Over the summer, I briefly plunged myself into studying camp for a couple of pieces I did. Its definitions varied, one of the great conceptual terms whose definition is as elusive as the transient nature of what it may or may not describe. For some, it’s merely the love for kitsch; for others, it’s pointed exaggeration to subvert normative values in art; and for some others, it’s the enjoyable bad, where badness does a 360 and becomes good again in spite of itself. The common connection was the role artifice plays. It’s either tool or catalyst, coding in each second of a given text a kind of language recognized and shared by a niche group of people.
And then at some point, camp was mainstreamed, and what was once kind of secret became kind of populist, even if in a tangential way. Ryan Murphy, Madonna, Hairspray as a musical, and the grande dame, Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga is always in drag. In 10 inch McQueen stilettoes, with soda cans as curlers in her hair, as a motorcycle/human hybrid, as a Jeff Koons statue, in a sequined dress with a flatter headdress, in an eggshell gown, and, lately, with a cowgirl hat and jean shorts. She is always in drag.
Let us not mistake being “in drag” as some sort of pejorative, or a negative remark on her authenticity or lack thereof. It is simply the fact of her performative nature. If RuPaul is to be believed, “First you’re born, and the rest is drag.” But there is something about Lady Gaga, like there is something about other queer icons (intentional or otherwise) that separates her from the regular drag that Adele does or even Beyoncé. It is pointed even when it is not, even when it is trying to be the opposite of blatant. It is even pointed in its attempt to be subtle, classical. A certain amount of flamboyancy is embedded into Gaga’s DNA, and I am fine with that.
What I see about Gaga, though, is an interesting, vaguely Benjamin Button like thing happening to her career: Her outlandishness starts at the beginning, an intentional irony in her work in The Fame and The Fame Monster that ironically sees pop as avant garde art. Songs about the pestering nature of celebrity selfhood written before Gaga actually had that feel like an in joke, in a way. Born This Way becomes steadily less ironic, as she gains an understanding of who her audience is and what, in italics, music can do for people; but even in the title track, anthemic though it may be, its riffs on earlier songs (okay, song lol) in much the same vein are like a jab to the ribs. I don’t think Gaga didn’t think pop could be art, but there is very much a seriousness laced in the ludicrousness of ARTPOP. It’s very much a “who cares” album, in the sense that it is unrestrained for the most part, for better or worse. (Come on? “Sexxx Dreams”?)
My favorite piece of drag Gaga has done was her period as torch singer/cover master. The duet album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek, and making the rounds covering stuff like The Sound of Music, “La Vie en Rose”, “Imagine”, and You’ve Got a Friend”, are both showy and authentic in a very specifically Gaga way.
David Halperin, in his book How to Be Gay (which is whiter than the blank WordDoc page I stared at for an hour before writing the first paragraph to this), referred to Gaga as “ready-made camp”, in that, if camp is partially based on interpretation and cultural processing – an extraction of queerness from something that was ostensibly not queer or camp already – Lady Gaga skips a bunch of steps and is already there. Hence the problem of “Born This Way”, so he asserts: its explicitness is exactly what undermines her camp stylings. There’s little to read from her, let’s say, mid period work (I think he’s a little unfair to The Fame/The Fame Monster) because it’s already the text. So her camp, its irony, its whatever feels somewhat inert.
I doubt she did, but if Gaga listened to Halperin, it would serve as a convenient catalyst to her evolution, or rather, camp de-evolution. Queerness and camp become less and less the thesis and more and more the conclusion. Cheek to Cheek and her subsequent appearances seem almost blithely unaware, or indifferent, or apathetic, to the amount of artifice on display. Everyone called Gaga “classy” at the Oscars, and I’m sure she herself would have agreed; yet, the spectacle of it, for something that is lovely and very un-Gaga, was precisely its camp quality.
Camp, in the context of Lady Gaga’s later career has come to mean something that wants to register on one earnest level, but is received and interpreted and registered somewhere else completely.
Which brings us to Joanne. Instead of a nightmare collage or a pseudo-vintage newspaper photo or a stark black and white image with an odd costume, it’s just Gaga with a hat against a powder blue background. Hair down. Profile shot. That’s it. This is Gaga doing authenticity the only way she knows how to, so songs like “Million Reasons” and “Come to Mama” have a funny, if not unenjoyable, dissonance to them. To say that Gaga going country is like when Jenna Maroney went country is a compliment. Neither of them are completely aware (anymore) of the ridiculousness of whatever they’re performing, be it “Tennis Night in America” or “John Wayne” and “A-YO”. Every song is totally sincere, and Gaga’s proclivity towards artificiality, this time unintentional, is like the pickle in a burger. Not to everyone’s taste, but definitely an essential ingredient to the meal.
Back to drag: costumes don’t necessarily change truth or authenticity in the same way that genre films aren’t necessarily vapid and devoid of substance. Performance is just another gateway to channeling different emotions, honing in on them, and even allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others. Authenticity, in comparison, is kind of a nonsense word. It’s something everyone seeks to be, but seemingly only those that don’t care ever “achieve”.
The fact that Joanne attempts to unsuccessfully shed Gaga of all of her tendencies towards camp artifice is the campiest thing about it. It’s genuine and earnest, and it only kind of works on the plane it wants to. It’s not bad, but its weird dissonance enhances the experience. Gaga, on top of the bar and a local dive (for real), has made the most genuine piece of camp in her career.