It only took two or three years but I finally found an interesting Lady GaGa story. It might sound like a plot lifted from The Outer Limits or Friday the 13th, The Series, but it appears that GaGa (aka Lady GorGon) is channeling the spirit of her dead collaborator, one Lina Morgana:
Lady Gaga, who was then known as Stefani Germanotta, and Lina Morgana had been brought together by music producer Rob Fusari in 2007 in the hopes that the formers lyrics and the latter’s voice could be combined into a hit and powerful combination...The story really struck me, since it showed in the end that there's absolutely nothing original about her. But there is also a tradition of shock/outrage tactics that seems to be symptomatic of a tired and jaded cultural condition. You know, like the one we're in now.
Lady Gaga’s ex-collaborator, Lina, then 19 years old, committed suicide just a year after the duo began recording songs together and creating some good music. Just a month later, Stefani transformed into Lady Gaga, almost duplicating Lina’s eccentric and outlandish style...
“Lady GaGa is holding Lina’s soul and I want her soul to be free,” said Lina’s mother, adding, “I’m doing this because I want to keep her spirit alive.”
There's a cottage industry of Lady GaGa conspiracy theorists out there, but the fact of the matter is that GaGa and Rihanna the rest of the pop provocateurs are simply the latest (and least interesting) incarnations of performers and artists trying to transmutate shock/outrage into dollars.
We've got a lot of recent examples to draw on; Madonna pulled out the outrage stops in the late 80s when her pop princess pose wore thin, starting with her SEX photobook. Marilyn Manson became a household name in the 90s with his satanic schtick, taking his cues from Ozzy in the 80s and Alice Cooper in the 70s and using the cable news channels as his personal promotional vehicles. But this all goes back a long way, and what we're seeing these days is a glossy color xerox of a collage of old memes. For our purposes, let's start with...
All of these figures owe a debt to the Decadent movement of the late 19th Century, who made "épater la bourgeoisie" their battle cry:
The Decadent movement in literature was a short-lived but influential style during the latter half of the 19th century. It is most associated with French literature, and Charles Baudelaire was perhaps the foremost figure of the Decadent movement. Decadent writers used elaborate, stylized language to discuss taboo and often unsavory topics, such as death, depression, and deviant sexualities.DADA
French literary critics in the 19th century used the term to dismiss writers who they felt were unimportant and merely wallowing in shocking subject matter...
After the carnage of World War One, a new generation of artists took up the the shock mantle, though preferring absurd humor to sex and violence. This was the Dada movement, and it had a huge influence on the Pop Art movement of the 60s as well as the Punk movement of the 70s :
Many of the artists in the Dada period felt that European art was corrupted, and sought to purify it by mocking it. Thus, many Dada pieces are extremely playful and teasing, such as Marcel Duchamp's famous portrait of the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Almost all Dada artwork inspires a reaction, which was the intended goal. The movement was very short lived, being essentially over by 1923, but Dada left a lasting legacy to modern art, advertising, and society. Without Dadaism, it is unlikely that Surrealism and other modern art movements would have occurred.GREAT BEAST 666
Of course we can't forget the Wickedest Man in the World, also a great adept at using tabloid notoriety to his advantage. A lot of people tend to forget that Crowley plied his trade as a poet and a writer, which fits him right into this timeline here. Such was his mastery of the art of outrage that he continues to terrify huge swathes of the population, although no one can point to anything he actually did to earn his fearsome rep.
When Anton LaVey became a media sensation in the 60s with his Church of Satan he inspired a weird niche in the porn market- occult or satanic porn. A host of stroke-mags with witches and human altars hit the stands, tying into the apocalyptic vibe stirred up by LaVey, Rosemary's Baby and Charles Manson. After all, if you're breaking one taboo, why not break two or three more while you're at it? Largely forgotten today, the genre nevertheless did feed into the underground memestreams that burst into the mainstream with Marilyn Manson et al.
Cher hit the scene in the mid-60s as your prototypical hippie chick, but came into her own when she and husband Sonny Bono landed a primetime TV gig in the early 70s. Cher struck up a partnership with designer Bob Mackie, who supplied the diva with a parade of increasingly-outrageous outfits, which Cher gleefully showcased on the show as well as in her concert appearances. In doing so, Cher provided a model for all of the exhibitionist, attention-craving divas to come, most especially Lady Gaga.
Newton hit the photography scene like a freight train, bringing a surreal and decadent energy to the torpid, post-hippie early 70s. His influence on fashion photography is still being felt (Megan Fox recently appeared in a knockoff of this shoot), not surprisingly since we're living through a strange kind of rerun of the 70s. Newton came up with a lot of riffs that are still in use today, though Newton was an aberration in that he was an obvious admirer of female anatomy.
Newton's influence was such that he inspired a big Hollywood production, The Eyes of Laura Mars, starring Faye Dunaway. A lot of observers at the time saw Newton's work (and that of his imitators) as a sure sign of terminal societal decline, though his work seems downright quaint in comparison to the imagery being pumped out of the high fashion world today. (Check out Pseudo-Occult Media for a superabundance of examples, though be aware I don't necessarily endorse Ben's interpretations.)
The Gristle arose out of a sexually-explicit performance art troupe called COUM Transmissions and essentially created the Industrial music genre, echoes of which you still hear all over the place, particularly on a lot of Lady Gaga tracks. TG also brought a fascist aesthetic into the scene, as well as a lot of the shock/horror lyrics that would filter down into Death Metal and its various subgenres. They didn't last long, but had an enormous influence well past their original incarnation.
If ever there was a band whose ideas I'd never think would reach the mainstream, it was TG. And yet, here we are.
As lead singer of Missing Persons, Dale Bozzio brought a trashy Times Square vibe to the New Wave. She got her start as a pinup girl (appearing in Playboy during the 70s) and then fell in with Frank Zappa. She and a bunch of other Zappa hands formed Missing Persons and had a string of hits fueled by videos showcasing Bozzio's stripper's body and homemade sci-fi aesthetic. In some ways she was offering a cleaned up take on Wendy O Williams, but was strictly femme to the Plasmatics' singer's butch. It's amazing how much Gaga resembles Bozzio in her prime.
A warning to Gaga - Bozzio ultimately became the crazy cat lady from hell, landing herself in jail for animal abuse and neglect.
Athey arose out of the performance art circuit, incorporating a torture/S&M angle into his art and igniting a firestorm of controversy during the battles over federal money for arts programs. Athey's torture-porn aesthetic is referenced in Gaga's 'Bad Romance' video, but his work is also rife with the same elaborate religious imagery we see in Gaga's 'Alejandro' video. Like Crowley and many, many others like him, Athey had a strict Protestant upbringing. One of his major productions was based on Georges Bataille's poem The Solar Anus.
Using shock tactics - along with sex, violence, and occultism- is a time-honored strategy, particularly for the semi-talented. But pumping up all of the occult hysteria not only lends these performances a significance they don't deserve, it also clouds the issues at hand, such as the commodifying of dehumanization, and the legitimizing of narcissism and empty signifying through warmed-over cultural studies analysis.
The end result of it all is a kind of ennui- a deep and gelatinous exhaustion that eats away at the vitality of the culture.
We really are reliving the 70s in so many ways, but at the same time I worry that we're also reliving the early 30s. Lady GaGa would have been a smash hit in Weimar-era Berlin; she certainly has a lot of predecessors there, too.
And we all know how that turned out.
UPDATE: Camille Paglia- "Although she presents herself as the clarion voice of all the freaks and misfits of life, there is little evidence that she ever was one. Her upbringing was comfortable and eventually affluent, and she attended the same upscale Manhattan private school as Paris and Nicky Hilton. There is a monumental disconnect between Gaga’s melodramatic self-portrayal as a lonely, rebellious, marginalised artist and the powerful corporate apparatus that bankrolled her makeover and has steamrollered her songs into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere."
UPDATE: Reader Raj pointed out the superabundance of what he called "pseudo-analysis" of the occult symbolism of GaGa and her ilk, which inspired me to write a few paragraphs I should have included in the original post:
Yeah, the pseudo-analysis is really a much a part of the viral marketing strategy as Perez Hilton. Which is probably the ultimate reason for it- notice that we started seeing all of this stuff around the same time that MTV stopped playing videos.By this I mean that these videos themselves are so dark and dehumanizing, that any symbolism that may be embedded is redundant. It's not as if there are some particularly insidious subliminals embedded into a sunny, wholesome scene- it's all essentially Marilyn Manson redux. The only good thing about it is that it seems to be cycling out again.
Occult symbolism is everywhere, which means it's no longer occult. This was a hard post for me to write because I had to rewatch some of her (GaGa's) videos and some of the similar ones, and I just really find that imagery repellant. In fact this was a longer piece but I cut it down, since it really began to bum me out.
It's demoralizing on the face of it, and maybe all of the dopey symbolism is part of the spell- if you think there's some deeper meaning to parse, you'll keep rewatching it but it's the surface imagery that does the real damage to the psyche. And maybe that's the genius of it- everyone pretending to "expose" it is actually reinforcing the effect, making them complicit in the damage it does, particularly to young psyches.
UPDATE: Paglia's piece stirring up the usual controversy among the punditocracy. Here's the pro piece of a point/counterpoint, titled "Pro Paglia: Lady Gaga is a Smug Diva who Exploits her Monsters and Gays."
Money Pags quote: “This grisly mix of sex and death is sick, symptomatic of Gaga’s alienation from her own body.”
UPDATE: Leave it to The Guardian to defend GaGa, and to struggle to find some redeeming political message in her narcissistic and nihilistic provocations:
Part of Gaga's brilliance is the way she plays with the darker currents in popular culture, which are hardly hidden away. She's as much Marilyn Manson as Madonna. Yet Paglia gets a fit of the vapours about the "disturbing trend towards mutilation and death" in Gaga's work, somehow missing the feminist statement in the final scene of the Bad Romance video, which shows that Gaga the kidnapped sex worker in a Russian bathhouse has barbecued her punter with her flamethrower bra. Paglia also takes literally Gaga's recent line – that she doesn't have sex very often because she fears losing creativity through her vagina – which surely was just a witty way of saying that men can be a distraction when you're totally focused on your work.UPDATE: I guess things are so grim in the independent film industry that directors are reduced to making porn and slathering it up with the usual cultural studies mumbo jumbo. Sad.