By Edmund McCaffray
One of the first things that stood out to me from the “Applause” video was the “freak-out” that comes at the song’s climax. The camera shakes, as though either it or perhaps the world can’t contain Lady Gaga in those moments. And for good reason: Lady Gaga herself explodes through a stuttering rush of fast-cuts, appearing in several forms, triumphant and ecstatic.
It isn’t, by any means, the most unusual thing for a music video to do, but Gaga’s videos don’t always include this freak-out. In fact, I associate it specifically with “Marry the Night” because a similar freak-out takes place there. Once again it comes, naturally, at the musical climax of the song, and fast-cut-splices together a dizzying array of scenes drawn from across the whole (fourteen minute!) video.
Going back and watching the “Marry the Night” video (as part of the kind of gut-associative process that I like to let guide, if possible, the early stages of working on one of these essays), it was only now that the whole long ragged narrative of that video kind of fell into place for me. Lady Gaga gets rejected from high art, flips out, tries to kill herself, and then reconstructs her experience of the event as an act of creative will and healing. She converts the trauma of the suicide attempt into a fit of self-transformation – dying her hair, blowing up some cars, falling down a flight of stairs with an impractically-large keyboard, and joining a more pop-style dance troupe (note that she’s wearing her bedazzled denim and newly-bleached hair).
OK, so fine. That’s what that video from like a million years ago was about. Except that today I realized that that narrative actually has a lot to do with “Applause.” The most obvious direct statement of this is the lyric: “art’s in pop culture in me” – Lady Gaga is a refugee or an outcast from the world of high art who now resides in the world of pop culture, and so she brings some of that art with her in the course of her personal transmission between these two realms.
But there’s also the beginning of the song, when Gaga sings “if only fame had an IV, baby could I bear, being away from you, I found a vein put it in here.” This connects “Applause” not just metaphorically, but particularly to “Marry the Night”: Gaga appears at the very beginning of “Marry the Night” with an IV in her arm, as part of her medical treatment for the suicide attempt. What’s in there? Fame or some other vital fluid?
Gaga tells her nurse in that video that she’s “gonna be a star . . . because I have nothing left to lose.” In being ejected from her dance troupe, or film, or whatever high art project is associated with her director and those ballet scenes, Gaga has lost everything. She’s been personally or spiritually emptied by that loss in just the same way that, if she cut herself with shards of that mirror she’s destroys during her raging breakdown, she’d been emptied of blood. And this is especially drastic for Gaga since, as she tells us, she’s “a soldier to my own emptiness” – emptiness drives and commands her. This girl’s been bled dry by the gaping hole left in her by the removal of art? We need a fame infusion, stat.
So “Marry the Night” is the story of, among other things, an emptying both physical and spiritual, caused by being rejected by art. The song tells us how that rejection drove Gaga’s radical commitment – marriage – to her own emptiness (signified by night, or the absence of light), which drives her to make the immensely difficult, even self-transforming, transition from living on art or blood to living on pop. Or, more accurately, to living on fame.
“Applause” picks this narrative right up, telling us that now Gaga is a new creature fueled by fame, by applause. She found a vein, put it in there. She loves for it. Give her what she loves – she’ll turn the lights out. Of course the double entendre is there – “Give me that thing that I love, I’ll turn the lights out . . . make ‘em touch” – but there’s also an emphasis on blackness, the dark, the night as the appropriate setting for Gaga’s regular, life-sustaining, fame injections.
So I want to suggest that the “Applause” video shows the peculiar co-spatiality of pop or fame (represented as applause) and Gaga’s night or emptiness, and from there explore Gaga’s intimate – indeed, marital – relationship to pop-fame-applause-night-emptiness.
Roland Betancourt has already argued that, as a phenomenological definition of pop, “the experience of the fan unfolds primarily in movement and circulation through mobile media. It is the method of the navigator: the incessant movement through space and time, consuming and representing images, clips, and laconic texts as one goes about.” When I first read this (great) definition, I was struck by how optimistically Roland could describe what Heidegger also noticed, but found deeply ominous. One of Heidegger’s central critiques of “public-ness” was that such a way of being reduced seeing and investigating and experiencing to a frantic curiosity that flitted restlessly from one thing to another, never in order to understand those things, but actually as a way of hiding the world, everything in it, and even ultimately the self. “In not tarrying, curiosity is concerned with the constant possibility of distraction . . . curiosity is everywhere and nowhere” (217).
At the end of this essay, I’ll attempt to reconcile these two opposed readings of the same phenomenon – for now I want to claim that both suggest a kind of emptiness-through-motion exists in (or as) pop, the experience of the fan, public-ness, curiosity, etc. For Betancourt, this is an individual navigation conducted within and across established “systems” of images, texts, and cultural reproduction in such a free and idiosyncratic way as to allow a new space for creation to appear; for Heidegger a movement that, by its speed and relentless continuance, actually hides from every real thing.
Many of Gaga’s projects, too, have suggested that certain kinds of movement can create a special kind of emptiness, an emptiness that is a potential for transformation and creation. “Marry the Night” suggests that the thrashings of trauma can create a blank canvas for re-creation, or that one’s own emptiness drags one relentlessly through transformation and self-reinvention. And the connection between night or darkness and emptiness, made by a Gaga who commits herself (whether as wife or soldier) to both in “Marry the Night,” certainly continues such a notion. Thus movement creates an emptiness (pop), to which Gaga has dedicated her life, for which she has become a vessel, within which something (usually the self) can be (re)-created.
So how does this process appear in the “Applause” video, and what does the video reveal about the process?
First of all, there are a number of ways in which Gaga represents her commitment – in all its difficulty, pain, and glory – to pop-emptiness in the “Applause” video. She appears as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, wearing a collar of bleached bones (or are they feathers?) and a long white (wedding?) dress, in a black, thorny bird cage. This obviously functions under the current paradigm in a number of ways. The cage is black, connoting the metaphorical night of pop-emptiness to which Gaga is married and perhaps also the stabbing prison of fame that ultimately destroyed Marilyn Monroe. Gaga and Monroe are both held up in the cage for all to see, not unlike the birds normally kept in such cages. Pop-emptiness and fame are thus figured as a kind of painful burden to which Gaga has lovingly committed herself. Marilyn Monroe is quoted as another who dared to walk a similar path, and the vehicle of that quote, Warhol’s image, is proof of Gaga’s statement “art’s in pop culture in me.”
Next is Gaga’s Pierrot/mime figure (also identified and analyzed by Roland Betancourt), which here appears ensnared in a billowy white (wedding?) dress-pillow-thing. Again, black and white are juxtaposed in a representation of Gaga’s marital (or martial?) commitment to fame through performance. Again she embodies the collision of high and low/pop art.
There is also Gaga in black underwear on a white mattress, dancing and writhing. Is she performing, clad in pop-emptiness upon a blank stage? Or is she in her wedding bed, consummating her marriage to the absence that is night, represented by the black underwear?
There is also the stage on which the video in general appears: this stage which oscillates between fashion-show runway and wedding-chapel aisle, depending on whether Gaga struts in fake wings like a Victoria’s Secret model, vogues as if in high fashion, or somberly marches to her dreadful groom as Persephone.
The ultimate visual figuration of this principle, however, is the hands suit (hand-kini?). In this garment, applause as a representative of fame is embodied, and in fact this applause, this fame, makes it possible for Gaga to appear – she couldn’t release a music video in which she exposed her breasts, now could she? And if she weren’t famous, she wouldn’t be making a big-budget wide-release video! Of course the hands suit is black, not only quoting the famous Janet Jackson image, but also suggesting a quite intimate touch from her betrothed, the night of emptiness.
|Note: It appears that Gaga's own shadow cups her breasts; hence, she wears her own shadow.|
(see below for further analysis)
If this is true, and the lyrics of the song combine with Gaga’s garment to posit the experience and activity of fandom itself as Gaga’s betrothed, the night of emptiness, we’ve arrived back at Betancourt and Heidegger’s shared concept of pop as emptiness created by movement, and Betancourt and Gaga’s shared concept of pop as an emptiness within which something new can be created, or something old remade. The activity of Gaga’s fans creates an empty space within which Gaga herself is generated as an embodiment of their creativity and self-transformation, and in return this embodiment dedicates herself as both soldier and lover of her creator – fandom.
This makes perfect sense with Gaga’s appearance as Aphrodite in the “Applause” video. Her hair and clamshell pasties suggest Venus Anadyomene, or Venus/Aphrodite “rising from the sea.” This image in classical mythology depicted the appearance of the goddess of beauty and fertility, fully-formed, from the mysterious, protean, and purifying ocean. Gaga, in her art and fashion, works to create beauty, and is re-made anew in fame and the empty space of pop generated by fan movement.
But, as always with Gaga, this succession of images invoking pop, art, and everything in between is not simply deployed as a symbolic language with which to tell the allegory of her own life, creative process, and relationship to fame and fandom. The entire system here threatens to shift, erupt, invert itself.
As Betancourt has also shown (yea, I know, guy’s on fire), Gaga, keeping to the tradition of performing Pierrot, takes special care to show that even the white on which her performance appears is performed. Thus in the above sequence of white-and-black patterns, the depiction is never that of a virginal Gaga/Marilyn captured and exploited by the black of fame and pop-emptiness. Gaga, as a bride clad in white, always asserts her own creativity and independence within the constraint of cages, underwear, top hats, and applause. Though contained in these empty expanses created by the movement of fans, she defiantly scrubs herself clean or actively blanks her own self to serve as a better medium, a better embodiment of that which has called her up into being.
These performances, of course, always call up a new and particular field of responsive movements within the great pop meta-system, and thus her black cage and white wedding dress mutually construct one another so equally and so primordially that it becomes impossible to establish any primacy at all. Hence the alternations and shifts in her series of white-black costume-tableaux in the video: she appears in a white dress inside a black cage, in a black suit inside a billowy white cape-pillow, as a white “rabbit” in a black hat, in black underwear on a white mattress, in a black suit wearing white wings, in her own pale skin within the clasping black of the hands suit. Probably nothing demonstrates this principle better than when Gaga puts on her hands suit, right in the middle of the video. Look closely (1:27) – the flashing lights of implied cameras make it appear as though a person, dressed in black and faceless, stands behind Gaga with his or her hands over her breasts. Her pelvic thrusts only accentuate the effect. For many viewings, I was convinced that there was an actual person there, and that only later were the hands a piece of clothing. But it is Gaga’s shadow.
This reveals, of course, that the night to which Gaga betroths herself, the emptiness that fills her, the coursing writhing of fandom that is the hypostasis of Gaga, is Gaga herself.
So the stutter of fast-cuts between various black-and-white scenes, just like the here-and-gone shadow thrown out by flashing strobes, reveals that Gaga dresses herself in the product of a performance to which she is beholden and which she also calls forth as a condition of her self-creation. But all this happens at once, creating not the plodding linear narrative I have outlined here, but the radical flash of total self-construction, of experience exploding outwards beyond itself, only to find yet more of itself in a form so other it threatens to deny recognition.
We circled back to exploding, ecstasy, and the sudden exceeding of both structure and self represented in the climaxes of both “Marry the Night” and “Applause,” with which I began this essay. Gaga’s emptiness has driven her, its loyal servant, fully outside herself, but there beyond the borders of Stefani Germanotta is only another emptiness, this one the product of public fan movement. And this emptiness in turn directs Gaga’s movements, ensnares her, clothes her, sets her forth. But what does this reveal? That the emptiness outside is the emptiness within, and that either both are Gaga, or neither are. Like curiosity, she is everywhere and nowhere; as pure image without content, one second she’s a Koons – then suddenly the Koons is she.
Perhaps this is the meaning of Gaga’s Persephone persona in “Applause”: the somber bride marching in mourning through a shimmering purple passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead (just as Gaga walked from the world of art to the world of pop). Persephone was venerated in the most important of the ancient mystery cults. Initiation ceremonies for this cult – dedicated to Persephone and her mother Demeter (goddess not only of fertility but also of marriage and the cycle of life and death) – reproduced the three-part story of Persephone. First, she was abducted by Hades, a figure not unlike the night of pop-emptiness (being associated not only with death and darkness but with wealth as well), and carried off to the underworld. Next, her mother searched for her, and blighted the crops of men until Persephone was released and finally rejoined her mother in the third stage. But Persephone had eaten some of the food of the dead, and thus was required to spend a part of each year underground, with her husband. While she existed straddling life and death, the initiates of the cult were promised rewards in a life to come.
Gaga is the chalk outline, white on black or maybe black on white, of a girl found dead in New York City. A girl who never made it. But the trauma of that girl’s self-destruction has created a cascade of images exploding outwards, from which those who peruse, repost, imitate, and adapt generate a new, higher form of that girl and her ruined, lost life. This trauma and the human life at the core of it, the pain and fear that continue to inhabit the cascade, has ennobled the experience of pop, and threatens to make it possible to create something valuable out of that frantic movement. Like Persephone – or, hell, why not at this point: like Jesus – she transforms the banal and worldly into a tool of transcendence, unlocking within it a route to a world of freedom and meaning, renewal and self-transformation.
To those who partake of her
Eddie McCaffray is a PhD student studying medieval history at Arizona State University. In addition to history, he likes philosophy, literature, and the Russian language.
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