This will be an interesting one and I swear that it is not my intention to turn this blog into a venue for pop music criticism … but since we had a rather interesting discussion around Lady Gaga in one of my grad seminars last week, I somewhat feel the urge to weigh in on this. Now first off, let me tell you that I personally feel rather indifferent towards the whole Lady Gaga phenomenon/hype whatever you want to call it.
Surely, Lady Gaga (birth name, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in case you want to know) has been pushing the boundaries, playing with her supposed “illegibility,” and stirred some social anxieties ever since the release of her debut album “Fame” in 2008. She’ been a favorite among parts of the LGBT community although that relationship was severely complicated after her release of the single/album “Born this Way” – leading back to heated discussions whether homosexuality is something you are born with due to certain biological and physiological determinants, or rather a socio-psychological development .
Further, her use of the term “Orient” was viewed by many as problematic and racially insensitive –
Don’t be drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby, you were born this way
In his famous book “Orientalism,” Edward Said argued that the Orient signifies a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and Western empire, whereby the Orient functions as a mirror image of what is inferior, alien and “other” to the West. Thu, the Oriental represents a sweeping generalization and as a stereotype crosses countless cultural and national boundaries. I could elaborate on this more but this is somewhat beyond the actual point I want to get to.
In the past few years, Lady Gaga has also entered the realm of academia and has been taken up by numerous scholars. There are now several online journals, such as Gaga Stigmata, that deal exclusively with the Gaga phenomenon. This is interesting to me in itself, since I’m still struggling to really see her novelty or provocations as something extraordinary exceptional that would deserve so much attention …
One particular post on Gaga Stigmata, which was authored by Jack Halberstam titled “You Cannot Gaga Gaga” (published in April, 2010) really caught my attention and was the focal point of much of our class discussion. In this post, Halberstam is clearly very – let’s say enthusiastic – about Gaga by providing a thorough analysis of her “Telephone” mini film/video (directed by Jonas Ackerlund) employing a Deleuzian reading of affect and flow.
First, Halberstam argues that the push and pull of the game of telephone resembles the rhythms of hetero dating whereby Lady Gaga and Beyoncé decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone – “instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone.” Secondly, and even more provocatively Halberstam inscribes an act of castration whereby the phone symbolizes a dick they are about to rip off: “Oh yeah baby. Your phone is going to be off the hook, your land line is now cordless, your cordless lost reception, your mobile is turned off, your girlfriend is turned on and she is escaping in a pussy wagon with another woman!”
After watching the video a couple of times, I honestly have trouble following this particular reading. While I Halberstam certainly provides some interesting interpretations of the telephone, what slightly startles and disturbs me, however, is the overt neglect of some pretty obvious shortcomings of this clip: while Halberstam praises the use of female body builders and female body artist Heather Cassils in the clip, asserting that this “gives sisterhood a brand new name: NOISE . … The prison yard kiss with Cassils, in particular, reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics;” there is no mention at all of how the jail scene (which comprises the first 4 ½ minutes of the entire clip) highly eroticizes the prison as a fun dating, stripping play-ground for wards and inmates alike.
Further, while Halberstam exalts in Gaga “camping camp, she is dragging drag, she is ironing irony (ok…ok), she has done it, been it, worn it. And be warned, don’t call her, she’ll call you!” what really annoyed me most in that clip is the EXCESSIVE use of product placements visible throughout: you find anything from Virgin Mobile, Samsung, Polaroid, Miracle Whip, to Wonder White Classic bread just to name a few. Also concerning the originality of the clip, I clearly preferred Uma Thurman’s vendetta against Bill in the original Pussy Wagon
Lastly, and I think this goes back to questions of the phallus and the male gaze, I have the feeling that this clip is actually very much re-invoking a heteronormative matrix: as Beyoncé and Gaga are dancing their way through the second half of the clip in numerous short, tight, and lascivious outfits, they seem to work awfully hard to keep that heterosexual phallic, male gaze engaged by putting on a pseudo soft-porn/lesbo show. But please judge for yourself on how Gaga stole the Pussy Wagon …