Lady Gaga (The Iconic Medium)

“Madonna is desperately seeking a body able to generate illusion, a naked body consumed by its own appearance. She would like to be naked, but she never manages it. She is perpetually harassed, if not by leather and metal, then by the obscene desire to be naked, by the artificial mannerism of exhibition. But this produces total inhibition and, for the spectator, radical frigidity. So, paradoxically she ends up personifying the frenetic frigidity of our age.” (Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime p. 127)

Prior to reading Camille Paglia’s ‘explosive’ article on Lady Gaga, I thought I’d have to work to bring out every interesting motif in Gaga’s work. As it happens, most of everything Paglia said was bang on correct except that Paglia fails to recognise that what she criticizes in Gaga is precisely what makes her a figure of significance in pop. Paglia’s view originates in a misunderstanding of Madonna; too much involvement and not enough willingness to pay attention to what was actually taking place. Moreover, Paglia fails to appreciate that the death of what she calls ‘sex’ was already taking place and that it is in this dead-zone that future patterns of sexual expression would have to take shape. Gaga is the corpse of sex on which it may or may not find ways of reinventing itself. That these same themes of exhaustion can be found elsewhere is of no importance; if we forget Bowie for a moment, what becomes a point of captivation is that these themes are crossing over into mainstream pop culture and in a format not best engineered to carry such themes – dance/pop. The difference in fact between Gaga and Bowie (say in Life on Mars) is that the ‘fans’ seem present to the themes of Gaga in a way they never were for Bowie. Whatever is taking place, they are part of it.

For the sake of contextualising Gaga and her key themes whilst describing the relentless trajectory of pop-culture for at least the past 40 years, it seems apt and amusing to let Paglia summarize for us:

“… despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticized android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic … have become the icon of her generation? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution?”

“In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era…”

“For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? ”

“Marlene and Madonna gave the impression, true or false, of being pansexual. Gaga, for all her writhing and posturing, is asexual.”

“Going off to the gym in broad daylight, as Gaga recently did, dressed in a black bustier, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels isn’t sexy – it’s sexually dysfunctional.”

“In place of Madonna’s valiant life force, what we find in Gaga is a disturbing trend towards mutilation and death…”

“Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.”

“Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets and emotional poverty. Borderlines have been blurred between public and private: reality TV shows multiply, cell phone conversations blare everywhere; secrets are heedlessly blabbed on Facebook and Twitter. Hence, Gaga gratuitously natters on about her vagina…”


Pop: The Iconic Medium

It is always difficult to measure the worth of contemporary pop as it is invariably a team effort focused on production and deliberately designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. Post Madonna (who played every role to the point of neurosis) it is more conceptual and stage-managed than ever before. Secondly, pop is rarely derived from the ‘real’ relational dimensions of human life, say as country or folk music might be. Pop is ‘iconic’ and makes its appeal to the iconic imagination. The sex of Madonna was an idealised sex, a perfect sex, shot correctly with maximised attitude and narrative – ultimately cold and impossible. Pop is aware of itself as a production and therefore it cheats – it is aware of the performer on stage (props, lighting, dancers), it is aware of radio, it is aware of TV, magazines and interviews. It uses these media as an advertiser would to design, display and market a concept and product in a way more traditional music forms wouldn’t. It’s rare to see a country star crossover to the mainstream. Johnny Cash needed a celebrated history, a tragic death, an album of pop covers and a grossly sentimental video before he was able to translate into the mainstream. The pop icon is isolated from the audience in both their origin and their performance. It is by its nature full with artifice, simulation, hyper-reality and distance. It is a cold, maximal, impossible phantasy.

(By Ingrid Chavez, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna)
From: Immaculate Collection: the Best of Madonna


“She wants to have it both ways”

The situation that Paglia describes then is precisely the context that Gaga finds herself in and having to emerge from. The remarkableness of Gaga is not in her ability to continue the same dead themes of feminism, empowerment, sexuality etc as her contemporaries continue to do, but is rather in just how present she is to the conditions of her age – how naturally she reflects it. Gaga is the contemporary nervous system of pop’s evolution. The synthetic, media-savvy exploitation and manipulation of iconography is precisely the environment that produced Gaga. In her sensationalism, she plays through every role at once. Take for example her recent appearance at the VMAs in the now infamous meat-dress. According to Kira Cochrane Gaga had arrived at the VMAs with an entourage of ex-servicemen and women thrown out of the army for being openly gay. Of the spectacle, Gaga said:

“If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as many rights as the meat on our bones.”

Following w uhich, she pointed at the cover of a copy of Vogue and said: “I am not a piece of meat”. That there was the gay-rights issue, the anti-war issue, the gender issue was later added to by the front cover of a PETA publication denouncing Gaga’s exploitation of animals – thus animal cruelty too became ‘the point’. The meaning, of course, is that there is no meaning but that of ‘appearing meaningful’ – Gaga is aware of this. The dress means everything precisely because nothing means anything.

Similarly, in Gaga’s language, she uses the word ‘love’ exhaustively without having any clear criteria for what it means; she plays to her ‘fans’ in interviews, speaking to the interviewer before then turning to them, almost in a glance encouraging them to cheer; she glibly uses words like ‘art’ and ‘thoughtful’ and she presents herself through easily recognisable narratives like those of high-school outsider or female empowerment. Moreover, she appears entirely unconscious of this, as if this were in her make up and that of her fans – the simulated icon.

Regarding sexuality, Paglia refers to her as asexual. She is neither this nor ‘postsexual’ as Mark Simpson has suggested. In fact, like the icon itself, a better term might be ‘null-sexual’. Madonna was too, only Madonna nullified sex through impossible excitation and gender equivalence. Madonna produces and excites the impossible dream whilst annihilating the ‘femininity’ myth. Gaga on the other hand – like the rest of us – is stretched out to that limit. She is a solid body to sex. She wears sex, but it has lost its function; there is no transgression; there are no dichotomies of power or gender; she can walk through airports adorned by fishnets and handcuffs, but with no sexual function they just hang cold as furniture from her form. Her contemporaries (Beyonce, Aquilera, Rihanna etc) aspire towards the same dull sex of the conventional icon; Gaga however, though in no way unattractive, seems naturally immune to its aura.


Two Songs

Dance in the Dark

From: The Fame Monster

Once it has been acknowledged that the pop spectacle requires various productive media (stage sets, video, celebrity magazines, MTV etc), and that through this huge apparatus its structure enters the iconic imaginary rather than relational reality, it becomes interesting to ask to what extent such a de-relational apparatus informs real experience, say through discourses of empowerment etc. Looking through the blog-sphere and news, it becomes a common question, to ask to what extent is such and such a star is a feminist (Quiet Riot Girl,
MSNMagazine, Jukebox Heroines, Kira Cochrane, Laurie Penny)? In this regard, empowerment discourse itself contains a good deal of depthless phantasy and impossibility – likewise, the whole image of consumer self.

It’s in this context that we might look at Gaga’s Dance in the Dark (which, by amusing coincidence, appears to pay homage to Paglia.) Of the song, Gaga has said:

“The record is about a girl who likes to have sex with the lights off, because she’s embarrassed about her body… She doesn’t want her man to see her naked. She will be free, and she will let her inner animal out, but only when the lights are out…”

“[T]he song isn’t called ‘Dance in the Light,’ I’m not a gospel singer trying to cross people over. What I’m saying is, ‘I get it. I feel you, I feel the same way, and it’s OK.’ ” (MTV News)

If the present iconic world is the dream at its limit, what is here contained is a movement in that dream’s implosion. Though the song contains the usual obsession with sex, this sex is not about ‘freedom’ or ‘power’ or the maximised self. The pop structure remains: big hair, stage sets, lighting, huge sounds and the usual forceful vocal and relational alienation, yet the actual content is about inhibition. Moreover, not only is there inhibition, but several female corpses too – Diana, Plath, Monroe. ‘Dance in the Dark’ contra ‘Dance in the Light’ makes this distinction clear – there can be freedom and pleasure in a dark place as well as a light place. The song is confused, and it still plays out many roles. With the inclusion of JonBenet Ramsey (a child beauty pageant murder victim) and lines like ‘her boyfriend says she’s a mess’, it still pays homage to the predictable discourse of female victimisation; however, in the same process, you can’t escape the feeling that Gaga is looking for new space to work with – a space where these corpses too have a dignity (the child murder aside) within their own pain and within the world they knew and reacted in response to.


From: The Fame

For Gaga, so far, LoveGame has been one of her most significant moments. Here she portrays the iconic self most honestly and accurately – a confusion between games, the desire for love and fame. Here, all human interaction and motivation are reduced to sex and the technical (game) sphere; the song is cold, so cold, without a shred of human connectivity. It’s the iconic imagination both in her and in her audience, the club-goer, the consumer. Certainly there is sex:

“I can see you staring there from across the block
With a smile on your mouth and your hand on your huh”

But there is no relationship. In fact, there is more a phobic response to the relationship, fear of too much connection, she leaves as she ‘loves’:

“I wanna kiss you,
But if I do then I might miss you, babe”


“Hold me and love me
Just want touch you for a minute
Maybe three seconds is enough
For my heart to quit it”

In her work, Gaga reveals phobia about contact, the sex and iconography that stands between the connectivity of individuals, the broken social manifested in the sexual gaze. Her sex is stretched to the limit and she recognises it:

“I’m educated in sex, yes
And now I want it bad, want it bad
A lovegame, a lovegame”

She is a creature of sex and screens, artifice and alienation; she represents the death of sex and its need to revitalise itself; the death of culture and its need to get rid of itself. She is without a doubt a point of interest, a point of newness and an engaged worker in the iconic sphere of pop music.

  1. very comprehensive analysis. Thanks for linking to my post on Gaga I am only sorry it was so weak and half-hearted in comparison to your detailed and thought out analysis.

    I like the description of her walking through the airport in handcuffs and fishnets. That was quite an arresting, but empty image.

    Baudrillard can sometimes be used too much to describe our hyper-real world but I understand how his work fits in with your analysis.

    Look forward to reading more!


    • Thanks for that 🙂

      I’ve felt a while that Gaga needs something definitive and decent writing for her.

      I’m quite taken with Baudrillard. I find him very difficult to get past. If you take him seriously, it really is quite difficult to say or do anything. I like a challenge.

  1. November 19th, 2017
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