That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already

The Gaga back­lash, which recently found itself a leader in Camille Paglia, was inev­it­able. It’s also mis­guided, argues Mark Simpson

(Out Magazine, Sept 24 2010)

My bitch is bet­ter than your bitch! And she wore that dress before yours did! My bitch would kick your bitch’s ass!

This is the kind of thing the older gen­er­a­tion – my gen­er­a­tion — has begun to say ever more loudly about the younger generation’s first bona fide super­star, Lady Gaga. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Grace Jones, and—crossing ourselves and throw­ing salt over our shoulders—Madonna all did it years before Gaga, and so much better.

The world’s most fam­ous gay Madonna fan, Camille Paglia, was recently given four pages in the U.K.’s The Sunday Times Magazine to say this, “demol­ish­ing” Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, as an “asexual, con­fec­ted copycat who has seduced the Internet gen­er­a­tion.” Paglia is a worthy critic indeed, and her mock­ing epi­thet “the diva of déjà vu” is bound to stick like chew­ing gum rubbed in a hated schoolgirl’s hair. But after read­ing her impas­sioned assault — which, for all its fas­cin­at­ing his­tory of female Hollywood stars, seemed to boil down to “she’s not Madonna, and I don’t fancy hold­ing her meat purse” — I found myself lik­ing Lady Gaga more rather than less.

Paglia’s essay was fur­ther proof of Gaga’s import­ance. As I like to say to gay friends of a cer­tain age who rail almost daily against Gaga on Facebook, for someone so shal­low, so tal­ent­less, and so deriv­at­ive she cer­tainly seems to hold your atten­tion. The pas­sion­ate hatred Gaga pro­vokes is all part of her remark­able potency. When was the last time pop music mattered? When was the last time you cared? Until Lady Gaga came along, just a couple years ago, pop seemed thor­oughly pooped. Some nice tunes and hair­cuts here and there and some really excel­lent fin­an­cial insti­tu­tion ad soundtracks, but really, who thought pop could ever trouble us again as a total art form?

Gaga has single-handedly resur­rec­ted pop. Or at least she’s made it seem like it’s alive. Maybe it’s a kind of gal­vanic motion — those pop promos some­times look like Helmut Newton zom­bie flicks — but boy, this is shock­ing fun. And yes, her per­sona is some­thing of a pint-size Bride of Frankenstein, assembled out of Photoshopped dead star body parts. But isn’t every­one nowadays?

Of course she’s not David Bowie or Madonna. It’s not 1972 or 1984. Instead, we’re a dec­ade into a new, blank, digital cen­tury when cre­ativ­ity is cur­a­tion. The pop past weighs heav­ily on our shoulders — but Gaga wears it so lightly and sprightly on her tiny frame it’s inspir­ing. In the flick­er­ing, shape-shifting shape of Lady Gaga, tired old post­mod­ern­ism never looked so frisky. And it turns out to be really good on the dance floor. The 21st cen­tury didn’t really get going, or have a decent soundtrack, until Ms. Germanotta came along with her Gagacious beats.

But the older generation’s resent­ful back­lash against Lady Gaga — how dare the kids think they have a proper star to speak for them! — is well and truly under­way. Paglia’s piece was well-timed and has already promp­ted a host of copycat columns around the world com­plain­ing about Gaga the tire­some copycat. It had to hap­pen, of course. She is now so huge as to be com­pletely unrivaled in pop cul­tural terms — the most fam­ous woman on the planet: too big and tasty a tar­get for the press not to chew up.

That mes­mer­iz­ing meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards — where she picked up eight trophies, includ­ing Video of the Year for “Bad Romance” — dis­played a spooky kind of pres­ci­ence. The inev­it­able lip-smacking Gaga back­lash seems almost to be a pre­de­ter­mined part of the Gaga plot. And to those who like to tut and roll their eyes over the meat dress and intone “It’s been done before, dear,” please remind me again which year it was that a female artist, let alone the biggest artist in the world, accep­ted an MTV award, or any music award, dressed as a rib-eye?

Gaga “wants to have it both ways,” com­plained Paglia in The Sunday Times, “to be hip and avant-garde and yet pop­u­lar and uni­ver­sal.” But isn’t that what really great pop — pop as a total art form — tries to do? Put images and con­cepts into con­texts they’re not sup­posed to inhabit? Like the pop charts? Isn’t that what Madonna at her best was doing? Yes, it’s prob­ably ulti­mately a doomed pro­ject, but if there’s any­thing that approaches avant-garde for the masses, it’s that meat dress at the MTV awards, or that jaw-dropping video for “Bad Romance,” com­plete with smoking skel­eton and spark­ing bra.

In the indig­nant roll call of the artists Gaga has “ripped off,” one who is rarely men­tioned is the Australian-born per­form­ance artist Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related ill­nesses. Bowery defied gender, and pretty much any cat­egory you care to men­tion, with his stun­ning, hil­ari­ous, and ter­ri­fy­ing body-morphing out­fits, some­times fash­ioned out of his own (ample) flesh. Like Gaga, he had a very keen sense of humor about what it means to be human and set out to sab­ot­age con­cep­tions of “sex­i­ness.” Famously, he once lay on a divan in a shop win­dow in a London art gal­lery preen­ing him­self for a week.

Gaga, how­ever, is reclin­ing in the shop win­dow of the world. Paglia’s accus­a­tion that Gaga is “asexual” spec­tac­u­larly miss the point that Gaga is postsexual. She’s post–the now bor­ingly com­pulsor­ily “sexy” world that Madonna helped usher in, bull­whip in hand, which is now as burned-out as that “Bad Romance” skel­eton. Gaga isn’t asexual or even par­tic­u­larly andro­gyn­ous — she’s tran­sexy. She’s delib­er­ately over­ex­pos­ing “sex­i­ness,” mak­ing it as trans­par­ent as her skin some­times seems to be. Instead of just rub­bing her­self up, she’s show­ing gender and sexu­al­ity up by tak­ing them to grot­esque extremes. Even if she some­times looks like Dali dood­ling his ideal inflat­able doll.

But I doubt any of this will per­suade those of my gen­er­a­tion who have decided to spoil the younger generation’s fun and let them know how ignor­ant they are. After all, that’s the only kind of fun we oldies have. Even if her detract­ors’ dreams came true and Lady Gaga was pub­licly burned at the stake in Central Park, they still wouldn’t be happy. “Oh, look at her!” they’d say, rolling their eyes. “She’s so tired! Joan of Arc did that in 1431. She had much bet­ter hips. And she did it in French!”

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

19 thoughts on “That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already”

  1. Christina Aguilera is finally get­ting con­sid­er­ably more atten­tion as the fore­most vocal­ist and lyr­i­cist that she is. I think that explor­ing other pop styles of ren­der­ing have demon­strated her superi­or­ity over any­one. Her voice is without any ques­tion unequaled even in singing Blues. I didn’t real­ize it but she writes her own lyrics,most often. Since she lost weight she is very attract­ive as well.

  2. I don’t par­tic­u­larly care enough about Lady Gaga to love or hate her but say­ing she’s the 1st pop super­star for the younger gen­er­a­tion is an out­right lie. Britney Spears is a big­ger star and more recog­niz­able than Lady Gaga. At one point they did a sur­vey in some ran­dom African vil­lage and they showed a pic­ture of the pres­id­ent of the US (then George Bush) to people but many people didn’t know who he was and when they showed a pic­ture of Britney Spears every­one recog­nized her. Many people still don’t even know what Lady Gaga even looks like, myself included. If any­one was dressed in a weird out­fit and big sunglasses I’d just think that was her. You don’t have to like Britney to know who she is, she’s the most fam­ous per­son in the world for the past 12 years. Lady Gaga is just the new “it girl”.

  3. Madonna and G.. do dif­fer­ent things, just as The Rolling Stones and U2 do dif­fer­ent things at a dif­fer­ent time(extreme con­tex­tual vari­ents) U2 will never take the his­tor­ical place of the Stones who inven­ted them­selves like no other. My feel­ings about Gaga have more to do with the undoubted fact that she is a mob phe­nomenon in the U.S at least. If she was selling a great voice and lyr­ics, she wouldn’t need to dress like a birth­day cake or meat mar­ket. Her place in his­tory is assured as a freak as a con­sequence. I think that without con­tex­tual cul­tural refer­rance we’re speak­ing to the wind.
    It seems like an unne­ces­sary truly weird extra­vag­ance to get the atten­tion of the crowd. From my per­spect­ive , here her voice takes a back seat to her weird attempts to garner atten­tion. Cole Porter would like her voice but he would prob­ably lose his lunch too see what it emited from. Don’t like to sound dis­agree­able but that seems true. God knows I think I’m one of the few in the States who doesn’t wor­ship her for just being weird: this gen­er­a­tions rebel­lion. as if rebel­lion was vir­tu­ous in itself.

  4. The rolling stones suck (U2 is just mush­ier and more tech­ni­fied), mae west was all about the humor of image and not high art or vir­tu­oso per­form­ance — paglia’s cent­ral and utterly ridicu­lous gripe with a pop star of today, from someone who doesn’t deign to bother the audi­ence with opin­ion on clas­sical con­certs. I think a lot of people like to think of mae west as “hot” because they refer to the idea of mae west, as a hot chick rolling around, con­veni­ently for­get­ting that they’d reject mae west today not for her act but for how ugly she is (poor sym­metry, too much devel­op­ment in facial fea­tures, too big cheeks make her look inher­ently “fat”).
    And I can never recog­nize gaga music because it sounds like everything else in tech pop today; all the chicks have the same voice. Pop has always been dom­in­ated by one style at a time, but the voices used to be more var­ied. Forget auto tune, the engin­eer just pumps in the lyr­ics and picks one of 3 voices (dull young boy, angry man, dull wispy girl) from the com­puter’ sound bank. (I say this after a hal­loween street party in the gay boulevard, where noth­ing, I mean noth­ing, but the latest tech pop was allowed on the audio system).

    Ho. Lee. Mo. Lee. Are you spot with cole porter as com­par­ison.
    The even melody, the simple har­mon­ies, the dron­ing, the repe­ti­tious­ness, the light touch of dry wit and arid emo­tion.
    “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love“
    “You Do Something to Me“
    “Anything Goes“
    “I Get a Kick Out of You“
    “Don’t Fence Me In“
    “Begin the Beguine“
    “I’ve Got You Under My Skin“
    “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”

    In the Still of the Night”

    Dumb the vocab­u­lary down and reduce the dynam­ics just a weeeeee bit in those songs, and it is gaga and katy perry and all that, right. there. Marilyn adds a smolder to “my heart belongs to daddy” because she’s mar­ilyn, not because of the snarky song.

    Which is what makes paglia’s can­on­iz­a­tion of elton and madonna as MUSCIANS rather than cul­tural styles and pro­voca­tion (as psy­cho­lo­gic­ally inter­est­ing and socially import­ant as that is), so insane. gaga doesn’t need to meas­ure up to them because they don’t meas­ure but down. All that f’n czerny prac­tice makes the little troll-stars-to-be actu­ally believe that four notes up and four notes down, 50 000 times, con­sti­tutes worth­while music. You’ll get strong fin­gers but tone deaf and soul crushed.

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