Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lady Gaga: The Politics of Artifice and the Ethics of Gaga

It seems that the world has fallen for Gaga - some have fallen in love with her, some have fallen out of love with her, some are falling trying to grasp who or what she is. And in recent weeks, the Gaga has made significant appearances in the New York Times. Feminist Philosophy Nancy Bauer in "Lady Power" (20 June 2010) takes up the cultural phenomena of Gaga in relation to feminism - noting that one must only look to Gaga to get the "bead on feminism." In Bauer's astute reading of Gaga, she notes that Gaga "keeps us guessing about who she, as a woman, is" because for Gaga "woman is a matter of artifice, of artful self-presentation." Bauer's assessment of Gaga, through a reading of Beauvoir, is ambivalent concluding "Lady Gaga and her shotgun companions should not be seen as barreling down the road of bad faith. But neither are they living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification." From Bauer's reading, we cannot be sure of not only who Gaga is (a part of Gaga's style) but also what Gaga means for gender. Does she disrupt gender norms by exposing them as artifice or does she re-entrench such norms? Or does she do both and more, depending on the space/time in which any given individual sees a Gaga performance?

Caramanica in his New York Times article (22, July 2010) "Girl Pop's Lady Gaga Makeover" looks at Gaga's influence on contemporary "Girl Pop" and its move away from the images of the Girl Power of Lilith Fair. It seems in his reading that there is something much more authentic in the granola, confessional style of Lilith Fair that has been lost to the "post-absurdist sexual theatre" of Gaga (taken up in the work of Katy Perry, Kesha, Beyonce, and Nicki Minaj). Gaga's style and those influenced by her artificial, inventive, and aesthetic imaginations focuses not on political critiques around female sexuality (seen in Madonna's early work) but rather focuses on "distraction as an end itself." For him, Gaga's emphasis on the performance, on the self-styling of the artist through her art where her art is her and she is her art is uncomfortable for it fails to show that there is someone, underneath the costumes that is Lady Gaga. Caramanica seeks a confession from Gaga, a confession of her origins, of her self, of who she is.

I find something strange with these recent engagements with Lady Gaga. It seems strange to me that there is this desire for Gaga to be pinned down, to be defined and her artifice finally shown as being truly artifice with a "living, breathing creature beneath." I find this call strange for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a desire that imposes itself on Lady Gaga..."you must confess who you are because in such a confession, you will be intelligible to me. I will finally know you. Your confession will allow me to finally see who you are." Such a confessional mode while allowing "me" to see Gaga, in itself changes Gaga though. It forces her to tell a story she is not wanting or willing to tell about herself. It, in my reading, negates the challenges she poses to notions of identity (gender, sexual, political). Gaga refuses to identify most of the time, although at times makes such a move to allow the play to continue - to keep us guessing and to keep others playing. Yet, her challenges are not mere "distractions" or rather she uses these distractions to open up the imaginary of what one can be or what the world itself could do in its constant re-emergence. She asks us, allows us, makes it possible for us, to get lost in the pastiche of worlds she creates - worlds that are not all rosy but encounter the strange, the horrific, the monstrous and illuminate the beauty of such perversities.

Second, such a call, such a desire, fails to recognize the possibilities in Gaga's artifice. Gaga does not define what woman is nor man. She does not seek to limit what women or men can be and she even engages the idea that persons are objects and in being such an object can find pleasure (a reason I think the S/M imagery plays a role in numerous videos). Gaga does not make nice, but neither does she make mean. Rather, she makes ethics. Ethics is a part of her project and her ethics is not simple. Relations between beings and perhaps even between things are complicated by the artificial, by the artifice. What stories might one tell and how do such stories open up possibilities while also, as they must limiting what stories can be told. Caramanica notes this, perhaps unknowingly, when he criticizes Gaga's images as becoming a "mite too ideological." While I do not oft use the word ideological - I think his comment illuminates the Gaga does not move to far out of a particular imaginary position. She has her limitations BUT such limitations are not a counterpoint to her politics, showing how she fails...but rather such limitations illustrate that she does not operate outside of the world she seeks to expand. Gaga does not invent, she re-invents. She pays homage to (e.g. Warhol, Madonna) and in paying homage, she re-invents, she creates anew. She is not original because there is no such thing nor is she simply mimicking her predecessors. She is re-performing, re-telling, and as such re-creating stories that we might tell about ourselves.

And, it is this that illuminates Gaga's ethics - Gaga seeks to tell stories and open up the telling of stories that create a world for monsters that is based in love. She tells a story of love using the imagery of monsters, rarely associated with love, in order to allow the monstrous to love itself and to love others. This might be seen poignantly in her recent response to the Westboro Baptist Church's protest where she told her monsters "Although I respect and do not judge anyone for their personal views on any politics or religion, this group in particular to me is violent and dangerous. I wanted to make my fans aware of my views on how to approach, or rather not approach, these kinds of hate activists." Gaga did not seek violent reactions, but sought inaction against the protesters - allowing them to "be" outside - while inside love won out and the monsters sang.

Such love though is not is does not seek to be authentic or even real because, once it becomes those things, it loses its critical capacity in the imaginary. And to lose the imaginary is to lose the potential to re-create the real, to recreate the images that are possible in the real world.

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