By Jennie Gruber
“To be able to blend – that’s what realness is.”
– Dorian Corey, in Paris is Burning
“Drag... describes discontinuities between gender and sex or appearance and reality but refuses to allow this discontinuity to represent dysfunction. In a drag performance, rather, incongruence becomes the site of gender creativity.”
– Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinities
“On a stage, the laws of fantasy are meant to be broken, but I have always found it difficult to bring my real pussy out there with me.”
– Lady Gaga, from her November 2011 “Memorandum” in V Magazine
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The 2011 Music Television Video Music Awards[i] open with this antagonizing roar, which emanates from an unfamiliar silhouette cloaked in smoke and spotlight.
Emerging onto the stage with an almost limping gait, the figure’s features become clear. A greasy pompadour and sideburns frame a small pretty face and sunken eyes.
The figure introduces and explains itself:
“My name is Jo Calderone. And I was an asshole.”
The live audience and those of us watching on televisions and streaming video are rushing to understand. Wasn’t the opening act of this show hyped as Lady...
As if he read our minds, Calderone spits out the nonsense words that have been imbued with so much new cultural significance in the past few years.
The audience starts to put two and two together, realizing that the Guido-accented Calderone is, actually, Gaga herself in very understated drag.
At this point in history, Lady Gaga is known for many things, and understatement is not one of them. Though her outfit is shockingly minimalist, her presentation is bold and dynamic. She has the audacity to filter drag as a performance concept into a mainstream idiom without ever pandering to the inevitable discomfort this elicits from the MTV cameras.
“She left me!”
Calderone, it would seem from his ranting, is not just another Gaga costume, but a fully developed persona. His presence is one of exaggerated and deliberately staged masculinity. His body language has a method. Elbows cocked, he holds a cigarette between thumb and forefinger, the other three fingers fanned out. He gesticulates like a man who has been using a cigarette to make a point since he was 14 years old. His posture is slouched forward into his black, loosely fitting Brooks Brothers suit, shoulders shaking his jacket with the muscle memory of someone who wears it everyday.
“But she’s fuckin’ crazy too right?”
Egging on the live crowd by variably charging downstage at them, he reiterates:
“I mean, she’s ... fuckin’ ... crazy!”
Describing a bedroom scene in which Gaga flaunts the ultimate femme refusal to take off her stilettos (even in the shower), Calderone himself is wearing boots with three some odd inches subtly wedged into the heels. This is perhaps the only clue in his entire ensemble that his costume is an androgynously stylized one; and his acknowledgement of Gaga’s usual hyper-feminine presentation subtly reveals that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
The MTV house cameras (who also know exactly what they’re doing) cut to the cartoonishly girlie pop starlet of the hour Katy Perry doing her best with raised eyebrows and open-mouth smile to convincingly look shocked yet delighted at what she’s witnessing.
Calderone continues to rail against Gaga – on the subject of her wild hair, her love of the spotlight, and perhaps in anticipation of the public’s reaction to this performance: “At first it was sexy but now I’m just confused.”
Britney Spears is revealed by the probing cameras, mouth agape, indeed looking predictably dumbfounded.
“And I think it’s great, you know, I think it’s really fucking great that she’s such a stah. A big, beautiful stah in the sky.”
The crowd starts to cheer intermittently, drowning some of Calderone’s punch lines. It’s almost as if they’re attempting to throw off his timing. More likely MTV’s teleprompts are begging them to act as if they understand and approve of what’s happening.
“But how am I supposed to shine?”
The powers-at-be at MTV understand that they have to fabricate reactions, like a nervous hostess frantically keeping drinks filled and hors d’oeuvres circulating. Their audience is getting awkward. This, as it turns out, ain’t no female pop star in a fashionable suit. This is a drag king show; easily the highest concept drag king show ever to be performed by a high-femme-identified pop star on mainstream television. It’s undoubtedly the first time such a pop star has asked her audience, with very little warning, to accept her as not only an unfamiliar character but as another gender for the duration of an entire media spectacle.
“I’m startin’ to think that’s who she is. I mean maybe that’s just who. she. is.”
Tomorrow and for the next few months, distressed online media reportage will sneer headlines along the lines of: “Was it too much?” and, “Brilliant or creepy?” and, “Did Lady Gaga just end her career with this embarrassing Jo Calderone?” It seems that even artists with reputations for defying expectations will be called to task for attempting something, well, unexpected- in this case, something that not only revels in its queerness but spits its high concept pretensions in its audience’s face. Though his speech is haunted by the audience’s thwarted expectations of Gaga’s femininity, Calderone is unfaltering in the face of the their unease.
“I gotta get in thea.”
A pregnant pause with cigarette outstretched, palm turned up and shaking.
“When she cums,[ii] she covers her face, like she can’t stand to have one honest moment whea nobody’s watching!”
The audience has come to expect Gaga in particular and MTV in general to be both entertainment and provocation, but they are also desensitized to contrived shocks well within their comfort zone. This digestible outrageousness has become the bread and butter of the mainstream music industry. Gaga bursts through these boundaries, playing deliberately with discomfort. Her artistic agency is all too rare in the pantheon of female pop star into which she has launched herself; almost as rare as, say, talking about their orgasms onstage.
“I want her to be real. But she says, ‘Jo...’”
A suck of the cigarette for dramatic effect.
“I’m not real. I’m theatah. And ‘you and I’...”
As these last three words are the name of Gaga’s most recent single, the crowd’s enthusiasm sounds significantly more genuine. A bone has been thrown. This is a joke they get, one they can participate in.
Their encouraging cheer all but drowns the speech’s deliberate conclusion:
You and I (meaning Gaga and Calderone, meaning Stephanie Germanotta[iii] and her audience)...
“...This is just rehearsal. I gotta get in theah.”
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If you take an elevator ride in the Imperial Palace on the Las Vegas strip, you will hardly be able to ignore the television advertising the hotel’s main attraction: Frank Marino’s Divas, a celebrity female impersonation extravaganza. Following a rapid-fire series of clips showcasing an assortment of drag queens doing Britney, Madonna, and other glamour standards, the leering mug of the blonde bejeweled queen persona of Marino materializes. The voice-over blares: “You won’t believe your eyes...” and the queen morphs into a head-shot of an out-of-drag, decidedly masculine Frank, accompanied by the assurance that: “...these gals are really guys!”
This “revelation” will be jarring to anyone who has ever frequented drag shows in dingy dives, where kings and queens immerse themselves in the attire, body language, and pronoun of a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. The purpose of this facade is to be at once exaggerated and convincing in the chosen gender, as is the case with the dramatically campy but believably macho Calderone. The joy of being on a drag stage is weaving a collective fantasy, regardless of the degree to which the gender being depicted is a part of the performer’s identity when they peel off the spirit gum mustache or unhook their girdle.
When the Imperial Palace marketers literalize the “impersonation” aspect of Marino’s act, they undermine the central mystique of drag. In Vegas, a heterocentric territory of comfortable sensationalism not unlike the aforementioned digestible shock value of MTV, drag can profit so long as it panders to anticipated queer anxiety of its audience. “These girls are really guys” is a reassurance that the queerness inherent in drag doesn’t carry over into “real life.” Gender inversion is marketable entertainment provided it is clearly delineated within the confines of theatricality, and doesn’t spill over into identity, desire, or what the performer wears on their day off.
Gaga, in contrast, revels in the gender ambiguity implied by a drag act that never lets on that an offstage life exists. She may even achieve what the voguing queens of Jennie Livington’s 1990 documentary of underground Harlem drag balls Paris is Burning call “realness”: complete embodiment of an archetype in a performance.
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Jo Calderone’s significance is even more notable when considered alongside other instances of female pop stars in some semblance of drag.
Eleven VMAs ago Britney Spears appeared onstage in a baggy suit to sing possibly the most neutered-ever rendition of the covered-to-death Stones classic “Satisfaction”[iv]. One minute into the song the suit was ripped off to reveal a body stocking, transparent except for glittering sequins, and Spears proceeded through the motions of her standard routine of stiffly suggestive dancing. Her allure is more stripper kitsch than personal sexual expression.
R&B Singers Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Ciara, and Mya have all appeared in their own music videos[v] wearing masculine costumes, either to highlight sexist double standards or parody their male celebrity counterparts. In each case, the masculine incarnation dances alongside or otherwise transforms into her typical public imagine, writhing in stunningly feminine glamour. Though they might slip into baggy pants or fashionable blazers, any butch identification is quickly glossed over with mini-dresses and enormous diamonds.
Annie Lennox pulled her own drag stunt at the 1984 Grammys. Like Calderone, the Eurythmics frontwoman sported sideburns, pompadour and simple black suit. Lennox’s signature androgyny made this a convincing fashion statement, but she was less embodying a fully realized character than doing a superficial, if convincing, Elvis impression. In the Eurythmics’ “Who’s that Girl” video, Lennox plays the double role of “Elvis” and a blonde-bombshell in pink lipstick. Dated CGI allows the male and female Lennox to make out at the clip’s conclusion, unifying Lennox’s dual personas in androgynous lust.
Each of these flirtations with masculinity are accompanied by a “these guys are really gals” reveal, distinguishing them from drag kings as what Judith Halberstam calls “femme pretenders.” With the same queer-anxiety soothing disclaimer as the Vegas show, each of these artists shows “how thoroughly her femininity saturates her performance – she performs the failure of her masculinity as a spectacle.” (Halberstam 250) Any exploration of masculinity only serves to reinforce the feminine, a disclaimer that renders it commercially comfortable. Calderone, in contrast, never tears off his suit, or even acknowledges that he is being personified by Gaga, eliciting discomfort that is in and of itself revealing. He remains firmly committed to his character, and gender, even when he sings Gaga’s song...
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His well-rehearsed speech completed, Calderone dashes to an upright piano to launch into a barroom version of the foreshadowed “You and I.” A hidden band kicks in, and the camera cuts to cartoonishly boyish pop star of the hour Justin Bieber looking more hostile than confused, like no one told him rocknroll was gonna be gay.
The singer tears off his jacket, does another verse with Calderone-clone back-up dancers,[vi] announces the onstage arrival of Brian May[vii] on lead guitar and closes the act by hurling himself atop and off the piano, spraying beer into the bewildered crowd, and posing next to May with the enthusiasm of a very confident and clearly wasted karaoke contestant.
The relative banality of this song’s lyrics (“taste like whiskey/when you kiss me” etc) and chord progression (which it must be noted May could wail on with his hands tied behind his back) is drowned by the display of utter showmanship from Gaga, for whom the margin between inventiveness in image and originality in music has always been so suspiciously wide as to almost seem intentional.
The performance doesn’t stop with the song. When he joins the audience to watch the rest of the show, returns to the stage as an award presenter, and schmoozes backstage, Calderone remains in character with an Andy Kauffman-like commitment. Hardly a mention of the event will neglect to make particular note of him using the men’s bathroom. He has a back-story, corroborated in the Autumn/Winter 2010 Vogue Homme Japan: origin (Palermo by way of Jersey) occupation (Mechanic), and identity in relation to Gaga herself (erstwhile lover). At the post-show press conference, Calderone responds to a reporter’s query, “What can you express as Calderone that you can’t express as Gaga?” with a blank look and mumbled; “I don’t undahstand the question.”[viii]
Extraordinarily, Gaga plays the whole thing straight. She never gives an ironic wink, never points to the Lady behind the curtain. She allows her audience to squirm, and revels in the blurred boundaries of man/woman, costumed character/authentic person, fantasy/reality. Calderone’s speech, with its exploration of on-and-off-stage existence, and the 4th wall-breaking execution of the character himself, illustrates Gaga’s comfort in ambiguity. The entire stunt is a daring critique of cultural strictness, not only with regards to gender, but to the authenticity of fame culture as well.
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At the center of this frenzy of theatrics is Germanotta herself, a multiplicity of “threats”: singer, dancer, writer, entrepreneur, media manipulator, sexual provocateur. The audience wants, like Calderone wants of the woman he embodies and desires, to get in thea, inside that frenzy to understand what Gaga is really all about and why she does the sensational things she does. Is this guy really a gal? What kind of glittering underwear has he got on? Gaga resistance to a reveal not only preserves the integrity of her invented character, but also transmits the message that onstage or off, every person performs their gender and persona. Uncompromising, she offers herself as an example. The roles she plays are as real as the person creating them; her streamlined masculine persona is as real as her hyper-feminine fashion statements or abject alter-egos. Maybe the “real” Lady Gaga is the monstrous, the theatrical, the outsized, her characters, her dopplegangers.
Maybe that’s just who she is.
[i] hereafter MTV VMAs, an event whose name, once charmingly redundant, is by now just short of being a total contradiction in terms
[ii] “cums” is bleeped out by the MTV cameras along with the numerous “fuckin’”s
[iii] Gaga’s given name
[iv] rock’s most shameless expression of heterosexual male lust and frustration, containing a significant consciousness of attire which the Spears version changes from “how white my shirts can be” to “how short my skirts can be”
[v] “Upgrade U” (‘07), “Obsessed” (‘09), “Like a Boy” (‘07) and “My Love is Like..Wo” (‘03), respectively
[vi] None of whom appear to be women in drag, but who can be sure?
[vii] of the incomparable 70’s rock band Queen, and thus no stranger to shredding alongside a flamboyant frontman
[viii] along with untoward soundbites such as; “Didn’t you jerk off to Britney when you were a kid?” and, “It’s fuckin’ bright in heah!” and, in a response to an accusation of Guido-ness, “You got a problem with Italians? Wassamatter wichyoo?” – all departures from Gaga’s typically demure attitude with the press
Jennie Gruber is a Creative Non-Fiction Writing MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker, zine-maker, and face-melting rocknroller. Her work has been published in Whore! magazine, AORTA magazine, Mcsweeney’s The Believer, and numerous Cleis Press anthologies. She has performed at San Francisco’s Litquake along with a multitude of other reading series, academic panels, and community educational events. Her preoccupations include shameless expressions of transgressive sexual identities, the para-literary, and punk communities. She lives in Brooklyn. imnotayoungmananymore.tumblr.com
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