God and the “Gaze”: A Visual Reading of Lady Gaga

Jen Hutton
This article was originally published in C Magazine, Issue 104 (Winter 2009-10).

Karin Bubaš, Bubble Dress, 2009, chalk pastel on velour paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

The majority of this magazine’s readership probably bypassed the telecast of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards but most of the general public’s chronic short-term memory can evoke Kanye West’s gaffe of interrupting young country singer Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, and perhaps Madonna’s tribute to Michael Jackson. While these moments certainly eclipsed the rest of the show, let us recall a more triumphant moment when Stefani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, won Best New Artist, an award determined by MTV viewers.

The recognition is certainly deserved. At just 23, Lady Gaga is only the third artist to have three number one singles from a debut album. Released in 2008, The Fame has already sold over four million copies worldwide to date.[1] It’s not surprising: her disco- and glam-rock-inflected melodies are catchy and propel the songs (since her lyrics, at first listen, seem about as deep as her image), and most of what she produces is easily digested by adult and tween fans alike. But among the female pop A-listers set to perform as part of the televised awards, including Swift, Janet Jackson, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Pink and Alicia Keys, Gaga looked conspicuously out of place.

Lady Gaga has been watched incessantly since her album’s release, more because of her predilection for outrageous fashion—from a clusterfuck coat of stuffed Kermit the Frog dolls to a black BDSM-styled mask to a hijab that completely concealed her face to a ringed metal diadem that orbited freely around the singer’s head. True, there was nary a sartorial blog that passed over the image of Gaga on stage that evening. In a see-through red-lace dress that extended up over her face and culminated in a tall, jagged crown, Gaga hefted her trophy in the air with one hand and dedicated it to “God and the gays.” Had it not been common knowledge that the performer credits the gay community for supporting her career through much of its early stages, this could have been taken as an easy misquote. But, deriving a deliberate malapropism from a potential acoustic error draws attention to Gaga as a generator of an iconoclastic aesthetic that moves beyond the vanity of fashion, thus creating a formidable cultural phenomenon that questions, defies and upends the very system that holds her up.

Like her peers, Gaga’s persona is constructed via a machine: a multitude of video clips and sound bites chronicled on a daily basis and “archived” online for immediate consumption. Savvy Internet browsers can dig deep to find her clips of her as a teenaged Stefani Germanotta, with brown hair and Ugg boots, singing and playing keyboard with a backup band in nondescript New York clubs. By the time she had adopted the moniker Lady Gaga—a nod to glam-rock band Queen’s hit “Radio Gaga”—she was already one-half of pop-rock-burlesque club act The Starlight Revue, lighting cans of hairspray on fire as Black Sabbath blasted from the speakers. After The Starlight Revue performed at Lollapalooza in 2007, she started writing songs for other artists like Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls and eventually signed as a solo artist with Interscope.

Becoming Gaga was a major transformation for Germanotta, but underneath the hairpieces, sunglasses and face paint is a charming personality that one could mistake for the young ingénue Edie Sedgwick—also doe-eyed and pantless—but she aligns with her idol Andy Warhol in more than looks alone. She shows unbridled enthusiasm for everything Warhol, echoing his characteristic appreciation for glamour and pretense. Gaga’s parallel rise to stardom sometimes appears so surreal that you have to wonder when everyone will catch on to its irony. She is Perez Hilton’s BFF, and has been interviewed by Paris Hilton. She pursued a song-writing collaboration with Michael Bolton. Her hit single, “Pokerface,” has already been covered by Weezer and Faith No More. She once walked down the red carpet with Kermit the Frog. Marilyn Manson has offered to give her a cervical exam. She has made appearances on nearly every major network franchise, from Dancing With the Stars to American Idol. Product placements for alcohol, energy drinks, an online lingerie store and a gambling site are brazenly given screen time in her videos. Fully immersed in the bizarre limelight of fame, while Warhol generally posed an evasive stance, Gaga lays it all bare. In interviews, she is unequivocally sweet, candid, intelligent and fierce—but she insists that everything you see is part of the performance.

At the MTV awards show, it was groundbreaking but entirely logical that the number of performances by female artists outnumbered those by male artists, especially considering that, in accordance with Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “gaze,” it is female popstars who have supplied currency to MTV since the beginning. The celebrity economy is a robust, self-perpetuating system that turns people into personas—provided they are willing to remain a part of it. Stardom is only enhanced by remaining in circulation and surrendering the self to be consumed—i.e., talked about, filmed, and photographed—in other words, to be looked at. Gaga’s performance of her single “Paparazzi” was a send-up of the fame-whoring of this system. Most of the performance was pretty standard fare: Gaga and her bevy of backup dancers dressed in a bastard Baroque style in white lace, pearls, marabou and tulle. These costumes cobbled together elements from her video for the song, which chronicles Gaga avenging a crippling accident caused by her lover and her subsequent fame as a glamorous murderess. On stage, Gaga started off prone on the floor—apparently post-accident—and, following a quick costume change and a couple of verses, hobbled downstage with a chrome “designer” crutch. After a vigorous piano solo halfway through the song—with one leg up on the keyboard, natch—Gaga performed her most “honest” gesture to date. While singing, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she staggered towards the crowd, and with one arm she gestured towards the piano, indicating that she had given her all (anything to win our affection). Next, her arm curled inward and blood started streaming spontaneously out of the front of her bra and down her torso. The effect was unsettling and hyperdramatic but very real. She then collapsed into someone’s arms, and was whisked away into a huddle of dancers upstage. The performance ended with a limp Lady Gaga rising out of the mass of bodies and into the air by a rope tied around her wrist. As her body, now covered in blood, turned around slowly to meet the audience, she nonchalantly raised her free arm in a shrug, as if to acknowledge her inevitable demise as a pop martyr.

Pop celebrities, particularly within the context of MTV, are predisposed to shock. Gaga is operating within a sphere whose members are constantly looking for ways to one-up each other, lest they dry up and be forgotten (this is where Andy’s 15 minutes of fame feels the most poignant). Her performance of “Paparazzi” that night was pure entertainment, but it was also a calculating parody. This unshakeable ironicism is reflected in other Gaga gestures, such as setting her breasts alight with sparklers, or brandishing a glowing sceptre onstage to underscore the line “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick.” Although the performer states that what she does isn’t camp, her cheeky lyrics soaked in innuendo (“I’m bluffin’ with my muffin”), the cabaret-styled interludes in her concerts, the burlesque props and theatrical costumes suggest otherwise.

In her book Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, Pamela Robertson acknowledges that camp has historically been associated with gay men, serving as a means to assert queer politics, or to come out in a pre-Stonewall era, but suggests that camp is an equally powerful tool for women to reveal the performative nature of gender identity.[2] Therefore, Gaga’s gross exaggerations of femininity—chromed Thierry Mugler corsets, shoulder pads, geisha lips, false eyelashes, self-tanner and hair bows—may be appropriated elements of drag but they are also political gestures.

Karin Bubaš, Feather Bunny Ears, 2009, chalk pastel on velour paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

So if the hyperbole surrounding Gaga is correct in suggesting that she is Madonna’s pop progeny, then we should follow by example. Neither Madonna nor Gaga can claim authorship to camp, since it borrows its tropes from elsewhere. By the time the former’s Blond Ambition tour rolled around, pop had already demarginalized and absorbed camp taste, thus revealing it to the mainstream. Whether they invoke the faux queen or the drag king, Gaga and Madonna reference components of gay subculture, like vogueing and club music, in order to infiltrate a patriarchal and heteronormative system. Both women have a gift for self-reinvention, but while each iteration of Madonna’s image—Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marlene Dietrich, Eva Perón or a club-hopping hustler are but a few examples—is based on specific, anachronistic archetypes, Gaga knowingly ascribes to a postmodern formula. Visually and aurally, she is all at once a constructed pastiche of references—80s electronica, David Bowie, glam rock, Minnie Mouse, disco, Grace Jones, couture, Dusty Springfield, bondage gear, Freddy Mercury—all absorbed into a whole. Filtered through her in-house “design collective,” The Haus of Gaga (the new incarnation of Andy Warhol’s Factory), all aspects of her life have collapsed into one shape-shifting hybrid visible for all to see and hear. Like Madonna, her intention is to become a sexual subject, rather than an object of desire. However, Gaga is more successful in rupturing the idea of the superstar in a system that caters to a male-driven gaze. Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, Gaga said:

Well, yeah, I take my pants off, but does it matter if your pants are off if you’ve got eight-inch shoulder pads on, and a hood, and black lipstick and glasses with rocks on them? I don’t know. That’s sexy to me. But I don’t really think anybody’s dick is hard, looking at that. I think they’re just confused, and maybe a little scared. It’s more [Marilyn] Manson to me than it is sexy.[3]

Generating the image of shock-rocker Manson and selecting him as an ally is seemingly self-destructive—iconoclastic in terms of the squeaky-clean popstar she is meant to be—but it segues well into Gaga’s next phase as an artist. Notwithstanding her affinity for Muppets, Gaga identifies with “monsters,” a term used in her interviews and incorporated into the planned re-release of The Fame. Generally referred to as people of unnatural or extreme ugliness or deformity, monsters are beings that, as Georges Canguilhem writes, generate two opposing reactions:

It is surely the confused sense of the importance of the monster for a correct and complete appreciation of the values of life that underlies the ambivalent attitude of the human mind towards it. This consists, as we have said, in fear, and even panic terror on the one hand, but also, on the other, in curiosity and even fascination. The monstrous is an instance of the marvelous in reverse, but it is, nonetheless, an instance of the marvelous. [4]

Terror and fascination are undeniably connected to Warhol’s universe of car crashes and garishly painted celebrity icons, but Lady Gaga associates with those organic hybrids operating outside of the norm: the disabled body, the bleeding body, the cyborg. Gaga herself puts it more simply: “If you watch anything that I’ve ever done it’s very sexy but there’s an androgyny to it and it makes some people slightly uncomfortable.”[5] Her reference to androgyny is also an acknowledgment of the queerness of her performance—the word is as much a paean to Bowie and Jones as it is a euphemized “safe word” for a destabilized concept of gender. This admission somewhat runs parallel to the persisting gossip that Gaga is intersexed (i.e., a hermaphrodite), bisexual or a “tranny.” True or not, these labels attempt to be disparaging but really only reinforce that Gaga cannot be pinned down.

So Gaga’s performances are not only camp but a type of genderfuck, a position that can be tied to the concept of the monster. By no means is it meant to be a pejorative comparison: it’s just that her performance destabilizes what we perceive as “normal” and, more importantly, works against it, thus opening up a frank discussion about (sexual) transgression. Gaga is queer because she’s anything but straight—which is to say that she is dissolving the sexual binary and maintaining a “slightly uncomfortable” space that is in direct opposition to heteronormative behaviour. For example, when BBC talk show host Jonathan Ross asked her to confirm if she was indeed a “well-endowed young man,” she replied coyly, “Well, I do have a really big donkey dick.” In fact, the object of Gaga’s desire in her songs and videos shifts between genders: “Pokerface” alternates between masculine and feminine pronouns; in “Love Game,” a video that makes oblique references to Liliana Calvani’s sensational film The Night Porter, we see Gaga making out with a male cop, but in a subsequent scene that same cop appears to be a woman.

Some might charge Gaga with playing up her bisexuality as a marketing ploy, catering to a culture now accustomed to Girls Gone Wild, “lesbian-chic” and raunchy expressions of femininity, but her words and actions affirm that she ascribes to a sex-positive feminism that embraces transgression, and therefore, personal liberties. Her penchant for being pantless is not meant to entice sex as it is to free her own sense of sexuality:  “Being a woman in the pop world, sexuality is half poison and half liberation. What’s the line? I don’t have a line. I am the most sexually free woman on the planet, and I genuinely am empowered from a very honest place by my sexuality.”[6] This rejection of moral responsibility emphasizes Lady Gaga’s unique position as an artist, as someone who manages to garner acceptance in the mainstream while constantly going against it. What she projects and performs is used as a foil to parody pop and celebrity culture, and subsequently problematize the biased and engendered systems that support it. While it doesn’t hurt that she already fits a specific archetype worthy of consumption—young, blond, white, petite—her ability to straddle both the (super)normative ideals of pop culture and bring queerness to the foreground is a huge step forward. Gaga’s ascendancy from gay icon to advocate—confirmed by her speech and performance in support of equal rights for LGBT citizens at the National Equality March in Washington, DC, in October—only stresses her importance in the public eye, especially among younger generations. While we must acknowledge and hold onto the social and political gains that the gay community has made despite ongoing inequality and homophobia, most lobbying and legislation intended to establish equal rights only reinforces existing hierarchies within that same community.

Mainstream culture tries to be gay-loving, and it has come a long way in terms of acceptance, but it’s generally queer- “lite.” Played out on television, gayness is represented by irreverent yet “palatable” personas like Rosie, Ellen and the characters on Will and Grace. Top 40 pop has made more effective strides: foregrounded by the gender-bending era of glam rock and disco, the torch is being carried by acts like the Scissor Sisters and Le Tigre, who do not shy from making differentiation visible within queer politics itself. Like camp, pop music depends on frivolity and glamour, but unlike camp, its radical potential is severely limited. With a stiletto planted in both mainstream and marginal territories, Lady Gaga unabashedly invokes both the monstrous and the marvelous while using camp to critique the nature of her enterprise.

Jen Hutton is an artist and writer.  She currently lives in Toronto.

Karin Bubaš is an artist who lives and works in Vancouver. Her work was recently shown in Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual at The Vancouver Art Gallery.  She is represented by Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver and Clark and Faria in Toronto.

[1].  “Lady Gaga returns with 8 new songs on The Fame Monster,” Interscope Records.com (October 8, 2009), accessed October 30, 2009; http://www.interscope.com/artist/news/default.aspx?&aid=599&in=21.

[2] Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (Durham: Duke UP, 1996), 4, 11.

[3] Whitney Pastorek, “Lady Gaga: Bonus quotes from the dance-pop-queen!” Entertainment Weekly.com (February 9, 2009), accessed October 30, 2009; http://popwatch.ew.com/2009/02/09/lady-gaga-inter/.

[4] Georges Canguilhem, “Monstrosity and the Monstrous” in The Body: A Reader, eds. Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco, (New York: Routledge, 2005), 188.

[5] Lady Gaga, interviewed by Matt Thomas, fab magazine, Issue 362 (December 24, 2008), accessed October 30, 2009; http://www.fabmagazine.com/features/362/Gaga.html.

[6] Pastorek, 2009.

This article was originally published in C Magazine, Issue 104 (Winter 2009-10).

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