By Alexander Cavaluzzo
Do you wanna see me naked, lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives
Behind the aura, behind the aura
Lady Gaga kicked off her #iTunesFestival concert kneeling in darkness, dressed in warrior-like garb, holding a microphone in one hand and a knife in the other. The intro begins, a sound we’ve all heard before, from her leaked song “Aura,” also known for the past year as “Burqa.” A sound that she has now officially relinquished to the public, but a sound we’ve known before her authority allowed its release. We first knew “Aura” because of our culture’s agency, not because of Lady Gaga’s.
The performance begins and she is aggressive, confrontational, a pop terrorist donned in a transcultural garment that extends from the Islamic dress to ninja gear to classic Mugler to Catwoman to Hannibal Lecter Realness. She is hysteric. She is unpredictable. She’s a menace to society.
Wrangled into a medieval torture device, hoisted above the audience, she croons out the song as her captors dance, perhaps in celebration, beneath her. She descends and catapults into typical pop star style, performing standard choreography as she sings, still covered except for her eyes and Lady Starlight-esque wig, until the song concludes when she unmasks herself and lipsyncs a robotic “ARTPOP” as her hazel eyes stare into the camera.
Ever since the suggestion that “Burqa” would be the title of a track on ARTPOP, many commentators have written compelling and accurate arguments deriding Gaga for cultural appropriation and fetishizing a solemn garment that many women in the world hold close to their expression of identity. Now that we know the official title is “Aura”, does it make it better? Is she implying the Arabic word عورة [“Awrah”], meaning intimate parts? Is that just as bad as “Burqa”?
Thinking beyond the burqa as a specific cultural object and considering it as a symbol present within human culture, the concept of “covering” and “masking” is a universal trait that informs many, if not all, identities. The lyrics drip of objectified sexualization because they are created within Lady Gaga’s medium: the pop song. The aura, the curtain, the burqa represents that which we drape ourselves in everyday – clothing styles, hair color, emotional defense mechanisms, attitudes, platitudes – every construction we use to present ourselves to the public. When Gaga later removes this “drapery” when she takes off her wig to display her “authentic” self to her fans, she connects it back to the message of this song: challenging her object of desire to experience her authentic self if he can handle the woman who exists behind the aura, behind the makeup, behind the wigs, behind the clothes, behind the money, behind the fame, behind the breasts, behind the ass, behind the pussy. The heart of the song is asking: can a masculine culture handle a woman’s soul?
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
Prompted by a variety of factors, the early 21st century has seen a pitiful revival of Orientalism in Western culture – clothing associated with Islam has provoked violent attacks in America, while France has worked to ban the burqa, and Mohammed Saleem was brutally stabbed to death just a month ago in the UK. But the burqa, in particular, has been a nexus of dichotomous opinions on the semiotics of dress and the expression of culture. For example, is Marjane Satrapi culturally insensitive for decrying the veil as a state-imposed symbol of misogyny in her seminal graphic novel Persepolis? Is Hebah Ahmed antifeminist for heralding face and body coverings as feminist choices that, among other things, prevent the unwanted male gaze?
Choice or force?
It’s a question the extends beyond the burqa, into all aspects of visual culture that project the concept of femininity. From the burqa to the bikini, all clothing gendered as female has in its DNA some form of misogyny – female bodies are constantly viewed and judged by the male gaze, and clothing is merely an extension of that. The iron maiden-like body cage in which three men secure Lady Gaga after she confesses to cultural murder illustrates the repressive, torture-like view male eyes impose on female identities, especially as she was hoisted above the proscenium as merely an object to be ogled. And, of course, Hollywood is the utmost representation of how society inflicts damage on women – Gaga the projection killed her former self, and beseeches you to send the weapon of demise to the location where her spirit now lives, free of her body. She asks her male lover – a male-dominated culture – if he can handle seeing what he hasn’t seen.
Do we want to see the authentic Gaga, or the image she projects?
We may find the answer in #ARTPOP.
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