Not that I want to suggest in any way that I saw her before she was cool, but I did see Lady Gaga perform last summer when she didn’t feel as huge as she does now. It was at Oxegen music fest in Ireland, and I went primarily to see her and Katy Perry. I wasn’t fans of either particularly, but I liked their songs and was glad that fun dance-pop had staged a comeback after the last couple of bleak years. Katy Perry was energetic and connected with the crowd, even coming out from under her enclosed stage to get soaked in the rain with the audience.
Gaga, on the other hand, from the odd intro video to her singing voice to her kept-at-a-distance attitude, was pretty darn awkward. It felt like the audience had wandered into a gallery and now were forced to watch performance art. A guy walked around with a poster that said ‘Lady Gaga has a camel toe!’ and, when asked by the next performer “how’d you like Lady Gaga?” one of the boisterous Irish girls I was with screamed “She was CRAAAAAAAAP!”
Some time later, my friend Eduardo sat me down to watch the ‘Bad Romance’ video. “Isn’t it so good?” While I liked the song, the video’s nightmarish mix of murder, vodka and glaring white light kind of terrified me.
And I still feel disconnected from her. The fact that I enjoy her songs like ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Love Game’ (we had a lot of fun singing ‘Paparazzi’ at karaoke the other night) leads me to believe it must be something about her image. It’s funny that Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, in an article about how today’s celebrities reveal too much, that Lady Gaga would be wise to keep quiet like the legendary Garbo, because I want her to say more. Despite the fact that she’s been great about gay rights and has talked openly about her life and career, I still do not associate her with any idea or personality.
And all the costumes are exhausting. I read her profile on Wikipedia and learned, along with the alarming discovery that she is a year younger than me, that the blonde wigs came from her not wanting to be confused with Amy Winehouse (presumably, being confused with Christina Aguilera was better) and that the name supposedly derived from a cell phone autocorrecting Queen song ‘Radio Ga Ga’. Lady Gaga reportedly said “don’t ever call me Stefani again” and one wonders what happened to Stefani Germanotta.
The process of putting on an alternative identity, especially a musical, sexually aggressive one incorporating wigs and outlandish fashions, ties Gaga to drag queen culture far more than her support of gay rights and her androgynous look.
Which leads me to my last point, which is in her support, although it won’t sound like it.
I think that Lady Gaga is the first music superstar who uses sexuality without being sexy herself. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not calling her ugly or suggesting there is not a place for non-conventionally attractive women. I am the first to defend actresses and singers when people declare flatly that they are not pretty, as though that was a valid conversational contribution in of itself. I’m not saying anything about my feelings on her looks.
All I’m saying is, almost every other pop star who has a sexualized image, from Madonna to the Spice Girls to Britney Spears, has been helped by being appealing to the straight male population. While taking agency over their images (especially Madonna), which endeared them to straight women and gay male fans, their conventional attractiveness allowed them to simultaneously be the object of, to use the academic term, the heterosexual gaze.
And I don’t think that’s the case with Lady Gaga. She dresses provocatively (hell, she never wears pants, not even to a baseball game) but, despite her inarguably great body, I can’t really picture a group of straight men standing around a bar lusting after her. I could be forever biased because of the Video on Trial episode in which the entire panel of comedians (male, female, straight, gay) mocked her for being a “but her face” (“Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-butter face!”), but I think she may have succeeded in titillating the public’s interest without becoming a sexualized object.
This is really apparent in her ‘Telephone’ video with Beyonce, who’s deliberately stilted dialogue annoys the heck out of me (and also, is she obsessed with murder?). Rather than look plain next to the gorgeous Beyonce, Gaga looks the sexiest she ever has, while her campiness rubs off on her, who suffers exaggerated eye make-up, Betty Page bangs and absurd (and frustratingly memorable) editing which turns Ms. Knowles into a gaping fish.
If Gaga’s star continues to climb, and the fact that Christina Aguilera is now stealing her look demonstrates how little competition she has, we’ll see if behind those sunglasses there’s transgressive ideas to match the persona.
And let the hate mail begin!