Stefani Germanotta, rechristened Lady Gaga by way of predictive text, arrived at her first album a self-proclaimed “master of the art of fame.” Outmatching Madonna, Queen of Pop herself for sheer blond ambition (naturally, the two are brunettes), she quickly became a study of how and what it is to be famous in the twenty-first century.
Her first album, The Fame, fooled all of us who knew better into thinking it was little more than the handiwork of a marketing genius. Re-released in 2009 and fleshed out by an eight-song EP of dual purpose–serving both to capitalize on her new-found popularity and to strengthen her oeuvre–to “The Fame” she attached a “Monster,” as in The Fame Monster. The monster, it should be obvious even if it isn’t, is not her appetite for fame; rather, the monster is fame accentuated, and what a monster it is!
As outsized as the male ego, as large as a planet even, fame on this scale grossly exaggerates and distorts the natural dimensions of God-given talent, personality and simple good looks. Of course, fame does not equal talent, nor does talent equal fame (it certainly helps). Sure, the Moonwalk is goddamn impressive in any context, but on stage at Motown 25 in front of an audience of 47 million? Just don’t expect to find your socks where you left them.
The true measure of a star, then, must be the way in which the artist conceives an audience within the limitations of his or her own talents, not simply because artists must allow themselves to be seen as vulnerable if they are to accept their own limitations, or because their insecurities must move necessarily in proportion with their own fame–often, this kind of openness becomes the very source of their power and appeal. It is because fame is an art in and of itself.
This is nothing new. Every self-aware artist after Andy Warhol has flirted with fame via pop culture, but for a few dedicated individuals it’s a full-blown love affair. What’s surprising about the otherwise customary controversy, or lack thereof, surrounding Gaga’s most recent album is the general failure of critics to come to terms with this totally unsurprising relationship. And for once, some of the blame must rest with Gaga herself, who helped muddle perceptions with rather silly statements on the level of branding the album “a reverse Warholian expedition.”
Not everyone was willing to permit her overreaching ambition, leaving some critics to wonder aloud: where in Gaga’s “pop” might we find her so-called “art?” That of course depends on your definition of “art”–hell, it might just depend on your definition of “pop.” But let’s not get bogged down in semantics. In the postmodern era, old ideas about art don’t make all that much sense anyway.
As in the song, her Artpop could mean anything. Ideally, nothing less than the absolute pinnacle of her fame, befitting the pop culture phenomenon’s best album. The irony that this artistic peak should occur just as people are losing interest! And to that extent you could call it a failure, which would only be to dismiss some of the most innovative, visionary pop music put to plastic since Mick Jagger folded up his penis and went home.
The problem is the concept–as great as it is–has gotten in the way. So here’s the scoop. Lady Gaga uses fame like most people use clothes. It’s an affectation, a distraction; it’s fashion, something you use to conceal yourself from, and project yourself onto, the world outside your own. Yet it’s more than that.
Let me proffer a few select lines from Robert Christgau’s 2011 essay, Monster Anthems, which manage to convey Gaga’s own view of fame, as “an inner quality anyone can have,” with such beauty I feel honored simply putting quotation marks around them:
“For her, a celebrity isn’t a person whose inner fame has made itself felt in the great outside. It’s a person whose fame has escaped her control, so that her inside is no longer her own.”
You might say that what has happened is exactly this: sometime between Born This Way and breaking her hip, Gaga’s fame somehow managed to escape her control. She had become just another celebrity. This presents a problem: what does someone–someone whose every public gesture suggests carefully crafted performance art–do when life puts them out of commission? They redraw the boundaries. In Gaga’s case it meant relinquishing something of her inner life in order to keep it from busting wide open (see: the Bootleg Series). It’s this move towards self-preservation that sets the stage for her next album.
Conceptually ambitious, musically dazzling, lyrically revealing, Artpop is a masterstroke, forever skirting the personal without ever going public. The reason it hasn’t gone over is that critics have learned to admire Gaga from a distance, who must prefer her at a remove from their own tastes, because on at least half of the tracks on Artpop–“Aura,” “Do What U Want,” “Swine,” “Donatella,” “Dope,” “Gypsy,” “Applause”–she’s as close to the surface as she’s ever been, and they simply don’t know what to do with her.
Carmen Rios, for instance, writing about the metaphorical use of the burqa in “Aura,” errs on the side of political correctness. Rios accuses Gaga of reducing “a religious and cultural tradition to a sexual ploy.”
Annie Zaleski in her misreading of “Donatella” writes that the song “aims for a celebration of fabulousness, but comes off as glorifying someone shallow.” Chris Bosman, who detects something of a personal vendetta towards the Italian fashion designer, goes one further, bitching that “the song seems childish, an unfortunate look for someone approaching 30.”
Mof Gimmers, who tips his hat to the Gaga/R. Kelly duet, “Do What U Want,” fails to comprehend R. Kelly’s role. His pleasure derives from how the song appears to pit the two singers “head-to-head to see who can out-sex the other.”
What these critics share is their dim view of Gaga’s fame and, by extension, her music. But for Gaga, dressing outrageously is not “a sexual ploy,” it’s fashion for her fame, one more veil around her personal life. She wears the burqa not to seem “coy and mysterious” but because it’s tantalizing to think of the stripped bare, flesh-and-blood woman behind the “enigma pop star.”
The lyrics of “Donatella” do not glorify “someone shallow,” they glorify someone who is perceived that way; they reflect all of the nasty things ever said about a woman who “knows she’s misunderstood” yet continues to “radiate her magic” anyway, something Gaga obviously relates to.
Contrary to what Gimmers believes, Gaga does not compete sexually with R. Kelly on “Do What U Want”–that’s the conceit. The inconvenient truth is that Gaga’s clearest statement to date on fame is a blatantly misogynistic fantasy. The kicker is it misleads you into accepting the fantasy at face value.
R. Kelly is the right choice to duet with Gaga not because he’s some sort of “troubled genius,” as Gimmers suggests, but precisely because he’s the same sort of solicitous creep he portrays in the song. His lines, which he himself might have written for all I care to find out, perfect the slick talk of a practiced seduction artist, who presumes to know exactly what the latest object of his affection wants, how and when she wants it. So when Gaga sings “You can’t have my heart/And you won’t use my mind but/Do what you want with my body” she doesn’t mean “do what you want with my body,” she means “leave my heart, leave my mind.” It brings the whole album into focus.
Please, do what you want with her body–it’s yours. Just don’t presume to know her heart and mind–they’re hers. That’s the trade-off. Agreed? Now, can we talk about the music?
• Monster Anthems by Robert Christgau
• Read the “Stomach-Churning” Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full by Jessica Hopper