A Contrarian View of Lady Gaga

By Thea Lim and Andrea PlaidLady Gaga Beyonce WireImage

After watching her Facebook news feed fill up with links to articles adoring the politics of Gaga, Thea emailed her local sex/race/gender/pop culture expert: Andrea.  Thea was puzzled by the wild adulation heaped upon Gaga as “transgressive” and “binary-breaking” by the gender studies crowd…not because Gaga is without merit, but because Thea could think of lots of other mainstream artists who had tried to play with appearances and femininity, and not gotten the same love.  When those adulations started to slide towards race, suggesting that Gaga’s work could be read not just as gender subversive, but also questioning and decentering whiteness, it was time for a Racialicious convo.

Thea: I was reading some articles over the weekend about how trangressive the video for “Telephone” is, and I couldn’t help but feel that people are reading things into her work. Not that there is anything wrong with that (especially considering what I do on Racialicious), but it seems as if people are giving her credit for being deeper than she is, rather than saying, oh look what this work could represent, regardless of the artist’s intentions.

There’s this article, which beyond seemingly giving Gaga way more credit than she deserves, makes a gratuitous comment in the article about how the positioning of Beyonce vs Gaga in “Telephone” is a reversal of the black/white dynamic. But I don’t think so at all. For example, in the video Gaga addresses Beyonce with a silly, cloying nickname with is a little condescending, and the video ends with Gaga definitely being the Decider. The article says that Beyonce breaking Gaga out of jail shows that black/white reversal, but the video ends with Gaga “taking care” of Beyonce: the reversal (which I’m not sure I buy in the first place) effectively nullified.

I do get the Gaga mania among queer and feminist theorists, but I also feel like there have been artists before her who were doing interesting things with gender in their work — like M.I.A. who really does not fit easily into either poptart or rock goddess categories. (And M.I.A. has gone so far as to call out the racist-sexism of the music industry, even at the risk of alienating key collaborators.) Even the evolution over the years of Beyonce has been fascinating, in terms of how she went from being this ideal of hetero desire (and also being a blond, light-skinned black lady who was accessible from a white point of view) to making these crazy-ass videos. Like the video for “Video Phone” is just weird.

So why does Gaga get all the love? How much of it is because, as a small young blonde woman she appears to be trangressive in a way that artists like M.I.A. or even Trina cannot be transgressive, because to begin with they are already seen as non-normative, simply because they aren’t white? Is it because the feminist model is predicated on whiteness, so that is what it is drawn to untangling?

Clearly Gaga is not oblivious to her own “normativity”; she actually uses it as a weapon, drawing in the viewer with the expectation that she will be blonde and submissive, and then upsetting those expectations by doing intentionally weird, gross things.  But while she’s playing with her whiteness, she (& her critic fans) seem somewhat oblivious to her white privilege. And the attendant attention she gets, while women of colour’s contributions to redefining music and gender performance are marginalised.

Or does Gaga get the props because she really is much more transgressive and interesting than any modern pop star, and I’m just too bitter to admit it? :)

Andrea: If I had to analyze her, I see Lady Gaga as the latest in a line of white women who use the paradox of white womanhood to gain attention and, through that, fame.  She does this by using the tropes of idealized white womanhood (various shades of blonde), her “minority” status of being a woman, and 1st-tier-school artiste (her outrageous outfits), so she’s seen as being able to “relate” to other marginalized people, like PoCs (especially the educatarati) and white queer folks and white feminists.  Through her blonded-out whiteness, she stands on the assumption of default whiteness as baseline for “racelessness.” She puts on the outfits to make her stand out, to make her “different,” which gets read as her signifying that she “understands” people with marginalized–especially visually marginalized–identities and/or politics.  For those folks who society makes to feel different via “looks,” LG is viewed white pop-cultural ally.  And the fact that LG does sincerely seem to stand up for non-hetero sexual and gender identities helps her gain a fan base, too.

Depending on the type of song, LG can affect an R&B melisma (“Video Phone”) or choppy dance-pop singing tone (just about all her other songs).  And the fact that she can, dancing-wise, keep up with R&B princess Beyonce–and that Beyonce and she guested in each other’s video–gives LG extra cred. Of course, her being all interracially “taboo” with Kanyeas ridiculous attention-whoring obvious as those various pairings appeared–just burnishes her cache.  She adds to the mythos of the “complexity” of whiteness via her image which, as you astutely pointed out, simply isn’t accorded to MIA.  MIA–for all her pretty right-on international politics and funky gear–is simply seen as an “exotic.”

My generation had Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, two white women who affected white womanhood and visual difference with famous results.  Cyndi Lauper, unfortunately was 1) a better songwriter than singer (can’t tell you how many version of “Time After Time” I’ve heard!) and 2) her one-note Noo Yawk squawky-punky schtick lasted for but so long.  Madonna rode her wave much longer by constant visual metamorphosis, but 1) she was still within confines of certain ideals about white ciswomanhood and 2) people called out the fact that her constant changing was really based on constant culture-vulturing.  And now, she’s simply seen as a middle-aged woman trying too hard to be relevant to young people.  Comparatively speaking, Lauper seems to have become a bit of an pop-cultural elder stateswoman, Celebrity Apprentice gig aside. :-D  LG seems to have picked up on Lauper’s and Madonna’s outre white womanhood with more talent than Lauper and without the same culture-appropriation embodiment squick that Madonna causes.

Then, a couple of days later…

Andrea: I may have to (sorta) take back what I said about LG not taking from women of colour. This article says she bites Kelis’ style.   Gaga just doesn’t culture-rake, unlike Madonna.

Thea: Hoooweeeeee!

Hm, do you think this is a fair allegation? I do remember that Kelis had over-the-top sexuality and that that whole “I hate you so much right now!” stuff made a bit of a dent, but was she as surprising and challenging of gender norms as Lady Gaga? I don’t see them as being that parallel…even though Kelis’ “Caught out There” video also features a dead (drugged?) man. It’s interesting also to think about cultural support – maybe Lady Gaga came onto the scene more at a time when people were willing to see her art/music as confronting gender normativity, than they were able to recognise that in Kelis.

But at the same time, I really do think we have to weigh the role of race in this – why have all the gender studies academics gone mad for Lady Gaga, and there was nary a spike over M.I.A.’s, Kelis’, and Beyonce’s evolution? I think you see the same thing with MCs like Foxy Brown or even Trina; within their art there is a bold attack and a pushback on a certain idea of what makes a woman – often in fierce and creative ways – but they are not getting the cred or the recognition that these virginally blonde women, like Gaga, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.

Which I think both has to do with the fact that women of colour are already non-norm, but also just the fact that racist media gives much less time to women of colour than white women.

And then a few weeks later…

Grace Jones Lady Gaga comparisonWhen two of the most original singers of color back up your opinion, you get a whiff of the minty lemon scent of vindication.  At least that how the two of us felt when none other than Grace Jones and M.I.A. recently gave Lady Gaga direct side-eye in the press.

Perhaps what we made explicit is what Jones implied to in her comment about Gaga:

Has she copied her? “Well, you know, I’ve seen some things she’s worn that I’ve worn, and that does kind of piss me off.”

Is she talented? “I wouldn’t go to see her.”

So, did she ask to play with her? “Yes, she did, but I said no. I’d just prefer to work with someone who is more original and someone who is not copying me, actually.”

And M.I.A. said this:

Again, there’d Lady Gaga – people say we’re similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music’s reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She’s not progressive, but she’s a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do!

M.I.A.’s comments seem particularly spot on: while the spectacle of Gaga is dazzling, ironically as a singer, her music is the least progressive thing about her. Especially when you contrast it with M.I.A’s bonkers rhymes and bold call-outs to volatile political conflicts.

Is this just a media-fed beef of two women of color against a white woman who reached out to at least one of them (Jones) because they want to create some buzz for their projects?  (The color-coded dynamics of that set-up alone…)

Perhaps. But, within their individual complaints, is the very real observation of how the media (again) marginalizes the innovations of female entertainers of color by exceptionalizing or otherwise exoticizing them as they hail the white woman who copies their style all the way to the bank and back to the pedestal.

Photo credits: WireImage