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Saturday, October 5, 2013

“The Witch’s Dorothy”: On Gaga’s conflation of hero, villain, and witch

By Sarah Cook

In which I get one step closer to articulating Gaga’s intriguing use of failure, if we can equate failure with evil (i.e. witchery). If failure can be the same thing as a bad witch. If a bad witch can be good for certain things.

These notes are in response to Gaga’s performance of “Applause” (Applau-Oz) on Good Morning America, 9 September 2013.

1. That Gaga hovers somewhere between witch, villain and monster. That this hovering is the crucial source of her difference, i.e. her creativity, her power.

Audre Lorde: “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic…Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”*

1.2. Gaga embraces various differences – between her repeated incorporation of disability, multiple sexualities, the burqa, & her invitation to those who are “broke or evergreen…black, white, beige, [of] chola descent,” or Othered in any variety of ways – is this her endorsement of the creative power of difference? Does Gaga herself descend “into the chaos of knowledge,” the chaos of identity?

And can a rich white female ever invoke the power of Others in a way that is not problematic?

2. Gaga’s monstrosity has perhaps been established since The Fame Monster, sometimes occurring with a cyborg twist à la “Born This Way,” sometimes as manifesto (think of those haunting images that accompany the “Manifesto of Little Monsters” video done with Nick Knight). But with the inauguration of the ARTPOP era, I think we are seeing a new extension of Gaga’s monstrosity, one that harnesses magic and transformation – the bubbling cauldron and colored smoke in the “Applause” video – along with the multiplicity of stage presences that have occurred during each of her recent live performances. A magical, playful monstrosity. And now, with the incarnation of Oz, we see the previously clear distinction of the hero/villain binary made messy – or perhaps made articulate, specific – through the conflation of wizard/witch/Dorothy.

3. The Wizard isn’t the real villain of the story, we know that. His innocent folly and simple-minded desire for the mask of power – layered upon his own desire simply to go home – is ultimately dismissed: the true villain, the Wicked Witch, is rightfully killed and the Wizard actually provides Dorothy and her friends with what they need. With Gaga’s manifestation of all three of these figures on the stage – good, somewhat evil, more evil – she is therefore complicating our distinctions between the good figure and the bad one. How do we distinguish maniac from evil sorceress from small-town girl when they’re all showing up within and hovering so closely to the same body?

3.2. How does body become the medium in which we conflate our predetermined evaluations? How do bodies make things messy?

4. Gaga’s continual performances of gender identity: the constant conflation of man/woman/androgyny, of monster/pop star/fan (most recently, the blurred distinctions between performer and audience, as in her use of fans during her performance of “Swine” at the iTunes festival, and now the living poppies during her GMA performance, seen as costumes worn by audience members themselves). The conflation of Lady Gaga and Jo Calderone. We might also consider her infinite rebirths here, from “Born This Way” Gaga to the current multiplicity of wig changes and the monstrous multiple personas. This process of watching Gaga manifest over and over again, confusing us with her various representations (which one is real? which one is good?).

4.2. By imbuing these transformations with the Oz archetypes, so to say, Gaga has signaled clearer distinctions than before. It is hard to evaluate and define, for example, Gaga’s various personas in “Applause” – is Venus Gaga better than blonde Monroe-like Gaga in a birdcage? – but we can understand and separate Dorothy from Wicked Witch from the powerful Oz figure himself. By the end of her performance, however, Gaga further complicates her manifestations once again, and she clarifies her complication in her post-performance interview (see 8.1).

5. Toward the end of the performance on GMA, the camera suddenly cuts to the audience, suggesting two things. First, it reinforces the audience’s presence in the performance itself (for that moment, the performance is literally replaced by the cheering fans outside). Second, it suggests a mistake that had to be covered up. In this case, not so much covered up but distracted from: we simply see the fans instead of whatever else was happening onstage. The fans, then, became the remedy for some temporarily occurring failure.

5.2. Failure requires the presence of fans, requires community, requires applause. The presence of multiple others. In failing, we need multiplicity; or perhaps we fail by being multiple.

John Pluecker: “We” seems even more doubtful than “I.”*

The multiple spaces in which we can fail, become messy, become articulate, and honor the natural inconsistency of lived experiences.

Rachel Zucker: Why…did it take co-writing a book about giving birth at home and subverting the “I” voice of single authorship for me to see that I’d been speaking, always, in a borrowed language and pre-made forms?*

We might become the productive doubt of creativity, i.e. the creative source based upon multiplicity, based on difference. We are also a subversive source against the patriarchal and limited “I.”

5.3. Question: Which I/eye is Gaga?

5.4. Answer: all of them.

6. When Gaga-as-Dorothy and her Yellow Brick Road friends freeze during the second verse of “Applause,” they line up single file with Gaga in front, who holds a bright red apple. The arms of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are splayed around Gaga’s body, like a tree. Collectively, they become the physical, bodily tree of knowledge, where the forbidden fruit rests in Gaga’s hand.

Enter Wicked Witch, stage right: like a transgressive Eve, she wants that which she is denied. Perhaps she just wants to know things. It’s the apple that Eve/Wicked Witch desires, and in the fleeting moment where she grabs it out of Gaga’s hand, it is somewhat unclear who is taking/giving the apple from/to whom. The exchange of fruit, i.e. knowledge, becomes messy, and suddenly Gaga represents a Snow White figure, while the Wicked Witch becomes yet another evil witch, corrupting Gaga-as-Dorothy-as-Snow-White’s innocence. The conflation of stories & fairy tales, of good & bad, of knowledge and evil. Of one witch for another. (Why is it always so bad to be a witch?)

Anne Sexton: I have gone out, a possessed witch, / haunting the black air, braver at night; / dreaming evil, I have done my hitch / over the plain houses, light by light: / lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. / A woman like that is not a woman, quite. / I have been her kind.*

7. During the performance, all it takes for Gaga to defeat the witch is that she pull the green wig off her head.

Then, like a victorious warrior, she swings it around triumphantly, even playfully setting it on top of her own then-wigless head. Herein lies the transformation I am most interested in: how easily she goes from being hero to villain. The playfulness required in being evil.

She doesn’t completely put the wig on, which we’ve seen repeatedly: we know she is capable of a thorough wig change while on a live stage, even if it means bringing her stylists out onto the stage itself. This choice, then, seems important – that the wig is just playfully held. That transformation can happen simply from play.

8. In the end, Dorothy is transformed. Her wig is bigger, and it houses one of her signature gigantic bows. Her shoulder-pads are huge, suggesting “Born This Way” implants beneath the blue plaid dress. Dorothy has been reborn, and now Stefani Germanotta’s natural short black hair (she begins the performance with a short black bob wig) is blond and huge.

Alice Notley: “A woman” “who is standing,” “waiting” “for the train”…“wears a business suit / big shoulders” “Her animal familiarity” “to us is” “powdered over,” / “pearlized” “She’s attractive,” “is suffused with” “her powers”*

8.1. Gaga explicitly analyzes this performance in the interview that follows: “Well you know, I think it really is an explanation in a way for my entire career so far…Dorothy was able to transform in order to survive, by transforming into Glenda, and then by transforming at the end back into the wizard who is just Dorothy herself – me.” So Oz the wizard is actually Dorothy, who is actually Gaga.

Notley again: “She belongs to” “the tyrant,” “though she thinks she’s” “her own” / “Now this is” “what happens:” “There is a figure” “in her body” / “another one, it” “steps out of it” “Leaves her body.”

8.2. Multiple Dorothy, monstrous Dorothy. Cyborg Dorothy?

8.3. By becoming Oz in the end, she becomes the source of the needed brains, heart, and courage, as well as of the ability to return home.

8.4. What does home mean for Gaga?

8.5. I don’t know that Gaga is pining for home the way Dorothy does (or perhaps Gaga is revealing a deeper motivation for Dorothy all along). Home, where Stefani Germanotta originated from and perhaps still waits, is not the ultimate goal.

9. So Gaga becomes the source of things – of multiple characters, of creative difference – of the power to transform the self. This is done through wigs, shoulder extensions, cheekbone implants, and alternate personas, and she harnesses them for her own transformation. She has firmly established her interest in “magic,” which she discussed during her last GMA visit. Since then, we’ve watched her magically transform on the VMAs and in London at the iTunes Festival. Gaga has expanded her “you were born this way” anthem into something like, be your own source of magic. Get what you need for yourself, and if it doesn’t exist, create it. Even if it means (re)creating yourself in the process.

In her conflation of villain and victim, Gaga hovers somewhere between monster and witch, between Notley and Sexton, between and among dresses, wigs, and creative chaos. As the source of magic, she could easily return to Kansas at any point but chooses not to, redefining the narrative of what it means to (re)turn, and complicating the traditional boundaries of body and home.

+ + +

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” The Feminist     Philosophy Reader. Ed. Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 49-51. Print.

Notley, Alice. The Descent of Alette. New York: Penguin, 1992. Print.

Pluecker, John. These Little, Little Men. Evening Will Come. The Volta, Dec. 2012. Web.         <http://www.thevolta.org/ewc24-jpluecker-p1.html>.

Sexton, Anne. “Her Kind.” The Complete Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.

Zucker, Rachel. “a homespun of questions pulled over a loom of gender and race with the voices of ancestral (mostly living) women speaking in the lacunae.” Evening Will Come. The Volta, Jan. 2013. Web. <http://www.thevolta.org/ewc25-rzucker-p1.html>.

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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