"[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

Monday, March 4, 2013

Things Fall Apart

By Peter Kline
(A companion piece to Devin ONeills "Born That Way." In honor of the Born This Way Ball.)

Tonight I will return
The fame and riches earned
With you I’d watch them all be burned
– Lady Gaga, “The Queen”

I wasn’t planning on it, but I guess I’m giving up Lady Gaga for Lent.

Just a few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, the day Christians begin the season of Lent by having ashes smeared on their foreheads and hearing the words, “from dust you have come, to dust you shall return,” Lady Gaga announced that the Born This Way Ball had crumbled to dust. It wasn’t postponed; it wasn’t rescheduled. It was done. Gone. No more.

And why? Because a bit of flesh in Gaga’s right hip had come undone. Flesh does that. It comes undone. It gathers itself into the most beautiful forms, the most magnificent spectacles – of power, bodies, movement, pleasure, glory. But no matter how splendid or glorious, flesh always comes undone. Always. It always returns to the dust of which it is made.

We might be tempted to forget that Lady Gaga is made of flesh. “Lady Gaga” is, after all, a much more encompassing phenomenon than a particular 26-year-old fleshy body. Lady Gaga is the name of an event, a million-faced monster that shows itself in a seemingly infinite explosion of digital images and videos, aural landscapes, tweets, tumblrs, and a thousand other named and unnamed forms. Gaga has seeped her way into every crevice of that mysterious, eternity-like realm called the Internet. She lives there, breathes there, gives herself there. Her fans meet her there, touch her there, love her there. But the Internet is not flesh, exactly. Certainly it lives and pulses with energy. It also breaks down and comes undone. But it is not made of the tender and vulnerable stuff that gives us so much pleasure and pain.

To be sure, Gaga’s art challenges any easy dichotomy between what we might think of as a fleshy body and the multiple ways such a body is represented and extended into images, videos, sounds, costumes, and characters. Those extensions, for Gaga, those multiple worlds that she creates and inhabits and that are created around her, just are her self, her body. She was born this way. But what does it mean that all of those worlds can be shaken to their core when a small bit of tissue in her right hip tears ever so slightly? Is the massive universe and spectacle that is Lady Gaga really dependent on something so precarious, something so obviously fleshy? Are our lives really so fragile? Can it all come to end so quickly?

What if Lady Gaga were never to walk again, or dance again, or get on stage again and throw her body around wildly and passionately? What would that mean? Just how much is dependent on her being able-bodied? Would we still love her with such extreme devotion if she became permanently disabled? How would we love her? How would she love us? Would her extraordinary ability to create and inhabit digital worlds be enough? Or do we need her body, her flesh, her ligaments and tendons and hip sockets?

So yes, I’m giving up Lady Gaga for Lent. But not because I’m pious. I wouldn’t have chosen this had it not been forced on me. Against my will, I have to live with a desire that will go unfulfilled – the desire to see her flesh, to follow the movements of her body with my own eyes, to hear her scream and sing and preach with my own ears, to breathe the air of a shared space, to experience the energy and love of a shared moment. And I mourn that loss.

I’ve seen her in the flesh before. At the Monster Ball two years ago. It was then that I really saw and encountered her for the first time. My love for Gaga was birthed in the flesh, in the deeply bodily and erotic experience of seeing her live. There are those who love Gaga but have never seen her live. I’m not sure I would love her if I hadn’t been around her flesh. Or at least my love would be very different. Probably less visceral. Less obsessive. Less personally transformative. Seeing Gaga’s flesh made such an impact on me that I had to transform my own flesh in response. The Halloween following the Monster Ball, I dressed up in Lady Gaga drag. It wasn’t just a costume. Her flesh had touched my flesh in such a way that my flesh had in someway become her flesh. I am Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is me.

I purchased tickets for the Born This Way Ball that was supposed to take place in Nasvhille on March 10. I probably paid too much for them. I was late to work on the day I bought the tickets because I was hovering over my computer to buy them the instant they went on sale. I canceled a church service I lead on Sunday evenings so I could get my religion that evening from Gaga instead. But now March 10 sits on my calendar like any other date. Regular, nothing special, no longer a holy-day as it had been for several months.

This is, I suppose, what Lent is supposed to be about – letting those things die that we cherish and cling to most passionately, even and especially those things that give us our deepest sense of identity. It is a time to remember that nothing survives, that our lives are vapor, here today, gone tomorrow. The idea, however, is not to induce shame or despair about our lives or our passions. To remember that you and I and all the world are dust, are nothing, is precisely the way into passion, into life. The promise of Lent is that when you give up everything, every attempt to secure your life, it will all be returned to you – just not as a possession, but rather as a gift, one you can neither anticipate nor control. To live life in openness to the world as gift is to exist precariously, but also passionately, on the edge of glory.

So I have to give up Lady Gaga. I have to let the Born This Way Ball return to dust. But this is not because I no longer love her and desire her flesh. I do. But I have to let it be flesh. Is this not the lesson Gaga has been teaching us all along? That identity is not stable but exists in a continual moment of birth, death, and re-birth? That pain, loss, tears, and blood are the stuff of life? Perhaps from the beginning she has been teaching us to die – so that we might be reborn. Now we have to let her do it.

None of this is to lessen the sorrow of Gaga’s tour being canceled. For me, that sorrow is very real. More so because I hadn’t planned on experiencing the Born This Way Ball alone. Part of what I love about Lady Gaga is the way she has connected me to other people. One of those people is Zoë, the nine-year-old daughter of my best friend. We were planning on attending the Born This Way Ball together. Zoë and I share a passionate love of Lady Gaga. We have matching Lady Gaga lunch boxes. We have frequent conversations about our favorite Lady Gaga songs and what we would say to her if we ever got to meet her –  Zoë says she would say, “You are so punk!!” She adored seeing me in Gaga drag. I am Zoë’s guitar teacher, and without fail every lesson ends with an extended wandering around YouTube looking for the latest Lady Gaga videos. Zoë says sometimes that the thing she wants most in life is to meet Lady Gaga. When I texted my friend and told him that the tour had been cancelled, his first response was, “Zoë is going to be pissed!” He tells me that when he gave her the news, she collapsed into a heap on the floor and just wept.  

My heart is broken for Zoë. I wanted so much for her to see Lady Gaga live. I wanted so much to see Lady Gaga live with her. But that won’t happen, at least for now. I couldn’t just let our shared sadness go unaddressed, I felt like I needed to do something to step into the void left by Gaga’s absence. So I drew a picture for her. I gave it to her when I went to watch her last basketball of the season, a game her team lost, which also caused her a great deal of distress. When I gave it to her, I said, “Zoë, this is a gift for you. I drew it because I know both you and I are sad about not being able to see Lady Gaga. I hope we’ll get to see her together someday.” I know that my drawing won’t make up for the disappointment over the canceled tour, or even the lost basketball game. But it is a gift of my flesh to hers. I hope she holds on to it. I hope somehow it becomes a reminder to her that it is ok to be made of flesh.

Author Bio:
Peter Kline is a PhD student in Theology and Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His chapter in the forthcoming Gaga Stigmata book is titled, "Jesus in Drag: A Prayer." 


By Devin O’Neill
(A companion piece to Peter Kline's "Things Fall Apart." In honor of the Born This Way Ball.)

I wasn’t expecting much from The Ball, to be honest.

I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I was expecting to have a blast, but I’d been so immersed in Gaga’s visual and aural catalogue that I felt nothing could compete with that kind of hypersensory flow. The digital mirrors and semiotic smoke she blows out through her online content channels can be edited into wholly self-contained worlds. No mistakes, just her perfect vision. That’s the glory of twenty takes.

I’ve always felt Gaga’s primary vehicle were her videos, really. She’s an audiovisual package, and so are they. They can frame her narrative in rapidly shifting formats, now living a mythology, now breaking the fourth wall, now surrounded by special effects. I was deeply skeptical that a show constructed in clumsy material reality could match that frame-rate, could pummel me with the same razor precision. So I was looking forward to some really solid live music and some great costumes and choreography, and I wanted to dance a lot and have a good time. I was psychologically prepared for that.

The part I forgot was that Gaga would actually BE there.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I had deluded myself into believing that the point of going would be to see the SHOW. In other words, to see Gaga’s work. I was making the mistake of looking at all this as a traditional “art project”, where a creative person builds a product external to themselves and shows it off. Since she and her work and the production of her work were all rolled into one multimedia package in her videos, I had taken for granted that interacting with external product was, as in most cases of mediation, the core of the Gaga experience. I was to View The Works. I was to Sample The Dish.

What I discovered that night is that that is not the point of Gaga.

The only experience I could effectively compare the show with was a massive evangelical rally at a megachurch. The people crammed into the pit with me weren’t there to listen to music; nothing quite so simple or banal. They were there to participate in a movement, to experience an ideology. “I hope she talks to us.” “I love her so much.” “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” “I’m going to cry.” That was the kind of language I was hearing. I didn’t hear a single hint of speculation about what the show was going to contain or what songs were going to be played. I’ve been to many, many concerts, but this was an alien environment for me.

No, it wasn’t about a movement or an ideology. That’s not quite right.

The pounding military march of “Highway Unicorn” started, the portcullis of the castle (yes, the castle) clanked open, and a glossy black cyberpunk regiment of gorgeous girls, glinting halberds held high, led her on a stomping plod around the catwalk on horseback (yes, a real horse) like an advancing beast from the Book of Revelations.

She was crusted in wires and cages vomited up from the antediluvian bowels of H.R. Giger’s subconscious but it was still her. She was bound and blindfolded and subjugated by an army of dancers but it was still her. She could barely move but she commanded the attention of every human being in the jam-packed Staples Center.

It was starting to become clear to me. But I needed to see more.

After the electric demons dragged her into the dungeon, the operatic strains of “Government Hooker” started echoing across the ceiling. The wall slammed open, and here she crouched, skeletal armor still in place, screaming HOOKER into the microphone implanted on her face. She crawled out like an animal, gyrating, sweating, screaming. At some point during all this, her helmet was ripped off, or she ripped it off. She threw back her head and roared, and I stared into her face across the open air for the first time, and I finally got it.

I was discussing Gaga with a friend once. This friend has a television show and has worked in the technology and culture industries in various capacities for a very long time. I mentioned that I was interested in her and he was momentarily quiet. Then he said, “you know, I didn’t take her that seriously at first. I thought she was just another Madonna, or Christina Aguilera, or whatever. But then I watched her performance on Howard Stern. Have you seen it?” I had, just her alone with her piano, singing “The Edge of Glory.” He paused for a moment, then said “…there’s a dragon in there.”

I watched the veins in her throat as she screamed HOOKER at the sky again and I thought, yeah, there really is.

It’s HER. That’s why we make the pilgrimage to this massive stadium and camp out in line for an entire day. It’s not the sets or the pyrotechnics or the confetti cannons or the costumes or even the movement or the ideology. We want to be close to her, to touch the hem of her garment. We live in the economy of personality, where produced media experiences are just loss-leaders for the real sale – the sale of the self, uninterrupted by the compression of digital bandwidth.

The thing is, not everybody can place themselves at the center of that vast entertainment infrastructure and act as its reactor core. Most people would be buried. You need somebody with fire in their belly. You need a dragon. And that’s what I started to realize, as I watched her – no matter how insane the spectacle that surrounds Gaga, she has our eyes, our love. There could be an ACTUAL fifty-foot dragon on the stage and everyone’s gaze would be locked on her small, human body, pounding on the stage and roaring and pouring sweat. So many people would be lost up there, among the trained, costumed dancers and massive set-pieces. But she burns so brightly, and so fiercely, that we barely see them.

She knows it, too, and she knows how the system works. She built it. Right before the chanting bridge in “Bloody Mary,” she dropped to her knees in the center of the stage, stretched her slick arms out toward the audience with hands twisted into claws, and shrieked, begged, “SAY MY NAME! I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THE FAME!” We obliged her, intoning GAGA…GAGA…along with the song, while she convulsed, absorbing the energy we fed her. This was a transactional relationship.

It goes both ways, though. That was the real message she was there to preach. Because between every song, she preached to us. She said things like “listen – sometimes you’re afraid. You stop yourself because of your fear. You’re afraid of what will happen if you pull out all the stops. Well, I’m here to show you what happens. THIS…” …she gestures at the surrounding spectacle, sweeping her hands back in to gesture at her own body… “…is what happens.”

This kind of rhetoric was repeated between every song. Sometimes she pleaded through her quiet, sibilant Italian nose, sometimes she crouched on the catwalk and yelled it directly into our faces. DON’T GIVE UP. DON’T BE AFRAID. DON’T LISTEN TO THEM WHEN THEY TELL YOU YOU CAN’T DO IT.

She’s an evangelist for believing in yourself. After all, Stefani believed in herself, and that’s where Lady Gaga came from.

Now, however, Gaga’s body is temporarily broken, the engine’s piston overheated; it can’t channel the fire right now. This is evidence, if we needed it: she really is the point. Without her, everyone on that tour is out of work. The entire massive multimillion-dollar machine must grind to a halt because one person injured her hip.

This is evidence too, though, of the truth of her message. We are bodies too, and we have such a small, limited idea of what those bodies can do, of the energy that can come from them, and of where that energy can take us.

Perhaps Joanna Newsom put it best:

“The meteorite is the source of the light,
And the meteor’s just what we see –
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee,

And the meteorite’s just what causes the light,
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived –
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.”

Author Bio:
Devin O’Neill is a performance artist, branding practitioner, and storyteller. He enjoys things he shouldn't, on purpose, and tries to convince other people to enjoy them too.