Lady Gaga's whole career could be summed up as a series of public spectacles. The Bubble Dress. The Kermit Coat. The epic "Telephone" video. Unsafe airplane attire. The Meat Dress. Now there's the Prime Rib Address. It would seem that Gaga, despite announcing a new album, overshadows her day job as musician with this side gig of being a 24/7 public performance.
When Camille Paglia lambasted Gaga in London's SundayTimes, barely anyone batted an eye. Paglia ran through a familiar course of criticisms: Gaga attended a posh high school; her personality is a corporate chimera; she's not sexy or smart. But buried under her tirade was the seed of something significant. When Paglia wondered how Gaga, "a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism could have become the icon of her generation," she actually stakes out an interesting jumping off point for thinking about the pop android.
It's easy to say Gaga's got no there there. Her chameleonic character — always wearing a different get-up, aping another epoch, appropriating another's style — is supposed to speak truth to the power of corporate advertising and media. When a singer's only true passion seems to be to subvert passion, she can't help coming off as "calculated," "artificial," and "clinical."
But have you heard Lady Gaga's music? It is none of those things. Her music is simultaneously brooding and sexy. Her best songs are propulsive club bangers. Her ballads are keenly heartfelt. Even the seismic shifts of Gaga's public persona belie a high level of passion. There are easier ways to make money than staging concerts with costume changes numbering in the double digits.
There are some bedrock certainties that ground Gaga's career. A primary one is her resistance to the conventions of the male gaze, a film term meaning that women are always seen through the lens of men. From her freakish outfits to the overt homosexual relationships portrayed in her videos and stage show, Gaga continuously defies male heterosexual desire.
Another way she defies heterosexuality is by the audience she cultivates. Gaga found an early rush of support in the LGBT crowd. It could be said that the androgyny, same-sex romance, ostentatious displays — her entire persona — are especially appealing to gays. In an early interview, Gaga said, "I've got so many gay fans and they're so loyal to me and they really lifted me up. They'll always stand by me and I'll always stand by them." By appealing to the so-called freaks and monsters of society, Gaga is both staking her claim in the culture war battleground, and building a large, passionate fan base. Her career-long crusade for gay rights can be seen as good and good for her career.
In a message to the U.S. Senate on her website, Gaga said, "I am here to be a voice for my generation." Like everything she does, Gaga's going big.
Her Prime Rib Address in Maine was intended to help sway two undecided Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Calling back to her meat dress, Gaga said, "Equality is the prime rib of America. Equality is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation. And I don't get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer." After the failure of the most recent push to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Gaga will have to continue to wear her equality rather than eat it.
The big question is whether this passion for equality is genuine, or just another ultra-savvy marketing move from one of the savviest people in the game. That we have to even ask such a question is put into place, ironically, by Gaga's own particularly skilled manipulation of media and message.
One of the interesting things about Gaga's recent public appeals is that she doesn't forcefully invoke any part of the Gaga brand. In her web video and address, she used her given name, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. It's as if she doesn't want to spoil her message by using her stage name. Or maybe it's an essential part of the point: Despite the cultural differences — work, gender, race, income — we are all people, and we all deserve the same rights.
If Bono appeals for the future of Africa, he's Bono — the frontman of one of the most long-lasting, popular bands in history. When Gaga appeals for gay rights, she's just Stefani Germanotta, from the shoddy clubs of the Lower East Side. She may have been dressed as an unhinged Gloria Steinem lookalike, but Gaga's Prime Rib Address saw her public image turned down to its minimum volume. And even as she cited her ostentatious meat dress, she made the appeal that everyone should get to wear one.
At the end of it all, Gaga's whole built-up image may exist to teach us that we're actually all the same. Anyone can dress like a freak, but that doesn't mean he or she is one. Artifice is available to anyone, but rights are still being withheld from many. And by failing to incorporate her stage show into her political life, Gaga might just be revealing the one genuine thing about her.
Fuse September 28, 2010