By Laurence Ross and Meghan Vicks
The voice is one akin to the automated airline intercom telling you to secure the mask to your face and breathe normally in order to begin the flow of oxygen. “Thank you for your cooperation during this pop music emergency,” she posts.
This voice is admittedly calmer than the one a mere seven hours before: “A POP MUSIC EMERGENCY IS UNDERWAY 911,” and “911 SUMMON THE MONSTER TROUPES.” Or her post on Saturday: “Wanna grab some shovels and fuck up some hackers?”
Applause: (from the Latin applaudere, to strike upon, clap), primarily the expression of approval by clapping of hands; generally any expression of approval.
What exactly is a state of emergency, let alone a “pop music emergency”?
A state of emergency is a period when the exception to the rule takes over – the state of exception. Normal order is suspended, and what is usually outlawed takes control precisely in order to save the system that is under attack or corrupted, that is under unbearable tension or friction. It turns out (as it often does) that the system is dependent upon that which it normally excludes, outlaws, taboos.
Lady Gaga announces a state of emergency on 12 August 2013, and there emerges “Applause,” accompanied by the jester Gaga-Pierrot. “Applause” and Gaga-Pierrot are thus positioned as the exception to the rule that has come to rule, as the exclusion-from-the-system that is necessary to restore the system, as the outlaw that has come to save us from a corrupted rule.
The questions arise: what is this system that we need saving from? What has caused this state of emergency?
The custom of applauding is doubtless as old and as widespread as humanity, and the variety of its forms is limited only by the capacity for devising means of making a noise. Among civilized nations, however, it has at various times been subject to certain conventions.
Of course, this is a “pop music emergency.” Applause aside, pop music does seem to be in a state of emergency at the moment. There seems to be a crisis mounting that, however overblown it might seem to those on the outskirts of the skirmish, is bleeding across territories (take Jay-Z at the PACE gallery for example). Gaga emerges from the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles looking like the victim of a mugging in her Pierrot make-up and, indeed, harassment has occurred.
Pop music seems an easy target for criticism, if criticism’s aim is to take aim, to fire upon, to maim or kill. Because the nature of pop culture is to be of the moment, there seems to be the assumption that the products of pop culture are disposable, are garbage, are waste. Perhaps people believe pop music can’t be “good” music because the assumption is that the artist isn’t really an artist, that the artist does not really exist, that there is no such thing as a pop music artist – the songs, the albums, the images, the music videos are the products of teams, of managers, of producers, of marketers. And a product intended for (mass) consumption. Perhaps people believe this type of product is necessarily “bad,” is rotten before it even hits the shelves.
In truth, the conversations of what is “good” and what is “bad” are tiring. Gaga seems weary of such criticisms and conversations well, with the makeup of “Applause” hacked and leaked across the Internet, her make-up in smears amidst her sheets. #StopTheDramaStartTheMusic And if the critic is trying to play the judge, to moderate what is worth listening to and what is not, to parse out what deserves our attention and what does not, then the critic’s gavel is one made out of crystal – an object precious to some, pretty to others, and petty to others still, but an object that shatters regardless if used to bash. Is the critic’s role to silence some and let others speak? We hope not. We are far more interested in seeing what reflects in/on the work than naming the work as “good” or “bad”; we are far more interested in seeing how the various surfaces of pop culture lean against one another, intersect; we are far more interested in the pattern of light pop music – or any other cultural spectacle – makes on the wall when we hold the gavel just so.
Thus the Romans had a set ritual of applause for public performances, expressing degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the flat or hollow palm, waving the flap of the toga.
So into this pop music emergency “Applause” emerges, hand in hand with the jester Gaga-Pierrot – the latest incarnation of Gaga’s trickster, which is abundantly fitting as tricksters, by their very nature, are exclusions from systems, exceptions to the rules, border breakers, outcasts, outlaws, out-of-bounds, outside. Gaga-Pierrot and “Applause” are the antidote to the poison that has made a culture of dull, unimaginative, and elitist naysayers, whose knee-jerk reaction to any manifestation of pop culture (especially pop music, celebrity, and reality-TV culture) is to sneer and snub, to tear down, to urgently and stridently shriek THAT’S NOT ART, to proclaim creative risks as “fame whoring,” to constantly publish articles that literally say no more than here’s another celebrity failing at art, to hiss Lady Gaga is a joke! In their scorn, they don’t realize how right they are.
Gaga turns the joke, the joker, the jester Pierrot whose new theme song is “Applause,” into that which will rescue us from this pop music emergency. After all, a joke is intended to break a strain, a tension; Schiller defines comedy as something that inspires “freedom of the soul”; and Kant insists on the therapeutic nature of laughter – the “sudden emotion arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” And, perhaps, in the face of strained expectation, in the face of “what will she do next,” in the face of the “Lady No More Gaga” headlines she has predicted since “Paparazzi,” Gaga paints her face white, simultaneously the visible absence of color and the base of all color, so that sudden emotions of color may arise. The figure of the jester Pierrot allows Gaga to say, You dismissed me as a joke again and again; now I’ve come to save you precisely as the joke you dismissed.
When Christianity became fashionable the customs of the theatre were transferred to the churches.
Gaga-Pierrot doesn’t rescue with reasoned argument (she’s not interested in the critic’s “right or wrong” – this kind of question has become banal and meaningless), but with song and bodied performance. The lyrics of “Applause” make bodily demands of its listeners – as Roland points out, the lyrics guide listeners through movements (“put your hands up, make em touch,” “make it real loud”) that ultimately generate a ritual coming together of community. The song takes on flesh as the audience applauds – indeed the song is left hanging, incomplete without the audience’s applause just as Gaga-Pierrot lives and loves for the applause, and means nothing without it. But it’s not just the song “Applause” and the jester Gaga-Pierrot that come to life in this ritual: we, the spectators, the citizens of pop culture, are born this way too. This audience participation has been part of her act from the very beginning, when we are not so much asked but told to just dance. Gaga and audience are continually in a give-and-give relationship: we sing to one another: “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me.”
One of the main rules that Gaga-Pierrot breaks to bring us together is the notion that coming together requires a physical proximity. Instead, she builds community upon 0s and 1s, across the Internet’s constellations, via digital profiles and online presences. “Send us your videos of you and your friends dancing at school [...] AT HOME IS OK TOO [...] WORK IS ALSO FINE,” she commands, and later: “Let me see your #APPLAUSECoverSelfie !” And the citizens respond, in droves:
Now the image of Gaga-Pierrot has gone viral in a worldwide digital drag performance. Now “Applause” has taken flesh and form and movement infinitely across the world. We’re reminded of something Devin O’Neill wrote after first seeing Gaga’s commercial for Google Chrome: “You can call it crass commercialism, but I can wander around my neighborhood and go days without experiencing the kind of humanity she communicated through that television commercial.” There is real humanity emerging via the workings of Gaga-Pierrot and “Applause.” And the community of monsters has shifted into a community of clowns, jesters, jokers, tricksters.
Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. vii. 30) says that Paul of Samosata encouraged the congregation to applaud his preaching by waving linen cloths, and in the 4th and 5th centuries applause of the rhetoric of popular preachers had become an established custom.
When the white flag is waved, the emergency has ended, or at the very least is ebbing. The idea of the white flag is the idea that it is time to resolve, to reconcile, to construct something new out of the opposing sides. There is something about the coming together, the joining of hands and the clapping of hands that is sacramental, a communal act, a spiritual communion. Synchronized movement is sacrament.
Here, Gaga’s embodiment of the jester Pierrot partakes in the mythology of the fool in its various manifestations: not only the sad clown Pierrot, but also the holy fools of the Russian tradition (юродивый, yurodiviy), and the wise fools of Shakespeare. Pierrot is often the fool who is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but who nevertheless remains trusting of others. Likewise, the Russian holy fool creates a spectacle of degradation and debasement that invites the criticism of others, which allows him to draw attention to the world’s own debasement and pray for those who abuse him. Shakespeare’s fools are objectified sources of laughter, so far outside the cultural (and critical) norms as to be shrugged off as innocuous (if incessantly speaking) dolts. And it is precisely the role of the fool, of being viewed as a less-than species to ignore, that allows them to get away with murder/a murderous truth, to speak with the most meaning. However, in order to comprehend these truths, these realities, the audience must be able to trust in the fool, to be open and available to hear the words that are so plainly spoken. In all three manifestations of the fool, these figures are not destroyed by criticism; rather, they turn criticism into something beautiful: faith in humanity despite its endless taunting (Pierrot), salvation (holy fool), and enlightenment (Shakespeare’s fools). Gaga as the fool gives us all three and waits/lives for our return action – to keep the relationship going, echoing back and forth. She sings so that we may sing so that she may sing; we applaud so that she may applaud so that we may applaud.
I live for the Applause, plause.
I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong.
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He formerly served as the Creative Nonfiction Editor for the Black Warrior Review and now lives in New Orleans where he writes for Pelican Bomb, a regional publication dedicated to the Louisiana arts community. He is currently at work on a book-length project concerning the lives and deaths of our cultural spectacles/specters.