Haus of Gaga
It is 1923 and we are in Weimar, birthplace of the Republic.
This is a time and place of hands. Define hand: a circle with five appendages. A thing that sometimes holds pens and sometimes pulls triggers. A thing which can turn levers, move gears and belts, hold bars on trams or anchor a line of fingers. In the metropolis, hands become tools; a person becomes what he can create.
Enter the Bauhaus—tracing to “Bauhaütt,” a pre-modern guild of cathedral builders. The school planned to construct a utopia which was either spiritual or socialist, depending on whom you asked. Before its students could work toward a new reality, however, they had to learn the basic building blocks. In the Preliminary Workshop, pupils experimented with paint, textiles, glass, metal, and wood. Unlike other art schools of the era, the Bauhaus emphasized teaching theory through touch. For the first six months of tactile learning, students created nothing. No ideas, no concepts—just breaking, molding, and watching materials until their textures felt like a second skin.
Geometric structures were stripped to their essences. A painting, lines and yellow/red/blue; a chair, a leather strip and a curved metal rectangle; a house, a white cube with windows in which each verb (dine, bathe, lounge, cook, sleep) got its own room. Art was craft and craft was art. Architecture had to become as efficient and simple as a gear if it hoped to create a movement.
For the essence of an era is not contained lazily within fading relics or daydreams. Modernity does not lie with what people miss or idealize, but sprints with concrete objects, those things without a history or theory to dull their vitality. Grit, deviance, speed: modernity is what moves. To reach the masses and create something new, the artist must embrace whatever new forms people see and touch.
Lady Gaga is not a star. A star is soaring, timeless, transcendent—the celestial body inhabits the sky and we gaze at it from below; there is great distance and great beauty. Lady Gaga wears meat and drives the Pussy Wagon and tweets, “It is a promising day when your eyelash falls in your Folgers.”
An icon has more earth to it. It is constructed by its time and place, and solidifies the intersection between the two; it condenses a movement (toward God, toward equality, toward revolution) into a form. An icon is not nebulous; we can grasp figures like Jesus or Che. And because we can grasp them, we can deconstruct them, analyzing their parts to understand the essence of an era.
Lady Gaga is an artist who knows her materials. On The Fame and The Fame Monster and through the videos, photos, tweets, websites, facebook posts, and online articles her albums have spawned, she self-consciously models herself after icons to comment on modern celebrity. Yet her work is more than a strange spectacle or a Warhol-esque imitation. Lady Gaga seizes the mundane materials of digital culture to reach the masses and, ultimately, to build toward social and political equality.
To understand how a meat-wearing Pussy-Wagon-driving twenty-four year-old woman might just change the world, however, we must first analyze those materials. She and the Haus of Gaga, her Factory, have built an addictive interactive image, and the space she inhabits—the touch screen—shapes her form.
Material 1. Screen name
Self-invention is nearly impossible without a good name. Though Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta had belted out countless songs at the Convent of the Sacred Heart as Adelaide in a production of Guys and Dolls, then at NYU, then at seedy Lower East Side bars, she still couldn’t get a record deal. She wasn’t classically beautiful, and she wanted to sing rock ballads on the piano. From a record company’s perspective, she just wasn’t the greatest catch. She wanted to do something new, and her Italian-American birthname wasn’t punchy enough for the image she wanted to create. So she started searching for the right combination, the one that would attract followers and ultimately define her image.
In the end it required an element of (technologically manufactured) chance. Each time she walked into the studio, Ray Fusari—her manager and boyfriend at the time—sang Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” as if the music cued her entrance: “Radio, what’s new? Radio, someone still loves you.” He sang it often enough that it became something to text about. One such conversation produced one of the more generative autocorrects in the history of T9: as Fusari tells it, “somehow ‘Radio’ got changed to ‘Lady.’ She texted me back, ‘That’s it.’ After that day, she was Lady Gaga. She’s like, ‘Don’t ever call me Stefani again.’”
And she meant it. Outside the studio, in any reality digital, visual, physical, or otherwise, she performs her invented image. When a magazine reporter called her Stefani, she sincerely replied, “But Lady Gaga is my name. If you know me, and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all.”
Material 2. Screen
Lady Gaga has over one billion YouTube views. If fame can be quantified (and if this is how we quantify fame), she has more of it that any other current musician except Justin Bieber.
But Bieber’s music videos are three to four minutes long. They show a cute boy courting a cute girl in a bowling alley. Lady Gaga creates six to nine minute mini-movies, complete with opening and closing credits, that rarely relate to her lyrics and never so much as pretend to relate to reality.
Take her latest saga “Alejandro,” a dark mixture of Madonna and Cabaret filmed under a sickly green tinted lens. Gothic Queen Gaga watches her army of militant gay monks (they wear black tonsure wigs) stomp, wrestle, dance, and carry symbols. When Pageboy Gaga tries to play S&M with her soldiers, they consent and fool around a bit with straps on stark barrack beds, but they are far more interested in playing with one other. Later the video breaks from the homoerotic cabaret so that Lady Gaga can mimic two gay icons. These segments are appropriately shot in black and white: she struts about like Liza Minelli in a bell-bottom romper; wearing a leather jacket and nothing else, she stands before a cross and sings into an old mike like Madonna. At the end of the video, Nun Gaga confirms her celibate devotion to iconography by swallowing a rosary. Then, like burning celluloid, her eyes and mouth disintegrate.
Lady Gaga has said that the song is about loving gay friends and not being loved back, except as an icon. It clearly also takes pride in being different. Cute boys, cute girls, and bowling alleys are sweet to look at, but deviance fascinates. Porn, musicals, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, animated, and B-movies distill entertainment to its essence—the guilty pleasure exists a few standard deviations beyond reality. When we watch these genres, we escape our bodies and fulfill our inner, imagined selves. Though guilty pleasures always entice, they also shame us for what society considers low-brow. But we can’t stop consuming—especially when a video costs nothing to watch and is screened within the privacy of our own MacBooks.
Material 3. Constant Updates
Sometimes we need her to change her outfit twelve times in one video. Sometimes we need her to change her outfit five times at the Grammys. Sometimes, we need her to post two new tweets in one day. No matter the form, Lady Gaga continuously adds to and refreshes her unique online image.
Material 4. Access Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere
Lady Gaga always performs. Whether in a video or in a yoga studio, at her sister’s graduation or on the red carpet, she is constantly a thing to be looked at—because, as we all know, Lady Gaga wears crazy shit.
Material 5. Persona(e)
Her crazy shit is mostly sexy: she lacks containers (no pants, no shirt, no bra) and flaunts exhibitors (high heels, red lipstick, and platinum blonde or banana-yellow hair). Yet her sexiness transgresses labels like masculine, androgynous, transvestite, or feminine. She’s just Gaga, which is a hyper-sexualized bit of everything.
At times she looks burlesque (fishnets), futuristic (rotating metal circle dress), fantastical (plastic bubbles), monstrous (black latex from head to toe), cartoonish (Kermit the Frog heads) and/or bizarre (sparkly lobster headpiece). But Lady Gaga is always her image and always a pastiche (“I am what I wear”).
Material 5. Links
If you wanted to, you could describe every Lady Gaga video through its pop-culture allusions. In “Paparazzi” Lady Gaga falls into a Vertigo vortex, then returns from the hospital in a gold robot torso and forehead reminiscent of Metropolis’s Maria. In “Bad Romance,” she emerges from a white coffin labeled “Monster” in Where the Wild Things Are white latex; in order to say “I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much,” she sings, “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo schtick/Want you in my Rear Window, baby you’re sick.” Unlike other celebrities, Lady Gaga’s name is never mentioned in the press for going to rehab/jail or leaking a sex video. These celebrity scandals are performed in her videos; her art, videos, and costumes become her spectacle.
“Telephone” is her most masterful pastiche. She links Kill Bill (Pussy Wagon, women on revenge) with Thelma & Louise (two women on the run for murder) to create a plot, then sprinkles in too many proper nouns to count: Beyonce, Pulp Fiction (“Honey Bee” riffs on “Honey Bunny”), Old Glory (stars-and-stripes placemats, acrylic nails, bikini and onesie), reality television (Poison TV mimics a Food Network segment, Jai Rodriguez from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), consumer culture (diner, Miracle Whip, Wonder Bread, Diet-Coke can hair rollers), and product placement (Virgin Telephone and Polaroid).
Images that consist only of pop-culture references lack anchorage. Some might say Lady Gaga reaches Baudrillard’s fourth level of simulacra—an image that relates to nothing but other images. However, she not only links to other images (hypertextuality), she links those links to herself (intertextuality). “Telephone” picks up where “Paparazzi” left off. In “Telephone,” her opening band appears in the booth behind Bo, and her sister appears as her jailbird friend, and a fellow prisoner wears the diamond-shaped earbuds she sported in her “Bad Romance” bathtub and now sells on ladygaga.com. But like hypertextuality, intertextuality must avoid obnoxious narcissism or a tangled post-modern network—for the audience to truly engage, the text needs to have heart, a weight to it.
Material 6. Keyboard
Lady Gaga doesn’t just tweet about eyelashes. Her feed overflows with love for her “Little Monsters.” She tweets, “celebrate yourselves!” and, “I heart lilmonsters”; and whenever her deviant self-invented image breaks the system that favors cute boys courting cute girls in bowling alleys, it is a shared success: “Monsters have 6 Grammy nominations!”
She knows how to reach her fans. Usually the mass ignores, marginalizes, or persecutes artists who make strange things that we’re not comfortable calling art. But as of December 3, 2010, Lady Gaga has accumulated 24,164,851 Facebook page “Likes” and 7,252,432 Twitter followers. For Lady Gaga knows how to make what we see and touch—images—into a site of meaning, and deviance into a form of empowerment.
Some would say that watching is an inherently selfish act. It gives us pleasure to wonder how we would act in a fantastic scenario, to desire a flat image that can’t respond or reject and to add fences around our identity as one who belongs (to the fan-club, to the club of viewers who will now “get” a reference to that video, to the elite club who claims superior cultural clout or the authority to judge, dismiss, and/or satirize another’s work). In its crudest interpretation, solipsism is what compels people to watch. Look at the YouTube comments: thread after thread of projected pride.
But Gaga recognizes that this is a mean interpretation of her work and our culture. When someone makes a YouTube video, posts on a blog, or updates their Facebook status, she wants her inner thoughts, desires, and image to be affirmed. Even better than watching alone is finding someone else, a fellow fan or satirist, to watch with you—this takes the shame out of it. When someone else sees what we see, and makes it known through a comment or a “like,” it’s a form of contact.
If legislation, society, your school, or your parents call you deviant and tell you to be ashamed of your identity, the screen might provide the only sense of belonging that you can find. Lady Gaga does not judge, retreat from, or ignore what older generations deem the sinful, frivolous or dangerous signs of modernity. She embraces our instant digital age and non-normative identities. She pours her soul into her image until her manifest form becomes the essence of herself and ourselves and our era—Lady Gaga sees the materials, what we see and touch, and acts accordingly.
In recent months Lady Gaga has dedicated her digital, physical, and artistic self to fight for gay rights. Born this Way, to be released in February 2011, is already lauded on BGLTSA blogs as a new gay anthem. At a recent concert, Lady Gaga sang the chorus; one fan recorded it and posted it online so all the Little Monsters could enjoy Lady Gaga belting, “I’m beautiful in my way, ’cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way.”
But Lady Gaga doesn’t just affirm self-invention, instant digital age, or non-normative identities. Because she knows how we interact, and supports and participates in our forms of interaction, she can use that interaction to effect change. On October 17 she tweeted, “We reached 1 Billion views on youtube little monsters! If we stick together we can do anything. I dub u kings and queens of youtube! Unite!” On November 30 she and other celebrities staged their online deaths (no tweets, no Facebook updates) until their fans collectively raised $1,000,000 to fight HIV/AIDS at buylife.org. By December 3 they were all “alive” again.
She fervently worked to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she spoke in Maine, she spoke in DC, she posted a video speech, she tweeted about it with Harry Reid. But she wants more than to build a new political structure. Her tweets build an image of her concerts as events that reach something close to an egalitarian utopia: “Never could I have imagined the connection we share. Hrvatska, 2nite there was no politic, no economy, no society. Just us. Monster ball.”
When millions of eyes gravitate toward a distinct image like this, it must mean that the new form is one that is necessary, a relief rather than a threat. An icon is one who is particularly adept at sensing in advance the way the tectonics are shifting, and has the courage and vision to bring the movement to the surface.
Once students knew the materials, they could begin to build. The Bauhaus believed the essence of objects—geometric forms—would free modern man from spiritual or economic oppression. And by building together, they could restructure society. As the Bauhaus Manifesto ends:
Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise toward the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.