"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Monday, September 2, 2013

Relocation, Revelation, & Death: preliminary notes on Lady Gaga’s opening performance at the iTunes Festival, live from the Roundhouse in London, September 1st 2013

By Sarah Cook
                                                            (live)        (shortly)   (will begin)

I’ve been to so many concerts, I know what it’s like: the ebb and flow of screams while you’re waiting for the main performer to come out. But something about the cheering – Gaga, Gaga –like babies chanting violently. The waves of screaming.


Audience-culture: pre-applause (vs. post-applause…which kind does Gaga live for?). The rhythmic hands that accompany the yelling, all of which signals an anxious audience, waiting.

clap-clap, Ga-ga!        clap-clap, Ga-ga!        clap-clap, Ga-ga!        repeat

In couplets – such a different kind of applause – an expectant kind – versus the approval that comes after witnessing, after enjoying –

The sound of hands waiting versus the sound of hands consuming. The way these two sounds might sound like each other.

+ + +

On Gaga’s eight individual performances


Lady Gaga has gone mad.

“Hollywood” written on a knife – both a sign of a murderous weapon as well as an implied threat, toward Hollywood culture, perhaps. Is Hollywood in charge here, given agency and control by being imprinted on Gaga’s weapon? Or should Hollywood be running for its life…

Are Gaga’s opening remarks actually the beginning of the song?

            I killed my poor former friend, left her in the trunk on highway 10
            Put the knife under the hood. If you find it, send it straight to Hollywood

If these are the actual opening lyrics, what effect does this have on our reception of Gaga’s use of the burqa? Is the dead friend Stefani? Another persona? Certainly, there is no mourning going on in this performance – is that simply because Gaga is the crazed, unregretful killer, or because this is a type of killing which we should necessarily not mourn?

I’ve still not worked past my hesitance toward Gaga’s use of the burqa, just as with her use of the wheelchair and similar “props” in the past. And I think we should be talking more about what other voices have to say about this topic, like the voice here. Or this. There’s also this great piece.

But I liked this performance because of how it really highlighted the fact that such appropriation is more complicated than it seems: does simply covering one’s face immediately suggest oppression and/or the burqa? Was Gaga signifying a burqa without wearing the entire garment? One might see it as an immediate signification of such, yet I was reminded of Hannibal Lecter, with his face-mask on, being locked into a straitjacket. Gaga laughs maniacally and gets put into a black wire cage, lifted off of the ground.

She is not safe, she is a danger to Hollywood/culture/pop/art.

I think of the historical mad-woman, the Mad Woman in the Attic, the female writer taunted by her Yellow Wallpaper. Or rather, by the trappings of being a weird/creative woman in a patriarchal society with limited and specific expectations of you. I wonder about the complicated references built into this appearance, then, beyond the burqa. I’m wary of decontextualizing all these references and claiming mere appropriation on Gaga’s part. I think there’s more to it than that.

The first thing she says once she’s pulled off her mask: “Artpop.” If we take the revealing of her face to be a kind of liberation, then it’s significant that this is her first free utterance.

What, if any, is the importance of her starting out barefoot, then having repeated footwear changes?

Manicure (MANiCURE)

Without remembering Gaga’s tweets (where she revealed some lyrics beforehand) I thought I heard her singing “Kill me, ‘cause I’m addicted to love. Save me, ‘cause I’m addicted to love” – with “kill” actually being the word heal, which we know from Twitter. But I thought this was interesting and made sense: this confliction/dichotomy around love: kill me! – no wait, save me! Either way, a type of removal is needed. Another Gaga binary: giving up on the tremendous oppression that surrounds love, by having your life removed via murder (the plea to be killed) and/or relocation (the plea to be saved). The affinity between these two words: murder being a type of relocation, and relocation a kind of murder.

The Hollywood knife, the dead friend. The wig changes, the monstrous multiple personas.

What is the significance of watching all these costume changes? Again: murder, rebirth, relocation. Remember when her dancers served as a veil during the “Applause” performance on the VMAs, hiding her final costume change? During the iTunes performance, we’re immediately confronted with the slow face of transformation, carefully laid out for us all to see. We watch the touch ups, the detailed application of wigs, even Gaga putting on a pair of socks.

Perhaps authenticity can be found within the process of transformation. Perhaps we are finally watching her infinite (re)births as opposed to just facing the outcome.

It’s important, I think, to recognize “Applause” – the song, the concept, the symbol, the sound – as a kind of theme for Gaga’s new album, as this was our initiation into it, so to say. The choice for that song to be the first released single, the way it shapes our first taste of ARTPOP. Think about hands: the purpose they are serving, what they’re producing, the way they serve as a kind of shell for Gaga’s Venus body in the music video. And so, in addition to the wealth of connotations that accompany the phrase “man cure” – and that tenuous little i living amongst it – what does it mean for applauding hands to have undergone a manicure?


“Everybody asks me, they say, What does Artpop even mean?

What I tell them is, when we come together, me and my beautiful fans, we belong, don’t we?

And we belong because when we’re in this space together we make the most beautiful thing in the world: we make love. So, if we can belong together, maybe then my dream will come true, and art, and pop, can belong too.”

“What does ‘artpop’ even mean?” It means we belong.

“Free my mind, Artpop. You make my heart stop.”

The metaphor of something making one’s heart stop relies on the exaggeration of loving something to death: Artpop is so good that it will literally fuck with the ability of your heart to work properly. So for Gaga’s dream to come true – for art and pop to belong, & to belong together – a  kind of relocation, a kind of murder, must occur. The heart must stop, transform, become reborn.

What does “artpop” even mean? “My artpop could mean anything.”

The jester, performing for a hungry audience. If she fails, people might throw things at her.

“Now don’t stop throwing things at me.”

And so a plastic mermaid ends up on the stage, which Gaga proceeds to decapitate. “Set me free.”

“What I mean is, I wanted to set myself free of this box, this box they put you in in pop music, it’s like I have to stay inside the box and be a good girl. But I don’t wanna be inside the box. I wanna live outside the box with all of you.”

Jewels & Drugs

Collaboration. What is the role of such on ARTPOP?

Intermission: background music, soft, dreamy. Are we going into a sleep/dream state? Gaga is preparing for…

Sex Dreams

…where she starts from within a half-shell, half of a black egg? (I’m thinking Born this way/“Marry the Night.”) She starts with a magnifying glass – private eye, searching for details. Among the words in the video in the background is, in all caps, “BROKEN.” She dances from the floor. During her hip-injury, she was confined to a certain amount of immobility, but was therefore able to focus intently on creating, as she explained during her GMA interview. When you’re injured, broken, failing physically, does creation then become more possible in the realm of imagination, within the process of dreaming? What does the prevalence of sex dreams say about a kind of failed physical, real life, in-the-flesh attempt at creation, at love? A consummation relegated to the dream state.

The leveling out of these words in the background. Sex. Love. Broken. The implied failure.


“Here I am, the human underneath the wigs.” Are we to believe that this revelation, of her real hair, and her words – here I am – is more authentic than when we’re watching the intimacy of her putting on the wigs, the clothes, the accessories? Her fashion is her; we know this. So what is this ruse of taking it all off?

Do the wigs and the makeup really “cover up the pain”? Or do they allow the person, capable of feeling such pain, to more fully exist in the first place?

When she’s clutching that wig – “I am my hair” – it seems like another kind of decapitation: it is symbolic, for if her hair is her, then taking it off – taking of her clothes and her fashion – is a removal of part of the self. But that wig is so big that it also looks like she’s physically holding her own head in her arms, clutching it dearly. Multiple faces, multiple heads.

So here I am. Putting on her white t-shirt, right in front of us.

And it’s really scary, when, you’re young and you don’t…know what it means to be grown up yet. So you start hanging out with adults and you think oh, this must be what adults do. But it wasn’t what adults do. And it wasn’t…wasn’t, normal. But because I let it be normal, before I knew it I was just a shell of a person. I was just…skin and hair. And my heart and my brain and my pussy, everything, was just…it was, it felt like trash. I felt like trash on the inside, I felt empty. So I wrote this song to let go of all that pain.

The conflation of pain and performance and persona and song.

The conflation of pig mask and gas mask.

Was anyone else reminded of Jo Calderone during this part of the show – this revelation of Gaga’s inner self? With the white T-shirt, the heavy black hair…I felt like she was playing a more feminine Jo. Gaga as Jo. Gaga as Gaga as Jo. Her wildness on the drums, her aggressive facial expressions.

The way the names of the songs – the words themselves – become so important: written out on her keyboard. Written on the cards hanging in the air.

Acrobatic swine.

Lady Gaga has gone mad.

She looks like Jo, who is Gaga. She looks like Gaga, as Jo. How can she look so similar to someone who is, in fact, just a certain appearance of her? They are all Gaga’s faces.

“Eat your face in. Eat his face in.” The violent transformation of faces.

I wanna be with you

“Sorry but we have company so I’m just, you know, fixing my face.” The mirror says “swine” on the back.

Her story of being young and thinking, this is just what adults do, right?

Then singing: “I don’t wanna grow up.” She’s occupying multiple spaces: the adult looking back, remembering what it was like to be young and scared. And yet in the space of the song, she seems to (re)inhabit that youth: I don’t wanna grow up. Looking forward and looking back, simultaneously.

Multiple heads would allow one to do such a thing.

“I wanna be with you” might be the only title not written out on her keyboard. Why is this title less important than the others?

I feel like this song is one of the most self-reflexive and self-aware of all the new ones (thinking about these phrases applied to Gaga due to Meghan’s use of them in her initial thoughts). She sings: “I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and alone.” This might seem like a dismissal, a denial even, of Gaga’s privilege: she is rich, and so she can afford to make such a grand claim. Yet the lyrics continue: “I’ll write hit songs about you.” So the song knows what it/she is doing, even acknowledging her continual state of being rich – the songs will be hits. “I’ll keep on singing for a living but I wanna be in love.” A really explicit acknowledgement of Gaga as an artist, making a living off of her performances.


How fitting that this song plays as the encore, something segmented off from the rest of the show by another show of hands – we know Gaga will come back onstage, yet we still clap. What would happen if we didn’t?

“Lights out London, it’s me and you.” And her dancers were gone. I found this ending to be especially moving. Something about the juxtaposition of this dance beat, the confetti, the encore – and Gaga on stage alone. A kind of here I am moment once again.

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.

Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Twitter.
Click here to “like” Gaga Stigmata on Facebook.
Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Tumblr.


  1. I too am extremely ambivalent about Aura. It is, musically, fucking pop perfection. But calling the appropriation "complicated" doesn't change what it is. She's wearing something clearly meant to represent Muslim headwear. It's a symbol that can easily be divorced from the song, since the song is assuming the voice of a Western woman. The superimposition of the burqa is just tacky.

  2. Oh, I completely agree, and I use "complicated" in, well, in the most complicated sense of the word--not meant to be a dismissal at all, just a plea for further conversation about this whole messy thing.

  3. jeff koons is merely the pee wee herman of art.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.