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Thursday, August 29, 2013

“Vast Emptiness”: a personal account of anxiety, Lady Gaga, and what happens when you don’t own cable.

By Sarah Cook
“In that opening shot Gaga seems to literally become the screen – and, as the camera pulls back, what was once the screen is revealed to be the performer on the stage. This blurring between the screen itself and the performer on the stage suggests a kind of transgression of the screen.” ~Meghan Vicks, from her and Eddie McCaffray’s initial discussion of Gaga’s VMA performance
I want to start by agreeing with Meghan’s observation – in fact, the longer the camera stayed right up against Gaga’s face, the more uncomfortable I felt. Was it just me? I became incredibly anxious for the camera to back away, and to see her body, the stage, the surroundings…

It didn’t help that MTV online was a bit tenuous throughout the VMA airtime, taking forever to post each performance (which was supposed to happen immediately after it occurred), and only offering a live-stream of alternative cameras: a couple backstage views, a view of the audience, a few different rooms, etc. For me, this became the most interesting part of the whole experience: I found myself anxiously searching various online sites for a chance to live-stream Gaga’s performance, and I clicked repeatedly through all the different live cameras that MTV offered, trying to see which one was the most promising at any given moment. It became a race to see Gaga live, or to at least figure out which source would allow me to see her performance the soonest.

But here’s where it got especially weird: once Gaga started performing and I had yet to find a live stream, I realized I could hear her faintly in the background from these random MTV cameras. Each camera had a slightly different volume of sound, but none of them were loud: so while the visual cues were completely absent, the echo of “Applause” in the background told me she was onstage at that moment. I clicked ever more rapidly to try and see what I was only slightly able to hear. I clicked over to something called the “Talent Lounge.” There, I saw a bar with the phrase “Good Vibrations” written along the front. There were three small TV screens hung up in various corners of the room – they looked about a half-inch big on my computer screen – setting a kind of sports bar vibe. I was about to click onto a different camera when I realized those three small TVs were all broadcasting Gaga’s performance: multiple Gagas, and yet they were all so tiny! And so, my first taste of Gaga as Gaga as Gaga was through computer through video through TV, all these layers of technology that gave me what I desired only by lining up just so.

I couldn’t make out any details except that it looked like she was dressed in all black. But when the performance ended, I clicked over to the offstage camera only to see that she was dressed as Venus, complete with the long flowing wig and clam shell bikini from her video. Then, amidst my still-frantic online searches, I came across an image advertising the performance, only this one showed her wearing the Telephone-era blonde wig. I began to think that she must have performed multiple times, or that perhaps there were many versions of Gaga running around onstage simultaneously. Maybe there were decoy Gagas trying to keep the audience in suspense as to which one was real.

When I finally watched the full performance, I was able to make sense of my “decoy Gaga” theory and realized that she had merely done something very similar to the music video itself: that is, she (re)created multiple personas for our rapid consumption. As Meghan and Eddie pointed out, a key difference is that Gaga wasn’t referencing historical, cultural images and tropes but was “dragging herself.” 

However, there is another crucial difference between this performance and the video, one that perhaps, as a part of the audience, we often forget: that is, that there was an audience.

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During her recent appearance on Good Morning America, Gaga spoke about the pain of not performing in front of thousands of people: how much she missed this component during her time of hip-injury and healing, how she cried during the video shoot for “Applause” when she thought about how much she missed her fans, how much she depends on them. If Gaga truly lives for her fans, then the presence of this live audience must allow her to bring her performances more fully to life: as she sings about living for the applause, she faces the real-life potential for such in the cheering hands before her.

This relationship between the dependent performer and her audience – like the jester whose purpose relies on there being people to witness her – inherently aids in Gaga’s creativity onstage, which included the creation of multiple personas. These various performances of herself quickly condensed and interrogated any kind of linear understanding of time: within a matter of moments, we had Born This Way Gaga, Fame-era Gaga, Telephone-era Gaga, and Venus/Aphrodite Gaga, as Meghan and Eddie clearly distinguished. In the music video, we see image after image, with individual screens separated by distinct cuts, shuffling through the different appearances and references; no matter how quickly the shuffling becomes, the images remain separate, the implication being that they aren’t simultaneously possible (we know Gaga had to dress up and then dress down and change multiple times into each outfit). Despite technology, there’s something clear about each version: there’s this Gaga, and this one, and that one over there, etc.

And yet somehow it’s not until she’s live on the stage where they became conflated for me, where she moved through them so quickly that I began to confuse one for the other, began to think that I’d pinned her down – there she is! – up until the moment where she’d transform once again. “Transformation as magic,” she said on GMA, that it’s her “obsession.” And so the real-life Gaga, the in-flesh performance, became multiple and recursive as opposed to strictly linear. She moved through different versions of herself and yet remained there, in her black leotard, (almost) the entire time. The conflation of outfit and flesh, of identity and performance – coupled with MTVs awkward online presentation – emphasized Gaga’s monstrous multiplicity for me: it’s not that a bunch of decoy Gagas were running around, tricking me into not seeing the real one, but that the real Gaga can only be seen through such constant, repetitive (aggressive?) (monstrous!) multiplicity.

Or, as Roland Betencourt beautifully put it, “the medium is perceptible only in witnessing the manifestations and transitions of forms through its space, but not as an ontological category, which can be reduced to flatness, whiteness, or two-dimensionality.”

Indeed, the camera started out by accommodating her presentation as a canvas, filling up the screen until I physically wanted to back away myself. That feeling of not being able to see the picture clearly, not seeing everything at once – I felt anxious, out of control. It is only by the end of the performance, once we’ve witnessed the magic of transformation over and over again, that we’ve seen the full picture of Gaga. But during that moment of extreme close-up, it almost felt possible for the camera to suddenly back away far enough to reveal all forms of Gaga at once.

I mean, isn’t this basically what happened?

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This jumbling and circling of time is exactly Kristeva’s distinction between female versus male time.¹ Gaga embodies an understanding of female time, which is “all-encompassing and infinite like imaginary space.” This is in contrast to male time, which is linear and monumental, with “the stumbling block of…death” always waiting at the end – something Gaga completely opposes in her notions of infinite birth. The nuances that Kristeva might help us to tease out from Gaga’s performance strike me as rich and productive: the recursivity of time; the necessity of multiple perspectives in order to achieve a fuller insight; and the fundamental links between multiplicity, gender, and performance.

Such obvious performances (we could actually see the wigs resting on Gaga’s head), and the quick addition and easy subtraction of props and clothes, highlight the necessary use of such accessories and “dress-up” in order for these presentations of Gaga to exist in the first place, underlining the performative aspects of gender and identity. To quote Eddie, the “only firm barrier left by postmodernism – that between performativity and essentialism,” is highlighted to the point of explosion in this performance.

But for me, it was all filtered through MTV’s online presence. There was the caption: “Lady Gaga coming offstage,” and the small awkward camera. I immediately picture Jo Calderone: “When she cums, it’s like she covers her face, cuz she doesn’t want me to see, like she can’t stand to have one honest moment when nobody’s watching.” The implication is that all her moments of honesty are viewed publicly as opposed to privately. Or even further: that all public moments, for Gaga, are honest.

As Gaga drags multiple versions of herself onstage, where and when and why are we locating her honest moments?

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Before I ended up on the “Talent Lounge” camera, when I could still just faintly hear that Gaga was currently onstage, I searched the faces of the various audience shots, hoping for something to be revealed. I watched people watching her, expecting to see – what was I expecting to see? People moving, dancing, wearing wild facial expressions. I expected to see that same mirror that I’ve come to see when I consider looking into Gaga’s face. The stillness of the bodies in the audience – the people backstage, the people in various rooms and in the “Talent Lounge” and all these strange locations that MTV was letting me look into – became even stiller in contrast to what I expected to see. Just various groups of bodies looking immobile, blank.

If the eye mask at the end of the “Applause” video is as significant as I assume it to be, then I’ve got to wonder if it goes both ways: if the audience’s immobility and stillness was reflecting back some kind of truth about Gaga’s performance itself.

“Her ability to perform doesn’t depend on a blankness, but on an emptiness, a loss of self. She isn’t a chameleon, but emptiness, an all-surface no-innards being – just like a Koons work…Gaga is a new being that has grown from the encounter of trauma with a vast emptiness” (Eddie McCaffray).

I go back to the mirror: the act of looking toward Gaga and seeing a multiplicity of truths reflected back. The act of looking even further – or perhaps of losing the distance that allows us to see more, just like the close-up camera in the beginning of her performance – so as to see blankness, emptiness, loss. We either look from a distance at a great multiplicity, or from a closeness where we see directly into the canvas of Gaga. This repetition of varying perspectives becomes a kind of folding inward, not just of time (in her short recreation of multiple “eras”) but now of space as well. It becomes incredibly difficult to think and write about Gaga’s various manifestations without encountering some form of anxiety about time and space, and the inevitability of emptiness.

The cosmic void of Gaga – could this be the epitome of failure?

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¹ Kristeva, Julia. “Women's Time.” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia      University Press, 1986. 187-213.

Author Bio:
Sarah Cook is an MA candidate at the University of Maine, where she’s focusing on poetics, creative writing and gender studies. Recent work can be found in gesture, Phoebe, and Horse Nihilist, and is forthcoming in Vector Press and SWINE. Her newest chapbook, a meadowed king, is out from dancing girl press.

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