Lady Gaga — not buying it

Lady Gaga sitting (without pants) in the lap of luxury

Lady Gaga sitting (without pants) in the lap of luxury

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.

Heygirlhey.

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.

A Lady who lunches with high society; photo taken from gofugyourself.com

A Lady who lunches with high society; photo taken from gofugyourself.com

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.

Lady Gaga by way of Sanrio; photo taken from kittyhell.com

Lady Gaga by way of Sanrio; photo taken from kittyhell.com

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?

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21 comments

  1. palilunas

    “… the idea of fabulousness as being politically progressive.” That’s a fantastic line. Great critique and extremely important right now. It seems like there’s a trend toward defending consumption and finding ways to “make it work” within a progressive mindset (yes, I used “make it work” deliberately in that context). You do a fantastic job here of punching huge holes to get to the ideology under the surface.

  2. k

    great post. i especially loved the video clip of paris hilton and lady gaga. the whole thing reads as one long advertisement for nokia and privilege posing as power. i also think it’s interesting that lady gaga used to write songs for the pussycat dolls – a pop group that is also problematic in terms of race and gender politics.

  3. Annie

    Part of me wants to believe the lips in the GoFugYourself pic are an homage to the ‘bee-stung’ look of Clara Bow and classic Hollywood….no? No?

    • feministmusicgeek

      Good point, Annie. Lady Gaga’s bee-stung lips are also a clear homage to Clara Bow. But I do wonder if that look also has some weird Orientalism going on. I confess I don’t know much about her or her filmography (indeed classic Hollywood at all), but I know that the flapper look (which she helped popularize) came about in the 1920s and borrowed from Asian culture, particularly from the Japanese (where the geisha originates). Is there any connection?

  4. AlexCho

    Love your analysis. So much good stuff here. I don’t know quite how I feel about Lady GaGa, but I think you have hit several proverbial nails right on the head. However, I still can’t shake the feeling I have about her — it is not necessarily that I buy into the “fabulousness as progressive” notion, which you eloquently do away with; it’s that, as you mention, her performativity raises interesting questions. My two cents to add: Lady GaGa’s performance has a built-in *falseness* to it; a self-conscious middle-finger. Unlike someone with a star persona such Madonna, who simply seems amplified, the first time I encountered a Lady GaGa video I felt like there was a big inside joke that I wasn’t getting. Who was this woman? And why was she famous? The answer (I guess?) is that we don’t really know. Besides having danceable songs. Which leads me to believe that, underneath the geisha lips and leotards, there is someone who is on “my side,” so to speak. Socially aware, queer-inclusive (and not just appropriative), and (I am gasping as I write this, it is so half-baked) somehow more “hybrid” than appropriative. In other words, if a star points out the constructed nature of a star persona within their star persona, power differentials and origin stories become all jumbled up, instead of linear and hierarchical. Some evidence of her ambivalent positioning, at least for me:

    1. Her name. It’s dumb. Makes no sense (I read it was an appropriation of the Queen song? But who even knows that?)

    2. While you are correct in pointing out the boundaries of the sexual politics of the lyrics of Poker Face, I think we should also remember that, save for a few lines, her breakout hit Just Dance was simply about getting f’ed up at a club. And I can get behind that.

    3. Her fashion. She is scantily clad, and at times appropriative, true. But it is also notoriously weird. Not quite Bjork weird, but definitely atypical, consistently landing her on worst-dressed lists. And then there’s this: http://omg.yahoo.com/photos/lady-gagas-concert-tour-kicks-off/2736#id=2 Clearly, she’s playing with us. Someone like Madonna would never wear such a thing.

    Of course, the huge grain of salt is that she could never get away with any of this without her perfect body, bleach-blonde hair, and normative whiteness. Sigh.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks for your great insights, Mr. Cho. I meant to reply earlier.

      I’d like to address your comment on fashion. While I would like a pop star that was comfortable being a bit more butch or working class, I think your point is valid. She does look weird and avant-garde, and I think that while that unto itself it may not be inherently progressive, it should not be dismissed out of hand. There’s a big difference between how she looks and, say, how Katy Perry looks. And I do like that Lady Gaga may trade in the feminine, she doesn’t necessary make herself look normatively pretty. There’s something very cold, severe, and harsh about her look — cute is not the word I’d use for her.

      I also think it’s interesting that, as reported in The Boston Globe, apparently she makes a lot of her outfits, often deliberately creating designer knock-offs. I think this is FASCINATING, and certainly complicates my original assertions of her class position. Plus, thinking about fashion and fandom is interesting. While it could be normative for women to be into fashion on face value, I think it may also open up how we look at fandom and who/what gets a fan following, as traditionally fans seem to be conceptualized as dude Trekkies.

      Also, I can get behind a song about getting fucked up in a club (though can’t help but think of Fergie’s “London Bridge” when I type that previous statement, which makes me feel a little weird). And as I didn’t bring up “Just Dance,” which was her big introduction to the pop charts, you’re right to bring it up and give her a larger context. I just think there may also be room for more overtly political dance music — I’m thinking of M.I.A., The Gossip, Peaches, Le Tigre, indeed the Pet Shop Boys. Lady Gaga potentially has that sort of platform, and I hope she uses it (if only for me to still be critical).

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  9. BProfane

    Interesting article. I have read the Bell Hooks esay on Madonna, and totally understand how this GaGamania is just a disposable fashion trend. In regards to the article above,I too would like to see some models of culture do this schtick and get popular for it.
    I would really pay to see a contest between singing Grace Jones and Lady GaGa. Each given three Pre War era caberet songs to perform with any backing band of thier choice and exactly an hour to plan the costumes. That would be a ticket.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Here here! That’s a great fantasy bill. Also, Gaga obviously is indebted to Jones, but people don’t tend to make that comparison. Thanks for your comment!

  10. Libby Oh

    Thank you for writing not only about women’s issues, but issues concerning all of humanity in general. Even just after two years of graduating with a degree in Women’s Studies and entering the ‘real’ world, I really miss discussing feminist ideals and exposing the daily bombardment of a hetero-normative patriarchy today. Thank you for reminding me of my true feminist beliefs and showing me that I’m not alone and therefore encouraging me throughout my job search to do something for the better – even if nothing else, to bring awareness. Thank you!!

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks for reading, Libby. Also, here here. Keep fighting that good fight. I’ll be fighting it right along with you.

  11. xiaomaomao

    I just feel like she’s the new eminem/marilyn manson. It’s all about controversy and as a poster said above, her blond locks and good figure help her carry of these weird avant garde styles. Bjork is less accepted because she’s not conventionally attractive, doesn’t care about being popular and genuinely avant garde. GaGa is outspoken, but in a really naff, ‘women should like cook for there men then f*ck em!’ way and it’s so embarrassing. It’s like the spice girls and Girl Power. Stripping off and claiming it’s empowering, doesn’t suddenly make it empowering.

    I watched this youtube video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkzxwrdyRw0
    and you can see how painfully she tries to come off as avant garde, yet she unable to elaborate when the interviewer asks her to talk about her inspiration – something an artist like Natasha Khan or Bjork can do at the drop of a hat, because it comes from the heart. This was an interview where she said she is not a feminists because she doesn’t hate men, she hails men. Scary use of the word, hail, aside. She is reinforcing the male hating feminist stereotype that people love to stamp on feminists. And then she is failing to support a movement which promotes female empowerment – which is something she claims she promotes.

    GaGa also puts out this, ‘I hate consumerism but I’m a victim of it, so will succumb, but it’s ok, because I’ll succumb to it knowing I’m a capitalistic money loving whore’ and that seems to be something that people will accept.
    Never willing to truly address anything. Like you said, not actually willing to question it, but to give in and embrace it.

    Her telephone video was meant to be a vague commentary on this, but what the commentary actually says is …
    I have no idea, and t’s not because I’m an idiot but it’s because neither did Lady GaGa.

    Anyway, good blog post. I’m not buying it either. I wrote a ranty type piece myself

    http://tabbysmusings.blogspot.com/2010/03/go-go-gaga-world-vision.html

    in a bid to try and explain what is so irksome about her.

    peace and love
    =^..^=

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  14. vaguelyhumanoid

    I’m sorry, but I disagree rather strongly.
    Sure, Poker Face wasn’t very feminist, but I don’t see her as appropriating Asian culture at all. While the arguments against Gaga as feminist are there, the validity of them ultimately comes down to what part of her image you’re examining. Regardless of your viewpoints on her in general, however, I’d have to say that Paparazzi’s video was very feminist.

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