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She Pop: Fame Kills. So Does Trying To Understand Lady Gaga.

The forthcoming Kanye West and Lady Gaga tour/collaboration/alliance/bizarro-pop-Voltron makes sense for so many reasons. Primarily: Kanye and Gaga are both famous because they do weird things in public. Do you like their music? Do you not like their music? It doesn't matter! What did you think of the weird thing? Did you think it was weird? Because, if so, they have succeeded! And even I, an earnest unpacker of Meanings for lo these many blog posts now, have to admit that I enjoy Kanye and Gaga primarily because they make Meaning effectively useless. The Meaning of anything Gaga does is that she wants you to look for Meaning in it. And the Meaning of anything Kanye does is that he is a bizarre young man.

So, the promo for the upcoming West/Gaga "Fame Kills" tour - not universally embeddable, but available on West's blog, and coincidentally fairly NSFW - is pretty blatantly, and pretty predictably, an attempt to push some buttons. Still, I think, it's worth noting what buttons it is trying to push. 

 

1) TOPLESSNESS: Yes, there's a naked lady in it. A naked Lady Gaga, no less! Gaga has posed more or less naked in the past, and on more than one occasion; still, this image, with the Marilyn Monroe hair and makeup, and the lack of bubbles or plastic skeletons or polar bears or life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Sherman Alexie or whatever else Gaga usually poses with naked because she is a magical wizard from the Dream Kingdom and/or a David Lynch character that just up and walked out of the screen and is real now and we all have to deal with it, seems more purposefully and unambiguously titillating than her other images. She's signifying "sexy lady nakedness" in a way that is far less complicated than her usual routine.

2) WHITE LADY TOPLESSNESS IN THE COMPANY OF A BLACK MAN: As the video continues, we see that Gaga is prone and being held in the arms of a black man. We don't see enough of him to know who he is (is he West, for example? NO IDEA), or whether he has clothes on, or what the context for this moment might be - we only see enough to infer his race and gender. And, obviously, given the way interracial sex has been shamed, demonized, and feared, the image is meant to play on that. Still: other people have played on this taboo before, and this image has its own take. It's not Madonna making out with a sexy black Jesus, for example. There's other stuff going on, which is where it gets really kind of weird. 

3) HELPLESS WHITE LADY TOPLESSNESS IN THE COMPANY OF A VAGUELY OMINOUS BLACK MAN: Yeah, here's where it crosses the line into "subversive" or "exploitative" or all of the above. The horror-movie buzzes and drones on the soundtrack, the creepy slow motion, Gaga's prone position and exposure, the facelessness and relatively powerful position of the man holding her, the juxtaposition of this image with the word "kills." Her face, at different moments, looks either out-of-it or ecstatic. Even the retro styling seems to be keying into some image bubbling just under the surface of the collective consciousness - something like this, or this. (Gaga has said that she's taking inspiration from old monster movies, lately, so it doesn't seem like much of a reach.) Or, as I thought when I first saw it, this poster for "Mandingo." I said that interracial relationships have been shamed, demonized, and feared. Maybe I should have been more specific. Black men, specifically, have been viewed as sexual predators, out to assault or otherwise corrupt white women. White women, in turn, have fetishized black men - and so have white men, specifically by finding the idea of a white woman willingly having sex with a black man taboo and therefore exciting. And black women, in this equation, are marginalized - not viewed as specially delicate and endangered and in need of protection the way white women are, but also not viewed as desirable or desiring subjects. Oh, yeah, and white dudes benefit the most, from getting to cast black dudes as rapists whilst enjoying the privilege of participating in sexism, rape culture, and racism as Kings of their respective Mountains. The clip is short - just 33 seconds - but the imagery, in there, seems to speak specifically to this history. And what I CAN'T make up my mind on is whether it's a knowing piss-take (which seems likely, given that West and Gaga are both all about subversion and generally seem unlikely to cash in on a racist trope that demeans West - the more established star - by casting him as a threat to Lady Gaga's delicate virtue) or an unthinking or cynical recapitulation (which seems likely, given that professional photographers and directors just go ahead and recapitulate this business all the time). 

I turn, therefore, to you, the readers of Bitch! Because I, basically, have no idea what to think about this one. Cynical? Subversive? Meaningful? 30 seconds of film into which I have read too many imaginary messages?  Tell me! Let me know! I have been sucked into the Gaga/West Meaning Vortex. I may be lost to you now. 

 

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Comments

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whaaaat

ahhh that video is so weird!! i think you did a good job of explaining exactly why it's so uncomfortable...and titillating at the same time! I agree that there's probably a LITTLE piss-take? But they are cashing in on that agonizing pull between uncomfortable and titillating to get people's attention...cause after making catchy as f*k music, it's what they're best at.

good luck on your quest for meaning!

Lady Gaga isn't meant to be

Lady Gaga isn't meant to be understood, just as people like Andy Warhol wasn't meant to be understood. Or David LaChapelle. Or Amanda Lepore. Or David Bowie.

All people need to do is to just accept that she's fucking insane and move on. And to me, that's what makes her so appealing is because all she is is her and she's not afraid of what anyone thinks.

If you want my take on the clip, it's intentionally shocking and not particularly meaningful. I respectfully feel that you over-analyzed (hell, anyone who analyzes Lady Gaga is over-analyzing). I personally love her and her work and I enjoy her fashion and her music and her just being her. And that's what people don't get, is that there really isn't anything TO get. She does what she does because she enjoys it.

Lord help me, but I love

Lord help me, but I love West. I love Gaga. I am unpopular.

I don't think Sady has

I don't think Sady has over-analysed at all, I think she's spot-on. The video clip is not unconventional or odd in the way that Lady Gaga is known for. It sounds like it plays on old, oppressive tropes of sex, race & gender. I particularly hate the eroticization of a woman's state of passivity and of the hint of menace.

It's very annoying also that a collaboration between performers of different sexes must be represented via physical intimacy, instead of something simply conveying, "here are 2 very talented performers on the same bill, wow!". I notice this in dramas more than anything, whenever female and male characters work together in some way - or are rivals or even enemies (another kind of working relationship, albeit an antagonistic one) - the default tendency is for them to be written with some kind of sexual tension between them, even if they don't actually get together. It's as if, under a sexist & heterocentric mindset, it is impossible to envisage any kind of female & male pairing on equal, wholly professional terms. To me the sexualized representation of male-female collaboration in this way functions to underline & reassert male social dominance- what should be an egalitarian partnership (because it is between 2 people in the same area of professional interest) is rewritten as a woman's sexual capitulation to a man (because that's the patriarchal, heteronormative model of sex).

aka snobographer

To me the sexualized representation of male-female collaboration in this way functions to underline & reassert male social dominance...

It does, but at the same time the dehumanizing way the guy in the video is portrayed undermines whatever social dominance he's given. So it's weird. I get the impression maybe Kanye and Ga Ga didn't have 100% creative control over the outcome. Or maybe they just phoned this one in and ended up with something kind of trite and obvious.
Anyway, what's with you feminists, always wanting to analyze the social and cultural implications of things. Jeesh!

How is the man in the video

How is the man in the video being dehumanized?

Hint of menace? Care to

Hint of menace? Care to explain further?

"It's very annoying also that a collaboration between performers of different sexes must be represented via physical intimacy, instead of something simply conveying, "here are 2 very talented performers on the same bill, wow!"."

Well considering how sexual Lady Gaga is, it doesn't annoy or bother me in any way.

"To me the sexualized representation of male-female collaboration in this way functions to underline & reassert male social dominance- what should be an egalitarian partnership (because it is between 2 people in the same area of professional interest) is rewritten as a woman's sexual capitulation to a man (because that's the patriarchal, heteronormative model of sex)."

Or maybe Lady Gaga is just a really sexual person and likes being naked.

Heterocentrism Plus

Great point about how rare it is to see two people of different genders posited as anything but sexually involved. Throw in violence with the sexuality and you've got the entire formula for black male - white female relations, as told through the lens of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

The one thing about the original article I am left wondering is, how much has Lady Gaga projected an image of being super-sexual, to the point where she can't actually be viewed as a vulnerable blonde woman? She seems to always be 'in character,' whatever the character may be. Here she seems to feel that a Marilyn Monroe-ish character projects that helplessness better than another sort of character. The monster theme fits in with that 50s-era icon than, say, a schoolgirl outfit would. (And I don't understand why or how West's image (by virtue of being linked on the same tour) fits into this trope.)

What always frustrates me about Lady Gaga's work is not so much that she seems to play around with 'meaning' but that her scholarly commentators so often ignore the fact that, because she is performing within the realm of POP music, the most prevalent interpretations of her work are not going to be analysts in pursuit of higher meaning but folks easily-titillated. A pop radio station DJ in Chicago reviewed one of her recent videos thus: "There's naked butts in it!" Layers of meaning were irrelevant to him, as they would be to most of his listeners. I think LG is accountable to these more common interpretations - how they impact normal people - just as much as complex analysis. And when the take-home message to young girls is that the nuder-the-better (or, the nuder-the-more-fatal?), that is what interests me.

Gaga for Lady Gaga Craziness

I have to admit I initially started watching Lady Gaga because of all the publicity about and photographs of her public panty wearing. I liked the fact that she added to the popularity of wearing and showing granny panties. Then I listened to her singing and liked it. After reading this post I cruised back to Lady Gaga's website at http://www.ladygaga.com/blog/ , scrolled halfway down the page to the video of "Lady Gaga at the 2009 VMAs" and watched it four more times. Although it may be true that Lady Gaga wants people to look for meanings and stir up controversy much the way Madonna did and sometimes still does, I personally do believe the meaning of "Paparazzi was the same as what was written in the lyrics and depicted in the original official video of "Paparazzi". Part of the lyrics "Amidst all the flashing lights I pray the fame won't take my life" refer to the dangerous love - hate co-dependence between stars and the out of control photographers - videographers who follow them. It can be dangerous being famous when there is are press shark-like feeding frenzies. Remember the tragic loss of Lady Diana? I think the Kanya West - Lagy Gaga "Fame Kills" tour promotion clip was intended to convey and capitalize o the message of the song lyrics, to follow through of performance of "Paparazzi" at the MTV Video Music Awards, and to highlight the fact that Kanye West and Lady Gaga are touring together. I'm sure they'll take any extra publicity whether or not it's dangerous and whether or not people see ominous messages in it. As manipulative as some of it is, I still like watching Lady Panty, er, Lady Gaga's wierd and other fun "in public" stuff.

"Maybe I should have been

"Maybe I should have been more specific. Black men, specifically, have been viewed as sexual predators, out to assault or otherwise corrupt white women. White women, in turn, have fetishized black men - and so have white men, specifically by finding the idea of a white woman willingly having sex with a black man taboo and therefore exciting. And black women, in this equation, are marginalized - not viewed as specially delicate and endangered and in need of protection the way white women are, but also not viewed as desirable or desiring subjects. Oh, yeah, and white dudes benefit the most, from getting to cast black dudes as rapists whilst enjoying the privilege of participating in sexism, rape culture, and racism as Kings of their respective Mountains."

Thank you thank you thank you for addressing this. I am so tired of the people around me denying this shit like it doesn't exist. It's frustruating being the only person amongst the people I have discussions with who will acknowledge this phenomenon. Thank you for addressing it.

I respect the fact that

I respect the fact that she's genuinely trying to elevate pop music to an art form and not relying on the fact that she's cute and can sing. Yeah, she looks like a total nutjob most of the time, but she's doing something different and risky which is admirable in today's music scene, don't you think so?