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Tag: Leigh Bowery

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

Decadence in the dole queue: Leigh Bowery Looks

by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, May 5, 2002)

Thanks largely to a new crowd-pleasing musical, the crowd-panicking Mr Bowery’s name is forever linked in the public mind with Taboo, the fin-de-siecle drugs, sex, and dressing-up club in Leicester Square he captained in the 1980s – the decade in which the 20th century and possibly Western civilisation actually ended. I however, will always associate him with a club called The Asylum, Heaven’s “alternative” night, where I often used to glimpse – in teenage terror – his enormous, corseted frame gliding and fluttering past like a hand-sewn battleship, Copydex-spattered head glowing under the UV light, lime-green nylon ruffs bouncing, black-lipsticked mouth pouting.

You see, just like most of the people who now claim they were there every week, I never went to Taboo. This was partly because I knew I’d get turned away as I didn’t wear astro-turf or cellophane, and partly because I knew that there was nothing I’d want to pull there. But mostly because I was scared. Like the majority of the punters at The Asylum, I was doing my best to look alternative and individual, but not at the cost of looking unshaggable. Like Mark Lamarr and Mark Kermode, I tried, vainly, to say it with a quiff.

One of the fascinating, frightening things about Mr Bowery on the other hand – in addition to the fact that you could fit three or four Matt Lucases inside him – was that he quite clearly didn’t give a f***. He was going to make you look at him and he didn’t care if the looks he got were admiring or just appalled. It simply wasn’t your call – he would take your looks how he wanted. Unlike most of us who hung around that nightclub back then thinking ourselves the bee’s knees, he really was, but he didn’t seem to be interested in what kept the customer satisfied – something which made his famous week’s “residence” in a Tokyo department store window in 1988 even funnier.

The 1980s, you may remember, was the decade of the High Street when we were constantly being told by our prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that there was “no alternative” – although, confusingly, every club had an “alternative” night. Nowadays of course “alternative” is just a TV/TS internet chatroom, and whatever post- punk aesthetic energies it represented have been assimilated by fashion and magazine culture – but back then it could stand for a sincere and reckless rejection of normality and mainstream values, or at least a kind of decadence on the dole.

Leigh Bowery was one of the last and the most gorgeously talented decadents. He was born in 1961 in a town in Australia called Sunshine (no, really, it’s actually called that.) After leaving school he studied Fashion Design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology for a year. He then ran away to London where he became part of the Blitz scene and, inevitably, appeared in David Bowie’s kooky ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video. Unlike many of the other “alternative” weirdos he appeared alongside, however, this was not the apogee of his career. He was the subject of his own 30-minute documentary in 1985, worked with Michael Clark at the height of his powers and posed for Lucian Freud. He also pursued a performance art career that should have drawn a line under performance art, famously “giving birth” with lashings of offal, or having an enema on stage and spraying lucky audience members with the results.

However, as these astonishing pictures collected in Leigh Bowery Looks taken by the photographer Fergus Greer between 1988 and 1994, the year of Bowery’s early but perhaps timely death, testify, this Australian bugger was witty and playful in a way which you had forgotten could be so intense, sharp and alarming. Since the 1980s “wittiness” and “playfulness” have been employed to sell all sorts of banal and toothless things to us… including rubbish musicals about the 1980s. Bowery was more than performance art – some of his best work is better than much of contemporary art. He managed to combine conceptual art with a sense of humour (something that most “real” conceptual art, with more than one eye on the collector’s chequebook, cannot afford). His work was also truly and vividly ephemeral in a way that conceptual art these days increasingly goes out of its way merely to simulate. Oddly, for all its alleged unpopularity and difficulty, modern art is now sitting behind the department store window – but without the irony.


Bowery employs surreal spotted patterns and bizarre sartorial geometry, such as lacey spherical ruffs where his head should be, and asymmetrical clothing to break up the shape, form and outline of what we take to be human, rendering the familiar unfamiliar again – forcing you to realise how little you know the human body, and perhaps how little you want to. There’s a genuine queerness to these pictures, in the meaning of the word which obtained before the 1990s spoilt it. Bowery was an original “in-betweeny” – awkwardly positioning himself between fibre and skin, convention and improvisation, art and craft, male and female, humanity and commodity.

He even turns his own ample flesh into a kind of fabric, marshalling it with corsets and leggings that leave you wondering what’s surface and what’s structure, what’s inside and what’s out. As you might expect in a lad who liked dressing up, there’s more than a hint of a parody of monstrous femininity in his work: fake vaginas appear regularly. But with those pouting lips (on his face) it feels as if “sexiness” is being parodied more than femininity – his creations often resemble Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.


Looking, sometimes between your fingers, at these exhilaratingly bold, ‘ballsy’ images, in a culture which is now completely aestheticised and lip-glossed to death, you’re reminded with a jolt of when aestheticism was still a rebellious, satirical strategy. What’s more, Bowery was never a “success”; he never launched his own label or got his own chat show. His death from Aids in 1994 saved him from that at least.

As these pictures testify, Bowery prophesied, embodied and savagely deconstructed celebrity culture all in one outfit. In a particularly piquant photo, his head, styled charmingly as a turd, emerges, blinking, from a toilet seat around his neck.

Since his death, of course, celebrity culture has backed up and overflowed everywhere, forcing us to wade through shits much less talented than Mr Bowery.

LB Looks 3

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