So, I’ll just come right out and say it. I don’t get Lady Gaga. Actually, no. I think I get her. At first I thought I was just being resentful that she got to perform in the Pet Shop Boys medley at the BRIT Awards and I didn’t, but now I just think there’s nothing to get. To take Gertrude Stein out of context, there is no there there.
My immediate problem with her is that she seems to have garnered a lot of attention around her fashion choices. Admittedly, she’s got an interesting look on the surface. Glittery, glam, vaguely militaristic, often without pants. She certainly throws together a spectacle. But my big question is where is the commentary? What is the critique exactly?
Based on the video for “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (or, indeed, the title of her debut album, The Fame) one might assume the commentary is on the desperation and boring vapidity of fame and wealth.
But, the thing is, she’s totally buying into it, perhaps in the same way that her idol Andy Warhol bought into it. There’s not really a commentary. She wants to be famous. She wants to be rich (a goal not difficult to obtain unto itself, as she was born into an upper-middle-class family). Basically, it seems like she wants to be Paris Hilton. And not to comment on her. Just simply to be her.
To add to which, the glamor of Lady Gaga further seems to enforce the idea of fabulousness as being politically progressive. That if women own their fabulousness and earn it for themselves, it’s their choice to spend their money on jewel-encrusted, shoulder-padded bathing suits and designer sunglasses, and creating room for that kind of excessive materialism is empowering to women, somehow.
But you don’t see Lady Gaga appropriating thrift-store togs or found objects, as my friend Kristen astutely pointed out. Her key accessory of late seems to be the tea cup. This, combined with her taking up of the title “Lady”, suggests that there’s no reason for women to question high fashion’s or society’s dependence on capitalism (which also has a nasty habit of keeping patriarchal practices in power and, as a result, oppressing marginalized groups) but, in fact, to embrace it.
And let’s look closer at this image for a moment. Another thing that I think is interesting about her look is her predilection for appropriating East Asian (specifically Japanese, it would seem) fashion cues. This kind of pilfering further emphasizes her whiteness and her compliance with it — while she may have been born brunette Stefani Germanotta, she reinvented herself as Lady Gaga, a white, bleach-blonde pop star with an ear for pseudo-Aryan techno dirges and a desire to make herself as racially normative as possible. And how better to be white than appropriate from other cultures? This is evident in the picture above, where Gaga’s lips are made up in a pursed style popularized by the geisha, and in the look below, where she has manipulated her (wigged?) hair into a Hello Kitty bow.
Of course, many may defend her constructedness as being progressive because of how performative and excessively feminine it is, suggesting that it’s all drag and thus may be totally queer and subversive. Which is a fair claim to make. What was her American Idol performance of “Poker Face” if not one big, campy drag revue?
But a look to the lyrics. Apparently the song is about how Lady Gaga was having sex with a guy and pretending he was a woman. Shock me shock me. But you know what, Lady? Rather than suffer through some lame guy’s inability to satisfy you, why don’t you get out of bed and find another partner. Also, I’d be more impressed if you actually had a substantial male member, but you probably don’t. So the illusion is broken there.
And, of course, it cannot be ignored that the popularity of drag was another bit of appropriation white pop stars exacted from black, queer subculture. Maybe putting it on the Idol stage is interesting, but I’m sure much of its context and subtext was lost.
If all of this sounds super-familiar, it’s because it’s also not new. Having just read Pamela Robertson’s Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp From Mae West to Madonna, this basically reads to me as Madonna Redux. And let’s not forget that Madonna herself borrowed from Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, and was big on appropriating images and customs from black and gay culture, which bell hooks suggests in her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister” further highlighted her white blondeness, as well as her compliance with patriarchy.
And while I’m all for feminist camp and female drag queens, I’d like to see some models of it (perhaps, gasp, some models of color) who actually make a comment on patriarchy, capitalism, race, sexuality, and normative feminine beauty ideals. If this critique isn’t there, then what keeps folks like Lady Gaga, who may seem progressive, subversive, or even transgressive, from actually endorsing a very staid set of class, gender, racial, and sexual norms and charging it all to their credit cards?