low brow.” In the end, our notions concerning pop music are exactly what fill our ears with sound, fill out so completely those notes, that each time we hear a new pop song, it is those notions that we recognize and to which we listen, not the actual song. This is why Gaga immediately hit the scene with the slogan, “Pop music will never be low brow.” People who aren’t listening are missing out.
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