How Lady Gaga Became the First Digi-Glam Superstar
Read this remixed excerpt from Simon Reynolds's book 'Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy.'
In "Aftershocks," the coda to Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds tracks glam's echoes as they reverberate through 21st century pop. A slideshow of snapshot moments from her career as art-pop provocateur, this remixed excerpt assesses Lady Gaga's claim to be David Bowie's inheritor.
The flyer for New York Street Revival and Trash Dance promises "burlesque pop. rock n roll. glam. metal." A series of Thursday parties at the Slipper Room, they're conceived and hosted by performance artist Lady Starlight and an aspiring star who's only just started calling herself Lady Gaga. The party's name pays homage to October 1974's Hollywood Street Revival and Trash Dance Festival—a legendary night of performances by Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, and assorted LA glitterati at the Hollywood Palladium. But where that event was an ironically winking wake for the Death of Glitter, a phenomenon whose star was fading fast by late '74, Gaga and Starlight's New York Street Revival really is a revival—the self-conscious announcement of glam's rebirth on the Lower East Side.
The credits for Lady Gaga's 2008 debut, The Fame, make a point of thanking Andy Warhol and David Bowie. In interviews, she speaks of studying the work of Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones, and Leigh Bowery. Gaga gives as good quote as she gives good face. But as you'd expect with an artist whose whole career feels like postmodernism's death rattle, her patter often feels déjà vu. "I am not real. I am theater," Gaga declaims. She feels like she's "on a stage all the time... when I'm dancing, singing, making breakfast." Arriving at an airport, getting out of a limo outside a club—everything is performed, made into an Event. "I adore show business and don't ever want my fans to see me in any other way." Echoing Oscar Wilde and Alice Cooper, Gaga speaks of "lying profusely" and how "music is a lie... art is a lie." She flippantly flips the rockist attack lines—about style eclipsing substance—by wittily arguing that her music distracts and detracts from "the performance art" of the videos, the stage shows, and the public theater of her fame.
Truthfully, the music—"soulless electronic pop," Gaga calls it, with a wink to the Warhol disciples and the anti-humanists out there—is just an efficient base for the visual provocations. Arriving with perfect timing to harness YouTube's access to global audiences, Gaga rides a revival of the pop-video form. It had gone into decline from its late-90s, big-budget peak because MTV had phased out music programming in favor of non-stop reality TV. Now pop is audio-visual like it's never been before, and Gaga's right there at the forefront. A YouTube native, she's the first real digital-glam superstar, her promos dizzy with digi-FX and a frenzied turnover of costume/hair/make-up changes—the latter masterminded by an entourage of creative consigliere known as the Haus of Gaga.
The Fame Monster is the deluxe expanded version of The Fame, issued to capitalize on Gaga's success, with eight new tracks—including her best and bestest-selling song "Bad Romance"—tacked on. According to Gaga, "the runway" directly inspired these songs: "I wrote while watching muted fashion shows and I am compelled to say my music was scored for them." Gaga videos do often resemble runway shows, except that the background scenery changes as frenziedly as the clothes. The end result is like Cindy Sherman meets Alexander McQueen, scored by a soundtrack of eastern European club music.
There's an odd fatalism about Gaga's tryst with that femme fatale Fame: not only does she know, from the abundant literature on the subject, that celebrity is soul-eroding, she's made that the major theme of her work. Trailing the VMAs performance of "Paparazzi," Gaga proclaims her intent "to say something very grave about fame and the price of it." She starts the performance with an entreaty: "amidst all of these flashing lights I pray the fame won't take my life." And she ends it by enacting her own death, with fake blood gushing from her breast and a feigned hanging hoisting her into the air.
Gaga even puts out a fragrance called Fame, a black perfume designed "to smell slutty," like an "expensive hooker." Notes of belladonna evoke the toxic effects of stardom. "Vanity can create a very cruel space for you if you don't know how to manage it," Gaga warns. There's also "Fame Kills," a tour with Kanye West that gets cancelled after the rapper withdraws from the public eye after his VMAs intervention on behalf of Beyoncé. Gaga is wont to talk—melodramatically, but perhaps with genuine paranoia—of her fears that she might go the way of John Lennon or Princess Diana (the latter with whom she particularly identifies), either assassinated by a stalker or hounded to death by paparazzi.
Yet despite all its costs, all its damage, Fame seems to be all there is to believe in. No ideology or faith—nor even a real-world love—can rival its promise of self-completion. Fame, as Gaga conceives it, isn't really bestowed from outside; it's a sourceless inner conviction, what she calls "feeling the fame." It's just a matter of externalizing this internal ego-image, getting the world to ratify and recognize its innate existence. "I've always been famous, it's just no one knew it yet." The star's duty becomes to inculcate the fans with self-love—which for Gaga equates not just with mere self-esteem, but with the certainty of one's own extraordinariness. Her Monster Ball tours are "a pop cultural church," but rather than idolizing Gaga, "I'm teaching people to worship themselves."
This fierce 'n fabulous flame of self-belief is a magical defense against those who'd crush your ego—and perhaps your body. Gaga speaks for the misfits, the gender-confused, the bullied. In one interview, she recalls being thrown in a street-corner trashcan at the age of 14 by three boys, with girls looking on and laughing. She felt "worthless. Embarrassed. Mortified." Her only crime, she says, was being talkative and theatrical—too full of herself. In 2011, Gaga starts the Born This Way Foundation, an organization to combat bullying.
Placing a definite article in front of "Fame" in the album's title is jarring, an alienation effect. "The Fame" sounds like a disease. The further conjunction of monstrosity—the Fame Monster—is even more unsettling. Is Fame here a monster that's rampaging and ravaging across the world landscape? Or is Gaga herself a monster spawned by the mutagenic effects on the human psyche of celebrity culture? Little Monsters is what Gaga calls her fans; she is Mother Monster. "I used to pray every night that God would make me crazy," Gaga confesses. "That he would instill in me a creativity and a strangeness," of the kind that drove the artists she admired. But Gaga goes beyond the clichés of genius-as-madness. Fame-lust itself is a maddening virulence, a deranged will to omnipresence and overexposure that precedes any specific gift or talent, and can exist in their absence. "I want women—and men—to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they're always trying desperately to hide," Gaga declares. "I operate from a place of delusion—that's what The Fame is all about. I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star. I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth."
"Alejandro," the third single off The Fame Monster, is perfunctory nothingness vaguely redolent of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." But Steven Klein's promo is a tour de force of militaristic kitsch with a specialist-porn undertone. "It's all about where I'm from and love of theater.... love of the lie in art," gushes Gaga. The "where I'm from" probably refers to the Italian-American Catholic upbringing she shares with Madonna, figuring in the promo as compulsive blasphemy: Gaga as a nun in a red latex habit swallowing blood-red rosary beads. But Cabaret is in the mix too, and maybe Evita. The video oozes junta chic mingled with mood-tones from Tom of Finland. In yet another Madonna nod, Gaga wears a bra with machine-gun barrels jutting out as death nipples. Wrestlers from some between-the-wars military academy grapple homoerotically, clad in black shiny shorts and calf-length black boots. The whole "Alejandro" promo is a visual tone-poem translation of the famous last sentences of Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism": "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."
Like her forefather Bowie, Gaga's acute self-consciousness and relentless self-curation don't discourage analysis by others, they incite it. Think pieces, blog essays, books (from bios to queer theory works like J. Jack Halberstam's Gaga Feminism) erupt around her videography and discography, interpreting and situating the densely encrusted references and allusions. Gaga practically pleads to be analyzed using prisms like Jean Baudrillard's hyper-reality, cyber-feminism, and queer performativity. Academia always used to lag behind pop culture (punk studies only went into overdrive during the eighties), but barely 18 months into her stardom, the Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame course is up and running at the University of South Carolina from spring 2011. Its creator, Professor Mathieu Deflem, becomes famous in his own right, leading him to write an academic paper on his experience of celebrity-by-association, "Professor Goes Gaga." In an interview, Deflem talks about the spiraling disorientation he felt: "You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control."
All this being-taken-so-seriously seems to affect Gaga: on Born This Way, the follow-up to The Fame Monster, she comes over like a pop stateswoman, addressing important issues, and in interviews talks about wanting to "be at rallies with the fans, being a part of their voice, helping to mobilize and enforce change." Conflating same-sex marriage rights and the plight of illegal immigrants to the US over a mariachi–HiNRG hybrid, "Americano" blends the didactic and the tacky. Elsewhere on Born This Way there's a new bulk to the sound matching the weightier themes: stadium rock and eighties schlock add ballast and bombast to the clubby sound, flavors of Springsteen, Pat Benatar, Jim Steinman. "The Edge of Glory" features E Street Band sax man Clarence Clemons; Brian May guests on "Yoü and I." The pomp-rock elements allow Gaga to flex her conventional musical prowess as pianist and singer. Advising "don't be a drag, just be a queen" and asserting "we are all born superstars," the album's lead single "Born This Way" is an all-purpose pride anthem for the LGBT community and anybody who feels weird, marginalized, or "culturally queer." Brassy and blaring, the song "not only plagiarizes Madonna, it super-sizes her," writes critic Pat Blashill, referring to the common perception that the song owes a lot to "Express Yourself."
At the 2011 Video Music Awards, Gaga does a full-blown drag-king turn as her male alter ego Jo Calderone. The persona is seemingly modeled on bad boy Johnny in The Outsiders—greased-back hair, cigarette tucked behind the ear, lip-curled sneer—although another possibility is Annie Lennox's turn as a side-burned 50s hood at the 1984 Grammys. Although her songs are mostly about hetero love-lust, Gaga plays the gender-confusion game as well as anybody since, well, Bowie. She propagates, or encourages, the rumor that she's a hermaphrodite, causing fans to scrutinize photos for suspicious bulges and rewind repeatedly the YouTube clip that seems to catch a penis slipping out when she mounts a motorcycle in a skimpy skirt.
After Born This Way's bombast, Gaga takes the fatal step further into hubris with ARTPOP. The fanfare for the album (plus related transmedia activity) proclaims that Gaga will "bring art culture into pop in a reverse Warholian expedition"—only 40 years after Bowie and Roxy Music accomplished that mission. "I live for the applause applause applause," Gaga proclaims on the lead single "Applause"—only to be met with resounding silence from the global pop audience.
And then the strategic retreat: Gaga makes the classic hip-to-be-square switch. She partners with crooner Tony Bennett for the best-selling Cheek to Cheek album and tour. A deliberate echo of Bowie's "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" duet with Bing Crosby for that 1977 TV special? Or just a shrewd career move?
Gaga burnishes further her showbiz credentials with a medley of songs from The Sound of Music, performed at the Academy Awards in celebration of the movie musical's 50th anniversary. Julie Andrews is gracious, gliding across the stage to hug Gaga warmly. But among the critics is the venerable Stephen Sondheim, who acidly informs the theater buff periodical Playbill that Gaga's rendition was "a travesty... She had no relationship to what she was singing."
Gaga wins a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story . Dressed in a black-velvet, bare-shouldered, cleavage-plunging Atelier Versace gown—"the pinnacle of retro glamor," the style blogs gush—she gives an overcome-by-emotion acceptance speech that is perfect down to the last lip-tremor. Gaga informs the audience of her new peers that "I wanted to be an actress before I wanted to be a singer, but music worked out first." The fame monster completes her metamorphosis into an all-American entertainer.
But later that same night, the news that David Bowie has died explodes across the internet—instantly knocking Gaga, and all the other Golden Globes winners, off the world's front pages. Talk about being upstaged...
Show business seems to have an inherently self-reflexive bent: its history teems with movies about the movie industry, with plays and musicals about the theater. Often these hark back nostalgically to an earlier phase of entertainment: the 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain , for instance, is set 20 years earlier during the transition between silent movies and talkies. This self-mythologizing trait also results in songs like "There's No Business like Show Business" (from Annie Get Your Gun) and "Life is A Cabaret" (from Cabaret). Whenever pop strays into the shlock zone, it too gets meta: Abba's "Thank You For the Music" and "Super Trouper" (named after a type of spotlight), Billy Joel's "I Write the Songs" and Robbie Williams's "Let Me Entertain You"....
There could be no more perfect sign of Gaga's total merger with American showbiz than the news that she's going to play the lead in A Star Is Born —the third remake of this Hollywood-about-Hollywood movie since the 1937 original. Gaga will be following in the footsteps of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand.
Meanwhile, her pop career continues with her most perfunctory release yet, "Perfect Illusion." Talking about the song's message, Gaga frets about the delusion and deceit she once celebrated: "I believe many of us are wondering why there are so many fake things around us. How do we navigate through social media? How do we look through these images that we know are filtered and altered, and decipher what is reality and what is a perfect illusion? There are also a lot of things on the internet that are not reality. And I think people are pressured to keep that personal illusion going on in their real lives. So this song is about raging against it and letting it go. It's about wanting people to re-establish that human connection."
In this spirit, Gaga shuns AutoTune on her vocal, while the overall look of the video dials down the blatant motion-retouching and digital sheen that characterized her earlier celebrated promos. Instead of the 20 costume-changes-per-minute, Gaga opts for a relatively stable and dressed-down look: a grey crop T-shirt ideal for working out, cut-off jean shorts. The video's backdrops alternate between the singer rolling about in the desert dust and scenes of crowd frenzy midway between a rave and a mosh-pit, in the midst of which Gaga flails her body alongside a guitarist whose instrument is barely audible on the record. Is the hyper-real queen of digi-glam trying to start a... grunge revival? But how would that square with starring in A Star Is Born ? Does Gaga, like Courtney Love circa Celebrity Skin and The People Vs Larry Flynt , believe she can go Hollywood and keep it real at the same time?