Lady Gaga, Balls-Out: Recuperating Queer Performativity
Alexander Cho / FLOW Staff
There is much to disdain about Lady Gaga. On the surface, her music and persona are entirely derivative, she seems concerned mainly with acts of conspicuous consumption, and she adheres to a fascist body regime beholden to elitist, white, hyper-feminine beauty norms.
Why, then, devote a column to her? One very good reason is her immense popularity. The past year has seen her explode onto the pop charts—her songs “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” were two consecutive Billboard #1 singles, both from her debut album “The Fame.” This is no small feat.
But there is another, deeper reason to spend time thinking about Lady Gaga. While it may be simple to dismiss her outright as a bit of normative pop fluff, this, I argue, misses the point. In fact, Lady Gaga makes a very explicit attempt to shrewdly, purposefully—even politically—expose the nature of our fascination with pop icons by making it her mission to foreground the artifice of her own performance. As opposed to those pop stars to whom Lady Gaga is often (and erroneously) likened such as Madonna and Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga in fact makes it her chief purpose to expose pop’s artificiality; her performance is the performance of fakeness.
In other words, because Lady Gaga is always performing, she simultaneously never actually exists, fully inhabiting Richard Dyer’s assertion that “we never actually know [stars] directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.”1 Onstage and off, in interviews and in her lyrics, Lady Gaga collapses the distinction between star image, character, and performance, thus emphasizing pop’s own artifice.
By extension—and here is the crux of my argument—because the chief mechanism that she uses to perform fakeness is her own body and its particularly gendered politics, whether singing about it, flaunting it, adorning it, or talking about it, Lady Gaga interrogates the performative nature of gender, sex, and sexuality and their relationship to celebrity. Because she highlights her own performativity using these tools, it is impossible to read Lady Gaga straight, in all connotations of the term. Rather, I want to claim Lady Gaga as queer.
In this vein, Lady Gaga has less in common with Madonna and Britney Spears, and much more in common with David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Andy Warhol (her name, in fact is a reference to the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga” and she maintains her own Factory-esque group of collaborators called the “Haus of Gaga” that she works with to design her outlandish costuming).
“I’m filling an enormous hole. There’s a wide-open space for a female with big balls to fill.” —Lady Gaga2
Example one, highlighting constructed fakeness: In a widely-circulated video interview earlier this year with Australian journalist Alison Stephenson, Lady Gaga states that all she looks for in a partner is “a big dick.” After Stephenson asks her, “And what else?” she shakes her head and, in hilarious deadpan, says, “That’s it.” It becomes clear through her answers in this clip that she is, in the words of sociologist Erving Goffman, putting up a bald-faced, exaggerated “front,” giving an embarrassed-sounding Stephenson a run for her money. And if we had any lingering doubts, we are reminded explicitly in this interview that “Every minute of my life is performance.”
When a woman pop star with Lady Gaga’s visibility “has the balls” to declare in an interview that all she wants in a partner is “a big dick,” traditional discourses of gender and sexuality are shaken. On one level, she is taking a page out of a classic feminist playbook, turning the tables on men by reducing them to sex objects—indeed, even body parts—in the same way that women have been traditionally objectified. However, if we are to believe that Lady Gaga is consciously exposing the artifice of fame and celebrity through her own performativity, we can then also read this comment as targeted toward the same culture industry that catapults Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears to the top of the tabloid racks for mere genital obsession—indeed, the same culture industry that would demand the majority of Stephenson’s questions be about marriage and female reproduction.
Example two: In the long-format video for the song “Paparazzi,” directed by Jonas Akerlund, Lady Gaga actually performs the idealized version of her own performance, which soon becomes dismantled before her eyes. Framed as an old Hollywood feature film, Lady Gaga stars as herself, as the “film” opens in a hyper-luxurious bedroom with a model-esque Scandinavian boyfriend. He ultimately betrays her for a paparazzi photo op, leaving her crippled. Lady Gaga, memorably dancing in a metal suit and on crutches, works her way back for revenge, eventually poisoning her boyfriend. In a momentary break, she calls 911 and admits, “I just killed my boyfriend,” which leads to a media circus, and greater fame. The video closes with a Paris and Lindsay-esque mug shot. Lady Gaga firmly situates her own performance of celebrity in concert with those performances that we have all already seen, but who are entirely less reflexive.
There are many more instances that highlight the visibility of her performativity—the fact that her “real identity,” Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanoatta, manifested as a news cycle topic in its own right and that she apparently refuses to answer to her real name; a ridiculously challenging and outlandish “acoustic” performance of “Poker Face” for AOL Music (video below); the title of her album, “The Fame,” which begs reference to Warhol; and the persistence of incredulous, homemade fashion—bubble dresses, outfits fashioned out of Kermit the Frog (above), and “costumes” that often include masks.
And speaking of masks, as if taking a page out of Goffman, Lady Gaga “shocked” the media when she recently appeared at an MTV news conference in Malta wearing a full black face mask that revealed only her nose and coiffed blonde hair. Suddenly the lyric “No he can’t read my poker face,” seemed to morph into a political statement on stardom. As Dyer points out in Stars, citing Bela Balazs, the close-up has long been thought to be a chief mechanism to channel a star image—the face as primary identifier.3 When Lady Gaga, a conflated star image/character who exposes the artifice of her own performance, purposefully obscures her own face at a high-profile media event in “real life,” she is unquestionably calling attention to the performative nature of celebrity itself.
The queer leap I want to make here is that, as observed by José Esteban Muñoz, marginal populations often “disidentify”: grapple with mainstream identity performance and adapt, adopt, and/or rework this performance to their needs and desires.4 Another way of saying this is that queers are, more so than “majoritarian” populations, primed to recognize the performance of the everyday—or, as Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park observed long ago:
“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role…”5
It is difficult to suggest that Lady Gaga, with her Upper East Side prep school background, comes from any sort of marginal existence. However, I assert that her performance of fakeness, though not nearly as political as Muñoz’s acts, nevertheless functions in a disidentificatory manner. In much the same way that Muñoz’s queers dismantle and recuperate everyday performance, Lady Gaga’s highlighted artifice of pop performativity itself becomes a queer act—in all senses. This complicated, queer space is the same that leads to “rumors of bisexuality” and that enables her to channel masculine modalities while simultaneously appearing hyper-feminine. Additionally, to cite her privileged, white background as evidence for a counter-argument that she is therefore somehow slumming it is to adhere to a silohed sort of identity politics and to ignore why masses of queers “get her,” through their own acts of dis/identification—her politics, as result of her problematizing the performance of celebrity, make her absolutely, justifiably queer.
“I’m not sure who this person is, to be honest… I don’t know if it is a man or a woman.” —Christina Aguilera, on Lady Gaga6
If Lady Gaga can’t be read straight, her whole act becomes suspect. Her peroxide hair and leggy, pantsless outfits, her fascist body image, her “Love Game” and penchant for “big dicks” must be read queerly, as inhabiting a dual space wherein she exposes the artifice of the culture industry at the same time that she profits from it, actually landing on magazine covers and in the tabloids. Case in point: though her videos are steeped in bling, when she sings, “It’s good to live expensive and you know it,” we begin to wonder if we can read this straight. Is she really promoting conspicuous consumption? Or is she poking fun at the culture industry, and by extension, us? She shed some light on this, at least, in an interview with the Times of London: “I don’t give a f*** about money. What am I going to do with a condo and a car? I can’t drive.”
Hers is a queer space, indeed.
Note: This column owes a huge debt to an excellent, thought-provoking blog post by my friend and colleague Alyx Vesey at Feministmusicgeek.com.
1. Lady Gaga displays her poker face.
2. Lady Gaga on German TV.
3. “I wouldn’t like people to see me—me—in any other way than my music and my stage performances.”
Please feel free to comment.
- Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1982. p. 2 [↩]
- Collins, Hattie. “Lady GaGa: The future of pop?” Times Online, 14 Dec. 2008. Accessed 6 Aug 2009 [↩]
- Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1982. p. 16. Dyer does critique Balazs’ assertion, but nevertheless recognizes its enduring cultural import. [↩]
- Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999 [↩]
- Quoted in Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959. p. 19 [↩]
- Collins, Hattie. “Lady GaGa: The future of pop?” Times Online, 14 Dec. 2008. Accessed 6 Aug 2009 [↩]
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Well written. Somehow Camille Paglia-esque
You raise so many excellent issues here, including several that are on my mind as I’m thinking through contemporary manifestations of strardom, fame, celebrity. You use Dyer at several points, so I’m curious what you make of his argument concerning the essential, foundational construction of the ordinary and extraordinary, the performed and the ‘real,’ that underpin the construction of the star and his charismatic appeal. Or, as Richard DeCordova points out, we didn’t really have ‘stars’ until we were able to produce discourse about the ‘real’ self behind the picture personality. What, then, of GaGa? There is no ‘there’ there. She is nothing but performance. As you point out, she is performing on and off the stage, a complete, coherent construction….which is, of course, part of her appeal: there have been, at least thus far, no cracks in her meticulous construction. But can she sustain her ‘star’ when there is no ‘real’ GaGa underneath? Perhaps this is why, for all of her fame and notoriety, she has yet to be profiled or extensively papped for publications such as Us Weekly. There’s no way to run a picture of GaGa doing something that’s “just like us” — and she wouldn’t ever appear in public doing something that could be construed as such. (She probably doesn’t go to the dentist or grocery store. Ever.)
On a side-note, what do you make of her close friendship with Perez Hilton? Perez not only blogs about her constantly, but posts pictures of them (via the blog and Twitter) and calls her his ‘wife.’ Ridicule him as one might, Hilton is no stranger to the politics of camp and performativity….is he ‘in’ on the game?
Alex, fascinating and well-articulated reading of Lady Gaga. Admittedly I don’t really keep up with her at all, but I’m now much more intrigued and respectful of her and her work.
Great piece, Alex! Having back-and-forthed about Lady Gaga for several months now, I wondered what your thoughts were on how the pop star’s own fan positioning might queer her, as members of the LGBT community (particularly gay men) have long since declared their orientation through the celebrities and icons they love.
As you mention, she has modeled herself after Andy Warhol and cribbed from David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. She’s also performed with the Pet Shop Boys and professed her love of Madonna, who is herself a huge gay icon. She borrows extensively from cabaret and disco and came up from a New York club scene, all of which are shaped by and helped shape gay culture. She and her team Haus of Gaga also often rip off of-the-moment couture to cultivate her look. In addition, she has recently professed a love of monsters — themselves very queerable entities and invoked the bath house, a recognizably gay cultural space, in her recent cover for Rolling Stone.
I believe this all must be read alongside persistent rumors that she is a man or a hermaphrodite and her elliptical discussions about her bisexuality. Her fluid sexuality is enforced in her music videos, which frequently depict her being intimate with both men and women (ex: the cop she makes out with in “Love Game” oscillates between being a man and a woman). While I still believe there to be limits to her queerability, there’s no doubt that she very much wants to be positioned as queer and I think her fandom is vital to that positioning.
“because the chief mechanism that she uses to perform fakeness is her own body and its particularly gendered politics, whether singing about it, flaunting it, adorning it, or talking about it, Lady Gaga interrogates the performative nature of gender, sex, and sexuality and their relationship to celebrity. Because she highlights her own performativity using these tools, it is impossible to read Lady Gaga straight, in all connotations of the term. Rather, I want to claim Lady Gaga as queer. In this vein, Lady Gaga has less in common with Madonna . . .”
Clearly you know little about Madonna and her legacy. She’s done more for exposing sexism, gender-bending and queerness, and exposing fucking as sex-positive than just about any other artist you’ve mentioned (and, unlike Bowie, she didn’t apologize for it later).
And to lump Madonna into the same category as Britney Spears? Ridiculous.
Interesting piece Alex because I find myself questioning the responses to Lady Gaga because I, among others I’m sure, weren’t (and still aren’t) quite sure what to make of her or her performance. By raising the possiblity of queer performativity, you outline a very compelling answer to deciphering what she potentially is “all about.”
My main thought is what happens when we, the audience, don’t get “it”? If she truly is attempting to interrogate systems of gender identity and star construction, what do we make of the reception of those audiences who completely interpret it as complete glorification of consumer culture or celebrity?
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Very interesting piece on the queer aspects of Lady gaga, Alex, thanks for the input!
I am working on a Camp-reading of her and her performance, and this article definitively helped a lot. I have only one question concerning the “Haus of Gaga”. You mention it as most probably alluding to Warhol’s factory, whereas I was assuming she was naming it after the houses in Vogue-Culture (as in “House of xtrvaganza”). Any comments on that? Thanks!
Thanks for all the comments on this piece! I have been thinking a lot about Stefani and her queer performance, especially post-OUT photo shoot, which was troubling for it’s stark UNqueerness :-/ And since Billboard revealed that she has the No. 2 and No. 8 best-selling digital songs of all time. (!)
Drew – Thanks! At least I *think* the comparison is a compliment :)
Annie – This is exactly the point, as far as I see it. This is what Lady Gaga is flipping around – her stardom is predicated on *not* knowing the real, which becomes a kind of big inside joke that people can buy into. In fact, this is what struck me the first time I saw a Lady Gaga video in a club in LA several years ago. Who was this joker? And why wasn’t she fed to me like Lauren and Heidi, like the Jonas Brothers, etc? Was she for real?? (A question which nicely dovetails into this malleable space, full of questions of gender, queerness, and performance.) Her stardom is predicated on our fascination with stars, and because of this, she may even seem — dare I say it — more “authentic,” once we are in on the joke. And I’m not familiar with the relationship between Gaga and Perez, but I’d venture to say, yes, he’s “in” on the game. In fact, they are quite simpatico, since it’s the same game he plays, in a different venue (the name “Perez Hilton”?) My big question is, can she carry this whole act on past one album? Or will she need to totally recast herself in order to adhere to the politics of her own performance?
Alyx – Yes, yes, yes! Her persistent genderqueer/hermaphroditic/drag queen rumors are, in my opinion, engendered (ha!) by this queer space she opens up in discourse. People can’t put their finger on her (those who want to, anyway), so this queer space becomes a space of anxiety. Also, I would venture to say that there is a difference between being a gay icon (which she is, as well as Judy Garland, for example), and doing tangibly queer performance, which she also does (and I’m not sure Judy did).
Gaga Ciccone – No doubt Madonna foregrounded her own sex and gender play in her celebrity discourse. I don’t think that’s exactly what Gaga is doing, tho, when I say that she is ridiculing the pop industry in a queer way. Oh, and the first thing that comes to mind for me re: Britney and Madonna: http://www.last.fm/music/Madonna/+images/5320407
Raquel – I’d say that those people are just reading her like any other celebrity, regardless of whatever her intent may be. Which is totally doable – and I think Gaga would absolutely love.
Katrin – In this piece I particularly shied away from the terms “camp” (and “drag”) since I feel like whole books need to be synthesized in order to get those coherent definitions down. Which seems like what you’re doing, and that’s wonderful! I would absolutely agree that the “Haus of Gaga” is in debt to drag and vogue houses, and I’m SURE that Gaga is aware of that culture. I’m thinking that it’s certainly not only a homage to Warhol – sorry if it came across unilaterally. I think she’s doing both, and drawing connections regarding communal queer performance.
Thanks for this post. I’ve written something here about queer sex in her music video for “LoveGame”. Thought it’d interest you.
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What do you make of her recent comments comaring herself to Tinkerbell? :
“Tinker Bell will die,” she said, “if you don’t clap for her.”
This led, naturally, to a plea for her already loud fans to get even louder. “Do you want me to die?” she asked.
And more from:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01.....3gaga.html
“Skillfully transforming into an insecure teenager racked with angst, she bashfully flops on the ground and, in the plaintive voice of a performer hooked on applause, asks the audience if she looks sexy. Quickly shifting back to her superstar persona, she underlines the artifice of this plea, adding self-consciously, “I hate the truth.””
“Only a few songs after begging for approval, her mood darkens. The moment has come, as it does at the end of most slasher movies, when the scantily clad victim stops running and takes on the monster, fighting for survival.
Lady Gaga hoists a tommy gun out of the piano and swings it toward the crowd. Smiling maniacally, she sprays her fans with “bullets,” the weapon flashing like a strobe light. “
I find your article very useful in understanding a queer interpretation of Lady GaGa. I appreciate that you describe her over-performances as simply queer and do not suggest a ‘camp’ reading, which is completely cliche and to be expected. Where you state: “In fact, Lady Gaga makes a very explicit attempt to shrewdly, purposefully—even politically—expose the nature of our fascination with pop icons by making it her mission to foreground the artifice of her own performance” I have some confusion agreeing with however. I do agree that she outright shoves herself as a spectacle upon us to take as either two ways: absolutely hate and be disturbed by her ridiculous appearance, or achieves the sole purpose of mocking our acceptance of her ridiculous performances and appearance. However, I feel that her loyalty and appreciation of her fans is the most sincere and non-artifice aspect of her, and if it is all just a sham then she is the queen of artifice and as she states in that interview it is true that her whole life is a performance. I think an interesting thing to think about related to your article and the fact that we can’t quite read GaGa as her true identity or a front is the fact that her name was thrust upon her by her manager, and now she refuses to answer to her real name. This too constructs a further reading of her being what pop culture wants her to be and making a ridiculous/glorious spectacle of it.
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A historically grounded analysis would, of course, have to look at a range of sources beyond Madonna including Dale Bozzio, Glam, Alice Cooper, and Zappa (and the connections between Zappa, the Bozzios, and the Alice Cooper band) and perhaps beyond.
Interesting article, which got me to thinking: Ms. GaGa is smart, she went to the good schools, read the good writers, she’s observant (like all artists), and realized long ago that if people didn’t have the TV (or movies, which they get their “ispiration” from), they’d have nothing and be at a complete loss. Quite often I am asked how I survive without a TV (I have not owned one for years). People are incredulous, at a complete loss. Precicely my point. I would venture to bet that Ms. GaGa is smarter than this article about her. Consider that she does not own a car. This means she has never bought into all that marketing crap that people get into when they pick out the vehicle that supposedly makes a “statement” about who they are. She is not encumbered by all that. She “a free bitch, baby.”
Awwwriiight, my avatar showed up. One more thing: What’s up with describing this girl as having a “fascist body image?’ Words mean things, people. Is her “body image” one with extreme right wing views? Does her alleged “body image” have a reactionary or dictatorial bent? Because fascism originated in Itality, and b/c Ms. Gaga is of Italian descent…is that why the writer used this phrase? Seriously, I think this article writer slapped the dial-a-buzz-phrase and this is what it landed on.
Interesting post! I’m not quite sure that we can view Lady Gaga’s subversive performances as completely fulfilling their potential within the context in which she performs. She stages herself as a mainstream pop performer, and she will be interpreted according to the already well-formed tastes and criteria of that milieu.
For a more critical view of Lady Gaga, please see this post from Below the Belt: http://feed.belowthebelt.org/2.....uffin.html
Here’s my (not yet book-length) take on Lady Gaga and Camp – hoping it’s not as ‘cliche’ as has been suggested above. I’d be happy tp hear your comments:
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