Shaffer: Beauty, irony, Gaga

On Truth and Lies

“The genius of Gaga” was a good start, but Kathryn Olivarius ’11 doesn’t go far enough. She doesn’t appreciate Gaga like I do.

Gaga changed my life. Before her, I shunned all pop music — any song written after World War I. But Gaga’s music taught me to stop worrying and love modernity. Now I tolerate young people, blue jeans, even dance parties.

Pop culture is awful. Contemporary musical theater ranks among the greatest monstrosities of human history, and persuades me that America’s decline is nigh. People pay hundreds of dollars to hear one-dimensional protagonists screech melodramatically to the tune of four interminably repeated chords, for three godless hours. Heaven forfend complicated characters — like a priest with a good side! Andrew Lloyd Weber, save us from modulation!

Music videos are worse. There are two indispensables: the four-chord pattern and the mostly naked nubile young woman. There are two themes: Singer wants to get with said woman, or singer already has gotten with her and wants to again. Sometimes the singer is the nubile young woman, and I can pretend that Taylor Swift has been patiently waiting for me beneath those mousy glasses all along. In either case, some body parts undulate, others shake, Taylor’s strap falls off her air-brushed shoulder; the prurient interest has its fill. The themes are cloying. The rhymes, tasteless. The metaphors, artless.

It’s all, in a word, kitsch. It is the art of a godless world. With His death the boundary between beauty and kitsch evaporated and pop artists became kitschy and real artists became ugly. Beauty was replaced, on the one hand, by sharks in formaldehyde, and, on the other, by lollipops, air-brushed bikini Barbies and gratuitous undulation of the hips.

And then there was Gaga. She is the ultimate postmodernist, a post-death-of-God goddess who has distilled our generation’s mood — the only celebrity artist. If I tried to sum up Gaga’s art in a word, I’d use four: ironic, extravagant, aestheticized kitsch.

The word irony is overused, but the thing is rarely done right. Gaga does. Her latest video included bald placements of Verizon phones. Normally we would lament this artistic corruption, symptomatic of late-capitalist consumerist society. But Gaga is a woman of infinite jest, too keen to simply sell out — she sells out with a wink and a nod, aware of Verizon’s impurity, celebrating her impiety against the gods of art, relishing the chance to aestheticize late-capitalist decadence itself. She transforms the perversion of art into art. Her playful manipulation of the trappings of consumerism places her beyond consumerist kitsch, making her a great ironist and artiste.

Her videos and performances are so extravagant, so flamboyant, that they demand a suspension of the suspension of disbelief. We can’t inhabit her art. We necessarily stand apart, amused by the spectacle. Kitsch is powerless from repetition, but Gaga creates something of power from her exaggeration of kitsch. As Olivarius intimated, she is our Andy Warhol, playfully constructing art using pop as her structural blocks, making something grand from beauty’s death.

She is the ultimate decadent. Her life is a work of art. She believes in no natural self — only self-creation, performance and a choice among many masks. And in a liberated world, the possibilities for self-creation became infinite. So Gaga wears the most interesting mask she can contrive, for her amusement and ours, entertaining this empty generation. An absurdism of cigarette sunglasses, telephone hair and “let’s make a sandwhich!” in comic script, of symbols signifying nothing, keeps us wondering.

What does it all mean? Gaga only knows.

Feminist and Dionysian sensibilities pervade. She begins in sexual slavery and finishes with a cigarette, next to an ashen lover — killed by pyrotechnic lingerie. She is a third-wave feminist who sees celebrity and female sexuality as dual forces of imprisonment and power. In “Telephone” there are three motifs: food, sex and death — that’s all there really is, when we tear away the veils. And tear away she does. No straps “innocently” fall off of air-brushed shoulders — in Gaga’s videos clothes are torn off. The sexuality is raw and unabashed.

Gaga’s antic disposition shows us how to survive our time. In a godless world without beauty, truth or goodness, there is no significance to life, words have no meaning and we’ll all soon be dead. And yet the day must be gotten through. The only path is irony — speaking with a smile because every word is a lie, going through an empty world and finding amusement in performance. We laugh at the stupidity of pop music but dance to it anyway. We know God is dead and so will we be — but it doesn’t get us down. Because we have Gaga.

It is that ironic attitude of detached amusement that is the only source of consolation in an mad, ugly world. I’m not certain the way we live now is good, but Gaga has distilled our generation’s mood, and as so can rightly be called the voice of our generation. Our evaluation of our times and our evaluation of that voice must rise and fall together.

We could use more beauty, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. But we’re a lost generation whose mode is irony, more interested in play and performance than pathos and purpose. Gaga is our voice. For now, at least.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.

Correction: March 24, 2010

An earlier version of this column misidentified the class year of Kathryn Olivarius ’11.


  • ’10

    Forget Lady Gaga. There is only Janelle Monae.

  • SY ’11

    Janelle Monae ftw!

  • ’09

    Seconded. She is amazing.

  • ’09

    Janelle Monae, I mean

  • Fan

    Thank you for sharing your opinion on Gaga. But honestly you see no similarities between Madonna of the 80’s and Gaga today ? It is all the same crap that Hollywood has made (sex drugs and R&R).

  • Fan

    she also used many of Micheal Jackson’s Dance moves !

  • ’14

    You rock. Your columns rock. Every week. You’re great.

  • saybrook997

    I don’t believe this article is about Lady Gaga, any more than about health care or cap and trade.

    This is none of my business, and I have enough of my own stuff, but YDN op-eds are not WSJ types. They scream out what’s going on in his or her big, little mind, heart, and soul?

    What happened over spring break? Maybe you just are having Nietzsche nihilist fun or a senior thesis crisis or a third-wave “young woman” problem (other than Lady Gaga).

    You write: “how to survive our time. In a godless world without beauty, truth or goodness, there is no significance to life, words have no meaning and we’ll all soon be dead. The only path is irony — speaking with a smile because every word is a lie, going through an empty world and finding amusement in performance. We know God is dead and so will we be — but it doesn’t get us down. Because we have Gaga….the only source of consolation in an mad, ugly world. We could use more beauty….But we’re a lost generation….”

    Are you OK? We’re all in this generation. Jesus Christ!(and I don’t often write or say those words in this godless, modern pagan, Nietzsche, empty, ugly, mad, lost world.)

    If soul crisis, try Pascal. If soul mate crisis, women are hell on men, and they think it’s always the other way. Especially after 30 years when women have tried more change than men have been allowed in the past 3,000 years. Still, not this generation’s women’s doings, so don’t fly to Argentina.

    If all this really was irony, never mind. As my great aunt would say, no need to get my bowels in an uproar and kidneys in a downpour, merely over a soulless, mad world in crisis, except for Gaga. Or just let me laugh that you almost let your Nietzsche get out of control.

  • ’12

    Shaffer’s a stud.

  • DC

    more interesting than the articles themselves is the arch-conservative’s quite evident fascination with hipsters and gaga…

  • ’10

    This is the best op-ed ever.

  • @#8

    i think this is more of a semi-ironic exploration of Gaga’s relation to meaningless/soulless postmodernity than necessarily an endorsement of that view.

  • Belief Systems

    It takes more courage to behave nobly in a godless world than it does in a world where nobility is rewarded by an invisible score-keeper in the sky.

    Nietzshe was nuts. And now he’s dead, like his god.

    (“God is dead and Mary is his mother”.)

    Pascal said, “All of the troubles of mankind are caused by man’s inability to sit quietly in his room.”

    Hedonism, materialism, nihilism and exhilarationism are the luxuries of the young and healthy.

    Lady Gaga will be fat and wrinkled in the twinkling of an eye; or a living mummy like Joan Rivers, or Madonna.

    What do you want to live FOR?

    Or do you simply want to wake up every day and follow your lusts like a dog following scents?


    BTW Nihilism is a form of meaning–it is a belief-system.

  • @saybrook997

    I assure you that Mr. Shaffer is not having “woman problems.” He is a very happy and lucky man.

  • y’10

    Matt, you’ve gone all Richard Rorty on us! I like it.

  • saybrook997

    On second thought. I rejected your message, hyperbole to me, too quickly. It fills in a missing piece to some of the craziness, crisis. Merely replacing the post-WWII world order, ending in old age, would bring on political, economic,
    military crises for the next 15-20 years. If, as you write, many suffer also an inner crisis of godless, lost, empty souls, there is crisis on crisis (which, of course, Lady Gaga won’t ease).

    In short, there is no reason humans can’t have to deal with overwhelming outside and inner crises at the same time. I just don’t know of a time in American history when both have overlapped. For instance, about 80 years before now was the Great Depresssion/WWII; 80 yeare before that, the Civil War; 80 years before that, the American Revolution. Strauss and Howe, The Forth Turning, 1997. But the young who fought those crises to good results did not start as lost or empty souls in crisis. Instead, there was inner confidence, almost swagger. You point out that perhaps not now.

    So I reconsidered Nietzsche’s Shattered Lantern story. The madman shouts “God is dead, I tell you, we have killed him, you and I.” He breaks his lantern on the ground and tells them, “I have come too early. This deed is too distant for people to see….” That was more than 100 years ago, so maybe the madman now
    would be on time. You may be right. Many people with a religious affiliation have been to a church only for a wedding–in Europe for several generations and here for a couple generations. If your Gaga insight/irony is correct, we enter a world crisis for the first time with a very distant relationship to God or gods, as “lost,” “empty” souls. Older generations were not all religious after WWII, but their parents, grandparents, or wives were–there was still connection.

    Other than a rough time ahead, at least two things might change. People may marry again earlier and cling for refuge for 50-60 years, like our grandparents, if that readjustment is possible. Needing each other adds to loving each other.

    In a crisis of both the outer and inner worlds, there is also the “Buckley offer” (as in Wm. F., Jr.). I read that he met with writers at his NY apt. to review work and ideas. Over scotch, cigars (pot?), he would sometimes ask the one there by name, “Why don’t you become a Catholic?” More people may take the offer if they can find it.

    So your missing piece to my view is that for the first time we may have a “soul” crisis on top of a deep, external, cyclical crisis. All other American crises have ended in a mostly glorious new order, but those crises were one type or the other (outside or inner), not both at the same time.

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