‘You know when The Wizard of Oz came out it was considered a flop’
(that was my friend Matt, in a text to me a few weeks ago.) He went on, with line breaks, just like this:
‘And now it’s like’
‘I think the same will happen to Artpop’
For those uninitiated few, Artpop is Lady Gaga’s third studio album. It came out in 2013, the same year that I became extra well-acquainted with the ACT mental health system, and Matt moved to Sydney. For both of us, Gaga’s synth-driven, repetitious tracks, propelled by strident cabaret vocals, mark significant chapters in our lives.
Unlike Born This Way, her second album, Artpop didn’t have the kind of songs you’d play at a house party with impunity. Artpop was only really appropriate to listen to in gay clubs, inside one’s own car, or pumped directly to the brain through earphones, so as to avoid polluting the noise-space of our more 'tasteful' peers.
We enthusiastically exploited all options. Some songs were a weird kind of science-fiction erotica, like Venus, which had the odd but cute rhyme, 'When you touch me I die just a little inside and I wonder if this could be love, cause you’re out of this world, galaxy, space and time…'
Some songs featured rappers, respecting what was then mandatory in pop music. These included the abysmal Jewels n Drugs featuring T.I., and the (much better) Do What u Want with R. Kelly, which I personally interpreted as a kind of anthem for female intellectual freedom: 'You can’t have my heart, and you won’t use my mind, but do what you want with my body. You can’t stop my voice cause you don’t own my life, but do what you want with my body'. I stand by it. At least this reading made her photographic collaboration with certified scum-bag Terry Richardson a little easier to stomach.
Disclaimer: Gaga is not a perfect person, nor is she my personal hero. But she is about the creation of idols, which is why she’s interesting. Artpop was an album about origins. Birth of Venus and motherhood imagery sprung up throughout the videos and her album cover was a Jeff Koons-designed birth scene, showing an inanimate Gaga midway through heaving a giant reflective blue ball out of her spreadeagled legs. But unlike in Born this Way, where she birthed her own head, coated in embryonic liquid (I really am pulling this, lyrics and all, straight out of my memory. Maybe I am a little too involved), this birth had no product. This was origin as loop, as reflection: I exist when you exist. Her gross, sticky synth and exploded sexuality hungered for audiences of all kinds, consumptive and unsated.
As much as I (still) hate Jeff Koons, and I ‘fully get’ why Beyonce is the crowd favourite, I totally agreed with Matt. I managed, despite the input of autocorrect, to text him back:
‘Yeah you’re so tight’
I had another flicker of remembrance, as I recalled old-guard feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia’s 2010 anti-Gaga article, in which she slammed the singer and her fans. I’ve just found it again, now, Camille's analysis of my species:
Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.
Ah, yes, that’s right. Me and my band of alien cyborg mates, flicking mute missives of passive adoration for our poker-faced, meat-dressed queen from screen to screen. She’s not far off, I guess.
My love for Gaga goes back not quite as long as she does. I didn’t understand the hype when she first came out. If I had, I would have paid all of $75 to see her play AIS Arena in 2009. The only thing that struck me when she first emerged with Just Dance and Poker Face was that she was quite ugly, by pop standards. ‘That must be why she wears all those crazy head costumes’, my sister and I reasoned, like the sexist arseholes we were. It was only later that I realised I actually look quite a lot like Stefani Germanotta, as she’s known to her friends. I sometimes imagine myself playing Gaga/Stefani in a movie about her life. I kind of think that an untrained Australian actress with no discernible musical talent would appeal to her chameleon nature.
It happened, like most awakenings, in my first year of uni. One night, I was up late trying to finish an essay, something about Russia or printmaking, or Russian printmaking. I was fading fast and needed energy. I messaged Matt on Facebook, and he said ‘have you watched the Alejandro clip yet’? So I did.
There she was, in her long-nosed, ultra pale glory, wearing a kind of rubbery spider costume with squelchy monocle attachments. The clip went for over 8 minutes, featuring lots of soldier-like male dancers, and Gaga near nude on a bed pretending to ‘do’ them from behind, then elsewhere dressed as a kind of S&M nun swallowing rosary beads. Despite the skin on display, she didn’t look sexy at all. She looked imitative. This was enhanced by her false Russian (?) accent: I know zat we are young, and I know zat you may luff me. But ay jshust can’t be with you like zis annymorre, Alehhandrro.’ The whole thing was grotesque, but also, highly compelling.
There’s a lot of truth to complaints that she’s not truly transgressive, but that's not really the point. This is all fakery. But where many of her counterparts are pedalling male fantasies newly wrapped in female sexual empowerment, Gaga is more like some thrown-up nightmare, where the scary part is the sexuality, amped up by fantasy capitalism, that she portrays. She’s camp in Susan Sontag’s way: ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp but a “lamp”; not a woman but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and in persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension… of the metaphor of life as theatre’. What I mean is, she looks like a character forming from the combustion of other things. That’s how myths are made. That’s what icons are.
It’s not surprising that her latest album, Joanne, which came out recently, has a kind of bluegrass Americana vibe, a sort of Springsteen and Willie Nelson mash up, sung in a drag club. Not a real drag club, but more like a drag club scene in a movie about a kid moving to the big city to find themselves (Young wild American, lookin' to be somethin'). Though it sounds more pared back, it’s more, not less, theatrical. It makes total sense, when you think about it, that her album breaks a few weeks before the most divisive election in history, and it looks less like rampant, techno sexuality and more like a re-visioned longing for some kind of American mythic nationalism.
As I’m writing this, the results of a Trump victory are coming in. It’s not conclusive yet, but it’s pretty damn close. Close enough for me to realise that this stage show fantasy America that I delve into in this album, is not so. For many, this is not overblown camp myth, but something real and recoverable. Gaga was publicly supportive of the Clinton campaign, giving a speech at a Clinton rally in the last days of the campaign. Her speech was delivered with a shuddering voice. She sounded odd, too-sincere, as she talked about the historic moment of voting for a woman for president. She looked bizarre too, in Michael Jackson’s actual military jacket, and was almost crying. She relaxed when she went on stage, to sing Come to Mama: Who are you gonna follow? There’s gonna be no future, unless we figure this out…
Commentators have made so much of the disenfranchised rural and suburban working class, whose jobs have reportedly evaporated and whose relative wealth has decreased. But I’m forced to realise that a mistrust of women has played a greater role than anything. This tendency to relegate women to archetypes: the harlot, the bitch, the mother, the grandmother, has been the driver of this election. That's why I'm pissed off, because this sentiment feels global. It’s possible for Trump, a man whose lie-count is about 63%, every time he speaks, to be anything. To shape-shift. To brag about assaulting a female journalist one minute, and then shake her hand the next. It’s not possible for a woman like Hillary Clinton to be afforded anything like the same license.
Watching this America today, in the same repulsed/fascinated/depressed way I watch The Bachelor, I’m not sure that Gaga’s Hollywood theatrics really are surreal. Her body, thrashing in knicker-sized denim cut-offs in the desert, racked with convulsions like a heart attack, in the video for Perfect Illusion. Her anthem song, Grigio Girls, about women crying together behind closed doors. There’s pain here, some real wrong-doing, even in the midst of sharp-eyed fame. I just feel frustrated and sad.
‘This is an anti-establishment election result’, says the ABC, a line I’m sick to death of hearing. I’m forced to concede that, actually, this has always been more about hating women. Men have made this happen. Those who’ve judged their wealth to be more important than women’s rights to remain free from abuse, to have access to family planning and healthcare, to have basic respect from their leaders, are to blame. Men need to wear this failure; not only those who voted, but those pseudo-intellectuals who’ve ridiculed Clinton, who’ve clung to Bernie Sanders in bloody-minded mockery. Luckily for them, racist nationalist Marine le Pen will likely now win in France, so they can pretend to be feminists again when that happens.
Clinton’s no doubt working on her concession speech now. I bet she’s crying. I hope she’s got some good friends around her- girls, who know what this particular kind of injustice feels like.
I shouldn't have to say, as I just did about Gaga, that Clinton's 'not perfect' or my number one politician ever. Of course she's not. But she was eminently capable. She should have won. And she was slighted by men who still wield more power than they deserve.
I hope that Hillary Clinton will be more fairly judged in future.
She and Artpop might have that in common.