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That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already

The Gaga backlash, which recently found itself a leader in Camille Paglia, was inevitable. It’s also misguided, argues Mark Simpson

(Out Magazine, Sept 24 2010)

My bitch is better than your bitch! And she wore that dress before yours did! My bitch would kick your bitch’s ass!

This is the kind of thing the older generation — my generation — has begun to say ever more loudly about the younger generation’s first bona fide superstar, Lady Gaga. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Grace Jones, and—crossing ourselves and throwing salt over our shoulders—Madonna all did it years before Gaga, and so much better.

The world’s most famous gay Madonna fan, Camille Paglia, was recently given four pages in the U.K.’s The Sunday Times Magazine to say this, “demolishing” Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, as an “asexual, confected copycat who has seduced the Internet generation.” Paglia is a worthy critic indeed, and her mocking epithet “the diva of déjà vu” is bound to stick like chewing gum rubbed in a hated schoolgirl’s hair. But after reading her impassioned assault — which, for all its fascinating history of female Hollywood stars, seemed to boil down to “she’s not Madonna, and I don’t fancy holding her meat purse” — I found myself liking Lady Gaga more rather than less.

Paglia’s essay was further proof of Gaga’s importance. As I like to say to gay friends of a certain age who rail almost daily against Gaga on Facebook, for someone so shallow, so talentless, and so derivative she certainly seems to hold your attention. The passionate hatred Gaga provokes is all part of her remarkable potency. When was the last time pop music mattered? When was the last time you cared? Until Lady Gaga came along, just a couple years ago, pop seemed thoroughly pooped. Some nice tunes and haircuts here and there and some really excellent financial institution ad soundtracks, but really, who thought pop could ever trouble us again as a total art form?

Gaga has single-handedly resurrected pop. Or at least she’s made it seem like it’s alive. Maybe it’s a kind of galvanic motion — those pop promos sometimes look like Helmut Newton zombie flicks — but boy, this is shocking fun. And yes, her persona is something of a pint-size Bride of Frankenstein, assembled out of Photoshopped dead star body parts. But isn’t everyone nowadays?

Of course she’s not David Bowie or Madonna. It’s not 1972 or 1984. Instead, we’re a decade into a new, blank, digital century when creativity is curation. The pop past weighs heavily on our shoulders — but Gaga wears it so lightly and sprightly on her tiny frame it’s inspiring. In the flickering, shape-shifting shape of Lady Gaga, tired old postmodernism never looked so frisky. And it turns out to be really good on the dance floor. The 21st century didn’t really get going, or have a decent soundtrack, until Ms. Germanotta came along with her Gagacious beats.

But the older generation’s resentful backlash against Lady Gaga — how dare the kids think they have a proper star to speak for them! — is well and truly underway. Paglia’s piece was well-timed and has already prompted a host of copycat columns around the world complaining about Gaga the tiresome copycat. It had to happen, of course. She is now so huge as to be completely unrivaled in pop cultural terms — the most famous woman on the planet: too big and tasty a target for the press not to chew up.

That mesmerizing meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards — where she picked up eight trophies, including Video of the Year for “Bad Romance” — displayed a spooky kind of prescience. The inevitable lip-smacking Gaga backlash seems almost to be a predetermined part of the Gaga plot. And to those who like to tut and roll their eyes over the meat dress and intone “It’s been done before, dear,” please remind me again which year it was that a female artist, let alone the biggest artist in the world, accepted an MTV award, or any music award, dressed as a rib-eye?

Gaga “wants to have it both ways,” complained Paglia in The Sunday Times, “to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal.” But isn’t that what really great pop — pop as a total art form — tries to do? Put images and concepts into contexts they’re not supposed to inhabit? Like the pop charts? Isn’t that what Madonna at her best was doing? Yes, it’s probably ultimately a doomed project, but if there’s anything that approaches avant-garde for the masses, it’s that meat dress at the MTV awards, or that jaw-dropping video for “Bad Romance,” complete with smoking skeleton and sparking bra.

In the indignant roll call of the artists Gaga has “ripped off,” one who is rarely mentioned is the Australian-born performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related illnesses. Bowery defied gender, and pretty much any category you care to mention, with his stunning, hilarious, and terrifying body-morphing outfits, sometimes fashioned out of his own (ample) flesh. Like Gaga, he had a very keen sense of humor about what it means to be human and set out to sabotage conceptions of “sexiness.” Famously, he once lay on a divan in a shop window in a London art gallery preening himself for a week.

Gaga, however, is reclining in the shop window of the world. Paglia’s accusation that Gaga is “asexual” spectacularly miss the point that Gaga is postsexual. She’s post–the now boringly compulsorily “sexy” world that Madonna helped usher in, bullwhip in hand, which is now as burned-out as that “Bad Romance” skeleton. Gaga isn’t asexual or even particularly androgynous — she’s transexy. She’s deliberately overexposing “sexiness,” making it as transparent as her skin sometimes seems to be. Instead of just rubbing herself up, she’s showing gender and sexuality up by taking them to grotesque extremes. Even if she sometimes looks like Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.

But I doubt any of this will persuade those of my generation who have decided to spoil the younger generation’s fun and let them know how ignorant they are. After all, that’s the only kind of fun we oldies have. Even if her detractors’ dreams came true and Lady Gaga was publicly burned at the stake in Central Park, they still wouldn’t be happy. “Oh, look at her!” they’d say, rolling their eyes. “She’s so tired! Joan of Arc did that in 1431. She had much better hips. And she did it in French!”

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

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19 thoughts on “That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already”

  1. Christina Aguilera is finally getting considerably more attention as the foremost vocalist and lyricist that she is. I think that exploring other pop styles of rendering have demonstrated her superiority over anyone. Her voice is without any question unequaled even in singing Blues. I didn’t realize it but she writes her own lyrics,most often. Since she lost weight she is very attractive as well.

  2. I don’t particularly care enough about Lady Gaga to love or hate her but saying she’s the 1st pop superstar for the younger generation is an outright lie. Britney Spears is a bigger star and more recognizable than Lady Gaga. At one point they did a survey in some random African village and they showed a picture of the president of the US (then George Bush) to people but many people didn’t know who he was and when they showed a picture of Britney Spears everyone recognized her. Many people still don’t even know what Lady Gaga even looks like, myself included. If anyone was dressed in a weird outfit and big sunglasses I’d just think that was her. You don’t have to like Britney to know who she is, she’s the most famous person in the world for the past 12 years. Lady Gaga is just the new “it girl”.

  3. Madonna and G.. do different things, just as The Rolling Stones and U2 do different things at a different time(extreme contextual varients) U2 will never take the historical place of the Stones who invented themselves like no other. My feelings about Gaga have more to do with the undoubted fact that she is a mob phenomenon in the U.S at least. If she was selling a great voice and lyrics, she wouldn’t need to dress like a birthday cake or meat market. Her place in history is assured as a freak as a consequence. I think that without contextual cultural referrance we’re speaking to the wind.
    It seems like an unnecessary truly weird extravagance to get the attention of the crowd. From my perspective , here her voice takes a back seat to her weird attempts to garner attention. Cole Porter would like her voice but he would probably lose his lunch too see what it emited from. Don’t like to sound disagreeable but that seems true. God knows I think I’m one of the few in the States who doesn’t worship her for just being weird: this generations rebellion. as if rebellion was virtuous in itself.

  4. The rolling stones suck (U2 is just mushier and more technified), mae west was all about the humor of image and not high art or virtuoso performance – paglia’s central and utterly ridiculous gripe with a pop star of today, from someone who doesn’t deign to bother the audience with opinion on classical concerts. I think a lot of people like to think of mae west as “hot” because they refer to the idea of mae west, as a hot chick rolling around, conveniently forgetting that they’d reject mae west today not for her act but for how ugly she is (poor symmetry, too much development in facial features, too big cheeks make her look inherently “fat”).
    And I can never recognize gaga music because it sounds like everything else in tech pop today; all the chicks have the same voice. Pop has always been dominated by one style at a time, but the voices used to be more varied. Forget auto tune, the engineer just pumps in the lyrics and picks one of 3 voices (dull young boy, angry man, dull wispy girl) from the computer’ sound bank. (I say this after a halloween street party in the gay boulevard, where nothing, I mean nothing, but the latest tech pop was allowed on the audio system).

    Ho. Lee. Mo. Lee. Are you spot with cole porter as comparison.
    The even melody, the simple harmonies, the droning, the repetitiousness, the light touch of dry wit and arid emotion.
    “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”
    “You Do Something to Me”
    “Anything Goes”
    “I Get a Kick Out of You”
    “Don’t Fence Me In”
    “Begin the Beguine”
    “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
    “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”

    “In the Still of the Night”

    Dumb the vocabulary down and reduce the dynamics just a weeeeee bit in those songs, and it is gaga and katy perry and all that, right. there. Marilyn adds a smolder to “my heart belongs to daddy” because she’s marilyn, not because of the snarky song.

    Which is what makes paglia’s canonization of elton and madonna as MUSCIANS rather than cultural styles and provocation (as psychologically interesting and socially important as that is), so insane. gaga doesn’t need to measure up to them because they don’t measure but down. All that f’n czerny practice makes the little troll-stars-to-be actually believe that four notes up and four notes down, 50 000 times, constitutes worthwhile music. You’ll get strong fingers but tone deaf and soul crushed.

  5. It’s funny: just today I was thinking that Madonna was one of those no-talents who has knack for ‘being famous for being famous’. To the best of my knowledge she writes none of her own material, and none of it is very memorable. When I hear it, it only calls to mind what a wasteland the Reagan 80s were.

    Lady Gaga on the other hand, is a classically trained musician and writes all of her own material. While the teen-aged Madonna was staring in the mirror practicing her poses and contriving ways to get out of Detroit (on her back, if necessary), Miss Germanotta was sitting at her keyboard diligently doing those endless Czerny exercises. Even though I’ve reached a time of life when pop-music is little more than background noise, her music is instantly recognisable and very catchy. I think Cole Porter would just adore her!

    Paglia’s tirade reminds me of two metal-heads coming to blows who’s better, Clapton or Page. It reminds me of my own reaction whenever somebody has the temerity to compare U2 to the Rolling Stones. But I usually keep my mouth shut. The disproportion of Paglia’s reaction may be the surest sign that Gaga’s got it!

  6. Like her songs or not, until mainstream pop stars like Britney Spears start playing instruments, writing their own songs and having a voice as good as Gaga does, the latter will have my everlasting respect. At least she’s destroying the stereotype of the “talentless” pop star.

  7. You know, I love talking about Lady Gaga, but I can’t believe what a dull conversation is taking place here about an article written by one of our best cultural critics about one of our most fascinating pop stars.

    I’m just a little bitter, Mark S., because the same pop-culture savvy early 20-somethings who introduced me to Gaga about a year and a half ago turned on her sharply right around the time the “Alejandro” video came out made me want to write a piece for my blog about the Gaga backlash which had clearly been predicted by Gaga herself as a recurring narrative in some of her performances and videos (namely the bit with Elton at, what was it, the Grammys? Where the MC is talking about how she’s “a monster” and the “Paparazzi” video and well the whole concept of “The Fame Monster” itself, really). It was so strange to me then, how the hip and with-it kids who’d convinced me to give this Gaga a shot even though at the ancient age of 30 I hadn’t paid attention to pop music in at least 7 years turned on her so quickly because the brilliant “Alejandro” video took the pomo self-serious/self-parody thing too far for them, apparently.

    Whatever, fuck them and fuck the hater commenters here. And I haven’t even started on Pagila yet! Gaga is FUN. Better than that, she’s fascinating. I don’t care if she’s as smart as we like to pretend she is, if we read too much into her use of symbols and academically deconstruct stuff in her performances that aren’t even intentional. It’s the best time I’ve had engaging with pop culture in years.

  8. Don’t feel alone; I my be a homosexual of sorts but I’m hardly in tune with the mainstream of gay life. I think that at one time, and now with a few persons(e.g. Mark S, C. Paglia) there are instances of how marginalization creates an alienation necessary to fertilize creativity, the gays folks(in the U.S.) have been seduced into believing that they are “virtually straight”. That congeals into a configuration which is more crazy than creative.
    I still feel close affinity for Genet and Burroughs and of course the living idols (above). More than anything, I think that I’m happily fairly isolated.

  9. Today’s aspiring drag queens simply have no contemporary diva role models, not even 1970s or 1980s ones: who wants to look like Grace Jones or Kylie Minogue or Meryl Streep? No wonder Lady Gaga isn’t inspiring. Boys these days all want to look like The Situation or Ronaldo instead.

  10. sorry, correction: ‘….is that someone is [afraid that ] if real sexual music…. I\Further ; that isn’t hard to figure out . When I look at that wispy powerless creation decked out like a sloppily made birthday cake, or a ham sandwich the last thing that occurs to me is sex, and I’m not that different from other people in that department. Even if she had nothing on Gaga would be a poor erotic show except maybe for the blind. She might do in a pinch if she was hungry. I might add that I spread Mark’s articles around a bit on Facebook , even though everone will surely hate me for my unpopular opinion, they might start to love Mark.

  11. My best guess offhand about the emergence of this asexual gimp performance act is that someone is if real sexual music is played everyone will want to have sex instead of getting married.

  12. I’m stepping in here at somewhat of a loss, since I’m not really any more than guessing at what the opposing veiws are. I am most concerned for Ms. P’s view and probably agree, as I do with most things she says. When I was first aware of Gaga there was nothing which could convince me that she was more than just a pop cultural joke. A representation of how lost lost youth is. She is a plain Jane sexless statement of meaninglessness-that only because people actually take her seriously and not as a simpleton dressed up as a birthday cake or whatever food du jour. She is a joke on the female sex. If anything a statement of hatred for females. If you will, anyone’s statement in the age of new found male beauty of the distraught and maligned woman.
    Gay men used to dance or fuck themselves into frothing fury behind the ultra sexyual vibes of Grace Jones(my favorite) the Pointer sisters, Patti la Belle, Madonna. If it wasn’t that she has a passable voice in her mousy chest and a wild light show she would have far less than nothing.As far as the “younger generation picking their stars, they are simply at a lack for stars with any talent. Few of the people 30 or under even know who Grace Jones is. The ultimate statement: the media gives them who they are they don’t choose anymore. Gaga could show up in a dress of crocheted mouse turds and they would figure at least that it was original and crappy though it is it is theirs; and narcisistic as the face book generation ism it must hence be good,(as God said about their decaying earth}

  13. I feel a bit lame weighing in on this but here goes.

    Can I first say I don’t mind Gaga. She’s funny. Not enough is made of that. That bit is good. More vaudeville and silly costumes! The voice is bland and the music is bland. I’m ambivalent. Oh and she can’t dance apparently.

    What I want to single out is this idea – “Gaga has single-handedly resurrected pop. Or at least she’s made it seem like it’s alive.”

    That says it. It only seems like it’s alive. All these articles defending or posturing Gaga as a new example of an old style mega pop star are in love with the old idea of a mega pop star (she’s a meta mega pop star… you can shoot me for that). An awful lot of the fans seem to be gay – young and definitely old who like fetish objects. I’m talking about cd’s, magazines, idols and other paraphernalia. She’s a complicit sprite filling the void for people who liked reading smash hits. She certainly seems like a fan herself.

    As far as I have any understanding of it*, kids are torrenting everything they do like, new or old and placing a whole lot less importance on it than we did with a cassette cd or 7 inch. I don’t think kids are thinking about Gaga like other people could/did about Bjork for instance. Other than that she makes for a good theme party. it’s all part of a very different mix where a lolcat probably holds just as much sway.

    As for the gay fanbase… She’s a sycophant. I have never seen such a cynical (on the part of her record company, i’m sure she really does like gays) and well played grab for a preformed tried and tested market base. I say good on her for the DADT thing and good on her for her work ethic, but I’d shank someone if they called me her fan because I’m a homo, and it’s kinda getting that way.

    *I don’t know any kids

  14. I made the mistake of watching the MTV Video Music Awards a couple weeks ago and was subjected to Gaga’s ludicrous acceptance speech. I was immediately reminded of this unintentionally humorous commercial:

    It’s difficult to fully pin down the dynamic between them, but it’s becoming clearer to me that the type of gay man that idolized Lady Gaga is incapable of having a healthy, mature relationship with women. She, like other “tragic” women, is adored fetishistically for the purpose of emotional catharsis. Many gay men, probably due to the fact that they fail to garner respect as men from others, psychologically seal themselves off by cruelly dismissing conventional emotional concerns resulting in a stereotypically “bitchy” attitude. The vacate this form of petrification by exalting women who represent societal rejection and devaluation. Gay men feel free to cry and squeal over their failures and triumphs. In return, these women coddle them and ply them with affirmations. Gaga does this cynically by unthinkingly supporting any and all “gay-friendly” causes. Paglia misses the point when she decries Gaga’s lack of sex appeal. She doesn’t need any nor would it benefit her. Men ability to sexually objectify allows them to be emotionally indifferent to other people. That’s why men willfully objectify women. Gay men want their divas to feel so they can feel. Divas don’t need to be sexy, they only need to have feelings *about* sex.

    The only problem is that Gaga is not tragic. I mean, she’s fug, but that’s about it.

  15. There I was, generally butting out of young people’s fun and then you have to go and tell me about Justin Bieber. Next thing you knoiw I’ll have an opinion on him.

  16. Oh, I forgot to say that the hard sciences might be the one exception to the decline in general culture that occured throughout the 20th Century. Because they are so linear and logical, there is little room for creativity which includes bad creativity, so there hasn’t been as much decline in the hard sciences as there has been in the visual arts, music and literature. Nevertheless, things such as solving the incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and general relativity or solving the Riemann Hypothesis have proven to be so far beyond the capabilities of the Human brain that there has been no great progress in the hard sciences in the last 60 years or so. So no more theories of relativity or universal gravitation. The thermonuclear bomb, an invention of Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ullam fom 1952, remain the greatest achievement of physics to this day. I had great hopes for the Large Hadron Collider finding the Higgs-Boson or some other fundmental particle that would help us further explain the working of Nature and reality, but alas, it didn’t find anything worthy of note. It seems like physics has become too hard for physicist or anyone else. It seems like making further progress in physics would require us to have brains as large as those of grey aliens from science-fiction films.

  17. Yes, Lady Gaga, or “Lady Caca” as I like to call her, represents everything that is wrong with Human Society. There was that old Pepsi ad that used to say “image is nothing, thirst is everything. Obey your thirst” criticising Coca-Cola for it’s extremely expensive ads, that tried to lure consumers to drink it’s latrine-cleaning poison with spectacular visual images.

    Well, it seems like we live in an era where visuals are everything, where the appeal of something is determined by the lowest kind of aesthetics. A person, thus, like Lady Caca, becomes famous not for having any talents that were lapidated and enhanced over years of hard work, but for looking like a circus geek. You don’t even need to look beautiful; you simply need to look “interesting”. In fact, looking beautiful might be detrimental to fame. Why? Because people become far more intriged by an ugly person becoming a celebrity rather than a beautiful one. It is celebrity for the sake of celebrity; you become famous for being, well, for being famous.

    Consider someone who can really sing, like Joss Stone, and who is really beautiful, to Lady Caca: Ms.Stone has a really beautiful voice and can hit extremely hard notes with perfect pitch: obviously, a natural singing talent who works very hard at her craft. Notwithstanding, she is nowhere even close to Gaga as a celebrity because she is not as aggressively extroverted, as flamboyant in her dressing, and is not a showboat like Gaga. Also, Ms.Stone dresses like a 1950’s preparatory school girl seeking admission at an Ivy League sorority, and that makes her too much os a square and boring in the eyes of most people. If you don’t look like someone who works at a circus, you are not very interesting and lack “attitude” and are thus not celebrity material. It also hurts Ms.Stone that she has an extremely pretty face that looks like a Renoir painting: it is not as fascinating for someone that pretty becoming a celebrity as it is for a hook-nosed, pasty-looking guido with a voice of a marketing operator like Lady Caca. Not only is her voice ugly, she is vocally a disgrace in from a technical standpoint. She is not even poetic or lyrical: her “songs” make no sense whatsoever and she sings about pretty much nothing.

    As I listened to some of Mozart’s concertos for piano whilst doing some work on my computer the other day, I was thinking about how much Human culture has declined throughout the 20th Century and especially since the end of World War II. This is apparent in all domains, from the visual arts to music, literature and even the hard sciences. Consider modernist art, for instance. Whilst Picasso was a creative genius undoubtedly, his genius is, to me, synonyous with indolence. No one will argue that it is much easier from a purely technical standpoint to create a cubist art work than to paint like Rembrandt. In the music front, I regard everything created since the 1940s to be garbage. Even the Beattles have failed to captivate me, even though I do consider them to be quite talented lyrically. The music World has been taken over by aesthetics and personality: it is all about your apperance and attitude. Straight boys and gay ones are very different in their tastes, but they have the common denominator of liking singers with no talent and lots of attitude: gay boys like female “divas” who can’t sing, and straight boys like charismatic morons who’s only “talent” consists of screaming and looking like they are having an epileptic seizure onstage – think Ozzy Ousborne or Axl Rose. The fundamental difference between pre-World War II arts and music and today’s seems to be two: the former was about essence and required immense effort, the latter is about appearances and personalities and requires far less effort from a purely technical standpoint. Ah, no more Debusseys, Rembrandts, Prousts and Goethes. No more Mona Lisas, Davids, Sistine chappels, The Suffering Of The Young Werther and ninth symphonies. Today we can all sing together “Alejandro” whilst asking ourselves what the lyrics of the “song” mean, and ignoring all the vocal pitch problems of Ms.Caca because we are too busy in awe looking at what a freak she is. As for the fan-boys and fan-gurls that will criticize me for criticizing Ms.Gaga, well, sorry folks, but Mozart she is not.

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