Find Your Jesus, Find Your Kubrick: Lady Gaga as Auteur

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(Author’s Note: The originally appeared on Sound on Sight, which became PopOptiq, which sort of became defunct. I think it’s from, like, June 2014. It has been heavily re-written.)

Lady Gaga was like a smack in the face at her career peak, from about 2008 to 2010. As if a Phoenix risen from the ashes of the global economic recession, she embodied the voyeuristic, post-reality show pleasures of an audience gaze and intentionally cobbled herself together, seemingly, from the consumerist detritus that got us into this mess in the first place. She was late capitalist performance art, all the garbage and joy, validation and indictment of the early 21st century as one pop singer, daring enough to let the audience hang her on live TV, and bring her back from the dead, a cycle of life and death she keeps repeating throughout her work. Though live performance is crucial for Gaga’s act, music videos are her medium. Gaga, née Stefani Germanotta, through her videos presents a vision, often of powerful women and the deconstruction of fame, through each of her music videos. For Gaga’s videos, the delineation between film art and music video threatens to disappear, but her auteurial hand is always present. 

Lady Gaga’s early music videos function primarily as promotional material, with “LoveGame” and “Poker Face” being, for the most part, aggressively entirely generic formally. It was not perhaps until she employed the use of music video director Jonas Åkerlund that her auteuristic vision became more visible and more tangible. Much of why Lady Gaga is fascinating is because she exists as a paradox: a manufactured character that refutes and argues against and for the idea of a manufactured pop star, a culmination in pop marketing and production (similar, though not the same, in nature to Lana Del Ray). Her first album’s title The Fame is cheeky, prescient, self-aware, and posed Gaga as a self-reflexive artist, and the album as examination of the nature of fame in “pop society”, a broad post-Warhol space. Such knowing self-awareness, winking construction, and post-modern application in pop art is fodder for writers and academics.

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She gears into these ideas clearly and bitingly in “Paparazzi”, directed by Åkerlund. It would mark the first entry of an as yet unfinished trilogy of videos (followed by “Telephone”). Unlike “Poker Face” and “LoveGame”, “Paparazzi” is more directly a satire, and a pastiche at that one. Oscillating between film noir and soapy melodrama (with the titles lurid, emulating a modern version of classic typeface), Lady Gaga is seen on a bed with the handsome, pre—True Blood Alexander Skarsgård in a lavish mansion. Her face is on money, she’s splashed across the headlines. She epitomizes fame, and moreover, consumption. 

Throwing in a Vertigo reference for good measure, Lady Gaga’s video follows a long line of music videos which conceptualize themselves closer as film in their use of narrative and form than as music videos as promotional marketing, which is not to say that Gaga’s videos are not that. It’s existing in the inbetween, or in doing both, which makes the form so interesting: Gaga can have her film and music video too. But unlike something like Michael Jackson’s videography, Lady Gaga’s videos are rich and ostentatious, aggressively asserting her artistic identity. With the self-examination of fame on board (she “hits rock bottom”), she makes these disturbing connections between fame and death, as if the two are intrinsically linked. It’s a basic connection: if one is consumed by society, did one really live at all? But, as in most performance art and conceptual art, it’s about execution (pardon the pun). Immaculate looking models are found dead around the grounds, sometimes with obviously artificial blood (like gold nail polish) dripping from their mouth. Anyone will do anything to be famous, including her.

It’s a strange mediation for someone to make on their first album, like biting the hand that will eventually feed you, but few pop stars that could gain momentum like Gaga seemed interested in both indulging in the industry they ultimately would spend much of their early career sardonically critiquing. “Paparazzi” ends up becoming Lady Gaga’s riff on Chicago in a way: betrayed by her boyfriend, she uses murder as a way to become a star. Sporting a blonde bob, she’s like the love child of a more sinister Roxie Hart and Louise Brooks, a la Pandora’s Box. At the VMAs in 2009, she hanged herself from a chandelier, all decadence and death. 

While “Paparazzi” is perhaps a more straightforward presentation of a story, Lady Gaga works best in abstraction (as many music video artists seem to), but her brand of abstraction ties very much into her performance art. Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) took the helm for “Bad Romance”, off of Gaga’s EP The Fame Monster (written while on tour for The Fame and much more darkly examines previous themes), but its dystopic treatment of femininity and feminism in general seems to more obviously come from Gaga’s brain than from his. Set in a Russian bathhouse, Gaga is sold as a sex worker to a mobster with a Hannibal Lecter-esque chin guard.

Gaga’s vocabulary in terms of how she wants to articulate her particular feminist brand and ideology evolves with “Bad Romance”, with striking imagery of crowns (black and white) juxtaposed against a vulnerable and naked, sweet looking innocent being forced into prostitution, the clear idea is that Gaga’s latter character is determined to reclaim her power through her sexuality. (Or, she’s reconstituting/deconstructing the Madonna/Whore trope.) Constantly, the image of Lady Gaga either entirely exposed or in clothing that uses her sexuality and gender as an advantage, or clothing/accessories that could be used in defense are shown on screen. From Alexander McQueen’s scaled gold outfit with the 12 inch Armadillo heels (from his last show, Plato’s Atlantis, also where her track first dropped) to the flame producing bra, Gaga is interested in weaponized femininity, to be used against the people who take advantage of it. (One of the most striking shots in the video is its very beginning shot: pulling up to Lady Gaga wearing razor glasses and her posse, one is reminded of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.)

Åkerlund and Gaga teamed up once again for the follow-up to “Paparazzi”, “Telephone”. In videos from The Fame and The Fame Monster, Gaga reveals herself as a fan of genre and exploitation, if specifically to recontextualize somewhat dated habits of those films, redressing them to fit both her sensibility and a more contemporary politic. For “Telephone”, Gaga is lumped into a women in prison film (mixed with some noir), recalling Women in Cellblock 9 and Women in Cages

Female sexuality, queer femininity, and their historical consumption by straight men is, in “Telephone”, now barbed, here no longer something to gaze at and presented as somewhat foreign, especially compared to most mainstream depictions of lesbianism. (You can read a more thorough examination of it here.) She exudes power, from the spiked outfits she wears to the murder she commits. Gaga plays power slightly androgynously, ironic considering Gaga’s ability to oscillate between masculinity and femininity so easily, amping up her gender performance any which way she chooses. She shapeshifts, from the weaponized femininity of “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” to a female masculinity seen here and in “Alejandro”, a kind of modern, pop Orlando. 

Riding in Tarantino’s Pussy Wagon with Beyoncé like Thelma and Louise, she ironically tackles the sexist joke of “making a sandwich”, literally winking at the camera. But she pointedly marks the kind of feminist reclamation as something that does not occupy a vacuum, rather, the subversion also exists as product to be sold: with graphics framing Gaga and the kitchen staff like they’re on a cooking show, she revenge is transformed into spectacle to watch and buy. And, as savvy as Tarantino, she’s able to aestheticize death, tie it into Americana, reuse certain styles and forms to undermine their originally intended purposes, and call it a day.

Nonetheless, Gaga has continued making interesting videos, including “Born This Way” (think Metropolis by way of Gaga) and “Alejandro”. For the latter, in an homage to Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation of Cabaret, Lady Gaga dons bowl cut, reminiscent of both Sally Bowles and, even more tellingly, of Lulu from G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Although both of these characters were sexually promiscuous, it is not without note that both of these characters harnassed a kind of power, exerting their power through their sexuality.

Lady Gaga, regaled in a strange bionic, cyberpunk-like head device, sits upon a throne and watches half-naked men dance in a circle. They, too, have bowl cuts or bobs, their haircuts desexualizing them in juxtaposition to their exposed bodies. The beginning of the video features Lady Gaga leading them in a march, and the connotation seems to be one of a militaristic, cold, solemn environment. A convergence of masculine and feminine, they are uniform in presentation, retaining the dark militaristic strength of a stormtrooper.

These men are also featured in a scene where Lady Gaga even more overtly recalls Sally Bowles’ costume from Cabaret. There’s a melding of the masculine stereotype and the feminine, or homosexual, stereotype, as the soldiers walk forward as if they are on a runway. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here, with the masculinity of a soldier outfit, meant to symbolize power and unfailing strength, and the distinctive walk of a runway model, which is often cited as being powerful, but feminine and “weaker” than other gaits.

Lady Gaga dresses as a nun and drops Rosary beads down her throat, swallowing religion, a callback, undoubtedly, to the many religious groups that have criticized her work. In this scene, and in the scenes where she is dressed not unlike Joan of Arc, Lady Gaga paints herself as both martyr and mother.

The opening tracking shot, which is interrupted by the words Gaga and Klein (the latter denoting the name of the music video’s director, fashion photographer Steven Klein), features a bar with men in fishnet stockings slumped over in chairs. Other sequences in the video contain men tied by a string to their weapons.

“Alejandro” gestures somewhat broadly to institutional power and oppression: the church and the military, both spaces of uniformity, tradition, and platforms that queer people have begged for validation from. She, and her dancers, can drag it up as much as they like, but they’ll only ever reach an approximation of what both places promise. If cynically read, assimilation is a fool’s journey, and queer people and women will be subject, nonetheless, to being othered, regardless of ascension of status.

“Alejandro”‘s abstractions present Gaga malleable, again a shapeshifter in her power relationships. She is both in control and beyond control, she is both Madonna and Whore, and perhaps it is this paradoxical quality to normally binary ideas and concepts which allows her to provoke so easily. She can be in possession of the so-called phallus in once set of scenes, attempting to tie up the men, as well as be subject to that, tossed around by the same group of men she tries to bed. She confronts butch and femme aesthetics with her dancers in high heels and fishnets, while they also wield guns. Lady Gaga wears a brassiere with the barrel of an AR-15 rifle attached to the cups, the prospect of both life and death at the tip, a cheeky sadomasochism. 

Though the video was released in late 2010, several months before the end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, drawing a connection between its militaristic imagery and the political context is difficult to avoid. At the time of release, Gaga and director Klein made differing statements about what the music video was about. Lady Gaga said it was about the “love [she has] for [her] gay friends”[1] and Klein states that it was about “The pain of living without your true love”[2]

Prior to its debut, Gaga described her video for “Judas” as “a motorcycle Fellini movie where the apostles are revolutionaries in modern-day Jerusalem”. It’s ostentatious, decadent, carnivalesque, spiritual. As Gaga slowly fell away from being preoccupied explicitly with the nature of fame, post-The Fame Monster and into Born This Wayher ever more abstract ideas. If “Alejandro” was her first dip into faith as institution, “Judas” continued that notion while bridging the two “eras”: Jesus returns, points out Judas as his betrayer, and Mary Magdalene is there, if not the center, then at least an important player as far as His influence. If it operates on less explicitly silly vibe than, say, Jesus Christ Superstar, it is aided by a pervading sense of haute cinema tone. It’s an experiment for Gaga and her Haus to anachronistically wrench a complicated story of fame, influence, love, and betrayal and deck it out with contemporary approaches and styles. Ostensibly, it requires Gaga to rehabilitate, sort of, Mary Magdalene’s image, and she somewhat rewrites the story enough so that her presence with Jesus and his Apostles gives her at least an emotional authority over the proceedings. Her biker garb eschews categorizing Magdalene in conventional, sexist terms, allowing her a vague sense of agency. The video’s strength is in its willingness to interrupt the song, as a tide comes and knocks Gaga over, undoubtedly overwhelmed by the power of Christ, or love, or something. 

“Alejandro” seemed intent on challenging powerful institutions in an effective, if somewhat reactionary manner; “Judas”, in comparison, is more interested in the mythology of the Bible itself and attempting to either excavate its relevance to contemporary politics and art or retroactively inserting those ideas into mythologies of the past.

“Marry the Night” is probably Gaga’s magnum opus, even post-ARTPOP, Cheek to Cheek, Joanne, and soon to be released A Star is Born. In an attempt to examine the intersections of trauma and fame, she restages and rewrites her past, fueling it with melodrama. In spite of its indulgence, with a running time of over thirteen minutes, there’s an odd honesty to it. She rebuilds a memory after a breakdown, and, out of the hospital, we see Gaga try to rebuild herself. She struggles for artistic truth and beauty in her work in her apartment. Her fixation on a kind of self-destructive artistry reminds one of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, truth and beauty becoming an end all, be all. 

Prior to “Marry the Night”, her videos had all been directed by someone else, which seemed to temper and hammer out unclear ideas and give them a certain focus and impact. There was clarity when Laurienne Gibson directed the bizarre Frankenstein-esque “Yoü and I” video, and Åkerlund has been one of Gaga’s most successful collaborators. Yet when she’s on her own, all that crazy becomes overwhelming, resulting in this and “Born This Way”. 

This idea is absolutely clear when one compares the two videos released for her ArtPop album: “Applause” and “G.U.Y.” In the former video, Lady Gaga’s transformations, versatility, range, and ideas, her identity itself is a magic trick. It’s literal, but with the aide of photographers Inez and Vinoodh, the directness is refreshing. Arguably, if Born This Way was Lady Gaga as somewhat more self-serious artist, ArtPop was Gaga as pop art radical, owning up to her persona as experiment in capitalism’s failures. It’s brash, alarming, maybe brilliant. 

G.U.Y. – An ARTPOP Film is pumped to the breaking point with ideas about capitalism, feminism, patriarchy, art, love, sex, money, desire, myth and legend, vulnerability. The discordancy in her later work may have implied that her game was becoming less interesting to a an audience that was either too stupid or too smart to get what she was playing with: the complete dissolution between high culture and low. That she is about as authentic as the gigantic Jeff Koons statue commissioned in her likeness for the album launch and tour. Gaga’s sense of authenticity and identity, the degree to which they are not so much real as they are believable drag performances, is the core of her artistic project, even if she tries to undermine it in something like the Netflix documentary Five Foot Two. Hence the number of, shall we say, rebrands, from torch singer (Cheek to Cheek), to country star (Joanne), to whatever it is A Star is Born will be. She is her own little, big cultural experiment, her identity is always going to be performance and affect, and the more she tries to be authentic, the more performative and drag like it will be. It becomes a complicated hall of mirrors, where drag becomes authentic and authenticity becomes drag, but the emotional presence of her work, however conceptual or deconstructed or “honest” she becomes, is part of her appeal. 

Accusations of lifting or ripping off or whatever of Madonna have dogged Lady Gaga since her career launched, but one thing she has over Madge is that Gaga is completely aware of how she is a cultural product of time shaped by Madonna, Bob Dylan, Alfred Hitchcock, Jeff Koons, Nan Goldin, and countless other artists that have changed the culture. She jokingly riffs on the rap from Madonna’s “Vogue”, speak-singing,

Work your blond (Jean) Benet Ramsey
We’ll haunt like Liberace
Find your freedom in the music
Find your Jesus, find your Kubrick
You will never fall apart
Diana, you’re still in our hearts
Never let you fall apart
Together we’ll dance in the dark

While Madonna’s song has a certain awareness of its own postmodernity, Lady Gaga’s ultimate quest is, in essence, to examine what is it to try to find “yourself” in a culture that buys and sells your identity, who you should or should not be, from birth. Her videos try on different forms and genres and ideologies, their personas and modes as unstable as Gaga’s own. As RuPaul once said, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”

 

[1] Montgomery, James. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’ Director Explains Video’s Painful Meaning.” – Music, Celebrity, Artist News. MTV, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

[2] Montgomery, James. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’ Director Explains Video’s Painful Meaning.” – Music, Celebrity, Artist News. MTV, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

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