By Eddie McCaffray and Meghan Vicks
Opening: Gaga as the screen, or the white canvas
Eddie: Gaga begins as a blank canvas. Not just white, but flat and huge, filling the TV screen.
Meghan: Exactly! I had the same thought! The opening shot of Gaga’s face in what appears to be the center of a white canvas, combined with the fact that the shot is filmed in such as way that Gaga’s face/canvas takes up the entire screen, does two really interesting things. On the one hand, it associates Gaga with the white canvas (an idea Roland Betancourt has been writing about here on Gaga Stigmata for years), a canvas upon which various manifestations of Gaga come into being (and indeed, we see these various Gagas manifest throughout the performance).
On the other hand, in that opening shot Gaga seems to literally become the screen – and, as the camera pulls back, what was once the screen is revealed to be the performer on the stage. This blurring between the screen itself and the performer on the stage suggests a kind of transgression of the screen. I’m thinking, for example, of Cronenberg’s film Videodrome, where the images on the screen actually become flesh (and the TV becomes flesh too!), or of Ringu/The Ring, where images invade reality. Both Videodrome and The Ring articulate an anxiety or terror concerning the viral image’s power to invade real (fleshy) life. Gaga seems to be doing something similar (or maybe I’ve just been thinking about these movies too much) when she positions her face as the screen itself, and then shows how her face moves from the screen to become a body on the stage. The crucial difference between films like Videodrome and what Gaga’s doing, however, lies in the fact that she views the transgression of the screen as something positive: art into life, art into popular culture, art pop.
Of course, here we should remind ourselves that since day one Gaga has said, over and over, that her spectacle is her reality, that her performative self is her essential (born this way) self. There isn’t a difference between what’s “real” or “born,” and what’s “staged” or “performed.”
Eddie: Another interesting difference is that, whereas in Videodrome and The Ring, the evil force wants to leave the television and enter or control our world, Gaga of course does the opposite – not pushing through the screen to approach us but drawing back, perhaps to invite us. Gaga’s all about finding and mobilizing the power of being watched; this performance might suggest to viewers the opportunity and fulfillment offered by entering the spectacle.
Meghan: Gaga sings: “If you want me you can watch me on your Videodrooooomme!”
Base (Black Bodysuit) Gaga
Eddie: I think of this as “Marry the Night” Gaga, or Gaga-as-night-as-Gaga (the suit even has little twinkling stars). It’s interesting to me that, while the performance is largely about performing performing, Gaga’s base layer isn’t white (the natural choice for representing a space in which things are created); it’s black. This really emphasizes not just how everything she does is always a performance, even a performance of a performance of a performance, but how important emptiness or a threatening lack is to those endlessly-regressive nested performances. Her ability to perform doesn’t depend on a blankness, but on an emptiness, a loss of self. She isn’t a chameleon, but emptiness, an all-surface no-innards being – just like a Koons work.
When I watched this performance, I noted the little shiny balls everyone gets out for the Koons lyric, and I thought “I wonder if those are real Koons artworks or just imitation ones?” And then I got a big kick out of that question. If Koons’ works have no content, isn’t any counterfeit authentic? To the extent that Koons exists as an artist without intentionality, is anything that resembles his work in fact actually his work? Emptiness at the heart of a creative project explodes outwards, appropriating any imitations. But of course the imitations have also captured everything about the emptiness, since that emptiness is entirely present in content-less surface.
Gaga herself has long played with this kind of virality. Her dances are designed to be easily imitated and appropriated, and she regularly retweets fan versions of her dances and songs from YouTube. Her Google Chrome commercial collapsed her own performance of “Edge of Glory” into that of her fans, and “Applause” as a song itself falls into a description of what its listeners are doing in real-time.
Meghan: Of course I love the idea of emptiness or nothingness, represented here by Gaga dressed in black, as that upon which Gaga comes into being, and that allows her to manifest infinite versions of herself. Nothingness, after all, is without limits, and according to some it is a kind of pure potentiality. As she sings in “Marry the Night,” she’s a soldier to her own emptiness: she serves it, and it enables her to be.
Fame Era Gaga
Meghan: Ok, so when Gaga puts on her Fame-era-styled blue skirt and massively-shoulder-padded jacket, along with that angular bobbed platinum blonde wig with straight bangs, I was struck by how ICONIC that look already feels, even though it’s only been five or so years. And then I actually wrote down, Gaga’s performing Gaga!!!!!! – as though this is some sort of huge revelation! I mean, in a sense, Gaga’s always performing Gaga (keep in mind, once again, that being and performing go hand in hand for Gaga). She’s always performing Gaga, just as she’s always being Gaga; you can’t separate the two.
But here, what happens is slightly different: she’s performing a past version of herself – the version of herself that is, according to many, the most iconic, familiar, beloved, famous. It felt like she was dragging that past version of herself, performing a representation of her past self. I fell down the rabbit hole for a moment (or maybe my nerves are just on edge because school starts tomorrow, and the first day back always terrifies me!), and I saw Gaga in a kind of mise en abyme: Gaga mirroring Gaga mirroring Gaga mirroring Gaga …. ad infinitum.
Seeing ARTPOP-era Gaga bring Fame-era Gaga back to life was just really cool and also really uncanny. What was so familiar and beloved (Fame-era Gaga) was made strange (in a good way, in a Shklovskian stoney-stone way) once again so that we could actually SEE what we had forgotten, precisely because it had become so familiar to us. This is exactly what art’s supposed to do, by the way, according to Shklovsky:
Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. [...] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make the stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the devise of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’
We overlook what is familiar and ordinary; Gage made us actually see herself again.
Eddie: To me, Fame-Gaga suggests a time before Gaga became concerned with flesh, with birth, even really before she became concerned with monsters, if we’re making a distinction between Fame and Fame Monster -Gagas. This was a time when Gaga was concerned with the mechanical production and reproduction of the self: flashing cameras, performances (understood in the more day-to-day get-up-on-stage-and-sing sense), costumes with cameras and screens, the tendency of pop stars to crash and burn, or even die. This was the age of plastic, not meat. And yet she was concerned with many themes that still occupy her today: most importantly, self-creation from a position of weakness or subordination. Creating yourself even though everyone watches you every minute, even though studio executives make you do stuff, even though you’re in an exploitative monetary or sexual or emotional relationship. It’s just that later, it became about creating yourself even though, after all, you didn’t get to pick your body or your sexuality, even though, to quote Tyler Durden, you’re just the same decaying organic matter as everything else.
What’s so interesting about this performance, then, is the way it drags along something from the past, something in a sense forced upon Gaga. Of course she was herself back then too, but now, no matter how differently she may think or feel, she still has to accept that she was that then. But it also makes that past self available to this present one as raw material. I think that’s part of what Meghan and Shklovsky are getting at: it’s a lag or a disjunct of a confusion that allows things to appear to us. It’s only because we can’t grasp them perfectly that we can grasp them at all; otherwise they would be indistinguishable from our present experience or even ourselves. Gaga can only take herself up as an opportunity to create because she can no longer create that part of herself caught stickily in the past. Because some part of that past self resists her will, because it is sticky or heavy or irreducibly gross, she can create with it. This is, after all, why Fame Gaga used trash or pop to build herself, and why Born This Way or Telephone Gaga used flesh. Those materials offer a resistance that makes them capable of holding a form, even if their own participation in creating that form is the price they demand for our use of them.
Eddie: So this performance does seem to sketch a little history of Gaga’s costumes or forms, and as people on Twitter have already asked – why not Born This Way Gaga? Born This Way Gaga is obviously important, but I think this history is set up in such a way that makes “Telephone” Gaga the real tipping point or change-over. “Telephone” was a song about technology and communication sort of invading the body, or controlling it. And the video expanded on these themes by showing Gaga and Beyonce caught up bodily in the slurred stuttering of a connection – it also introduced the notion of Gaga as a poisonous force, escaping containment to invade not only the American heartland but even the meaty physical bodies of individual people.
Meghan: AND DOGS!!! Don’t ever forget the dead dog in the “Telephone” video.
Eddie: Thus, speaking broadly, “Telephone” Gaga represents the more performative and technological Fame Gaga as it first invades the essential and biological. It’s the beginning of when Gaga starts to use fleshier imagery and lyrics, and of when she begins to really reject maybe the only firm barrier left by postmodernism – that between performativity and essentialism. From then on her lyrics, videos, costumes, and interviews reject clear distinctions between choice and necessity, between the body and technology and clothing and meat (remember the telephone-hair-do, or, of course, the meat dress). The point of Born This Way is that it’s an ongoing struggle to become who you’ve always been, and the fact that you may have only recently learned something about yourself, or that you still don’t understand yourself doesn’t matter – you’ve always been destined to create yourself however you’ve been destined to want to.
Eddie: Aphrodite is an appropriate figure to conclude Gaga’s account of self-transformation: Aphrodite is both the goddess of procreation and fertility (Gaga is not only creative, but also seeks to call up and empower creativity in others) and also came from nothing, fully-formed. Well, she emerged from the ocean after Zeus threw his father’s severed genitals in there, so really Aphrodite emerged from shredded flesh thrown into the tumultuous and unknown deeps. In this sense Gaga is a new being that has grown from the encounter of trauma with a vast emptiness, something which has struggled to create itself as a defense mechanism and, coincidentally, found itself in a vast space at just this moment. Again, pure, contentless creative power steps out of a void, claiming all creative power as its own preserve even as it increases the potential for the creative power of others.
Meghan: And once again, we’ve arrived at “Gaga’s penis” (all roads lead there!). Of course I’m joking – I couldn’t help myself once you mentioned the fact that male genitals were the “clay” (so to speak) that formed Aphrodite.
It’s almost too obvious to say, but it’s still important to point out that her embodiment of Aphrodite is of a specific image of Botticelli’s Venus (Gaga’s hair most obviously signifies this, and the shell upon which Botticelli’s Venus stands has been transposed to the shells Gaga wears). As such, Gaga makes flesh the myth of Aphrodite as imagined in Botticelli’s artwork; she makes art into flesh – not necessarily myth into flesh.
Eddie: It’s . . . spikey, and it also includes the letters of “applause” jutting up at weird angles and differing heights. So Gaga and her dancers perform literally (i.e. they perform in the letters) in the midst of “applause.”
Meghan: I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but I think it’s interesting that she turns into letters – both in the stage’s props, and in her hand gestures that spell out “applause” – that which is a non-verbal form of communication (applause). Why would she do this? What’s the point of making a non-verbal form of communication verbal?
Eddie: Well, it reminds me of transforming back and forth between flesh and image, or performance and reality.
Eddie: Obviously the dancers play a particularly important role in this performance. They’re part of it, of course, but they also play an odd half-role in facilitating it. They dress and undress Gaga, and they circle around her to hide her during the final transformation. Of course Gaga’s dancers are often required to play such a role, but the fact that changing costumes isn’t incidental to but constitutive of this particular performance makes their function more ambiguous. Perhaps their black costumes are supposed to suggest that they’re made of a substance similar to that of Base Gaga – some even have skull caps. Thus the emptiness that makes up Gaga can be just as present in her “subordinates,” and Gaga herself is actively built by the actions of this emptiness.
OK – what did we miss that you want to talk about? What do you think about the recorded (we think they were recorded) "boos" once the music begins? What’s up with the background? Why is it so spikey? Why do you think Gaga chose Fame and Telephone appearances to go with her new ARTPOP ones? Or do you think those costumes mean something entirely different? Let’s make a discussion, dear readers!
You can read more by Eddie and Meghan here, where they mainly write about nothing and really terrible movies in which images invade reality.