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Tag: Camille Paglia

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

Marry Me, Ms P – But Civilly

A little late -my brain turns to plum pudding during the festering season – I’d like to flag up a section on gay marriage from the stand-up intellectual Camille Paglia’s December column on Salon.com. Mostly of course because it mentions me in a flattering fashion. (If you find mutual love-fests a little queasy, you may want to look away now….)

Maybe because we’re both incurable Freudians dogmatically wedded to his concept of universal bisexual responsiveness, I consider Paglia a genuinely free thinker. Something all-too rare on the left these days. She is also a powerful, sometimes literally incandescent writer with a mischievous, kinky-booted provocative sense of humour. Sexual Personae indeed. Above all, or perhaps below all, she has big, brass, Italianate balls. I’m in awe of them.

And so, whether they know it or not, are Salon readers – that’s why they line up in their hundreds every month to rail against ‘that crazy bitch’ and, the ultimate insult, apparently, ‘narcissist’ on the letters page and demand she be sacked and paraded in chains through the streets of San Francisco otherwise they’ll tear up their Salon party membership card. Again.

In her column Camille makes the case for civil unions over gay marriage rather better than I do. In fact, my own view was very probably influenced by my eager reading of her barnstorming works back in the early 90s (they certainly helped inspire the dissident collection ‘Anti-Gay’). As she writes in Salon:

My position has always been (as in “No Law in the Arena” in my 1994 book, “Vamps & Tramps”) that government should get out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious concept that should be defined and administered only by churches. The government, a secular entity, must institute and guarantee civil unions, open to both straight and gay couples and conferring full legal rights and benefits. Liberal heterosexuals who profess support for gay rights should be urged to publicly shun marriage and join gays in the civil union movement.

In their displeasure at the California vote, gay activists have fomented animosity among African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8 and who reject any equivalence between racism and homophobia. Do gays really want to split the Democratic coalition? I completely agree with a hard-hitting piece by the British gay activist Mark Simpson (which was forwarded to me by Glenn Belverio), “Let’s Be Civil: Marriage Isn’t the End of the Rainbow.” Simpson, who has been called “a skinhead Oscar Wilde,” is famous among other things for a riveting 2002 Salon article that put the term “metrosexual” into world circulation. I appreciate Simpson’s candor about how marriage is a very poor fit with the actual open lifestyle of so many gay men, which is far more radical. Marriage may be desirable for some gay men and women, but at what cost? Activists should have focused instead on removing all impediments to equality in civil unions — such as the unjust denial of Social Security benefits to the surviving partner in gay relationships.

(I’m not sure I’m much of a ‘gay activist’, but ‘rivetting’ sounds entirely accurate to me.)

While fully-equivalent civil unions are much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are being misrepresented as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’ by gay marriage zealots who seem obsessed with appropriating, or perhaps expropriating, the experience of the black civil rights movement and presenting homosexuals as ‘the new blacks’. In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage, called civil partnerships, were introduced a few years ago there is little or no appetite for gay marriage. Very few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually sitting at the front.

Modern same-sex relationships are a new kind of institution. And so are many if not most of today’s cross-sex relationships. Marriage is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality, traditional roles and religious sentiment. That’s why it’s seen most as being between ‘a man and a woman’. This isn’t bigotry – it’s tradition. Which is what marriage is. In the words of the Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the fucking Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

What’s more, fully-recognised, fully-equal – and fully open to all – civil unions, would help to shore up our fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the (very recent) freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, as well as those of women in general, and also metrosexual man.

Which reminds me: I disagree with Paglia’s continued kicking of Hillary Clinton in the same column – perhaps there’s only room for one ‘ball-breaking’ 60s feminist in American public life – but she more than makes up for this with her plucky defence of spunky Sarah Palin against scolding, univocal liberal snobbery that continues to lash against her and the red-state, rural America that she represents. To do that anywhere in the liberal press would be quite something, but to do it on Salon, which during the election became a kind of spiteful schoolgirlish diary of hatred towards the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate is well-nigh heroic. (Did anyone, anywhere write anything about Joe Biden? Even when he frequently put his ‘expert’ foot in his ‘experienced’ bureaucratic mouth?).

On this occasion, Paglia took umbrage with NYT columnist Dick Cavett’s piece ‘The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla’:

Cavett’s piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her “frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences.” He called her “the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High,” “one who seems to have no first language.” I will pass over Cavett’s sniggering dismissal of “soccer moms” as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.

I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?

I love the image of La Paglia taking to the air ‘like a Valkyrie’ and ‘dropping in’ on Cavett in his Montauk retreat. It would be a comically uneven match. Despite an illustrious CV, Cavett’s prose reads as if one of Palin’s bagged, wall-mounted mooseheads had started talking.

I suspect we will wait some time for Cavett’s column defending American English from President Uh-bama’s phony-folksy way of talking when interviewed. Because of course Harvard educated Obama is being condescending, which is just fine, while ‘white trash’ Palin is being who she is, which is completely unforgivable.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.