Deconstructing the Fame Monster
Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.
In just a few short years, Lady Gaga has built a large body of work ripe for critical analysis. The sixteen authors and academics who contributed to The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays clearly agree. The thirteen essays in this anthology address the spectacle that is Lady Gaga from a multitude of perspectives: sociology, politics, psychology and psychoanalysis, LGBTQ rights, gender studies and feminism, camp, Surrealism, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and “post-racism” and white privilege – examining her in relation to those she has parodied, as well as those who have parodied her: most obviously Madonna, as well as Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, Thelma & Louise, Kill Bill, sexploitation/blaxsploitation/“women in prison” B movies, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Rammstein, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, to name but a few – all with an eye on performance art and identity.
The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga is obviously written by and for academics. While some essays are more accessible than others, all are filled with jargon and $20 words. I was able to muddle through with the occasional help of Google, yet some of the essays (the early ones, in particular) proved so dry that they threatened to lull me to sleep. This definitely isn’t a book for the lay monsters in the audience.
That said, a working knowledge of Lady Gaga’s oeuvre – not just the obvious song lyrics and music videos, but also concert tours, album art, costuming, speeches, interviews, and photo shoots – is an essential prerequisite for The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga. While the authors do a decent enough job of explaining the performances they’re dissecting, a certain level of prior knowledge is assumed.
I requested a copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program not because I’m a Lady Gaga fan, but because I enjoy pop culture analysis. Nor am I an anti-fan (to borrow a term used frequently in the book); rather, I’m not really into dance/pop and thus know very little about Lady Gaga outside of her activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. My understanding of the essays definitely could have benefited from a greater knowledge of the source material.
Perhaps owing to my love of fairy tales, I found Jennifer M. Woolston’s “Lady Gaga and the Wolf: ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ The Fame Monster and Female Sexuality” especially readable, even if most of the connections are stretched well past credulity. Also enjoyable is editor Richard J. Gray III’s contribution, “Surrrealism, the Theatre of Cruelty and Lady Gaga” – surprisingly so, since I didn’t know anything about Surrealism beforehand. Gray does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the material (without watering down the discussion for those already in the know) and then illustrating how Lady Gaga’s work clearly fits within the Surrealist tradition. Rebecca M. Lush’s “The Appropriation of the Madonna Aesthetic,” Matthew R. Turner’s “Performing Pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’ and Parodied Performance,” and “Whiteness and the Politics of ‘Post-Racial’ America by Laura Gray-Rosendale, Stephanie Capaldo, Sherri Craig, and Emily Davalos are all highly engaging and interesting as well.
Not wishing to penalize the authors for my own ignorance, I struggled with weather I should give this book a 3- or 4-star review. That is, until I came to Karley Adney’s “’I Hope When I’m Dead I’ll Be Considered an Icon’: Shock Performance and Human Rights.” One of just a few pieces written from an overtly feminist perspective, I was both surprised and not a little offended when, in the course of her Lady Gaga apologism, Adney excuses and reinforces the stereotype that feminists are misandrists.
In an early interview for a Norwegian website, Lady Gaga is quoted as saying “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.” – thus invoking the stereotype of man-hating feminists. After excerpting several quotes critical of this statement, Adney throws in her own two cents: “An academic with a background in feminism or Women’s Studies may lean from the ivory tower, tongue clucking and head shaking, disapproving of Gaga’s tendency to rely on stereotypes. But some staunch feminists do hate men […] Gaga speaks in generalities while confronting the negative stereotype of a feminist, which is what the majority of the young public believes – that feminists do not like men.” Explain to me again how a) disavowing oneself of feminism by b) trotting out tired stereotypes and straw feminists c) benefits those who fight for women’s equality? (Hint: it doesn’t.)
Adney’s defense of sexist stereotypes is especially galling since other, equally charitable interpretations of this incident exist. For example, an earlier author notes that this interview transpired rather early in Lady Gaga’s career – and she’s since reversed course on the issue of feminism and her membership in the feminist community. Which is to say, Lady Gaga now thinks that feminism is peachy and considers herself one. (Indeed, Adney herself quotes Gaga’s proclamation that “I am a feminist” on Larry King Live.) Perhaps Lady Gaga started from a place of ignorance and her views have simply evolved in the intervening years. In light of her Jo Calderone alter ego (created the same year as this interview transpired), it’s just as likely that this was a facetious nod to one of her other performance identities. Either way, bending over backwards to defend the subject of an ostensibly critical analysis from charges of sexism – and by reinforcing anti-feminist stereotypes, at that? Unacceptable.
Also irritating is Adney’s uncritical (even fawning) discussion of the infamous “meat dress.” As a vegan, I found myself nervously anticipating its appearance in this anthology, seeing as any talk of the “meat dress” is likely to come from a speciesist perspective, devoid of any consideration or compassion for the nonhumans slaughtered, dismembered, and otherwise objectified in the name of “art.” (I’d rather my leisure reading not inspire within me the urge to gouge my eyeballs out with a spork, okay.) Nearly every author mentions the “meat dress” – but most nods are just that, brief nods, with the dress considered only in passing.
Surprisingly, Adney is the only author who manages to place the dress in its larger context (so, props for that?). When Lady Gaga wore it to the 2010 VMAs, she claimed that it was a metaphor for gay rights, much to the puzzlement of critics. However, several weeks later she referenced the dress at a gay rights rally in opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as described by Adney:
“[S]he continued her role as shock performer by titling her speech ‘Equality is the Prime Rib of America.’ In the speech, Gaga calls soldiers who support the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy ‘cafeteria soldiers,’ who ‘choose some things from the Constitution to put on [their] plate, but not others.’ Gaga asks her listeners to consider other questions: ‘In the military, is it acceptable to be a cafeteria American? What I mean to say is, should soldiers and the government be able to pick and choose what we are fighting for in the Constitution or who we are fighting for? I wasn’t aware of this ambiguity in our Constitution. I thought the Constitution was ultimate. I thought equality was non-negotiable.’
“Besides making a surprising connection between equality and prime rib for her listeners, Gaga referenced one of her greatest examples of shock performance by closing her speech with ‘Equality is the prime rib of America. Equality is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation. And I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer. Are you listening? Shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I did?’”
Meat as equality. What bizarro world are we living in when the exploitation and oppression of billions of sentient beings functions as a metaphor for equality? War is peace, freedom is slavery, violence is compassion, etc., etc., etc. Orwell would be proud.
One final gripe: no fewer than five essayists see fit to quote anti-feminist Camille Paglia (specifically her 2010 Sunday Times piece “Lady Gaga and the death of sex”). Granted, all disagree with her conclusions, but. Can we all just agree to ignore her already? Pretty pretty please? Perhaps if we stop believing in Paglia, the hot misogynist air will disappear from her sails, a la Santa’s faith-powered sleigh in Elf. A girl can dream.
I would recommend The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga to: professional and amateur academics that are somewhat familiar with Lady Gaga’s career. Fans will get the most out of it, but most of these pieces are suitable for anti-fans and neutral observers as well.
Trigger warnings for discussions of rape and human trafficking.