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.