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Courtesy of Interscope Records
Lady Gaga, the 24-year-old pop star who swept Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards wearing a dress made of glistening raw beef, is over. Or so say the Internets. In Salon last week, evident fan Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote “It’s Official: We’re Sick of Lady Gaga,” owing to the yawn Williams was forced to stifle upon encountering Gaga’s beef-kini on the cover of the Japanese Vogue. Gaga, for her part, no longer displays any trace of the blazing intelligence she evinced in last year’s London Times profile. Whether out-vapifying Larry King on his own show or singing off-key at the VMAs, recent Gaga is almost a parody of infantile showbiz excess.
Which is why it’s so good to have Camille Paglia around to remind us what real infantilism is all about.
I’m a fan of Paglia’s. Huge parts of her doorstop opus Sexual Personae are revelatory, as are certain essays from the two collections that followed. But by the end of the ’90s, Paglia had ceased doing critical analysis and began paying the bills with slap-dash screeds of automatic bitchiness and head-spinning hauteur about everything rotten in American culture, the decadence of which she once loved (when “decadence” meant Jim Morrison puking Southern Comfort all over the first row or Madonna gluing waffle cones to herself) and suddenly hated (because she realized it was kind of stupid). She canceled her proposed pop-culture-centric sequel to Sexual Personae because pop culture, she felt, had betrayed her.
Which explains some of the pathological vitriol in Paglia's wretched editorial about Lady Gaga that appeared in yesterday's Sunday Times.
“Lady Gaga is the first major star of the digital age,” begins Paglia with typical stridency. While not true in strictly chronological terms (“The Digital Age” began a while ago, and its actual first stars included James Taylor and Melanie Safka), she is trying to make a point. She explains:
“Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.
“Gaga's fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Borderlines have been blurred between public and private: reality TV shows multiply, cell phone conversations blare everywhere; secrets are heedlessly blabbed on Facebook and Twitter. Hence, Gaga gratuitously natters on about her vagina...”
It’s somewhat displacing to see Paglia accuse Gaga of gratuitous discussion of private bits when elsewhere Paglia has used words like “jazzy virtuosity” to describe Robert Plant’s faked orgasms on old Zeppelin records. But who cares about mere inconsistency? Here we have an allegedly first-rate intellect writing off an entire generation—my entire generation!—as emotionally impoverished and vocally atrophied. To quote Molly Ivins: “Sheesh—what an asshole!”
Paglia’s vaguely shocking yet flat declarative sentences—thought by their author to be so self-evidently true that they are beyond the need for substantiation—are the hallmark of her wretched late-period output. When they are deployed, you know for sure that Paglia’s just making shit up. Consider the following broadsides from the Gaga editorial:
“Since her rise, she has remained almost continually on tour. Hence, she is a moving target who has escaped serious scrutiny.” Of course! Because it’s so much easier to “seriously scrutinize” an artist when they’re at home, tending the garden, rather than out in the public eye.
“Although she presents herself as the clarion voice of all the freaks and misfits of life, there is little evidence that she ever was one […] There is a monumental disconnect between Gaga’s melodramatic self-portrayal as a lonely, rebellious, marginalised artist and the powerful corporate apparatus that bankrolled her makeover and has steamrollered her songs into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere.” Aside from the obvious point that very few of us could offer definitive proof of our happiness or lack thereof during high school, oughtn’t Paglia, as Madonna's biggest fan and a great lover of The Rolling Stones, realize that all pop stars are “bankrolled”? And why make it sound like there's some shadowy capitalist conspiracy foisting Gaga tunes on America's unwilling disc jockeys? Here, Paglia is showing both her age and her laziness. Alan Freed is dead, and as a YouTube phenomenon, Gaga owes her popularity to word of mouth to a degree undreamt of in the MTV-dominated days of Madonna's ascendency.
"The Gaga of world fame, however, with her heavy wigs and giant sunglasses (rudely worn during interviews) looks either simperingly doll-like or ghoulish, without a trace of spontaneity [...] despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all—she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?" Yes, Camille, “sexy” isn't a subjective quality at all. We 20-somethings are gonna be really put out if we can't get your sour old juices flowing. Not incidentally, this isn't the first time Paglia has mistaken her own sexual preferences for immutable laws of the universe. In this editorial, Paglia claimed that “[...] pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra—not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values.” Rough translation: Your drugs won't work on anyone 'til I see some dudes who turn me on.
Lady Gaga is not a perfect artist. Her lyrics are sometimes weak (though never so weak as Madonna’s); at not-quite-25 her voice is already showing signs of wear (stop touring!); in videos accompanying her first record, she looked uncomfortable in both her skin and her clothes. But by the time of 2009's The Fame Monster, she had materialized into an artist that any rock-minded soul should enjoy. A serious musician, an intelligent and nuanced singer (If you don’t believe me, give a careful listen to “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance” side-by-side with Elvis Costello's “I Want You”), and bearer of an original visual aesthetic. Gaga seemed timely, too—a star for the digital age, if we can borrow a phrase; someone who took a good, hard look at commodification, alienation, and all the other -ations that academicians have been worrying about for a generation, and found not only a way to live with them but to enjoy them. When she sang about wanting to see “television” and “hot blonds in odd positions,” she wasn't diagnosing society's ills so much as describing her Tivo habits. Which is why Paglia and everybody else would do well to retire the Madonna comparisons. Madonna wanted only a “Holiday”; Gaga has a lot more in common with Johnny Rotten, who demanded a cheap holiday in other people's misery. It's there, in the thick of our miserable dysfunctions, that Gaga has made her home. She is our tour guide in that strange country, and until now she has seemed to enjoy the job.
But no longer. Gaga now craves something more conventional. This has been plain since she moved to L.A. and struck up a friendship with the quack Deepak Chopra. Soon after, Gaga traded in her Rilke-spiked interview style for a weak cocktail of New Agey aphorisms and bland “positivity.” As she announced at the VMAs, her new record will be called Born This Way, even though all of her best music has, on some level, been about her joy in obscuring whatever it is she was born as. The Fame and The Fame Monster chart her mad dash from nature; her escape into an invented sensibility. She so potently represents nature’s transcendence and mastery that her capitulation to it now can be nothing but a waste and a cheat. If we wanted toejam and doe-eyes, we’d listen to Sarah McLachlan.
(I'm nevertheless grateful for Gaga's ill-advised experiments with sincerity, which prove that Paglia was wrong at least about Gaga's adolescence. It really must have sucked. If it didn't, she wouldn't have had to sweep the VMAs before feeling comfortable with being conventional. “Conventional” is the default position for most of us, who really were born that way.)
Oh, well. Gaga is 24, and we should only expect so much from her. Paglia is pushing 70 and ought to smarten up. She ought, at least, to recover some of the dignity she accuses Gaga of lacking. Paglia was a headline-maker in her own right when Gaga was in kindergarten; an important woman with something to say. Now she is a reflexively grumpy old biddy, trying to hoist her name above the fold by exploiting a professional crisis far less serious and permanent than her own.
Brandon K. Thorp is an arts writer with Village Voice Media, and with partner Penn Bullock was one of the reporters to expose anti-gay activist George Alan Rekers’ European tryst with a “rentboy.” He spends his weekdays promoting critical thinking from his desk at the James Randi Educational Foundation, usually while listening to The Fame Monster.