Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Trouble with Gaga

I'm not a fan of Lady Gaga.  There, I said it.  I know that every gay and their sister thinks she's brilliant and amazing and I just. don't. get it.  In fact, I didn't even realize I'd already been hearing her music because those songs sound just like every other song I heard in my gay club-going youth in the 90's (in fact, at The Gay 90's.  Yep, she has wacky outfits.  She's down with the gays.  She can deliver a catchy pop dance hook.  But...

The wacky, avant-garde costumes and performances?  She's got a predecessor in Grace Jones (and many others, I'm sure - I'm just not well-versed enough to know them off the top of my head).  The meat dress?  Please.  Feminist artists like Jana Sterbak did that years ago and with a lot more thought and intent.  Fetishizing disability and using folks as props?  Not. Cool. Choosing to make the repeal of DADT her statement when millions of eyes are on her?  Well, that's nice and all, I guess, but there are so many other issues she could have chosen.

And y'know, one could make the argument that there's nothing new under the sun and that everyone's work is derivative in some way.  My point here is that she makes absolutely no acknowledgment of her predecessors (to my knowledge) and I find that problematic and privileged.  She could be using her fame to at least acknowledge these trailblazers that came before her and introduce their work to her fans.  It's her choice not to do so and it's my choice to find that irksome.

Jack Halberstam over at Bully Bloggers did a scathing takedown of Camille Paglia's recent ridiculous piece on Gaga.  I am definitely a fan of Halberstam's work and Halberstam is definitely a fan of Gaga.  And personally, I loathe Paglia and agree with many of Halberstam's points.  Paglia's main method of making an argument appears to rest on tired old pop psychology tropes (men r awesome and created the world cuz they pee standing up?  Freud much?  Ew.)

But (and I fully recognize that I've got nothing on Halberstam's academical prowess, but here I go anyway), while I think Paglia's obsession with framing Gaga as a Madonna-stealer misses the mark, I am wondering why Halberstam's analysis of Gaga doesn't touch on things like Grace Jones and Jana Sterbak?  Especially when one considers the long history of white artists appropriating music from people of color while simultaneously ignoring or denying said appropriation Elvis, anyone?).  And while I think Paglia is grasping at straws, the one thing I do agree with is that yeah, I do think it's good to give some props to the people who came before you, who inspired you, who paved the way.  Otherwise, it just feels too much like appropriation and almost plagiarism to me.

(The video is Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm, a dance song.  It features many stills and video shots of Grace Jones in various artistic and experimental ways, including: a car driving out of her mouth, avant-garde fashion, black latex outfits, etc.)


  1. hey erin! I do think good celebrities unfortunately at best only merit half their hype...and gaga has mostly just been receiving accolades, so I understand the inclination to level the ground/see things more clearly.

    for my own self, though, I think about things on these topics a little differently. I think the conversations of appropriation and just what is "appropriate" repeat the same tracks too often, and don't challenge their own frameworks.

    For example...the argument of Gaga fetishizing disability. I find this argument hard to agree with. This is where I think peoples politics get murky, and it becomes a "what is the right thing to do" or the rightest, and that ends up becoming just avoiding/erasing/NOT doing whatever thing it is. The only other argument that could be made around this topic [Gaga/wheelchair/disability] is by say a "disabled person," and then we're really just swallowing what someone says because of their identity, when identity by itself does not merit truth or activism.

    First, there are distinctions/crossovers between temporary disability and so called permanent. To assume a particular symbol must mean "this" is limiting and I don't think truly embracing [i.e. respectful] of what experiences really involve, which is numerous tones, not just one. Second, when has anyone been seen in a wheelchair in pop culture? It is very unique. Does this make it good, or ethical? Of course not necessarily. But as it is unique, everyone has a tendency to jump on it. Some of those who jump on it in the negative, I think, are relying on the "anything depicted by someone who does not belong to the group is bad." This is the 101 definition of appropriation or fetishization, and while it may work for many examples, I think it is quite literally a very black and white viewpoint. What is beautiful about life is often messy and transgressive, and does not always involve a person from a group doing things just within that group. Often, before minorities have their "own" spotlight in pop culture, their presence is felt in acknowledgment by artists not belonging to those groups. Some of these representations are offensive, others questionable, while I think some don't hold anything negative, other than what we attach to it.

    The world of art is a good example of difficult questions around "cross-cultural exchange," and what gets "used" in making art, and claiming that art as being from one's own self? I def think Gaga lacks some brains, but she just strikes me in this regard as a typical youth, and typical celebrity. It's all sound bytes and fuck off attitude, she's not going to get certain things right. There are a few things she does do well, which I enjoy. The rest is the experimentations of a young, semi-talented, brash Aries Tiger [I love astrology :p], and given how they are, I give them space and enjoy what antics I can from afar. There'll definitely be folks to give them a sharp rap on the head, but whether they'll pay any attention, I won't hold my breath :p

    Great first post!

  2. p.s. fuck that you've got nothin on j. halberstam. yeah she's a great thinker, so what? her article on gaga didn't look all that good :D debate, debate!

  3. Oh, definitely feels like murky waters to me at times. One example: white folks wearing headdresses feels wrongwrongwrong and falls firmly into the appropriation camp. On the other hand: feathers! No single culture has the corner on feathers - pretty sure humans around the world have been using them as decoration and adornment wherever birds are found.

    Or consider this video: , which some people (including folks with epilepsy) loved and others (including folks with epilepsy) found insensitive and appropriative and just plain incorrect about what it's actually like to have an epileptic seizure.

    It's tricky and complicated and worthy of discussion. But I get it (as much as I can) that people who are affected by appropriation also sometimes feel sick and tired of dealing with appropriation and sometimes don't give a shit about complicated trickiness.

    I'm curious what you would envision as a new framework for discussing appropriation?

  4. I don't know if I can offer a framework, but I do have a specific example in mind when I think about an area where the conventional definitions of appropriation don't seem to work.

    It's that big-o, r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. As a Tibetan growing up in the states, and around Boulder, CO [which all followers of Tibetan Buddhism know, is the birthplace and capital of Tib. Buddhism in the West], I have gone through a lot of feelings around racist, ignorant, culturally appropriatory, and other problems around Westerns who practice Tibetan Buddhism.

    Also though, and stronger than any new political idea I may have for whatever period of time, is the spiritual self I have gained through my connection with Buddhism. Which is, very clearly, that no one owns a religion or spirituality. Peoples' spiritual selves and health are very sacred things, and no culture owns a religion.

    Are some people who follow or dabble in religions [that are not their childhood faiths] engage in racist, exoticizing, or just other ignorant practices? Certainly. But I think it's a serious error [one worse than whatever racist/exoticizing is going on], to use such behaviors to justify the lines of "appropriation" around spirituality.

    I think my biggest issue with some of the mistaken areas around cultural approp views is that it is unconsciously based in an idea of the culture as fixed, unchanging, and that there are certain people "in" that culture, and other people "outside" it. And you will often find so many of the defenders of cultures, those crying out cultural appropriation, are those who don't fall cleanly into "their" culture [although even if they do, that doesn't mean I'll take their word for it.] I'm talking about children who were not born in whatever country, and whose parents may not even have been, but are doing a reclaiming of their cultures. While this process is great, I think people can go about it in unhealthy ways that is more about division than something truly aspirational.

    What i mean by division is, going back to the ideas of cultures as fixed and SEPARATE. Really? Countries and cultures engage in exchanges. Yes, colonialism has vastly complicated this, but to adopt a colonialist mindset [which is what I think people accidentally do] and assume colonialism dominates the world and thus should dominate how we even think about things and their relationships to each other...this feels like a real missing-the-point.

    Identity is valuable to understand, be educated, and challenge oneself on. But spirituality, I feel, is truly one of those universal elements that many humans feel a calling to. And it has nothing to do with identity. Yes, religion has been used in colonialism. Yes, some people have sadly lost their connections to their cultures bc of colonialism, and along the way lost the connection to the spiritual practice/s in that culture. But at a fundamental level, spirituality is about the individual self and their work on themselves, and not about a nation or culture owning said religion.

    How Buddhism and Islam as well, for example, functions is already a great example. Are there not many ways of you can find them practices across cultures and nations, and just among individual people themselves? But the idea that people should be kept away from these practices [yoga is another great example], I think is sacrificing something much more valuable for the sake of preserving "culture." When culture is something that should change, and a reaction to colonialism should not be a digging in of the heels and a desperate "holding on" to whatever people think their culture really "is."

  5. Sorry for the long run-on! I think this leads to my frustration with some poc excuses that all homophobia is an export of the "West" and "christians," and that supposedly poc/indigenous cultures were this perfect, idyllic something or another. I say this because I'm not interested in vilifying anything for its own sake, I just want the pictures clear, because if we imagine our pasts in some rosy-hued vision, we cannot move to better futures.

  6. That was very well-written. Thanks for sharing that. I also don't really "get" Gaga. But I don;t really get much of what has come out in the past ten years. I think our society has lowered its standards so much that someone like Gag can been seen as a genius because compared to most other people in the mainstream,I suppose she is?

    But not really. Her songs are boring. I do appreciate that she tries to introduce "real art" on the mainstream public.

    Yes, she is standing on the shoulders of many who came before her. As you mentioned, she is not the first person to do this. Although, who is to say that she doesn't acknowledge her predecessors? Maybe she has but it never gets printed.

    You pointed out Elvis. He is a perfect example of someone who actually did acknowledge his inspirations over and over and over. There has been a myth created about him. Elvis, like everyone else at the time, recorded songs that were popular at the time. He recorded songs by black people and songs by white people. So did Ray Charles who was recording at the same time. Ray Charles actually started off as a Charles Brown sound-a-like.

    I think the thing bothers me about Gaga is not that she's unoriginal, it's that she comes off as being phony and her music is boring. She seems to inspire a lot of people though and I can't knock that.

  7. Wow. I re-read what I wrote. I sound high or something. Lots of typos and unfinished thoughts. Blech.

    What I meant to say is that there is a myth that had been created about Elvis maliciously ripping off black artists without giving credit to them.
    There was definitely a lot of ripping off at that time. Pat Boone and Georgie Gibbs would be two good examples. But there were also white artists covering black artists songs as a tribute of sorts.

    The situation was much more complex than the picture that has been painted about those times. The more I research and investigate music of the 50s and 60s, the more I realize just how much overlap there was musically between "black" and "White". There's a lot of gray.

    Sorry to go on that tangent. I just think a myth has been perpetuated in order to make us believe that blacks and whites were far more musically divided than they were in actuality.