Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The transgressive(?) Lady Gaga

I've been meaning to write about Lady Gaga for weeks. Unfortunately, what I wanted to write grew to this mammoth range of topics that became too daunting to even start. (This is a common problem for me.) So I'm going to try to pick out one specific element.

So for this blog, anyway, it's the recent hubbub over Gaga's lack of self-consciousness regarding her race and the role that race plays in the kind of appropriation that is central to her various art practices.

So why does Gaga get all the love? How much of it is because, as a small young blonde woman she appears to be transgressive in a way that artists like M.I.A. or even Trina cannot be transgressive, because to begin with they are already seen as non-normative, simply because they aren’t white?

This is probably an apt point. By virtue of her whiteness, Gaga is not 'naturally' transgressive - she has to work at it, has to adorn her body and performance with the markings of transgression, and so she gets extra credit for having had to make deliberate, intelligent, and artistic decisions that require her to extend beyond her own bubble of normativity. M.I.A., on the other hand, is already 'naturally' an Other - born into the body of an Other, with links to an Otherized culture, her Britishness notwithstanding - and so we give her less credit for having achieved something, since she presumably had something more transgressive to begin with. M.I.A.'s 9-month pregnant body on the Grammys a couple years back, versus Gaga's varied prosthetics on this year's Grammys, draws this implicit difference out perfectly - the former has an excess of body and nature, the latter an excess of intellect and artifice.

Which is all well and good - and wholly accurate, in isolation - but ignores Gaga's indebtedness to (mostly) white performers like Madonna, Bjork, Abba, Christina Aguilera, and even Britney Spears. My sense is that Gaga is taking a race-blind approach and stealing and mixing from every/any source available. And while race-blind appropriation is definitely problematic, we need to account for these white sources, too, especially when they're arguably more central to Gaga's art.

Clearly Gaga is not oblivious to her own “normativity”; she actually uses it as a weapon, drawing in the viewer with the expectation that she will be blonde and submissive, and then upsetting those expectations by doing intentionally weird, gross things. But while she’s playing with her whiteness, she (& her critic fans) seem somewhat oblivious to her white privilege. And the attendant attention she gets, while women of colour’s contributions to redefining music and gender performance are marginalised.

I'm not quite on-board with this one. The authors recognize Gaga's reflexivity and self-awareness to her normativity, but castigate her for failing to acknowledge that it's her privilege that allows her to subvert normativity in the way that she does. Okay, I'm with them on that - subversion that's undertaken by people who can still pass as normal, as opposed to people whose bodies preclude the possibility that they can be considered normal and so become subversive almost by default, is a particularly safe kind of subversion, and we should account for it. But there's an element of blame, here, too, where Gaga is being faulted for contributing to the marginalization of women of colour in the same field. I have to wonder what else Gaga could do - if she can't help but embody white privilege even as she attempts to subvert or ironize it, what options are left to her?

M.I.A.’s comments seem particularly spot on: while the spectacle of Gaga is dazzling, ironically as a singer, her music is the least progressive thing about her. Especially when you contrast it with M.I.A’s bonkers rhymes and bold call-outs to volatile political conflicts.

Victoria was annoyed particularly by this last section of the blog post, and I feel the same way. There's an assumption, here, that Gaga's pop-proclivities should invalidate the rest of her body of work - that her work in fashion, for instance, is somehow devalued or delegitimated because Gaga writes chart-toppers instead of inscrutable music with politicized lyrics. And that's really not fair, for at least two reasons: for one, we probably wouldn't even be discussing Gaga if her audience was the same (demographically and with respect to size) as M.I.A.'s because her fame and ubiquity are key to her appeal, and two, it just isn't reasonable to expect that every artist is transgressive or obtuse in every aspect of their artistic practice. And Gaga is certainly more obtuse than any other pop-queen, so that's worth something, isn't it?

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