“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.