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

Sporno: where sport and porn meet and produce a spectacular money shot

Just in time for the World Cup the July issue of the re-launched OUT fea­tures an essay by yours truly on the post-metrosexual pornoliz­a­tion of sport — or what I dub ‘sporno’.  Here’s a (breath­less) taster:

Sportsmen on this side of the Atlantic are increas­ingly openly acknow­ledging and flirt­ing with their gay fans, à la David Beckham and Freddie Ljunberg (the man who actu­ally looks the way Beckham thinks he looks). Both these thor­ough­breds have posed for spreads in gay magazines and both have wel­comed the atten­tion of gay fans because they “have great taste”.

More than this, they and a whole new gen­er­a­tion of young bucks, from twinky soc­cer play­ers like Manchester United’s Alan Smith and Cristiano Ronaldo, to rougher pro­spects like Chelsea’s Joe Cole and AC Milan’s Kaka, keen to emu­late their suc­cess, are act­ively pur­su­ing sex-object status in a post-metrosexual, increas­ingly pornolized world.

In other words: they’re not just sports stars, but sporno stars’

You can read the full essay here.