By Eddie McCaffray
I felt pretty vindicated by “Do What U Want” – not gonna lie. The song comfortably encapsulates three key Gaga/ARTPOP-era moves: first, the song suggests some form of sex or a sexual relationship as a metaphor for Gaga as an artist; second, the song suggests a traumatic moment of (self-)destruction as integral to the Gaga persona; third, the song suggests the body as a valueless or low-value raw material for Gaga’s continuing self-creation and transformation. This use of sex as a central metaphor for both pop stardom and creative process is just what I thought I observed about ARTPOP in Gaga’s iTunes Festival performance.
The song clearly uses sex as a metaphor for Gaga’s experience as an artist and her artistic process. “Do what you want with my body” certainly implies doing something sexual. After all, that’s one of the main things people like to do with their bodies and with other people’s bodies. This implication is one of R. Kelly’s most important roles in the song: he hammers home the sexual implications by singing “do what I want with your body.” Of course, the song shouldn’t be understood only in this way. Gaga also sings “write what you want, say what you want bout me.” This points to the pop-star side of the metaphor: just as a sexual partner can use one’s body, so too does everyone who watches the performer, listens to the song, or speculates in the “press” about one’s weight, health, sanity, and prospects for continued success or imminent self-immolation. Gaga suggests this part of the metaphor mainly through her Twitter feed in the lead-up to the release of “Do What U Want”: she posted a number of photos and videos in which she was unfavorably compared to Madonna or Katy Perry, shown to be fat, and told that God hates her. These were accompanied by the message “GAGA IS OVER” and the hashtag #dowhatuwantwithmybody.
The song also continues the re-figuration of trauma and self-destruction as self-creative moment that is a constant through Gaga’s career. This trauma has appeared in other forms in earlier stages, but with the coming if ARTPOP the trauma becomes increasingly sexualized. The lyrics of the song obviously suggest that “what you want with my body” might not be all that nice; the singer doesn’t care about what happens to her body because she has her voice and because she has ownership (not at all the same as the surety or safety) of her life – not because she’s so confident that whomever she’s addressing will take good care of her body. I think R. Kelly is extremely important here, given his association with battery, sex with under-aged women, and peeing on his sexual partners. It would be one thing to have, I don’t know, Space Cowboy do whatever he wanted with your body. But issuing such a blank check to R. Kelly is a very different, very particular, and very high stakes suggestion. Gaga also sings, early in the song, “you break that shit that makes me want to scream” – this could easily mean her body, given that her body is almost the only concrete physical object mentioned throughout the whole song.
Moreover, R. Kelly is explicitly identified as something Gaga is highly and self-destructively dependent on, whether as a potentially-abusive lover, a drug, or a drug-dealer (“I could be the drink in your cup, the green in your blunt, your pusha-man”). Once again, this kind of relationship is a metaphor for Gaga as pop-star: she’s addicted to fame. Just like R. Kelly, if her fans, her audience, or fame itself “ever let [her] go, [she] would fall apart.” In the emerging mode of ARTPOP, this is the use of sex and romantic relationships as metaphors to explore Gaga’s experience of fame. Fame or the international audience of pop stardom can be fickle, brutal, and take a real physical toll. At the same time, Gaga would fall apart without them. Just like an abusive lover, fame damages Gaga in the process of sustaining her.
All this underlines that, once again, Gaga’s body is either something valueless, such as garbage or raw meat, or something flagellated, such as that of an abuse victim, that of someone with an eating disorder, that of an addict, and so on. In either case, this allows that body to be of use in a creative project. If it is valueless muck, it can be refashioned however fame or art (pop) demands. If it is merely a conduit for trauma, it allows that trauma to create a space from which Gaga can emerge as coping-mechanism-cum-messiah.
In short, just as I thought I saw in Gaga’s iTunes Festival performance a month and a half ago, sex and sexual relationships have become central metaphors for Gaga’s continued exploration of her relationship to fame, art, and trauma.
The only part of the song I really can’t figure out is “You’re the mailman, I’m the president.” Help! Maybe she’s got a new song called “Government Mailman”?