FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Monday, 2 May 2011
tags: culture, emergence, europe, making sense
While Elton John has described Lady Gaga’s single ‘Born This Way’ as the ‘gayest song ever’, others aren’t so happy with it.
Ben Trott and Arturo Garcia, writing on the UK news site www.guardian.co.uk, accused the pop diva of betraying her commitment to the construction of gender and sexual orientation with a song that’s all about nature and authenticity – the way you’re born, rather than the performative choices you make.
It’s easy to see why the writers should feel this way. Lady Gaga represents many postmodern tropes that, for many, make her the inheritor of the Madonna-Kylie lineage. Her focus on costume, theatrics and self-creation seem to shout ‘postmodernism’ loud and clear. And if she’s a postmodern diva, all about identity play and self-construction, what’s she doing singing about being ‘born this way’?
But another look at her work shows that, in fact, she’s making a radical break with postmodernism.
First and foremost, she’s breaking with postmodern irony. Like Madonna and Kylie, she’s all about theatre and performance. But unlike them, she’s not interested in ironic role play and cultural citation. While Madonna ‘did everything with a wink’ (to quote her own phrase), Lady Gaga returns art to life-and-death seriousness.
When things go wrong on the Lady Gaga stage, they’re not hidden away or ushered back stage. If her feet bleed from dancing in high heels, or she falls off a grand piano, we hear about it. These failures and sufferings are integrated into her act, and into her myth, rather than glossed over as accidental misfortunes.
For Madonna and Kylie, performance is about professionalism: slick, perfect, ironic and managed. In contrast, for Lady Gaga, it’s about blood and guts, stumbles and falls, life and death. It’s become a well-known Gaga commonplace that, for the singer, there’s no such thing as ‘off stage’. She’s ‘always on’, living her art, grafting it into the visceral immediacy of life rather than playing with ironic citation and distance.
Another example is the performer’s Rilke tattoo, which reads: ‘in the deepest hour of the night, confess that you would die if you were forbidden to write’. Unsurprisingly, it’s been ridiculed as one of the most pretentious celebrity tattoos ever.
But the tattoo is significant in the light of her post-postmodernist performance mission, fitting in with her quest to return art to the life-and-death matter it was for 19th-century absolutists of the aesthetic (such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Wilde).
Returning now to ‘Born this Way’, it all makes much more sense. The psychedelic horror code of the video shows alien entities being born from slimy pulsating vaginal forms – indicating there’s nothing ‘natural’ about birth in Lady Gaga’s world. Instead, for her, birth is about artistic creation: the revelation of the radically new, and the emergence of unprecedented and unconstrained representational forms.
The same idea comes through in her mission statement, ‘The Manifesto of Little Monsters’. Here, she claims: ‘We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become, in the future.’
In the manifesto, as throughout her work, Lady Gaga invites fans into a limitless field of representational possibility, which she messianically terms ‘the kingdom’. And as part of this process, she’s constructed a new relationship to image that’s about futurity and birthing (moving away from the citationality and ‘retro fixation’ typical of postmodernism).
So Lady Gaga is significant today for bringing back an absolutist relationship to art, image and representation – moving these concepts away from retro irony, and towards futurity and revolution.
© Louise Jolly 2011
Read the full text of Lady Gaga’s fan manifesto at