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Saturday, August 24, 2013

#throwback – Lady Gaga’s Disease: Jo Calderone and the Pathology of the Image’s Virulent Body


By Roland Betancourt

Note: This essay was presented at the Northeastern Popular Culture Association’s Annual Conference at Western Connecticut State University on 12 November 2011. This paper – which addresses the crucial aspects of image virality, Jo Calderone, and Pierrot – has not been altered in any fashion since it was written back in 2011. The original draft from which this derived was written before the “You and I” video and before Jo Calderone’s manifestation at the 2011 VMA; as such this essay bears witness to the coherent unfolding of Lady Gaga’s project over these subsequent years in a salient manner – particularly given the role that the figure of Pierrot played within this very argument, a figure who has recently come to the forefront of Gaga’s work in “Applause.”

The image comparison has been a central feature in the way art historians understand and study images. Since the inception of slide projectors at the end of the nineteenth century, the slide lecture with its side-by-side image comparisons became the standard format of the art historical presentation. By its very format, this lecture type served as a model of and model for the foundations of art history as a formalist, scientific, and connoisseurial discipline. While relatively liberated from this model by virtue of the more flexible formats offered by digital slideshows, slide comparisons are still the norm in most university surveys and exams. This art historical visuality of close, comparative looking is tied to notions of scientific study and investigation drawing from the discipline’s foundation in the connoisseurial museum. For the connoisseur, the images in one’s repertoire are replete with their own bundle of metadata that structures a system of constant comparisons for two basic judgments: value and authenticity. By looking at the minor features of works of art, early-twentieth century connoisseurs like Giovanni Morelli and Bernard Berenson focused on hands, noses, ears, and other minutia to determine the hand of the artist and make attributions.

Lady Gaga’s images often find themselves subject to this visuality. Countless examples on YouTube, stage the popular Madonna “vs.” Gaga discussion through the sequential or even side-by-side comparison of clips and images. These are not innocent comparisons, but rather speak to the longstanding discussion regarding Gaga’s authorship, originality, skill, and merit. Therefore, in a popular cultural milieu in which the image is central, the slide comparison is used as the primary mode in structuring an argument about Gaga’s work. Through close visual analysis it becomes self-evident what the parallels and contrasts are between any two images and thus a series of value judgments are expected to emerge based on what are staged as shared criteria for evaluating contemporary pop-culture. For example, nearly without fail, the YouTube video comparisons are accompanied with a statement by the compiler that seeks to discredit Gaga’s work through a criticism regarding “originality” and “copying.” Thus, one finds a convergent methodology between early-twentieth century art connoisseurs and contemporary pop-culture connoisseurs.


In the last week of June 2010, culture bloggers were conducting similar research into the images of a new model for Vogue Hommes Japan, shot by photographer Nick Knight, with whom Lady Gaga has previously worked, and Nicola Formichetti, Gaga’s stylist. The images first appeared on Formichetti’s blog on June 25th 2010, but it was not until June 29th, when close-ups were posted, that the images began to draw attention. The photos of Jo Calderone, a new Italian model from Palermo, Sicily, looked suspiciously like Lady Gaga. Perez Hilton tweeted extensively on the images, yet he did not cover the story or the rumors on his popular blog. Interestingly, he referred to Calderone as his “husband,” a parallel to his usual citation of Gaga as his “wife.” The entire release of the images was a well-staged work in its own right, just as the alleged leak of Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video on PerezHilton.com back in 2009.



As if following the regiments of connoisseurship set out by Morelli and Berenson, bloggers scrutinized Jo Calderone’s image by looking carefully at the nose, eyes, hands, and profile in order to find the unconscious slips of the artist’s defining features. It was Morelli and Berenson’s belief that these minor parts of the body, given their relative unimportance in the whole of the painting, revealed the innate style of even the most skilled master. By comparing these details to other images of Lady Gaga, journalists and bloggers alike produced formal, side-by-side comparisons in order to argue that Jo Calderone was indeed Lady Gaga.

It would seem at first that there is a difference between the object of the art connoisseur and the journalists analyzing Calderone’s image. This difference resides precisely in the possessive of the latter statement: Calderone’s image. While the connoisseur studies the treatment of materials used to construct a painting in order to identity the artist, the journalists used the image as a document to identify its sitter. For this reason, the Calderone image is best conceived as an image of an image, a representation proper of a painting. The painting, which is under scrutiny, is not the image itself, but rather the body it re-presents, the body of Calderone. Thus, the Calderone image is semiotically an order removed from the object studied. The connoisseur studies the paint on canvas to judge the painting itself and to identify its author, which is indexically one-step removed from that object. The body of Calderone is the concern here, not the material of the photograph itself; thus the artist’s body is equated in this process with the corpus of her work.


Gaga’s artistic style is linked in part to this image, as is the case with all connoisseurship. Every time a new, groundbreaking attribution is made to a famous artist, the canon that defines how the discipline understands said artist is changed. Thenceforth, this corpus determines the categories by which further images may be analyzed and attributed to her hand, workshop, and influence. As such, the artist’s definition through her objects is caught in a perpetual tautological cycle, whereby the objects of the physical artist constitute the very body of the historical artist. Jo Calderone demands that the image be engaged with in the terms of traditional art history; it demands close observation, careful analysis, comparison, and so on.

Gaga made art connoisseurs out of even the most distracted spectators. In a culture of massive image sharing, the Calderone image caused viewers to stop and contemplate the image. In an effort to restore the transparency of the signifier, to resolve the puzzling, uncanny image, the viewer is forced into using a particular visuality as the technology for comprehending our otherwise ready-made image-world. This process was achieved through the seemingly unscripted release of the images, which lacked any cohesive narrative or interpretive schema in which the image could have been readily understood. Through this response, Gaga is engaged by viewers via this image as an image herself. The body of Gaga is therefore inseparable from the body of the image. This body may be in its nature that of Lady Gaga, but it presents another form foreign to her, that of Jo Calderone. In this regard, the body of Gaga is not merely the image itself, but the topography in/on which images are formed. In crafting her body into that of Calderone, Gaga continues in a long trajectory of visual production in which her body is the matrix in which the image may (re)produce.


One could call her body the prototypical canvas, that spatial grid upon which images are grafted. In analyzing the representation through photography of the stock-character Pierrot by the French photographer Félix Nadar, Rosalind Krauss focuses on the question of the photographic medium as being capable of capturing the indexical trace of its image. In analyzing the figure of Pierrot, Krauss suggests that the mime’s white clothing echoes the photographic medium in its ability to capture the traces of light like the camera to which he points. In Nadar’s image, the focus is on the trace, on the power of the photograph to capture, by the physical contact of light, the objects that it represents. The notion of the trace, crucial to the nineteenth century’s conceptualization of the photograph, has been supplanted today by a cultural logic of a viral image economy.


Unlike Krauss’s Pierrot whose body captures the projected indexicality of the shadow, Gaga’s image economy presents a body from whose flesh the image is incarnated. This is an economy focusing on a definition of mimesis that is not based on imitation, but rather on manifestation. In this proposed model for our contemporary image, the form of the image is the digital code, the computer is its flesh, and from this combination of code and flesh emerges the “image.” Therefore, this figurative and literal body becomes the unseen nexus of investigation – since after the viral image invades the body, the body fades in service of the faithful representation of the image through it.

Recently, touching upon similar issues, W.J.T. Mitchell’s exemplary work, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, argues for a parallel structure in the fear of cloning to the viral distribution of the contemporary image of terrorism. Mitchell’s work investigates the clone and its processes of reproduction, considering issues such as the “biopicture” and its politics. After September 11, Jacques Derrida paralleled terrorism to an “autoimmune disorder,” whereby the body’s own defenses attack itself. Derrida’s comments focus on the crippling panic over terrorism in the wake of September 11 as a Cold War aftermath through a bodily metaphor, but as Mitchell observes, this was also joined in practice by a fear of biological warfare with the Anthrax scares. Thus, these authors understand the image through its virology; here I instead wish to consider the pathology, the study of the virus’ effects and sufferings on the body.

Through the performance of a comparative anatomy of Gaga and Calderone’s image, one has begun to undertake this very pathological study. The collusion between Calderone’s image and Gaga’s body echoes the very economy of the viral image, whereby Calderone as a concept partakes of Gaga’s body in order to be incarnated. By virtue of the secrecy and hype in which the image was released, however, one cannot simply understand Jo Calderone as another persona created by Gaga, but rather as a terminus of sorts, a capstone and synthesis in a longstanding discourse on Gaga’s body and its image virality. In the interview accompanying the images in Vogue Hommes Japan, Jo Calderone is asked, “How would you describe what you do/your occupation?” He replies, “Mechanic for my dad’s business. This is the first time I’ve had my picture taken.” While staging him as a naïve ingénue from Palermo, this statement also circumscribes Jo Calderone, image and model, into a discourse on the being of an image. He exists as a mechanic, one who fixes technology and allows it to continue operating, yet at the same time he has shockingly never been photographed, a statement difficult to believe in today’s world.

Furthermore, Gaga and Calderone’s relationship begins in the space of the photo shoot. Anxious about his first image about to be produced, Gaga comforts him by saying, “you were ‘born this way.” Born This Way, the title of Gaga’s 2011 album, is Gaga’s consolation and the mantra by which he comes to define himself by the end of the interview. Staged as a naïve and amateur exchange, the antecedent of the relative pronoun, “this,” suggests that she is comforting him regarding his appearance perhaps, but the statement does not quite make sense. In the context of the interview’s text, the antecedent of “this” is more strictly suggested to be the shoot itself, precisely “to start shooting.” One should take “this way” adverbially to mean: You were born in this manner. Gaga’s quoted comment does not console Jo Calderone; instead it cites him for what he is: his own birth, his creation, is the photo shoot itself, his induction into the viral image economy.



I wish to turn now to the crucial question in this analysis: how does one prepare the body to partake in the viral economy? Gaga’s early music videos, primarily “Love Game” and “Poker Face,” feature prominent amounts of citation in which Gaga appears as various pop-stars – such as Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani. Her image is caught in an infinitely uncontrolled state of re-production that cites her desire to exist as one partaking of the Fame. The Monster is a viral entity, transforming her and itself from The Fame to The Fame Monster. Nevertheless, it was not until the “Bad Romance” music video that the Monster found its foundational argument.


What little narrative is offered by the video depicts the progression of an (at-first) virginal, doll-like Gaga, clad in latex, through a process of prostitution that concludes with a fiery consummation and her formation into the image of the late Amy Winehouse.


As the music video begins, the viewer is confronted by a series of coffin-like sensory-deprivation pods, with the center one bearing the name “Monster” and a crucifix. The action of the scene begins as a beam of light trails across the pods and hits a frame on the wall that echoes its shape. The imagery harkens to popular archaeologically themed movies, from Indiana Jones to The Mummy, where the alignment of sunlight and architectural features in an Ancient Egyptian tomb, for example, open a corridor to a treasure or demon. There is a distinct tomblike tone to the whole scene.


Upon this solar alignment, Gaga and her dancers emerge from their pods in a reptilian manner with contorted gestures and choreography. The hand gestures, which riff on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance, would become the gesture known as the “Monster paw,” which Gaga and her “Little Monsters” produce as a sign of community and solidarity. The “Monster”-pod in the center bears forth the body of Lady Gaga, while her backup dancers, also clad in white, emerge from the surrounding pods. The costumes cover their faces: the backup dancers have only eyeholes cutout in their masks, while Gaga only has an opening for her mouth. The singer is given the power of speech, while the dancers are given the power of sight – as if there is a sensory manifestation of their respective roles in their costumes. Nevertheless, this power is only schematic as the costumes provide the viewer only with a white, headless body that seems to recall again Rosalind Krauss’s discussion of Pierrot’s white garb. This protoplastic “Monster” exists as a grid, a space of transposition and projection.


There are three distinct phases in the music video: virginity, auctioning, and consummation. In the first phase, Gaga is depicted in a bathtub, plugged into headphones, with an appearance reminiscent of contemporary Japanese dolls with large-circular eyes and pinkish hair, clad in latex. Throughout this first section, the dance sequences are undertaken by the clone-like white monsters. Following this, Gaga is pulled out of the bathtub, stripped of her latex cladding, and force-fed what is assumed to be vodka.


At this point, her dancers and Gaga are revealed, still wearing white, but with open faces and covered in jewelry. Gaga is wearing a brown coat with sexual terms written across it, which is forcefully removed by her dancers before a group of male bidders who use Wii Nunchuks to place their bids. The dancers remain the same until the final phase of the video, where Gaga approaches the winning bidder who awaits her lustfully on a bed.


Now, the dancers are clad in red, lacey body suits. The dance sequences parallel the progress of the harlot in the video.


In “Bad Romance,” the innocent Gaga is stripped of her protective covering, sold for sexual favors, and consummates that exchange with the death of her suitor in the flames of passion. The white, palimpsest body of the dancers is equated to virginity, the revelation of their faces to the auction process, and the red lace to sexual consummation.


Quite notably, unlike in “Poker Face” or “Love Game,” Gaga never takes on the guise of another artist except in the final image of Amy Winehouse. The virginal Gaga is not allowed to partake in a viral image economy. While being plugged into headphones and subjected to the gaze of an audience of men, her image does not emulate anyone in particular; she merely exists as a protoplastic blank space – a headless creature, or a generic doll. Only after her consumption in the literal flames of passion can she become the image of Amy Winehouse. Crucial to understanding this video is her latex costume when she is depicted as a virgin.


When Gaga appeared on Good Morning America on behalf of MAC’s Viva Glam campaign on 17 February 2011 wearing latex, she said, “…today was a latex condom inspired outfit because we had to talk about safe sex.” Utilizing a similar color palette and material to that seen in “Bad Romance,” the statement confirmed the importance of the imagery of virgin-Gaga being stripped of her latex sheath. The rehab-resisting Winehouse (a signal of promiscuity and drug-use) toward which Gaga is being propelled, cannot be embodied in Gaga until Gaga’s body is primed as a receptacle for images. Gaga’s capability for embodying an image does not rely on a mere sexual encounter, but rather from an acquired virality.


“Bad Romance” is the first time the viewer is allowed into the Haus of Gaga, yet it is staged as the “BATH HAUS of GaGa.” The Bathhouse, infamously the site of the proliferation of HIV/AIDS in the gay community, is the space of Gaga’s creative Factory from which her images are produced. The entire video occurs in the circumscribed space of the bathhouse. The video parallels Gaga’s own ability to take on the image of another with a presumably unprotected sexual act. The song stresses this crucial element in stating that Gaga wants “your disease.” This disease is the incubating “Monster.” Our contemporary image may be viral, but the body has its own immunity to viral strands. The image may exist in technology, but that hardware must first have the operating system that allows for it to partake in a network and manifest the image. Thus, the body and the technology must be primed for virality; they must somehow be purged of their defenses in order allow for the incarnation of the image. Derrida was right to observe that within this conceptual currency of the viral autoimmunity plays a crucial role; however, in the realm of pop-culture, unlike that of terror, it is not an autoimmune disorder that afflicts this body, but an autoimmune deficiency syndrome. In this nexus of metaphorical thinking, the virology and pathology of the image are intimately connected to the AIDS virus; it is through it that Gaga may prepare her body as a site of viral reproduction. “Bad Romance,” precisely posits a sexualized, AIDS-equivalent pathology for the image, utilizing Gaga’s body as the hardware.


In music videos, the body of women and gay men are often seen in infinite multiples, while the heterosexual male is afforded a level of monolithic stability. Kanye’s music videos, for example, often depict the singer statically; even changes between shots or scenes still give a sense of the artist remaining in place, unmoved, just obscured temporarily – images move around him, rather than the opposite.



On the contrary, in Beyoncé’s “Video Phone” featuring Lady Gaga, Beyoncé’s image flickers endlessly in multiple triplicates when she is most highly sexualized. Likewise, gay men in popular viral spoofs – such as Ryan James Yezak’s cover of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” entitled “California Gays” – are seen as interchangeable images. Throughout the video, the choreography progresses with the dancers rapidly alternating positions or finishing off each other’s movements through seamless cuts. The female and gay male bodies equally partake in a limitless viral economy, while heterosexual male icons are static, fixed, and unique.

In her 2010 Video Music Awards acceptance speech for Best Female Video for “Bad Romance,” Gaga thanked precisely “all the gays who remade this video over and over again.” Even in the role of image-makers, “the gays” were articulated by Gaga as a source of viral and unmitigated reproduction. The female body, itself reproductively associated with the possibility of bearing forth an image, is thus united to the viral gay body in this metaphoric image economy – a subject beyond the scope of this paper.


While Gaga’s various embodiments have depicted a wide variety of female superstars, her body has never partaken of a male image, except, of course, as Jo Calderone. The Calderone shoot and its accompanying interview serve as an early propaganda blitz for Born This Way, given that the phrase appears throughout the one-page interview multiple times. Thus, the question must be asked: Why was Jo Calderone a heterosexual male, who speaks of wanting to find a hot blonde and owning muscle cars? Quite simply: because it was the only manner in which Gaga could produce an image that would not be subject to an uncircumscribable virality.

In the process of incarnating and bearing forth Jo Calderone, Gaga manifests an image that is in itself, as an image, liberated from the endless virality to which her female and gay-male counterparts are subjected. In one image from Vogue, Calderone is depicted carrying a large pipe, to which Perez Hilton commented that his “husband” was well endowed. In another image, he is depicted looking into a Duchampian urinal. The images and their iconographies articulate his masculinity – precisely in the plumbing.

The body of Jo Calderone has three natures: Gaga, Calderone, and Stefani Germanotta, but only two persons: Lady Gaga and Jo Calderone. In contemplating the image of Jo Calderone, Gaga is revealed as both the producer and the one reproduced. However, upon closer analysis, one comes to understand that in the end there is merely one person in the image. Through the process of contemplation and analysis one compares images of Lady Gaga and Jo Calderone to see the physical evidence: the nose, the ears, the lips, and the chin of Stefani Germanotta. Through the process of comparison, one may find the artistic intentionality of Gaga as a looming presence, but it is the flesh of Stefani Germanotta with which one is confronted. Through the process of close-looking and analysis, the image of both figures take on the order of separation from the artist as that shared between a painting and its painter. Both Gaga and Calderone have common features, which Stefani Germanotta shares.

This is not to suggest the heretical notion that Lady Gaga herself has two natures and two persons – aka: a division between Stefani and Gaga – since she has made it explicitly clear that this is not the case. Instead, what one encounters is the protoplastic flesh of Stefani Germanotta as the virgin, doll-like Gaga in the Bath Haus, the undefiled flesh of the Virgin’s body. Jo Calderone becomes the most sincere image of Lady Gaga, not because in comparing their two images one is able to see beyond the alleged artifice of both, but because in seeing the common characteristics of both their union is stressed. In the display of this union, Lady Gaga, Jo Calderone, and Stefani Germanotta are each seen as mere images reproduced in hardware. As an artist, Germanotta has primed her body with an operating system that may display her high-definition image. As the “Born This Way” music video would come to argue: birth is not finite, it is infinite. Gaga equalizes identity to show the artifice of truth in each by presenting her body not as attached to an ingrained identity, contingent with the flesh, but the body as a medium for endless reproduction. In his stability afforded by music videos to a heterosexual male image, Jo Calderone forces us to confront the static image in order to see the hardware that underlies his very existence.

Author bio:
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University writing a dissertation entitled, “The Proleptic Image: An Investigation of the Medium in Byzantium.” In April 2012, he co-chaired a major symposium at Yale entitled Byzantium/Modernism on the mutually generative collision of Byzantium and ModernismIn addition to various other projects, he is currently editing a special volume of the journal postmedieval entitled, “Imagined Encounters: Historiographies for a New World,” which asks scholars to suspend disbelief and create cross-temporal analyses using artworks and theories from different historical spaces.

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