By Meghan Vicks
I want to begin by thinking about this movement to put “onstage” what is normally confined to the “offstage.” We first witnessed this during Gaga’s recent VMA “Applause” performance: her hairstylist Frederic Aspiras and makeup artist Tara Savelo were both onstage as integral parts of the performance, and, as Roland Betancourt first commented, their presence onstage actually draws our attention to these operations of a performance that are normally kept hidden from the spectators (e.g. putting on makeup and wigs, etc.). By putting Aspiras and Savelo onstage, we not only begin to contemplate how the spectacle comes into being, but Gaga is positioned as the medium upon which her various spectacles emerge. Gaga is not only the spectacle (Fame-era Gaga, “Telephone”-Gaga, etc.), but also the artistic medium (the canvas, the screen, the marble, the clay, etc.).
Throughout her iTunes Festival performance, Gaga puts the “offstage” onstage several times. After singing “Aura,” she announces just a minute, I have to do a very elaborate quick change, and she does so right before the audience – taking off a top and putting on her heels. By making this announcement, and then changing onstage, she makes these often “offstage operations” part of the onstage performance. She does this again right before performing “Artpop”: Aspiras, Savelo, and others come onstage to help her switch wigs, freshen her makeup, and change costumes. Before “Jewels and Drugs” she again puts on shoes and a flannel shirt. And again before performing “Swine”: Aspiras and another Haus member flank her as she removes her wig and reveals her natural hair.
This obvious move to put “offstage” onstage raises for me a number of questions:
1. In general, to what extent are normal offstage operations actually part of any spectacle? Do they merely set the stage upon which the spectacle takes place? (Production crew people – I want to hear from you!)
2. How is our (the audience’s) experience of the spectacle affected when Gaga shows us the workings of the spectacle (how it is constructed)? Are we excited or let down when we see the Oz-ian “(wo)man behind the curtain”?
3. Is Gaga’s iTunes performance a self-aware or self-reflexive spectacle?
4. If during the Fame-era, Gaga was known for bringing the spectacle into everyday life, for claiming that there’s no difference between her costumes and her real self (or between Stefani and Gaga), then what happens when she (a) shows the construction of the spectacle onstage, and (b) reveals her real hair onstage, while saying in the same breath this wig is me too?
As a preliminary answer to some of these questions, I want to suggest that by putting onstage the “offstage operations,” Gaga reveals how even the medium condition is a performance or an artifice. When Aspiras helps Gaga change her wigs onstage, the preparation of the performer becomes a performance in its own right: after all, it’s taking place on stage – the quality of it being “onstage” grants it its ontology as a performance. Or when Gaga takes off her wig to reveal her real hair, she still does so onstage: the revelation of the reality is also, therefore, a performance.
This is not to say that performance trumps reality, or that there is no such thing as reality. Rather, this is to affirm (once again) that our realities (yes, our everyday realities, not just Lady Gaga’s) are made up of performances.
Or, to put it another way: what’s the difference between performance and reality? We no longer understand the question. (What’s the difference between a performative identity and a birthed identity? We no longer understand the question.)
By putting onstage the “offstage,” Gaga forces us to reconsider the boundaries of the spectacle, and its workings. She presents herself not just as a performer, but also as the medium condition upon which the performer comes into being. Which leads me to a final observation: throughout her iTunes performance, Gaga continued to construct her narrative of downfall (this narrative can be traced back to her HAUS video “Lady Gaga is Over,” and was picked up during her VMA performance that opened with pre-recorded audience boos and jeers). During her iTunes performance, she thanked her audience for “taking her back,” and often spoke in terms of a comeback. I wonder: as Gaga shows us how the pop star is constructed on stage (with her costume changes, switching wigs, etc.), is she also drawing our attention to a narrative that is necessary to the construction of the pop star: that is, the narrative of her downfall, reinvention, and resurrection? Is the “comeback” a requisite of the pop star, part and parcel of the pop star’s mythos? And is Gaga therefore drawing our attention to this, (just as she draws our attention to her hairstylist and makeup artist), in order to show us just how pop stars come into being and operate, via downfall and comeback, wigs and costume changes?
I ask these as serious questions, and welcome your thoughts.