A Challenge Accepted: Gaga Over Pop, Pop Over Gaga

Posted on July 3, 2012 in Media and Culture

By Sanchita Khurana:

She has been dubbed a freak, considered trashy and dumb, and rumoured to be intersexed, but even so, she is the most influential pop icon of the day. I am talking about Lady Gaga, and that is because she deserves a discussion seeking to unearth what she really represents. Whether consciously or not, Gaga’s personality as well as her music is a blatant attack on a harshly consumerist, sexist, superficial American culture. When asked what her style is, she candidly answers: “It’s avant-garde. It’s New York. It’s androgynous. And it’s strong.”

The way in which Lady Gaga presents herself in front of her audience is through a single, all-encompassing performance which she enacts both on and off stage through music, fashion, and reflective performance. Contrary to what haters have to say, her “work” is intellectually inspired, politically charged and oriented towards radical liberation from oppressive structures in the society. Her evolved understanding of feminism is an example of the way she is determined to use her persona and her art. Working to destabilise conventional ideas of sexual distinction, her personal style and her musical performances both hint at going beyond the male/female binary towards a polymorphous sexuality. Using gender as a performance that can be taken on by anyone at any time of the day (refer to actual drag queens and to Judith Butler’s notion of the performativity of gender), Gaga ultimately moves beyond gender. Her performance on a whole argues in favour of undoing the very notion of female “power” by undoing not the systems and institutions that dispense this power, as feminism has traditionally sought to do, but by undoing gender itself as a static category. That is the reason her brand of feminism is being referred to as Post-Gender. Writes Nancy Bauer, “Since Gaga herself literally embodies the norms that she claims to be putting pressure on (she’s pretty, she’s thin, she’s well-proportioned), the message, even when it comes through, is not exactly stable. It’s easy to construe Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power.”

As much as she is seen consciously “objectifying” herself through her notoriously erratic costumes, I think she can be called Post-Feminist as she can be deemed to be postmodernist in her approach. For Gaga, even the body is only a performance. Her own body to her, then, becomes a means of confusing essential notions attached to biological distinctions like male- female, natural- unnatural, human- bestial etc. What Gaga understands about our zeitgeist is that it’s all a lie. Modernism and progress were a lie and now identity itself is a lie. But because these ideas are all lies, we can in effect name them and claim them, putting on the lies that best suit us in order to costume our own truth. It is through her intriguing costumes that she creates her “special” identity every day, fluid and uncategorized, even while she acknowledges biological determinism in being “born this way”.

A perfect example of the postmodern pastiche, her music, constantly referring back to other Pop artists, is as symbolically subversive as the Lady herself. Openly sexual in pictures and meta-textual in their aim, her songs and videos turn patriarchal and consumerist cultures on their heads. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s mixing of the high and low cultures, she moulds herself and her music into a unique, although oxymoronic, autonomous commodity.

Lady Gaga presents to her audience the illusory nature of reality, while simultaneously enacting narratives of historical feminism, of commodity culture as religion, and of the self-destructiveness of fame. Even with the defiant lie she claims her art to be, her “repulsive”, “monstrous” perversity. She is only after all, mirroring what the world around her has come to and forcing that world to see the reflection. Gaga might not be the best or the first in her field, but she certainly stands for an indescribable (but popular and in demand) challenge to a society irredeemably phobic of a difference. The fact that attests to this is that the more one explains about her, the more remains to be said.

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