October 5, 2011

Lady Gaga: The Death of Sex

I know this isn't recent but the article is insightful and fits in nicely with the dynamic of this blog.  I've been trying to find the full version for some time now as most of them linked to the Sunday Times which was a dead link.   The amazing and fascinating piece was first appeared on 12 September, 2010.  Camille's scathing article is about Lady Gaga but it touches on many different topics as well that encroach on us each day.

Camile Paglia
Lady Gaga: The Death of Sex
Article written by Camile Paglia

Lady Gaga is the first major star of the digital age. “The planet’s biggest pop phenomenon.” “The most famous woman in the world.” “The new Madonna.” Since her debut album, ‘The Fame’, was released in August 2008, Stefani Germanotta (aka Gaga) has risen from obscurity in grungy downtown Manhattan to sell 15m albums and 40m singles worldwide. Her videos have garnered hundreds of millions of hits on the web. Her Facebook page alone has more than 10m followers. Fans of Gaga have grown up with sell phones and iPods as sticky extensions of their bodies. It is an era of miniaturisation, computer-generated special effects and image manipulation by Photoshop, with everything steeped in unreal, highly saturated colour disconnected from nature. The fine arts have been replaced by video games, from which the cartoonish Lady Gaga seems to have popped.  Since her rise, she has remained almost continually on tour. Hence, she is a moving target who has escaped serious scrutiny. She is often pictured tottering down the street in some outlandish get-up and fright wig. Most of what she has said about herself has not been independently corroborated… “Music is a lie”, “Art is a lie”, “Gaga is a lie”, and “I profusely lie” have been among Gaga’s pronouncements, but her fans swallow her line whole.

Little Monsters

 She constantly touts her symbiotic bond with her fans, the “little monsters”, who she inspires to “love themselves” as if they are damaged goods in need of her therapeutic repair. “You’re a superstar, no matter who you are!” She earnestly tells them from the stage, while their cash ends up in her pockets. She told a magazine with messianic fervour: “I love my fans more than any artist who has ever lived.” She claims to have changed the lives of the disabled, thrilled by her jeweled parody crutches in the Paparazzi video.
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. Her upbringing was comfortable and eventually affluent, and she attended the same upscale Manhattan private school as Paris and Nicky Hilton. Gaga showed early talent as a pianist but was never a prodigy.
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.
For two years, I have spent an irritating amount of time trying to avoid Gaga’s catchy but depthless hits, which make me leap for the radio dial to switch stations. That banal voice - alternating between bland, bubblegum soprano and pushy, faux-manly alto. Gaga’s proper ambiance is bars and dance clubs, where she is wildly popular. Lady Gaga is a manufactured personality, and a recent one at that. Photos of Stefani Germanotta just a few years ago show a bubbly brunette with a glowing complexion. 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. Every public appearance, even absurdly at airports where most celebrities want to pass incognito, has been lavishly scripted in advance with a flamboyant outfit and bizarre hairdo assembled by an invisible company of elves.

Furthermore, despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Lady Gaga is far less sexy than Stefani Germanotta used to be. In fact, 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? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era.
In 1933, the critic IA Richards, writing about The Waste Land, spoke of TS Eliot’s “persistent concern with sex, the problem of our generation, as religion was a problem of the last.” After the first world war, sexual experimentation and titillating smart talk became the hallmark of the emancipated new woman, who smoked, drank, bobbed her hair and danced the antic Charleston. Hollywood discovered that sex was great box office - leading to pressure from civic and religious groups for a production code, which movie-makers found ingenious ways to evade.

Theda Bara

We are approaching the 100-year anniversary of Hollywood sex: Theda Bara’s incarnation as The Vamp in A Fool There Was (1915), a lurid femme fatale who slew overnight the lingering Victorian ideal of the pure, saintly woman-child, portrayed on screen by Mary Pickford and Dorothy and Lilian Gish. Theda Bara, like Lady Gaga, was a manufactured personality; although the studio publicity department claimed she was born in the Sahara to a French artist and Arabian princess, she was actually Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor in Cincinnati.
The sexual icon of 1920s Hollywood was Clara Bow, a madcap flapper who was probably falsely rumoured to have bedded the entire University of Southern California football team. Lithe Louise Brooks, with her signature bobbed hair, made landmark films of decadent eroticism in Germany. Wicked Mae West and lushly buxom Jean Harlow began the tradition of the sex bomb, which continued through Hedy Lamarr to Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, whose influence endures around the globe. But the cardinal sexual pioneer was Marlene Dietrich, who exploded on the international scene in 1930 as the heartless cabaret singer of The Blue Angel. In her subsequent films with the director Josef von Sternberg, Marlene toyed with transvestism (based on the drag balls of Weimar Berlin) and created the sophisticated look of hard glamour that remains a staple of fashion magazines.

Marlene Dietrich


                                                                                   Marlene was Madonna Louise Ciccione’s idol; the seductive, commanding Marlene permeates Madonna’s brilliant videos of the 1980s and the early ’90s, with their dominatrix, transvestite and bisexual motifs. Madonna wanted to play Marlene on film, but the idea was overruled by Marlene herself, who (as the proud daughter of a Prussian officer) decreed Madonna “too vulgar.”
Weimar cabaret was recreated in the 1972 film Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories. Bob Fosse’s dazzlingly aggressive choreography in that blockbuster film was adopted by Madonna for her videos and stage shows - all of which have been doggedly imitated by Lady Gaga. Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest Alejandro video) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? But the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. Madonna’s incandescence is still on view in videos like Open Your Heart, Vogue and Express Yourself. However, for Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over.
The web has been a communication revolution, the magnificent fulfilment of Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of a “global village.” But it has also fragmented and dispersed personal expression, draining energy from the performing arts, with their dynamic physicality. For a decade and a half, stars have steadily waned in power and sexual charge. Thus Gaga seems comet-like, a stimulating burst of novelty, even though she is a ruthless recycler of other people’s work. She is the diva of déjà vu. Gaga has glibly appropriated from performers like Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani and Pink, as well as from fashion muses like Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness. Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is.

Peeping dourly through all that tat is Gaga’s limited range of facial expressions - something she has tried to make a virtue of in her song Poker Face, which perfectly describes her frosty mug, except when she goes weepy-tremulous or flashes a goofy, rabbit grin. Her videos repeatedly thrust that blank, lugubrious face at the camera and us; it’s creepy and coercive. Marlene and Madonna gave the impression, true or false, of being pansexual. Gaga, for all her writhing and posturing, is asexual. Going off to the gym in broad daylight, as Gaga recently did, dressed in a black bustier, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels isn’t sexy - it’s sexually dysfunctional. And it’s criminally counterproductive, erasing the cultural associations from that transgressive garb and neutering it. The gym-going Madonna, to her credit, has always been brutally honest about publicity showing herself in ratty gear with no make-up.
Gaga has become increasingly frank about airing her sexual issues, revealing that she is “quite celibate” and that she avoids sex because she fears losing her creativity through her vagina - an odd place for it to drain by any standard. Despite her phobias, her lyrics can be blatantly explicit, as in the crass clunker of a line “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” (from Love Game). There’s more carpentry talk of a “vertical stick” in Bad Romance, where the theme is anal (”rear window”) and safely vagina-free. Gaga’s sexual reticence can’t be chalked up to priest-ridden guilt: although she was nominally raised Catholic, her father (an Internet entrepreneur who was once a bar-band rock musician in New Jersey) was clearly less repressive than Madonna’s old-school authoritarian Italian-American father. In fact, the puritanical strictness of Madonna’s background sparked her ambition and strengthened her best work. Without taboos, there can be no transgression - which is why Madonna’s ideas waned after she drifted into misty Kabbalah.
There is no religious frame of reference in Gaga’s songs, aside from the passing assertion, “Got no salvation, got no religion” (in So Happy I Could Die); there is nothing remotely comparable to the sweeping gospel-choir crescendo of Madonna’s Like A Prayer. So it is unsurprising to hear that Gaga is consulting celebrity “spiritual guides” like Deepak Chopra.
Compare Gaga’s insipid songs, with their nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables, to the title and hypnotic refrain of the first Madonna song and video to bring her attention on MTV, Burning Up, with its elemental fire imagery and its then shocking offer of fellatio. In place of Madonna’s valiant life force, what we find in Gaga is a disturbing trend towards mutilation and death. Thus we get Gaga lyrics like “Show me your teeth”; “Need a man now, so show me your fangs”; “Take a bite of my bad girl meat” (from Teeth) - faintly sadistic cunnilingual jokes that must be the cat’s meow among smirky teens.

At last year’s MTV awards show, Gaga staged a barbaric spectacle where she was seemingly crushed to death by a falling chandelier, after which her bloodied body was hoisted up to dangle limply above her piano. On her current tour, she appears to be killed by a psychotic stalker, who gnaws her throat as the blood pours down her chest. Monster claws and other horror-movie regalia are a Gaga staple. Several of her videos feature murders of men - by rat poison or by being burnt alive from Gaga’s flame-throwing brassiere. Her Bad Romance video ends with the tableau of Gaga prettily gloating on a bed next to the incinerated skeleton of her victim. The grisly mix of sex and death is sick, symptomatic of Gaga’s alienation from her own body - another example of which is her promise to reveal the title of her next album tattooed on her body next New Year’s Eve. A Washington Post article described Gaga at a gay-rights event last year as “looking slightly embalmed.” Yes, Gaga is like Norma Desmond entombed in her own deadly cult of self. The layer of plastered make-up without which she never leaves her room makes her resemble the waxy, mummified saints under glass in Italian churches. It’s no coincidence that Gaga’s Telephone video, her longest to date, is set in a prison. Gaga has a bunkered mentality, as if she can’t escape the burden or rigid limitations of her own assumed personality. Rootless, she carries her own detention camp around with her, typified by a tattoo on her arm with the death date of an aunt she never knew.
Insurgent performers have often captured the spirit of a generation, from Frank Sinatra driving bobbysoxers wild and Elvis Presley lewdly gyrating his hips, to the Beatles waking people up with a bang after their dreary upbringing in the conformist, postwar 1950s. International idols have always been springtime spirits of infectious energy, symbols of a new dawn. Among the magnetic presences in music today are tigresses of charismatic sensuality or gamines of buoyant charm - Beyonce, Shakira, Rihanna, Nelly Furtado. Never has there been a breakthrough mainstream performer like Gaga who obsessively traffics in twisted sexual scenarios and solipsistic psychodramas. All the frantic, flailing arm moves imposed on her by professional choreographers can’t disguise her essential depressiveness and spiritual paralysis, registered in her videos in her often inert torso. With her garish costumes and piano playing, Gaga is often compared to Elton John. But Elton never tried to present himself as a sexual athlete. On the contrary, his sequined costumes were self-satirising, meant to amuse and render him harmless. And Elton’s co-written original songs were well-constructed populist hits that won a huge, multi-generational audience, and are still on the radio after 40 years.

Like Boy George (another of Gaga’s claimed models), Elton sang feelingly, even soulfully (as in the tender Your Song), which Gaga does not. Furthermore, Elton’s supple piano work was superior to anything Gaga has shown thus far. For example, in her video of her performance on BBC1 last year of an acoustic performance of Poker Face, Gaga is pleased as punch with her ostentatious fusillade of empty flourishes, which are embarrassingly unsupported by the song itself.

Another leading performer whom Gaga has claimed as an influence is David Bowie. Welcoming Gaga to her TV show in Los Angeles last year, Ellen DeGeneres went off on a servile, stammering encomium in which she
implied that Gaga had surpassed Bowie - an idiocy that should have been instantly punished by a lightning bolt from Zeus. Bowie at his height in the early 70s was one of the great avant-garde artists of the 20th century. He was the brilliant heir to Dada and surrealism. And in his daring gender-bending, he was a warrior for sexual liberation and for a redefining of the psychic fluidity of sexual orientation. Gaga does not belong in Bowie’s company.

Andy Warhol
Another inspiration regularly cited by Gaga is Andy Warhol, whose code of fame and celebrity she has adopted. Warhol would certainly have endorsed Gaga’s relentless marketing of appropriated material, exactly as he transformed newspaper photos of stars and politicians into brightly coloured silk-screens. But comparisons are less convincing of Warhol’s Factory to the Haus of Gaga, the style team whose leading figures are Matt Williams and Nicola Formichetti (the true inventors of her look). In person, Warhol was modest and recessive; the theatrical denizens of the Factory were not hidden backstage as cogs in a commercial machine. Many of Warhol’s superstars were authentic misfits, products of New York’s bohemian and beatnik underground in the 1950s. They were edgy and sometimes self-destructive, including the bold-as-brass drag queens (Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling) who cross-dressed when it was dangerous to do so.

Bette Midler
Gaga is in way over her head with her avant-garde pretensions. She should relax and snap back to her real genre, which is closer to vaudeville or musical comedy in the bantering Bette Midler style. Right now, with her spindly physique and wobbly moves, Gaga sometimes seems overwhelmed by her frenetic production, like Citizen Kane’s terrified, feeble, reedy-voiced mistress pushed out onto the stage of Salammbo. She wants to have it both ways - to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal, a practitioner of gung-ho “show biz”. Most of her worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion. Joplin, far more cruelly ostracised in her Texas home town than Gaga ever was in Manhattan, channelled the profound emotions and raw technique of black blues singers, backed by virtuosic psychedelic guitars.

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. They don’t notice her awkwardness because they’ve abandoned body language in daily interactions. They’re not repelled by the choppy cutting of her videos (in febrile one-second bursts) because that’s how they process reality - as a cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits.
Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media. They have been raised in a relativistic cultural vacuum where chronology and sequence as well as distinctions of value have been lost or jettisoned by politically correct educators. It is a world of blurred borderlines - between childhood and adulthood as well as between parents and children. The young waver between dependence and independence and are slow to leave the comforts of home. Old family hierarchies have broken down. Gaga, for example, gets drunk with her parents and calls her father her “best friend.” She startlingly said this summer: “I’ve been in my father’s arms for two weeks wishing him happy Father’s Day.”
There are blurred borderlines between the sexes: gender is now alleged to be fabricated rather than biological; so everything is a pose. Thus Gaga welcomed the rumour about her being intersex and converted it into a fashion statement. Casual “hooking up” blends friends and lovers, with sex becoming merely an excuse for filial hugging. Borderlines have blurred too 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. In the sprawling anarchy of the web, the borderline between fact and fiction has melted away.

Camille Paglia
Professor of Humanities and Media Studies, University of The Arts in Philadelphia.