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Gaga à Gogo

I remember the first time I saw Lady Gaga perform on TV. She was seated at a very large and very pink piano brimming with plastic bubbles. She had barely tickled the flamingo ivory before strutting center stage to engage in a most bizarre choreography. At the time, Lady Gaga was still becoming the icon she is now, and as I was about to press the worn-out channel button on my remote, a dreadlocked violinist joined in the cacophony. I was stunned to see that New-York-underground-chamber-music-scene-poster-child Daniel Bernard Roumain was shredding his six-string violin to the uncanny “Poker Face.”

In any other circumstance, I would have dismissed Lady Gaga for the banality that I—whether for good or ill—associated with her inflammatory pop spectacle. But Roumain’s presence gave me pause. I’d worked with him in the past and knew his music well. I knew his vision for honoring the history of chamber music while pushing the art forward, and it seemed unlikely his collaboration with Gaga was merely a paycheck he couldn’t refuse.

Since that fateful performance on what was then one of America’s most-watched shows, American Idol, Lady Gaga has proceeded to draw considerable ire and admiration for her, shall we say, unique artistic choices. And it’s not difficult to see why many people find her distasteful. The outrageous outfits, strange choreography, excessive flamboyance of her public face, morally questionable lyrics, obligatory rock star lifestyle, and recreational drug use are all reasons for people concerned about society’s moral decency to dismiss Ms. Gaga. To many, she’s a money-, sex-, and drug-crazed diva offering culture yet another avenue for the worship and practice of vice.

And while I most certainly do not condone the recreational use of cocaine or other mind-altering substances (with the exception of an occasional high-quality, small-batch bourbon), I am convinced that there is more going on in the land of Gaga than meets the corrective lens–enhanced eye. Her fashion schemes, shock tactics, and flagrant gestures are far too elaborate and calculated not to be part of something more purposeful than getting rich, high, and laid.

If the worship of the masses is her endgame—with a dash of selfish pleasure in the mix—her choices seem far too risky, far too likely to jeopardize her goddess-like stature. Major pop stars wishing to stay in the spotlight have to walk a fine line of crazy; if they don’t appear crazy or reckless enough, fans will gravitate to the next one in the queue—normal stars are boring. Yet if pop stars get too crazy, party too hard, or push the envelope too far, we see an inevitable fall from grace or slip into irrelevancy, take for example, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, and to some extent, Madonna.

Gaga’s choices are both radical and intentionally unpredictable. They are not the hypersexualized, predictable moves of Madonna or the borderline insane, highly self-destructive, and often illegal behavior of Spears, Sheen, and Lohan. One thinks long and hard about the decision to wear a meat dress (if only because of the difficulty of maneuvering that meat with any panache at all), arrive at the Oscars in an egg, or collaborate with a highly respected, avant-garde, classical-hip-hop musician.

In order to dive into a deeper understanding of Gaga, one must set aside the conventional notion of a dichotomy between “pop” and “art.” Typically, the academy and institutions like the art media tend to place anything “pop” in the category of “unsophisticated commercialism,” grown only for the populous-at-large and unlikely to have anything meaningful to offer in the realm of “high art.” Often this is a fair presupposition: so-and-so exists for the masses, she is extremely popular among teenagers, her creations seem artistically and musically simplistic, and her image is highly contrived; therefore, she belongs in the pop world and is not to be considered part of the art world.

But as we have already seen, with a moderately less superficial examination, Gaga moves out of step with her pop peers and more in step with several “Artists” (with a capital “A”). Lady Gaga’s confrontational—and even grotesque—oeuvre is not so askew from that of Damien Hirst who preserved a whole shark in a tank of formaldehyde and covered a skull in diamonds. Or that of Andy Warhol, whose work was initially rejected for embracing commercialism and pop imagery but went on to redefine the art world as we know it. Then there’s Carolee Schneemann, whose highly sexualized performance pieces and films explored the objectification of the female body and gender roles during the height of the feminist movement. And the not-to-be-forgotten John Cage, whose compositions aggressively challenged the very idea of music by making music out of everything and sometimes nothing. These artists created work that was at times offensive, brilliant, dehumanizing, and challenging, but it was all “art.” Lady Gaga borrows Schneemann’s sexual questions, Cage’s deconstruction of commonly held artistic definitions, Hirst’s shock factor, and Warhol’s sensationalism and melds them into her creations. Her work, like theirs, needs a full and patient examination before a qualitative conclusion can be reached. This way, the evaluation of the artifact can be distinguished from a judgment about the artist who made it.

All too often, we look at art and see only the faults and failings of the artist or dismiss it because it lacks a simple explanation. We look at a painting by Mark Rothko and we see his despair and not ours. We look at Lady Gaga and fixate on her depravity and famemongering and not our complicity in a culture that condones and elevates this person many have deemed despicable. Instead, art requires deep consideration; it isn’t meant to be quickly absorbed, digested, and wasted. Art has the power to play a prophetic role in the world. In some sense, the artist creates a mirror that shows us truth about our world, our culture, and ourselves that we can’t see any other way.

Perhaps Lady Gaga’s work deals with the nature of fame and its destructive potential. Perhaps it’s about the acquisition of cultural power, about the permission that such power and fame gives one to eschew all commonly held mores and morals, allowing the superstar a continually renewable moral tabula rasa. Maybe she is attempting to fully merge the art and pop worlds by engaging in a piece called “Lady Gaga,” where she is the art, a multiyear performance piece that fully devours her humanity as culture continually worships her and expands her mythos. It’s possible she’s offering a commentary on the fickle and selfish nature of the fan or the music industry and how far one must go to stay on top. Whatever the message (or messages), it will only reveal itself over time. And if Lady Gaga is dismissed because she is gross or disgusting, then whatever society might learn about itself from her work will also be lost.

The religious community seems first in line with protests about Lady Gaga and other controversial artists. We are always ready with a quick dismissal. The apparent disregard of these performers and artists for a Christian moral ethic and their penchant for offending and shocking are more than off-putting to many people of faith. However, an unlikely archetype for Lady Gaga and other “distasteful” artists can be found in the Old Testament. According to the Bible, some 2,600 years ago, a man was brought out of the exiled Jews in Babylon to give them a message. He was a performance artist of sorts, commissioned by God to create works of shock and awe to jar an unholy people out of sin.

Consider some of these acts of Ezekiel. He was commanded not to mourn for the death of his wife (Ezek 24:15–18); he “laid siege” to a drawing of Jerusalem on a clay tablet by lying tied up with ropes on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40 days (Ezek 4:1–6); he ate a scroll (Ezek 3:3); he was muted and bound to his house for seven and a half years and only able to speak when God opened his mouth to prophesy (Ezek 3:22–27); he was told to shave his head and beard—a sign of humiliation and disgrace—burn a third of it, strike a third with sword, and scatter a third to the wind (Ezek 5:1–4). But perhaps the most shocking of all is that Ezekiel was commanded during the 390 days on his side to regularly cook his food over human excrement. Not only is that retching, but it was also a defilement of the Jewish purity laws. Ezekiel didn’t have the stomach for it and so God allowed him to cook his food over cow manure instead (Ezek 4:9–15).

Did these acts raise the same concerns about the degradation of society and culture that we hear about today? Were people up in arms over this repulsive behavior of this so-called prophet? I don’t see how people couldn’t have been concerned with what effect these displays were having on their Jewish culture and their children. The God of the Jews commanded a Jew to defile himself, to seemingly break the very laws that God gave. That is how important the message was and how shocking, horrific, and radical the art piece God told Ezekiel to perform needed to be.

Still, the acts of Ezekiel were not a commentary on Ezekiel’s moral uprightness or corruptness; they existed as a mirror to show Israel its own failings and sins. Ezekiel brought a message to the exiled people of Israel that they had wandered from their God and no longer listened to his voice or walked in the way of righteous. This is the work of the prophet: the prophet brings a message of truth by almost any means necessary. And this is the same role art plays in the world. Though artists are not, necessarily, bringing a message straight from the mouth of God to his people, they often are opening the eyes of culture to a truth and reality that was previously unseen.

Is Lady Gaga’s message one that causes us to question ourselves, the nature of our culture, and our worship of the famous? How far can Lady Gaga go and still be offered fame and adoration? Could she intentionally obliterate our mores? Could she wear masks and plastic and meat dresses? Could she kill? Could she lie on her side for 390 days? Is her message good for culture? Will it spur people on to recognize sin and injustice? What does it say about our culture’s discernment that she is both a contentious figure and a hero to young girls? Is she saying our stars are becoming monsters, that we like it and are creating those monsters ourselves? Are we the paparazzi? Is that part of her message? Is she showing us where this road ends? Does it end with her death?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. But I do know that there is more going on in the Lady Gaga experiment than the typical pop garbage many deride. She has taken the language and medium of the Warhols, Cages, and Hirsts and merged it with the pop stardom and media savvy of the Madonnas, Sheens, and Jolies. And she knows that’s precisely what she’s doing. It’s no accident. She has something to say; something more than can be garnered from a few clips you might see on PerezHilton.com and E! Ultimately, I may find her work and message too dehumanizing and destructive to be of value, but I won’t make that conclusion without first continuing to study her p-p-p-poker face.

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Author:
Kevin Gosa :
Kevin Gosa is a classically trained saxophonist who performs most frequently with the roots chamber music duo the Fretful Porcupine. He has contributed articles to the Curator, Patrol, Chamber Music, and Comment. He is Technology Director for International Arts Movement and occasionally publishes original poetry at the Versery. Kevin, his wife, and son live, cook, and garden in Jersey City, New Jersey.
  • Anonymous

    The first time I saw Lady Gaga was on the Miss Universe awards… seems like a lifetime ago, in pop culture years.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin. I think the performance art connection is a critical one.
    I wrote about her recent single, “Judas” at The Other Journal’s “mediation” blog:
    http://theotherjournal.com/mediation/2011/05/15/lady-gaga-monstrous-love-and-cultural-baptism/
     

  • Kate_durbin
  • Jmorgun

    I would argue that Lady Gaga is not nearly as creative as many think… she’s ripped off Cindy Sherman many a time.  

  • Ann Olivier

    I had seen Gaga some time ago on TV, and at that time I thought she was genuinely trying to say something profound about “my art”, but God knows what it was.  This week I saw her on the Letterman show, and she was simply incoherent.  Get that girl to a good therapist.

  • Anonymous

    Love this. Some excellent thoughts to chew on. I’ll be passing this along to several people!

  • Naomi

    Fantastic post with excellent provoking challenges! Thanks for laying it out there and encouraging those of faith to open our eyes and look again.

  • CultureShaping

    Your reading of Lady Gaga is both helpful, accurate and benevolent. With a usually wide view of these things, I approached her work with an affirmation of her artistry. But, there is a cultural problem, I believe, afoot. She is the top downloaded artist in history. Is her work bettering the common good?

    After her interview with Google, and the increasing awareness we can now have of her worldview shaping agenda (9 year old girls on youtube singing her pop-tuneage without adult critical filters, affirming the multi-sexuality and gaga vision of the future world), we should be aware.

    She’s worked the cultural levers (pop music was just her way of shocking her avant-garde peers) and hit the jackpot. 

    She is a great voice for personal confidence (a creational theme we must all celebrate). The switch is flipped, and most hope that is a positive thing. Problem is, a lack of critical thinking causes young ones (and their parents) to assume then what she delivers through the doorway of “personal confidence and good art” is equally good. Critical filters down, like baby chicks, we say “Feed me more of that fun pop.”

    But there is another story we start to see. Watch the interview, all the way through her concluding video. The link is at the bottom through a blog.

    She is highly antagonistic about any specific thoughts about God that would precipitate any specific redemptive ideas about the world. Fair. It’s up to her. Her fans are God for her, she articulates, and she shares mutual worship with them in her events. Fair. It’s her worldview.

    Her views on multi-sexuality and the preferred world of the future? Deifying tolerance and placing freedom at the top of the “highest social good” list. Houston, Jerusalem, New York, Tokyo, 21st century – we have a problem.

    The problem is not the art. It’s the 9 year old with little adult filters eating like a baby chick from her hand. As the top downloaded artist in history, as a Dad, I would ask her to wield her influence well by telling kids they don’t have to believe what she does. But, why would she? Most don’t care if their 9 year old is watching her have virtual sex with her partner in dance in their favorite video.I explore this here – primarily as a parent. http://cultureshaping.wordpress.com/ 

    I like Lady Gaga. I just think, like everyone else in society, she needs to recognize her cultural influence and begin to think like a parent of the family unit in society.

    I’m trying to teach my kids that Freedom is a value that must run in tandem with Restraint. She will only tell them something different. At every turn. And they’ll listen, because she affirms goodness when she tells them they were “born this way.”

    What if everything about us doesn’t arise from wholeness of emotion, or mind? Then, “born this way” becomes a mantra for you to tolerate (not just accept me and love me, mind you, but tolerate) everything about me.

    Culture will alter based on her root beliefs. She is doing well riding this wave – yet she is doing so with a clear agenda – she really does want to change young kids cultural beliefs.

    Here is the Lady Gaga Google Interview: 

    http://cultureshaping.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/lady-gaga-at-google/

  • Pingback: James McGrath, Lady Gaga, and The Bible | Political Jesus

  • Barry L. Kramer

    This is a really great analysis and discussion that you wrote. It’s too bad that everyone is not taught from an early age how important it is to give everything a less superficial examination and help them the mental tools to do so. I particularly liked your point about the ‘conventional notion of a dichotomy between “pop” and “art.”’ It was certainly relevant to the topic and still is. As someone who was guilty of this with my early dismissal of Lady Gaga as “probably another pop star being fed to us” but realizing a year or so later that assessment was completely wrong, I have developed a deep admiration for her art, her social commentary, and her messages, many of which are deeply personally meaningful. For me, at the age of 49, many of the ideas in those messages, which you mentioned but didn’t fully elaborate on, are the same as the ones I’ve come up with on my own after decades of self-searching, introspection, reading, and thought, concepts which represent everything I believe in and are the source of my happiness, self-identity, and desire for personal growth. I could only imagine how much of a head start I could have had on this process if she had existed 20 years ago (which, of course, never would have happened as her success is the convergence of many factors including technology and less restrictions on speech and performance art to name just two important ones).

    If you were ever to follow up with a continuation of your analysis, I’d certainly be there to read it. I wonder what you thought and how you feel about the 2013 “Itunes Festival” performance. If you haven’t watched it (linearly, not in pieces), I highly recommend it.

    The last thing I wanted to mention is how interesting it was to read points about “pop” and “art” in your article from over two years ago and know that her new album, out in a few months, is titled ARTPOP. I’d say you’re one of those who “gets” it.