By Edmund McCaffray
So, ARTPOP is pretty obviously about the encounter, intersection, and even merger of art and pop. In part this is the continuing development of one of Lady Gaga’s perennial themes, her reliance on and relationship with her fans – after all, pop fandom is so distinct from (high) art “fandom” that it doesn’t even seem right to use the same word for both phenomena. Yet Gaga clearly brings the two together by pursuing her art in a pop medium. But her performance at the iTunes Festival on 1 September 2013 seemed to highlight a new key theme of this current phase in her overall project: love, or more specifically, sex.
Of course, as in pop songs generally, there’s been plenty of sex and love in previous Gaga songs. But the concentration that appeared in the lyrics, performances, and interludes of her set at the festival sets it apart in this regard. Perhaps most overtly, Gaga performed three songs (“Artpop,” “Jewels and Drugs,” and “Sex Dreams”) in her new Aphrodite persona – signified by the Aphrodite hair wig, which she wore only for these three songs. Aphrodite is, obviously, a goddess not only of fertility (an easy metaphor for artistic creativity), but also of sex. Gaga has already shown the new persona in the video for ARTPOP’s lead single, “Applause,” and in a performance of “Applause” for the recent VMAs, as well as in many public appearances.
But the subjects and lyrics of the eight songs Gaga performed also center on sex. “Aura” asks if the narrator’s audience wants to see her naked, peek under the covers, and touch her. It also includes a kind of trance-chant of “dance, sex, art, pop,” highlighting the theme of sex by placing it in a sequence including the obviously cardinal component terms of “art” and “pop.” Next comes “MANiCURE,” in which Gaga begs to be healed and saved because she’s addicted to love. “Artpop” clearly is pitched as a love song, from its dreamy melody to its “we could belong together” chorus. “Jewels and Drugs” gives the theme a relative backseat (just demanding love over money), but only before the most overtly sexual song of the set, “Sex Dreams,” which is obviously about having sexy sex in sexy sex dreams. “Swine” continues this focus: the title is a common derogatory term for lecherous men, and Gaga makes this explicit with the lyrics “I know, I know, I know, I know you want me, but you’re just a pig inside a human body.” “I Wanna Be With You” is another love song, and “Applause,” as I discussed in an earlier piece, includes some double entendre so blunt – “give me that thing that I love, I’ll turn the lights off . . . make ‘em touch” – as to threaten reduction to single entendre.
And it isn’t only the lyrics of these songs (I suspect that once we have official lyrics for these new songs that they’ll reveal plenty of sex and sex metaphor in the verses; here I’ve mainly limited myself to choruses). In a number of the songs, sex is closely associated with the central ARTPOP themes of open-ness, hybridity, creation, and so on. “Aura” is about penetrating (no pun intended) the performative fame shell that Lady Gaga has quite explicitly built for much of her career as one of her main artistic projects. So peeking under the covers, touching, and being addressed as “lover” are not just manifestations of omnipresent pop sexuality and titillation, but also invite the listener into a more-intimate-because-less-guarded version of the axial fan-Gaga dialectic. It’s no coincidence that “Aura” opens the whole performance (inviting the audience “behind the curtain”), or that it includes such icons of distance and inaccessibility as the iron cage (perhaps echoing the one present in the “Applause” video) and the burqa.
In “Artpop,” the chorus and the dance (in which one spreads out one’s arms before bringing them together over one’s head) again make sex a metaphor for whatever ARTPOP is. In both cases, two become one in a process busting with creative potential: “my artpop could mean anything.” As Gaga explains before performing this song, the purpose of the song is to explain what ARTPOP means – to my mind, the use of a sexual double-entendre in the chorus and the garb of a goddess of love and sex are obvious indications that sex as a concept is integral to ARTPOP as a concept.
Speaking of dancing, there’s also a pair of moves that appeared together in the performances of not one but three of these songs – in “Aura,” “MANiCURE,” and “Sex Dreams,” Gaga dances first lying on the ground with her legs kicking in the air, and transitions from that to kneeling and thrusting her pelvis out and up. To me, this pairing suggests first a common female and then a common male sex position, with Gaga playing both roles alternately.
Of course, there’s usually lots of sex in pop, and Lady Gaga has been no exception. Maybe I’m just blowing smoke. But both the concentration of sexual themes as well as their placement in song structure and expression in dance suggested to me that sex here was central to this Gaga phase, rather than simply a part of its continuing pop idiom. Why might this be, or what might be important about sex in relation to ARTPOP?
This is an open question at such an early point in the cycle of the album, singles, videos, and performances, but I also wonder if an answer doesn’t suggest itself in Gaga’s performance of “Swine.” Trauma certainly leapt into my mind while listening to Gaga talk to the audience about the dark times she’d lived through in her past, the ones she didn’t want to detail so as “not to be a downer.” Gaga said that she’d hidden from herself with costumes and wigs because of these times, and that they made her brain, heart, and pussy feel like trash. She said that one in her position might think that “this is what adults do,” but that it “wasn’t what adults did, and it wasn’t normal.” She said that in order to perform “Swine” she had to go back to a horrible place to which she’d never wanted to return, but that she would do it now both to grow as a person (a key connection to trauma as experience so jarring or hateful that a person simply can’t process it) and to get closer to her fans (continuing the nudity, intimacy, and hybridity of ARTPOP).
To me, in this context of a trauma-which-created-Lady-Gaga, both the hyper-sexualized iTunes performance and the specific lecherous valences of “swine” and “pig” suggested that Lady Gaga was confessing and/or performing recovery from a specifically sexual trauma – thus placing sex in a key part of her project, which has frequently imagined or presented different traumatic experiences as moments of self-destruction and then self-transformation or (re)creation. Whereas prison and a bad relationship served as trauma in the “Telephone” video, whereas physical destruction and the loss of fame served as trauma in the “Paparazzi” video, and whereas artistic failure served as trauma in the “Marry the Night” video, here, sex is the setting of a self-shattering event that destroyed who Gaga had been before, and prompted her to re-create herself in order to survive.
Perhaps this is why sex is so central to ARTPOP.
On the one hand, Gaga is returning to terrible sexual experiences, confronting them, presenting them, and re-appropriating them for the forces of good, so to speak. She obviously re-appropriates the swine (whatever they may or may not symbolize) who dance during the song “Swine” (perhaps winking to the seeming-impossibility of re-appropriating something so horrible by flying: “I’ll get over it when pigs fly”). In fact, these pigs re-create in their own bodies the image of a face covered in white paint and smeared with bright colors that Gaga has been projecting in photos and performances since the “Applause” video. They’re clothed wholly in white, and the ones suspended over the stage have flashing blue, green, yellow, and red lights on them – the same colors on Gaga’s mime face.
On the other hand, sex is figured as a healing process, as one that makes whole what was violently or unjustly rent apart. Art and pop come together to form a new hybrid of limitless potential just as facing the trauma of the past offers the chance of returning to the self once hidden under the wigs and costumes of Lady Gaga.
ARTPOP is, among many other things, about healing. About the end of surviving and coping, and the beginning or resumption of living, loving, and growing.
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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