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Saturday, September 7, 2013

“Pop Culture Was in Art, Now Art’s in Pop Culture in Me”: Thoughts on Lady Gaga’s Inclusion and Embodiment of Art in “Swine” at the 2013 iTunes Festival

By Courtney Constable

Lady Gaga has expressed a strong desire to exist as both an artist and a musician since the beginning of her career. This desire has manifested itself in many ways throughout the years, but was perhaps first exemplified in the Fame era by her earliest persona Candy Warhol, whom Gaga presented to fans as pop music’s female answer to infamous artist Andy Warhol. Using fashion and music as her chosen artistic mediums, Gaga often highlights the influence that pop culture has on the ever-changing world of art. Now, with the beginning of the ARTPOP era, Gaga’s preoccupation with the relationship between art and pop culture has been put center stage. This emphasis was more easily identifiable than ever before in her performance at the 2013 iTunes Festival, particularly during “Swine.”

Gaga first set the stage for “Swine” with her August 2013 VMA “Applause” performance, during which she embodied the role of the canvas, first by wearing a large, square white headpiece (a blank canvas) and then by actually having her face painted during the number (this has been more fully discussed on Gaga Stigmatahere and here). In the week following her VMA performance and leading up to the iTunes Festival, Gaga turned the tables, this time inviting her fans to become the canvas by providing her Twitter followers with a list of “acceptable attire for #Swinefest...” The list included what she described as “ARTCLOTHES,” which she said would be necessary for the “paint zone” that would be present during her show. She later clarified on 28 August that “#ARTCLOTHES are clothes you don’t mind getting covered in live art!” This short dialogue set the tone for Gaga’s unveiling of several tracks from the upcoming ARTPOP album, but gave particular insight into the artistic spectacle that was her performance of the highly anticipated song “Swine”.

Gaga set the “Swine” performance apart from those preceding it by stripping off the outer performative layers of both the music and herself to begin the song. Fans were afforded a rare glimpse of the singer without any form of headdress or wig: Gaga donned only what she declared her “real” hair and a white t-shirt as she delivered a heartfelt speech about darkness, personal struggle, and devotion. While moments of tearful promise to her fans are a regular occurrence during her concerts, the speech at the beginning of “Swine” marked one of the first times Gaga has opened up about her feelings regarding her 2013 hip injury and media blackout. She began singing accompanied only by her piano, playing an acoustic introduction to a song that many had speculated to be a possible dance club hit. The dynamic between the stripped down sound and her own “natural” appearance once again suggested Gaga as a blank canvas; here we saw the girl underneath the glamour and fame, upon whom the art of the persona is created

The scene represented a retroactive glimpse into what and who existed before (or perhaps underneath) Lady Gaga, and was likely the closest an audience might come to experiencing the mysterious Stefani Germanotta in person. This girl is the blank canvas upon which the artistry of the Lady Gaga phenomenon was built.  

Once the song’s dance beat dropped, the audience was confronted with several significant visual cues that hinted at the coming artistic spectacle. Dancers emerged dressed in pure white coveralls and white pig-shaped gasmasks. The stage was covered by a white sheet that a painter might use to protect the floor, bearing the words “SWINE FEST” in aggressively painted black letters. Here, again, was the imagery of the canvas, but this time marred and impure, no longer blank.

Suddenly, as Gaga sang while banging on drums in front of a backdrop of cartoon flying pigs, actual white canvases were lowered around the dancers, each with a word scrawled in black ink, including “Lady Gaga,” “MANiCURE,” “SWINE,” and “ARTPOP.” The scenery recalled street graffiti, a type of guerilla art, with its phrases illegally scribbled on walls for the public eye to interpret or disregard. The pig dancers used their gasmask noses to haphazardly spray paint upon the canvas, covering the words in bright colors that stood out against the stark white and harsh black. Clearly this was the ‘paint zone’ that Gaga alluded to, and the audience was left to make connections between what they were seeing on stage and the previously mentioned notion of “live art.” The canvases were not painted before the performance, but rather altered in the same time and space as the live performance itself. Hence, the dancers embodied the metaphor through which Lady Gaga, the artist, expresses an idea (i.e. they are the “Swine”), but they also became artists themselves as they defaced the canvases. They were more than just tools in the performance; they actively participated in the creation of Gaga’s artistic vision.

As pig dancers began flying through the air on bungee cables, other dancers passed the worded canvases to audience members, who smeared the brightly colored paint across the words with their arms and hands. The audience members did not take turns, and yet they did not push for a chance to participate either. Instead, groups of fans held the canvases together and spread the paint simultaneously, working as teams. With this action, the performance genuinely embodied the notion of “live art,” and the audience became not simply vessels through which, or to whom, Gaga can express her own artistic ideas, but rather active participants in creating visual art pieces. Each audience member interacting with the messy canvas helped bring to life the message that Gaga’s lyrics communicate: despite the reality that harsh words and actions can make a person seem no better than a pig, the lyrical change before the chorus – where Gaga stops describing another person as a swine and states that she acts like a swine herself – communicates that we all possess this inner “swine,” but only if we let ourselves behave in such a negative, messy way. By collaborating on the painted canvas, rather than struggling to compete with one another for a chance to participate, the audience made the choice to suppress their inner swine in favor of working together to achieve a goal. The fan-painted canvases were later thrown into the audience, a memento for those lucky enough to catch them and yet another method of making the fan a true part of the experience.  

What Lady Gaga achieves with the “Swine” performance goes beyond the idea that “art” necessitates “paint on a canvas,” despite the fact that these are the literal tools used. Here, both the dancers and the audience members acted as artists, making their unique mark on the performance and rendering it more than merely Lady Gaga singing on a stage. These elements avoid the over-simplification of what form art can take, and render the performance as a type of performance art through the active participation of Gaga’s fans. This establishes clear connections with Gaga’s ideas that “ARTPOP could mean anything,” and “art’s in pop culture in me.” The “Swine” performance involved the audience in the process of creating art, rather than merely asking them to be passive spectators. Those that touched the paint left the show with literal pieces of the performance on their bodies. They acted as a tangible part of the performance, which inherently affected how the performance played out. Much like Lady Gaga wants to embody art to bring it more concretely and definably into modern pop culture, the audience members here embodied “art in pop culture” by interacting with “live art” during the performance of a contemporary musical icon. With this rendition of “Swine,” Gaga has already used the ARTPOP era to transgress the boundaries of what it means to be a musical artist, how one might interact with the audience, and in what forms art and performance art might be manifested, by whom.

If this performance was any indication, the ARTPOP era really could mean anything.  

Author bio:
Courtney Constable recently graduated with a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Carleton University. She wrote her masters thesis on Lady Gaga’s “You and I” and “Haus of U” music videos as a contemporary form of identity activism through social networking. She is currently working in furniture sales, but hopes to attend cosmetology school at New York’s Makeup Designory sometime in the near future. Courtney recently met Lady Gaga in New York, where she gave Gaga a copy of her thesis and had her own copy signed. This copy is now on prominent display in her apartment. Courtney grew up as an ‘air force brat’ and enjoys traveling, taking pictures, reading murder mysteries, pole dancing, and circus aerial.

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