Storming heaven with Lady GaGa
Recent twitter discussion of Lady GaGa, sparked by this article in the New Statesman, revealed quite a lot of ambivalence about her. I, on the other hand, at some point last year stopped being ambivalent: the young homosexuals of the internet are, in this case, quite right in their enthusiasm. There’s certainly something rather obvious about her sort-of-vaguely-Warhol-gesturing vision of pop as spectacle, but I’m increasingly less concerned by this, although whether this is because she has genuinely transcended these influences, or because I’ve simply decided that this doesn’t matter, I’m not sure.
The New Statesman article, comparing “Bad Romance” to the affects of attendance at the gym (which is surely a critical cliché that dance music has long-since internalized), reminded me of Catherine’s complaint a while ago that Lady GaGa insists on “reminding people about the suffering involved in the production of pleasure,” leading her to come off poorly in comparison to her forebears such as Madonna and Kylie, who “always strike the pose of ease.” I’m not sure this is quite right: while there may not be much explicit thematization of effort in Kylie’s performance, it has a certain biomechanical quality that is not effortless, still less a performance of ease. The effort seems to be an inescapable part of the performance for Kylie, just as Infinite Thought argues it is for contemporary porn actors: it’s not so much that it is explicitly a performance of work, as it is a performance which takes work for granted and renders it unimaginable that dancing, or sex, could be anything other than work.
It’s in this context that Lady GaGa’s posture of a certain transparency with regard to how hard she works is interesting. Not because she’s revealing the hidden secrets of the music industry: the supposed relationship between pop success and hard work is now completely conventional, forming the justifying narrative of The X Factor and similar. But there’s a difference between how hard work functions for reality TV and Lady GaGa. Hard work is part of reality TV’s demystification, its depressive insistence that we’re all just normal people, the result of which is that the output of reality television is usually something so boring that we would, by rights, be paid a wage for consuming it. But Lady GaGa’s effort is not demystificatory; the results are genuinely, marvelously odd, and in this context the focus on her hard work actually increases the mystique, by emphasizing the artifice and deliberation involved: this suggests, if ever so slightly, a work which might not be compulsory, an effort that might be undertaken voluntarily (there’s the faintest glimmer of the realm of freedom in Lady GaGa’s impossible outfits).
Were this all, Lady GaGa would be vulnerable to an argument from The Critique of Dialectical Reason (well, everyone is always-already vulnerable to arguments from CDR, this being Adorno’s pessimistic-Hegelian genius): that art provides limited liberation due to the sequestration of an autonomy that ought to be a feature of our entire lives within the confines of artistic performance. But I do think there’s an element of challenge to this, an awareness and reflection of the ambiguities in the liberation possible through her kind of glamor. “Bad Romance” is particularly noteworthy here: the beat strikes me as not so much pneumatic as ominous, and the stuttering jerk of the synths in the chorus suggests a bulimic queasiness. Though k-punk is right to connect Lady GaGa to capitalist realism, this is true in a rather more interesting sense than it might be. Her records are not, I think, uncritical celebrations of “fashion, wealth, fame,” but, rather, critical celebrations, acknowledgements of dissatisfaction at the contemporary configurations of fashion, wealth, and fame. Daring to find a utopian impulse in these stalwart haunts of capitalist realism is extraordinarily untimely, and highly valuable because of it. In the vein of k-punk and Infinite Thought’s Soviet Goth, I wonder if there isn’t some value in a kind of Soviet Glam. American rock music was used in the USSR as a protest against the drabness of official culture, a cruel joke given that capitalism is the motor of, not an alternative to, this drabness. But perhaps we could resurrect this protest, a communist glam against the capitalist drabness of market Stalinism. Lady GaGa might be the beginnings of a hint in that direction.
The extent to which Lady GaGa has managed to be successful while offering this kind of image is itself a reason to approve of her; there’s a Leninist point to be made about the value of success, and although it’s true that she is a bit Rachel Stevens’s songs in Róisín Murphy’s clothes, a Rachel Stevens/Róisín Murphy mashup at the VMAs is qualitatively different from, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere derivative of, its influences.