The Bath Haus of Gaga – sex slavery, stylized revenge, and freakin’ Polar bears!

From “Best of Chicago Art Magazine”, Jan. 2010

Annie Heckman

After months of engaging in a cautious audio affair with Lady Gaga, I saw her new video for “Bad Romance” front and center on my lefty news blog. I clicked over and watched the video open-jawed, less from any genuine shock than from a moment of stark recognition: my favorite things aren’t secret at all, because they are actually interwoven with pop music, fashion, and advertising just as much as they are linked with my life’s private events. That’s right—Lady Gaga’s Michael Jackson-Matthew Barney-Queen-Madonna-David Bowie-inspired madness mixed with vodka and set-the-bed-on-fire fantasies gave me a moment of radical self-recognition.

Gaga says that her music is art, that she herself is art, so it’s worth taking a moment to discuss all things Gaga in terms of art and visual culture. Let’s find some old paintings and open up a can of discourse on this freak bitch, baby.

Entering the world of the video: In the Bath Haus of Gaga, shiny white monsters emerge from coffins to dance. Supermodel attendants in white latex dresses pull a twitchy Lady Gaga up out of a bathtub, force her to drink vodka, and auction her off to a Russian mobster, who for some reason is wearing a wicked chin-plate. She goes to meet the mobster in his lair wearing a bearskin cape, complete with bear head, and sets the bed on fire. Gaga survives, but the last shot shows her smoking a cigarette on an overcooked bed alongside a charred skeleton, sparks shooting out from her heart.

Is it hilarious dance fun to center a music video on sex slavery, a huge real-world problem? Right, no. But the video in its entirety is a revenge fantasy, with Gaga burning up her purchaser. Lady Gaga says the video is meant to show a “tough female spirit.” Combine the plot with the lyrics and this goal becomes complicated a few times over: the words “I want” recur over 40 times in the song. Among other decoding tasks, we have to ask what it means for a young woman in 2009 USA to fantasize about being sold as a sex slave completing revenge on her oppressors. With amazing outfits!

About those outfits, that big white room, the shameless product placements, and the razor-blade sunglasses—for the purposes of this article we’ll whittle this argument down to a few paintings, but I’ve been polling for references. Here’s a sampler list of influences, quotations, and “this-reminds-me-of” moments I’ve compiled so far: Matthew Barney, Queen, David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson and “Thriller” in particular, David Lynch, Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Jean Cocteau, Mannerist painting, Björk, Marilyn Manson, Richard Wagner and opera in general, Marlene Dietrich, the Charleston, Kill Bill, Metropolis, Creature from the Black Lagoon, A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Alien, Barbarella, Batman, early Pedro Almodóvar, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Cabaret, the White Room in Angel, and of course the hallucination-massage sequence in Zoolander. These are only scratching the surface of art and film, let alone fashion.

It’s true that Matthew Barney seems like the hands-down godfather for this video, but before Gaga starts cutting him royalty checks for the use of smooth surfaces and body transformation, let’s go back further in time. Gaga writhing around in a one-sided cage-shower with vertebrae protruding sent me back to early paintings of carefully distorted figures, with the Art History 101 Mannerist example of Parmigiano’s Madonna with the Long Neck (1534-1540) at the front of my memory.

Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola - Madonna with the Long Neck

Parmigiano - Madonna with the Long Neck

Pausing here to gaze on her incredibly long neck, we can consider some contemporary parallels with the Mannerist response to the classic naturalism of the Renaissance; Gaga is shifting and stretching the white cube, pouring vodka on the bulwark of Modernism. A lady with a long neck kicking the shit out of someone is better suited to our discussion though; less distorted but closer to home is Hemessen’s Judith (c. 1540), right down the street in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen "Judith"

Jan Sanders van Hemessen - Judith

I won’t attempt to argue that Gaga’s video is a Judith parable (it’s not) but to refresh everyone’s biblical memory, Judith was smart and sneaky about making friends with Holofernes, an enemy general, and then went into his tent when he was drunk and chopped his head off. Judith’s head-chopping and subsequent delivery of the head to the Israelites sent the Assyrian army on the run, and was framed as an act of deliverance more than revenge. Artists tend to put a spin on things, however, so our visuals on Judith have her taking off her clothes and creating a lot of blood spray. This dramatic moment made its way into many paintings, demonstrating that a smart, sexy woman (and in the case of Hemessen’s painting, a woman who could crush me with her thumbs) lopping off a dude’s head to avenge injustice has been a favorite topic on and off for hundreds of years. Take Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) and you have a solid knot on the historical thread of women depicting women inflicting some very stylized revenge.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith Beheading Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith Beheading Holofernes

From chopping a general’s head off for political purposes to setting a mobster on fire after being traded for sex—a lot has happened in the last millennium. In reading recent reactions to this video, I’ve found responses ranging from raw excitement for the look of the video to disgust at the idea that Gaga is treating sex slavery as a light topic and flashing it at kids. While I don’t really sit down to watch MTV with my “social change” notebook in hand, I think the range of responses is illuminating. A solid revenge fantasy is always going to be simultaneously entertaining and problematic. This particular revenge fantasy allows the viewer to indulge in the re-creation of an injustice alongside the satisfaction of seeing it avenged. If you’re into seeing a woman being compelled to perform for the chin-plate guys and the weird dogs, enjoy. And if you want to see her get away in the end, then you can watch her torch the place before she goes. Bath houses, alcohol, fire, lingerie, blood, charred-up skeletons, dancing ladies, and bear heads make each step of the story into a rich, dense world of drama and gothic horrors that appeals to (ahem) me, along with millions of others. With Gaga as the author and performer of this material, and with such a big time commitment to the Gaga-oppressed part of the story, we know that she wants to watch both sides of the coin as well—herself as potential victim and avenger.

Less-than-perfect representations can serve as some of the best starting points for conversations about difficult topics. So I can’t dismiss the seriousness of the treatment of sex slavery as an issue because of the (awesome!) costumes, and at the same time I have to accept that the video is about many other things besides this solemn topic it introduces. I get to accept that a torrid, baroque music video got me thinking about human rights issues, and that my interest in the entertaining dynamics of the work goes hand in hand with my socio-political concerns. While I can be annoyed by the way “Bad Romance” turns a global tragedy into a musical number, I have to allow for something generative to exist in the overlapping of contemporary social issues and the imagination. And when I consider what kind of video it would be if Lady Gaga tried to set documentary-style sex trafficking footage to music, or perhaps decided to avoid the topic altogether, it makes me want to curl up with my creepy dog, drink vodka, and set things on fire.

Comments (14)

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  1. [...] The Bath Haus of Gaga – sex slavery, stylized revenge, and freakin’ Polar bears! [...]

  2. Thought I’d mention — the director is Francis Lawrence. It seems that Lawrence ran the show but Lady Gaga was very much behind the creative direction & treatments in terms of visuals, plot, and costumes. For more production details, check out this post: http://www.promonews.tv/2009/11/12/lady-gaga%E2%80%99s-bad-romance-by-francis-lawrence/

  3. [...] –> an essay where I get to say ‘freak bitch’ in context. Check out Lady Gaga’s video below and then head over to read my piece in the Chicago Art Magazine. [...]

  4. Carley says:

    There is something extremely surreal for me in this video, like Dali and Magritte surreal. Not only does she reference poignant art historical moments as you’ve discussed, but she also manages to include a number of other well-developed themes (bright, wide-eyed innocence, loss of innocence, sex [as always]), insanely high fashion, bangin’ choreography that’s reminiscent of Paula Abdul/MJ and late 1990s music videos. All while bringing artistic theatricality into her pristine white cube of a music video box. I still love it no matter how many times I see it.

  5. Hey Carley — thanks so much for your thoughts. There are so many layers of references. A friend of mine is really smart about film history so I asked him what associations it called up. He gave me a ton to start with and then more and more kept coming up over the days. I’m going to re-watch Un chien andalou some time soon to follow up on your note!

  6. Kathryn says:

    Annie, I’m working through this in small, amazing chunks. Like I watched the video, didn’t see any of that, and had to watch it again. The whole article is like that. Holey smokes!

    This is crazy-outstanding.

  7. BusterK says:

    I think it’s also important to note the Gwen Stafani similarities, particularly her “What You Waiting For?” video (also directed by Francis Lawrence), which, I believe, was used for the cover of her _Love, Angel, Music. Baby_ album (which doesn’t look altogether different from the opening shot of this Lady GaGa video). (I’m not familiar enough with Lawrence’s work to begin to figure out how much influence he had on either production.)

    With all of the characters that Lady GaGa is portraying in the video, I don’t think it is clear how exactly “Lady GaGa” the owner/proprietor of Bath Haus of GaGa relates to the person who is kidnapped from said bath house. Is this the story of some sort of home invasion where the owner is kidnapped from her bath, or is the Bath Haus where the sexual slaves (of which, a GaGa character is one) are kidnapped? Is Lady GaGa involved with the slave trade? Is the song being sung from the slave’s perspective or from the buyer’s?

    I interpret the ending less as a tale of revenge, and more about Lady GaGa’s untamable sexual energy. She didn’t literally set the bed on fire, but Comrade Chin-plate wasn’t enough to put her out. You get what you pay for?

    For all the people who complain about the morals presented in the video, they should be reminded that the Nemiroff Vodka, and perhaps drinking in general, is portrayed negatively. This from the same person who wrote “Just Dance”!

  8. Carley says:

    While we’re on film references, there’s an entire verse dedicated to Hitchcock: Pyscho, Vertigo, Rear Window (baby you’re sick). All movie titles of his, which she claims to mean that she wants the deepest, darkest, scariest secrets and parts of you for her bad romance. It’s not just “I want your love and I want your revenge,” but “I want your love and all your lover’s revenge” too. She wants your baggage and all of its negative components. Like, “I don’t care what you’ve been through before bitch, just give me your tainted love.” (clap clap–another unforeseen song/artist reference from the 80s/90s?)

  9. Lchia says:

    why does she never mention bjork or the huge obvious influence she got from her…?

  10. Michael says:

    I dont want to find things where they arent buried, but its seems odd that in all of the discussion of atmosphere this video provokes, there is no mention of the overt refrences to gay culture, particularly gay bars and night clubs, where this video seems to be taking place. Rows and rows of vodke bottles displayed as art-advertisement, the body obsessively on display, drag costumes common (at least in upscale extroverted bars, which seem to be an inspiration here), and the general theme of a “Bad Romance”, the mix of want for love and revenge simultantously, speaking, as it were, to the sometimes toxic psychological discord common in the gay culture…

    Just a thought.

  11. [...] also: The Bath Haus of Gaga – sex slavery, stylized revenge, and freakin’ Polar bears! var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="God and the “Gaze”: A Visual Reading [...]

  12. paul says:

    Gaga always inspired mixed reactions. She truly is an artist, and very funny, setting up symbols of value on pedestals to be then knocked down, and implying that something deeper lies behind all the charades.

    At the same time, she’s an utterly shameless exploiter of pop sensibilities and of what shreds remain in the land of taboo frisson.

    But what really surprises me is that the most obvious influence on GaGa, I would say, is never mentioned that I’ve ever seen: Liza Minnelli. From her look, to the way she dances, to the way she sets off her body, to her overall vibe, I’m seeing Liza with a z more than anyone else.

    And that leads to a further point; I don’t understand the praise for her dancing and for the group dances in her videos. Frankly, her dancing isn’t that good, and one can only imagine what it would look like without the cut editing, and her troupe isn’t that good either, and the choreography is weak – dancing seems to be a lost art. Come on, people, the best dancer in pop ought to be able to do better than this.

  13. paul says:

    Also, if you give the hooks a listen, Lady GaGa could be channeling Liza vocally.

  14. [...] certain amount of discourse on modern day slavery in venues not normally reserved for this topic. (Chicago Art Magazine and Technorati both ran feature-length essays on the ‘Bad Romance’ video, and its [...]

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