"[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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jo Calderone Performs at the 2011 VMAs! Let's make a discussion, Stigmata readers!


We're still gathering our thoughts on Jo Calderone's performance (and, Lady Gaga's performed absence) from tonight's VMAs. While we're crafting our thoughts into mature essays, we're hoping you'll share with us your reactions and preliminary ideas regarding tonight's performance. Let's make another amazing discussion, Stigmata readers!


Topics to consider:
  • Jo Calderone accepts award for Best Female Video; highlights the idea that Lady Gaga is not there to accept the award.
  • Jo Calderone, speaking about Lady Gaga: "She left me!"
  • Jo Calderone, speaking about Lady Gaga: "I want her to be real!"
  • Jo Calderone, speaking about himself: "How am I supposed to shine?"
  • Jo Calderone, speaking about himself: "I gotta get in there."
  • Jo Calderone, wearing Brooks Brothers
  • This performance, in relationship to the Jo Calderone narrative so far (see Cheryl Helm's first piece on Jo Calderone, as well as Roland Betancourt's work)
  • Judith Butler, performativity
  • Politics and aesthetics of drag
  • Jo Calderone and Drug Addiction
xoxo

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Plastic: The Endless Garment

By Laurence Ross

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

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

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

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

I’ll Follow You Until You Love Me:

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


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

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


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

We’re Plastic But We Still Have Fun:

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


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


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


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

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

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

We Are the Crowd:

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


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


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


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

Yellow Dance and We Turn:

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


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

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer Bio:
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Mason’s Road, Bluestem, and elsewhere. He has recently completed a novel, Also, I’m Dying, in which characters deliver performances of crisis, education, anarchy, vanity, husband, wife, child, and alcoholism, among other things.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gaga is a Narcissistic Masochist and You Should Be One Too

By Spencer Jackson

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

The ghostly masochistic bride means everything and her brawny sadist groom nothing. The guests, well, they might be disappointed. In juxtaposing the earthy, country ballad “Yoü and I” with the violent, mythological landscape of its video, Gaga masterfully detourns from within the patriarchal longing of the quintessentially American starlet. Rather than simply undermining or opposing the fantasy of redemption in the arms of a male savior, Gaga maps out the tantalizing and emancipatory possibilities of being the objectified female subject.

The male savior appears in Gaga’s vision as the sadist lab technician who converts the liminal, mythological figures of the mermaid and the phoenix into the ghostly, bride-object of every Cinderella tale. Although positioned as the subject, this hunky characterless shell of a man remains captive as a kind of personal assistant to the objects he penetrates, cares for, and tortures. The ghostly aura of the bride that emerges from this lab reflects the doubleness of a human self bound to the inhuman and mythological space of the beyond. With its focus on the production of this wife-to-be, Gaga’s video redirects the desire expressed in the phrase “Yoü and I” from the expected object of the external lover to the hybrid figures of myth that reside in the interiority of the bride’s self. Subsumed in the narcissistic landscape of self-production, the love relationship in Gaga’s video becomes a wholly internal process that centers on the pleasure derived from returning to and replaying the violent process of one’s own formation as a subject. In affirming and enjoying the sadistic constitution of her latest persona, Gaga develops a strategy for accessing the monstrous, plural, and mystical others that lie within every seemingly normalized subject. “Yoü and I,” in other words, has a message for its country starlet: accept your perversion and make your love narcissistic.


By representing the mythological figures of the mermaid and the phoenix as sources for the construction of the objectified bride, Gaga suggests that at the extreme limit of the self-contained, narcissistic self lies an opening to the absolute outside, whether that be the sea, sky, or heavens. The oddly placed umlaut in the title “Yoü and I” brings the object of the singer’s longing inward to “Yüyi,” Gaga’s now established mermaid persona. Gaga’s definition of Yüyi in a tweet earlier this summer reiterates her status as a metaphor for the formation of Gaga as a subject: “A reincarnation of my birth+artistic spirit. In incubation, awaiting a human lover to save her.” As both beautiful woman and fish, the hybrid figure of the mermaid embodies the possibility of human life coexisting with the ultimate symbol of its other, the sea. In his political history of the globe Nomos of the Earth (1950), the legal theorist Carl Schmitt celebrates the sea as the great limit of human civilization prior to the emergence of maritime powers in the sixteenth century. Standing in opposition to the ordered domain of land, the pre-modern sea was a site in which “there were no limits, no boundaries, no consecrated sites, no sacred orientations, no law, and no property” (60). Hailing from this ancient zone of lawlessness, the mermaid must be transformed into an object of science in order to become a part of the modern subject. The impossibility of the sexual encounter between the male lab technician and the mermaid’s scaled bottom half highlights the tenuousness of this transition to modernity. Although subjected to the erotic gaze of science, this hybrid object remains forever capable of a narcissistic withdrawal. Bound to the inhuman realm of the sea, the captive mermaid remains just beyond the penetrative desire of her human master.


Gaga peers into the pool of Narcissus in “Yoü and I” and becomes mesmerized with the multiple and hybrid origins of a self which is not one. The splitting of her bride into a multiplicity of hybrid figures represents a renewed critique of the Freudian concept of narcissism that stems from Ovid’s myth of the Greek hunter fixated until death on the beauty of his own image. Returning to an early stage of childhood development, the narcissist according to Freud withdraws his or her libidinal energy from the external world and transforms the self into the sole object of erotic interest. Freud draws the following now infamous consequences in the essay “On Narcissism” (1914):

We have discovered, especially clearly in people whose libidinal development has suffered some disturbance, such as perverts and homosexuals, that in their later choice of love-objects they have taken as a model not their mother but their own selves. They are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object, and are exhibiting a type of object-choice which must be termed ‘narcissistic’. (87)

The heteronormative sexuality that ensues from Freud’s theory of narcissism merely extends the binary between self and other on which it is based. Gaga stages a return to the metaphorical landscape of her modern American self precisely in order to upset the subject and object opposition that gives rise to the binaries of man/woman, sadist/masochist, and self/other. In dramatizing the production of her self from ancient figures of hybridity, Gaga contributes to the effort of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida to reconceptualize the self as the site of irresolvable difference rather than reassuring familiarity. With her libido fixated on the mutilated objects of science that constitute her new ghostly self, Gaga discovers the possibility of converting the male agent of this subjectivizing process into a vehicle for her at once masochistic and narcissistic desire.


Beyond reinforcing the plural and transhuman makeup of Gaga’s latest persona, the golden phoenix in “Yoü and I” crystallizes the narcissistic withdrawal inherent in this origins narrative. After living for hundreds of years as brightly colored spectacle of the sky, this mythical bird would burn itself and its nest in order to produce an identical offspring. In response to the beheading of King Charles I during the mid seventeenth-century English Civil War, royalists printed the phoenix on the coin below to portray the ascent of Charles’ son as an inevitable consequence of the indivisible and divine sovereignty of the English dynasty. Gaga prints the same image on the back of her male lab assistant in the form a tattoo that becomes apparent only once he engages in an impossible sexual act with his captive mermaid. The marking of this lab assistant with an image of a creature he holds in bondage further underlines his role as a mere agent of the masochistic desires of those he imprisons. Without parents, Gaga’s ghostly bride emerges like the newborn phoenix from the violent consumption of the very objects that constitute her self.


There is no true “you” in “Yoü and I,” only a multiplicity of personas populating the landscape of a single self. The ghostly bride, however, occupies a privileged position within this panoply because she represents the ultimate object of longing that animates the form of the country ballad. As a human figure enshrouded in a veil of death, this bride and object of ideological longing exemplifies the monstrousness of a human subject that is never quite as familiar or human as some may like. In exposing the construction of this bride from mythical creatures of history, Gaga insists that even the most seemingly complacent of contemporary subjects are intimately connected within the depths of their subjective interiority to the strangest and most distant of creatures. Rather than piously directing her libidinal energy towards her male savior, this unruly bride transforms him into the sadist agent of her masochistic and narcissistic desire. She withdraws into the landscape of her quaint American self in order to recover the supreme pleasure of her perverse and painful origins.

Author Bio:
Spencer Jackson is a lapsed communist and doctoral student in Comparative Literature at UCLA. He works on early modern English literature as well 20th century philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Bataille. He has an essay in a recent SubStance and a forthcoming one in Studies in Romanticism.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Oh Jo, Make Me a Cyborg

By Samantha Cohen

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

This year for my August 16 birthday, Gaga released a fantastical-violent video-world containing my favorite things: cyborgs, “nature,” mythical creatures, dolls, Jo Calderone. Also on my birthday, a friend sent me excerpts of Martin Buber’s essay I and Thou. The umlaut on “Yoü and I”’s “u” makes me almost think that Gaga intends for me to connect her video with the German essay, and I’m going to. Also, I’m going to argue that Gaga creates a world in which real love involves violence and objectification; a world in which cyborg love is the best kind.


So okay, Buber says that an individual person has no spirit – spirit exists only in the connection between two people. And the lovers in “Yoü and I” do animate each other, make spirit together, etc., but also something else is happening here. Buber laments this something else. “All response,” he says, of a You to an I, “binds the You into the It-world” (1). The beloved, in other words, never escapes becoming an object.


But in “Yoü and I,” as opposed to in I and Thou, objectification and spirit-making are part of the same process of becoming.

The world of the “Yoü and I” video challenges the idea of the natural: who can say that the fields are natural while they’re traversed by a cyborg? Who can say that anything’s natural in a world that contains mermaids and phoenixes? In becoming an object in “Yoü and I,” the beloved takes her place in the world; she takes on a set of constraints within which to create, to act in a world of other constructions.

“Yoü and I,” obviously, is about relationships. We see a lot of them. I’m going to go relationship-by-relationship below, discussing the spirit-making/objectification in each.

CYBORG GAGA

The video opens on an already-object Gaga – Cyborg Gaga. Cyborg Gaga has obviously already gone through a relating process that has both turned her into an object and given her the spirit that enabled her to disappear (in order to make art?) for two years.


Cyborg Gaga sets up early the pain and the necessity of becoming an object. The lanyard straps of her high heels are cutting her, making grotesquely bruised and bleeding ankles, yet she’s returning to Nebraska for a man who wants her “in a corner of (his) bar with (these) high heels on.” She’s returned to re-undergo the bloody process of objectification. Cyborg Gaga craves to be an object, and thus to be re-animated.


The lyrics also reveal Cyborg Gaga’s desire to be an object in that she’s returning specifically in order to be her lover’s “baby doll.” In the world of this video, we see that baby dolls are not innocent. The baby doll in the video’s intro is displayed by a ghoulish ice cream truck driver, and Cyborg Gaga’s reactions are both to nuzzle the doll to her face, as well as to wince and cower from it. I read these opposite reactions as illustrative of Gaga’s desire to both be and possess a love object, as well as her fear of the painful process of transformation.


JO CALDERONE AND NATURE GAGA

So I want to argue that Jo Calderone is not a hetero man but a queer butch or else a drag king. Mostly my rubric for this is the same know-it-when-you-see-it approach that my high school English teacher claimed applied to both good writing and pornography, but also, I’ll turn to Judith Halberstam. Halberstam makes a distinction between “Butch Realness” and “Femme Pretenders” (classifications I might change to simply “butches” and “drag kings,” as I think drag needs some degree of camp in order to qualify, and also that it’s problematic to use some kind of “natural” butch- or femme-ness to make distinctions between “real” drag and “pretend” drag, but I’ll use Halberstam’s terms). Halberstam says that we can recognize “Femme Pretenders” by “heavy eyebrows…deliberately overdone” (check), and by poses that are “deliberately, loudly theatrical and even parodic” (check, check). Jo’s beer bottle throwing, snarl, shoulder action, and anachronistic greaser style mark him, I think, as queer. Along with the spelling of his name, the typically female Jo rather than the male Joe.


The queerness of Jo and Nature Gaga’s relationship is important in this video because it demonstrates that objectification is part of all love relationships, not only heterosexual/heterosexist ones – that feminism will not lead us to a world without human-objects, nor should we want it to, for reasons I’ll get to soon. Objectification between Nature Gaga and Jo comes, though, through consensual BDSM, which is not fully enacted here, but is clearly suggested, I think,


We see Gaga’s consent in this relationship when she slaps Jo’s hand away playfully, showing her agreement to enter into a relationship of slapping/grabbing, as well as asserting her agency not to be slapped or grabbed. The violence in this relationship is ironic and playful, while also doing the necessary objectifying work.

Jo, too, is aware of his own object status. He poses and postures, greases his hair and rolls up his sleeves for Nature Gaga. (And for us. Mm.)


So here’s why, according to Donna Haraway, we shouldn’t want not to be objects: Haraway describes the cyborg condition as a shift from “white capitalist patriarchy” to “informatics of domination” within “a post-gender world” (3). Her A Cyborg Manifesto critiques the feminism of the 70s that would have goddess-women frolicking in a field, howling at the moon. The earthy nature goddesses in “Yoü and I” may be free, but ultimately they’re prancing in circles in boring nightgowns, incapable of real action in the object/cyborg-world. By opting out of objecthood, they’re opting out of personhood. They barely interact with each other, making them spiritless, Buberianly speaking. They do not sing.

Through objectification and playful domination, it seems, Jo Calderone has rescued Nature Gaga from her fate of field-prancing and brought her into the It-world, which is where she is able both to have a love relationship, and to make music. We see, near the almost-BDSM moment, Nature Gaga running fierce and determined toward the camera, away from the coven of goddesses. Also just after that moment, Gaga is playing the piano with more animation (spirit) than before, and her body movements take on a robotic (cyborgian) quality.


VIRGIN BRIDE GAGA AND HER HUNK

Let’s contrast the kind of objectification and domination between Jo and Nature Gaga with those practices between the video’s traditionally patriarchal couple: Virgin Bride Gaga and her Betrothed.

The wide-eyed and worshipful Virgin Bride Gaga is being treated as an object, but she isn’t aware of her status as such. Virgin Bride’s Betrothed unwraps her possessively, engulfingly, but Virgin Bride Gaga hasn’t consented, as Nature Gaga has, to the terms of her objectification – she’s too innocent to be capable of consent. Though the bride’s Hunk enacts the least amount of physical violence on his love object of any of the video’s lovers, he is somehow the creepiest. There is no question of future violence toward Virgin Gaga, and not seeing it only makes it more menacing. This video has already established a world in which no one is innocent. Virgin Bride demonstrates that innocence is not a thing to strive for, as innocence only means surrendering to objectification without really consenting.

Besides being childlike, Virgin Bride is ghosty and ethereal. She’s see-through. And I see her see-through wedding as a critique of the flimsy love narrative propagated by popular media – a critique of the idea of love as cute and non-violent and transcendent. The sweet, transcendent love between a virgin bride and a strapping hunk does not exist in the actual world of this video: in this video-world, in order to transcend, you have to become a ghost.

RELATIONSHIPS IN THE BARN

For me, the world of the barn is a world of metaphor, an unconscious world. Here, there are more incarnations of Gaga than I can confidently count (it’s unclear who is the same self and who is Other) and time passes nonlinearly, as in dreams. (Is the black-haired Gaga in a water chamber, for example, pre-mermaid Yuyi, or a failed attempt at mermaid making, or something else all together?) Is the male lover person creating or caring for these hybrid Gagas? The barn represents visually and non-logically what is happening in all the video’s relationships: object-creation, unspeakable violence, tenderness, love, myth-infusing, hybridity.


CLOSING THOUGHTS & CYBORG GAGA, AGAIN

Buber says, “Only silence toward the you…leaves the You free. Where Buber seems to present this leaving-the-beloved-in-silence as a non-option (or a tragic option?), in the world of “Yoü and I” the leaving, optimistically, is an option. We see the Is in this video leave their Yous free via silence here: Jo postures and puffs and looks at the sky, leaving Nature Gaga free to experiment with her music. When her lover leaves, Mermaid Yuyi flips her tail excitedly and has little moments of exultation in her new objecthood. And Cyborg Gaga has left for two years, she says, imaginably to be in a free and silent state, but is now returning for more objectifying love. Solo freedom, it seems, is the other side of object-love, but the free in this video are relation-made objects already. In this world, Spirit-imbuing objectification-love can happen, and then silent freedom, in cycles that range from a song bar to two years.


At the end of the video, we see Cyborg Gaga’s face, and it is the first face in the video that we trust, that isn’t menacing or empty in some way, and we realize that this is because we, the viewer-lovers, have created Cyborg Gaga. She is our object. By watching, we are guilty of this process of objectification-love, but also we are responsible for making Gaga possible – for entering into the relationship that makes the spirit by which she creates.

Works Cited:

1) Buber, Martin, and Ronald Gregor. Smith. I and Thou. New York, NY: Scribner, 2000. Print.

2) Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. London [u.a.: Duke Univ., 2006. Print.

3) Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. 2009. Print.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Part of Yüyi’s World

By Alexander Cavaluzzo

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


Yüyi the Mermaid was introduced to the public imagination when choreographer Laurieann Gibson leaked a faint notion of the concept for Lady Gaga’s music video “The Edge of Glory”: “I just know that we’ll be feeling very fishy.” The ichthyologic teaser was enough to spark speculation that Gaga would be appearing as a mermaid in her next video. Of course, even after a performance on the French talk show Le Grand Journal where she first unveiled her aquatic alter ego, Gaga remained bipedal throughout “The Edge of Glory” video. The hype surrounding Gaga’s mermaid guise laid out on an operating table and hacked by couture doctors was never brought to fruition. Nevertheless, the specter of Yüyi still lurked and continued to develop via tweets, live performances, and, finally, an appearance in the “Yoü and I” music video.


She perfectly summates Lady Gaga’s project thus far, combining the spectacle of The Fame, the demonic metaphor of The Fame Monster, and the dichotomy of living halfway between reality and fantasy of Born This Way. She’s not a sultry siren floating through the crystal clear waters of a blue lagoon; she’s a grotesque aberration, a welding of woman and fish, inelegantly lying on a slab, carting herself around stage in a wheelchair, or writhing in a filthy bathtub. Her tail is a squamous stub, a black latex taper with an overgrown, misshapen flipper, or a braid of scales concluding in a filiform fin. A squamous bra fuses her breasts together and erases her nipples. In exploring the creation, both literally and figuratively, of Yüyi, she bears more relation to P.T. Barnum’s strange Feejee mermaid than Disney’s beautiful Ariel (The Little Mermaid [1989]) or Daryl Hannah’s sexy Madison (Splash [1987]).


Barnum’s sideshow creation, touted as an authentic mermaid, was nothing more than a hoax (as sideshows often are), the creature in question being the taxidermied upper-body of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish, dipped in papier-mâché for good measure. Meant to lure ignorant consumers and spectators into the show for their patronage, Barnum exploited mythology and disfigurement in the name of commerce. Scholar Stephen T. Asma, in his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, relates Barnum’s hoax to our contemporary cultural condition of ostracizing those who do not fit in with archetypical social structures, be they gender, sexuality, aesthetic representation, or biological functions. He says,

In Barnum-style hucksterism, we have completely fabricated monsters, such as the Feejee Mermaid, but also real disabled or abnormal individuals who were cloaked in fabricated exotic narratives. Often those fabricated narratives had implicit (and explicit) moral and political significance (Asma, 140).

In applying this theory to Yüyi and extending it to Lady Gaga overall, her transgressive nature and embracement of “the freak” typify the moral and political significance of abnormal individuals, and, in a way, reject the strictures and labels placed upon them (Corona, 2). The utilization of the wheelchair, while initially purely functional, bonds the creature specifically with handicapped individuals and even sufferers of Sirenomelia. Naturally this is nothing new, as many performers have exploited transgressive performance tactics to comment on mainstream society. However, none of these performers have over 12 Million followers on Twitter, music videos with over 1 Billion views, and constant attention in a 24/7 news cycle. Why has someone who so vigorously performs the monstrous, who impersonates men and mermaids, become so popular?


As Asma suggests, “Monsters were intrinsically exciting but also extrinsically useful in giving audiences a sense of relief and possibly even gratitude about their own station in life” (Asma, 140). This may account for Gaga’s initial rise to fame, when she did not yet tout life-affirming messages of acceptance, but rather bled on stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards while singing about celebrity voyeurs. She made the celebrity an exciting spectacle, a freak at which all normal people could gawk. She still does that, although the shiny sequined shell of The Fame has cracked and given way to a new pop organism that headlines a new race instead of a new trend.


In this exploration of Yüyi as a biological extension of Gaga’s persona, it’s clear that it comes to a pinnacle through bestial intercourse. While the iconography of the mermaid is explicitly sexualized, even in Gaga’s incarnation, there is a logical dissonance with the creature as an object of desire. They may be alluring, seductive, and provocative, but mermaids in effect neutralize sexual activity, as it is impossible for coitus to occur between man and fish. This doesn’t stop Yüyi’s human lover from having sex with her, of course, adding to the confusion and blatant disregard for boundaries Lady Gaga engenders.


Gaga’s lover, portrayed by Taylor Kinney, dominates her to the point where he becomes her master. He administers oxygen to her via a mask and pours water over her in life-sustaining acts. He keeps her immobile, trapped in an aluminum tub in the middle of a barn in the landlocked state of Nebraska. Is this her savior? As Gaga tweeted, Yüyi is “a reincarnation of my birth+artistic spirit. In incubation, awaiting a human lover to save her…” Where was Yüyi incubating? Within Gaga’s creative unconscious? Within a barn in Nebraska? And how does her lover save her? There is no doubt Gaga is feeding into the cultural mythology of the mermaid figure, mirroring Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the little maiden of the sea who barters her voice in order to attain companionship and humanity. For Anderson’s character, of course, the story ends in heartbreak: she does not marry her prince and consequently dissolves into sea foam. Yüyi is a bit more Disneyfied, ultimately forming a union with her lover, her creator, her Dr. Frankenstein, both in their final embrace in the bathtub and the wedding scene, where Gaga sports teal blush, tying her to Yüyi.  


Just like Jo Calderone and the Lady herself, Yüyi draws upon precedents established in mythology, literature, music, and film. Originating in Assyrian legend circa 1000 BC, the mermaid has existed as a staple of crypto-zoological lore. The image has been continually re-appropriated by popular culture, and in her own way Yüyi pays homage to many of the depictions of mermaids that preceded her.

Her second performance of Yüyi in Sydney sparked mild controversy when Bette Midler reacted by tweeting, “Dear @ladygaga Ive [sic] been doing singing mermaid in a wheelchair since 1980-You can keep the meat dress and the firecracker tits-mermaid’s mine.” Midler was referring to her own alter ego Delores Delago (which, interestingly, means “Pain of the Lake”), a mermaid in a wheelchair act that she has performed since 1979 in several of her shows. The “fight” fizzled out as quickly as any trivial news story, and it would come as no surprise that Gaga would stage a re-performance of a cult figure. Surprisingly, though, Lady Gaga responded to the controversy a few days after the Divine Miss M’s tirade, pleading ignorance to Access Hollywood:

I didn’t know that she’d done [it], but I do now and I think it’s great…Obviously I feel connected to women in theater and women from the past … Maybe we’re just cut from the same cloth. I couldn’t hop around in that tail so I just stuck myself in a wheelchair.

That seems like a reasonable enough explanation, although considering the uniqueness of the staging, it might provoke further inquiry into whether she was truly ignorant of the character. Ultimately the research would be fruitless since authorial intent does not have supremacy over readings, and since Yüyi in practice confounds logic to begin with. She has little thematic development, she has inexplicable sex with humans, she has no clear demeanor attached to her monstrous flesh.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of Yüyi: she exists primarily as a visual representation of the female monster. Lady Gaga’s creation of the mermaid figure inextricably binds woman and monster, a relationship that has permeated the arts and philosophy for centuries. One of the most infamous demons featured in the Christian Canon is Lilith, a monstrous female associated with storms, illness, and death (Isaiah 34:14). While only mentioned tangentially in the Scriptures, Lilith is a figure prominently displayed among many cultural mythologies, dating back to ancient Sumerian tradition. While historically Eve is credited as the first woman created by God, there is evidence that suggests there was another before her (Genesis 1:27). The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a satirical medieval text, states that God created Lilith from the earth, as He did with Adam, before the creation of Eve. When Lilith refused to become subservient to Adam, as she believed them to be equals cut from the same cloth, God sent three angels to retrieve her and then created Eve from Adam’s rib. While both stories have receded into mere folklore, the exploration of the two females in Christianity prompts an interesting dialogue regarding the association between demons and the female sex.

Marie-Hélene Huet draws from Aristotelian theory to suggest, “The monster and the woman…find themselves on the same side, the side of dissimilarity (Huet, 85). Just as, she writes, demons are engendered due to the power of a mother’s imagination during pregnancy, usurping the place of the father as progenitor, Eve is deformed when she is birthed from Adam’s body (Huet, 85). She is dissimilar from man. Eve is not, however, dubbed a “demon” as Lilith was, in spite of the fact that Lilith was not the distorted offspring of a human. This concept of the monstrous birth repeatedly factors into Lady Gaga’s self-creation, alter egos, and her femininity and feminism. Especially in “The Edge of Glory” video, while sans Yüyi, Gaga displays her embracement of perhaps mythology’s most famous female monster, Medusa, in her bearing of Versace’s emblem.

Huet continues in her discussion of the monstrous imagination by examining the etymology of the word “monster,” deciding that it stems from the Latin monstrare, meaning “to show, to display.” She claims, “This tradition confirmed the idea that monsters were signs sent by God, messages showing his will or his wrath…” (Huet, 87). Demonic imagery acts as a reminder to faithful Christians of the dangers of sin and defying God’s word. This idea stems from the story of Original Sin, in which Eve plights humanity for her disobedience to God’s strictures, cementing the connection of the woman and the demon. The theory that the word “monster,” now inextricably bound with Gaga’s narrative, comes from a verb expressing the action of presentation and exposure illustrates how she uses spectacle as a tool in uncovering the monstrous aspects of the human psyche, exposing them to literally millions of people in hopes to reveal the lie and make it true.

Yüyi exists as a metaphor, manifesting all facets of her personality, in an attempt to make “this complex + incomprehensible force to be true” through acceptance of all personas, elements and processes of being, the incomprehensible force being the cultural phenomenon of Lady Gaga, a continuing effort designed to marry reality and fantasy and exist simultaneously in both.


Works Cited

Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Corona, Victor P. Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga. Journal of Popular Culture 44(2): 1-19.

Huet, Marie-Hélene. Monstrous Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1993).

The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

“The Story of Lilith,” JewishChristianLit.com, http://jewishchristianlit.com//Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html

Author Bio:
Alexander Cavaluzzo (@AleksandrJohn) is a Fashion-Sexual and unpaid laborer at Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and the art blogazine Hyperallergic.com. He graduated with a BS in Art History from the Fashion Institute of Technology and is an MA candidate in the Arts Politics program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. On the occasional nights when he is drunk on Jameson, he blogs at alexandercavaluzzo.tumblr.com. His lifelong dream is to become the intelligent version of Camille Paglia.

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