ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.
Make no mistake, Lady Gaga is in on the joke. But what’s so funny? Fame, she says, moments before twirling a dildo between her fingers, and jumping down a hatch – only to emerge moments later in a Marie Antoinette wig and an evening gown made of live kittens chewing on intertwining threads of beef jerky. Lady Gaga is a never-ending performance artist whose determination to express her own kinetic view of culture has spanned a global empire. She might even be the first successful meta-celebrity. Certainly, the world is listening. But should we be?
Like most people on the planet, I’m not an internationally famous celebrity who can strike corporate promotional deals while getting millions of people to groove to my tunes. But I wonder if the experience of fame would feel something like speeding through space towards a black hole. Or at the very least, it would feel like driving towards downtown Los Angeles right after rush hour, racing through space at terrifying speeds while looking for the singularity aka the exit to the 105. Fame via Charlie Sheen can seem like a force beyond control to those watching on the other side of the event horizon. (And somewhere, a scientist is slapping her forehead at my abuse of physics). But Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta of New York City, is clearly in control of her own spacecraft.
Lady Gaga is on the way to becoming an icon of post-feminist sexuality. But is she a confident cultural attaché to our own fantastical fantasies? Or she is more of a mouthpiece of modern times, a voice raging against homophobia and discrimination? Mostly, she’s a modern day Mad Hatter jumping through the rabbit hole of mass culture. Gaga’s got the keys to the kingdom and she’s asking us to follow her into a creative dynasty of tolerance. Or, she might be provoking a nightmare of dystopian culture – take your pick.
Part pop star, part performance artist, Lady Gaga examines celebrity with a consciousness we’re not really used to or expecting from a pop star. And this is why it works. She gets us to pay attention first through her music, with songs skewering a celebrity-obsessed society (See: Paparazzi). She’s known for appearing pant-less in public or wearing crustaceans on her head and feet. She never seems to break character – even walking through an airport, she’s in costume. As the current cover girl was recently described by Vogue, “Suddenly the curtains part and Lady Gaga makes her entrance, mincing into the room holding a porcelain teacup and saucer in one hand and a wineglass for me in the other. (Like fainting on command or dropping a glove, the long-lost art of making an entrance, which Gaga seems to have single-handedly revived, is a remarkably effective way to shift the conversation).”
She’s a Glam Rocker playing it straight.
In doing so, Lady Gaga possesses an enviable credibility for her causes. Forbes recently named her as one of the world’s most powerful celebrities. An extremely vocal proponent of gay rights, she recently announced that she was ending her partnership with Target due to their political donations to MN Forward, a group that supported the anti-gay candidate Tom Emmer in a failed run for governor in Minnesota last year. Gaga previously spoke of the agreement with Billboard Magazine, telling them “Part of my deal with Target is that they have to start affiliating themselves with LGBT charity groups and begin to reform and make amends for the mistakes they’ve made in the past…our relationship is hinged upon their reform in the company to support the gay community and to redeem the mistakes they’ve made supporting those groups.”
But Target failed to live up to this expectation, so Lady Gaga responded by severing their ties. As E! Online reports, “Target has refused to promise that it would never donate to a political candidate or group believed to be anti-gay.” Obviously, a giant retail chain would not bend its will for a celebrity endorsement deal. But Lady Gaga has certainly shined a giant spotlight on Target’s business practices, and you have to wonder if this parting of ways was part of her business plan all along.
Lady Gaga’s not the first performance artist or shock-rocker to push a cause. She knows this. Derivative of David Bowie, daughter of Madonna, Gaga herself told Vogue that she “could go on and on about all of the people I have been compared to – from Madonna to Grace Jones to Debbie Harry to Elton John to Marilyn Manson to Yoko Ono.” But unlike her predecessors, Gaga has use of a multi-media empire than can reach a global audience with an intimacy never before possible. She’s a product of her time based on a history of those trying to make a point through performance.
There’s one foremother she appears to be mostly closely emulating, perhaps without even knowing it. Meet the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, who in the 1920s was dubbed a “living legend of Greenwich Village.” Born Else Hildegard Ploetz in 1874 near the Baltic Sea, the Baroness became an icon of the New York Dada crowd of the early twentieth century. Dadaism, which peaked mostly in Europe from 1916 to 1922, was partially embodied by European artists living in New York City who used visual arts, theater, poetry and more to send a message of anarchy and an anti-war party line. The movement arrived on the heels of World War I, which was widely seen by the Dadaists as the result of bourgeois interests and colonialism. Dadaists like the Baroness were known to ridicule the aspects of culture they deemed meaningless while rejecting the laws of conventional taste and beauty.
The Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dec. 1915, International News Photography,
in “The Art of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven” (Courtesy of Naumann Fine Art)
The Baroness was one of the preeminent Dadaists in New York City. As Amelia Jones describes her in “Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada,” she was a “poet, artist, and performative disruption to bourgeois as well as avant-garde assumptions…who paraded her vocal and bodily difference openly in the streets and artistic salons of World War I-era New York.”
And here’s how The Baroness herself describes an ensemble she wore to the French Embassy in Germany. In her own words, “I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and afluent [sic]! In my ear I wore sugar plumes or matchboxes – I forget wich [sic]. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald-painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of gilded porcupine quills – rustling coquettishly – at the consul – with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again – to entrance him.”
Any of this sound familiar?
Like the Baroness, Lady Gaga wears the outrageous as easily as if she picked it up at her local Target. Would the Baroness have ever struck a deal in the first place with the ultimate superstore of the masses? Probably not. But then, Lady Gaga speaks the language of mass, modern culture. In a sense, she’s an anti-anarchist promoting a skewed aesthetic that nonetheless speaks to millions. Perhaps it is because she’s employing one of the most accessible means on the planet – pop music – to convey her own message of tolerance. At the moment, this is a message of gay tolerance. What it will be in the future remains to be seen, but undeniably, we’re all listening, and she knows it. All we have to do is sit back and wonder just how gaga will Gaga go.
This is the second installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.