pop culture trends

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Pop Goes Teresa: Loving Lady Gaga Part 2 – Camille Paglia and the Death of Reason

Published September 17, 2010 by Teresa

It’s been a while since my first Lady Gaga post!  In it, I promised two more: one about how Gaga is a role model, and one about why she’s important to pop music and the art world.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while now, in deference to other things that needed doing/writing, but a couple of days ago I came across this article by Camille Paglia called “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” In it, Ms. Paglia pretty much blames Gaga for all of society’s ills.  This article forced me to come up for air enough for me to write part two of this series.

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.

Jusino: Because…there are no such things as misfits in the world of the rich?  Because if your parents make a certain income, you’re exempt from being an outcast?  I think the fact that she was cozying up to performance artists and performing at places like New York’s The Bitter End when she was 16 or 17 while her peers were busy worrying about being trendy and going to parties speaks for itself.  Gaga was never a “marginalized artist.”  It was the art community that welcomed her.  What she was was a marginalized rich girl, who didn’t share the same concerns and goals as many of her peers.  That’s what set her apart and made her a misfit.  It was her drive that allowed her to seek solace elsewhere.  Let’s not forget, Paris Hilton has corporate money backing her up, too.  She also tried making an album, remember?  You don’t?  Exactly. The point is, it’s easy to say that Gaga’s success is entirely due to her social status, but that’s just not the case.  Just as her talent and ambition set her apart from her peers in high school, they were also the things that allowed her to play the piano at 4, that got her into Tisch at NYU, that pushed her to forgo college and pursue the life of a performer instead, and that allowed her artistic vision for herself to get bigger and bigger.  The “disconnect” between her misfithood and her family’s finances is not so “monumental” as Paglia would have you believe.

Paglia: Lady Gaga is a manufactured personality, and a recent one at that. Photos of Stefani Germanotta just a few years ago show a bubbly brunette with a glowing complexion. The Gaga of world fame, however, with her heavy wigs and giant sunglasses (rudely worn during interviews) looks either simperingly doll-like or ghoulish, without a trace of spontaneity. Every public appearance, even absurdly at airports where most celebrities want to pass incognito, has been lavishly scripted in advance with a flamboyant outfit and bizarre hairdo assembled by an invisible company of elves.

Jusino: What Ms. Paglia fails to acknowledge is that the personality is manufactured by Gaga.  Those airport moments are scripted…by Gaga.  That’s the difference between a corporate pop star and an artist.  She’s no Justin Bieber, given careful, sanitized talking points by a publicist for the teen magazines.  She is someone who, according to an interview she did with Rolling Stone, studies pop culture like an academic, going over magazine articles with a highlighter, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and using that study to carve out her place in it.  She has turned her whole life into a performance art piece, and will rarely leave the house not as Lady Gaga.  And what is wrong with that?  What’s the inherent value of going incognito at an airport?  If a celebrity wants to maintain privacy, that is of course their right, but Paglia assumes that that is the only respectable way to be.  I think a lot of people do, which seems terribly hypocritical to me.  We want our celebrities to be accessible and buy all the magazines with their pictures in them, but then we criticize celebrities if they enjoy it too much.  Or, in the case of Lady Gaga, when they manipulate that fascination for their own ends.

Paglia: Furthermore, 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 plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?

Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. 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? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…

Jusino: I find it interesting that Paglia criticizes Lady Gaga for not being a pop star the way she thinks a pop star should be.  She calls her asexual as if that’s a bad thing.  She sounds like a male chauvanist, demeaning a talented musician for “not being hot enough.”  All that remains is for Ms. Paglia to start screaming “SHOW US YOUR TITS!”  It doesn’t take talent to be a pop star who’s sexually appealing in the teeny-bopper, non-threatening way that you’re used to.  But Gaga has said in numerous interviews that the covers of her albums and many of her photos are deliberately asexual, because she wants young girls to know that you don’t HAVE to sell yourself as cheesecake to be a pop star.  And when she chooses to wear less clothing and be more sexual, she is sexual in a powerful way that she OWNS.  It’s not about kowtowing and hoping men find her sexy.  It’s about knowing that she’s sexy and just BEING it.

And yes, I think this does point to a shift in how “Generation Gaga” is relating to sex, but it’s certainly not the “death” of it.  Today’s young women aren’t afraid to not only ask for sex, but demand it.  Women think of their sexuality not only in terms of men, but in terms of themselves and in terms of each other.  They express their sexuality not just as a means to an end (ie: attracting a man to get married and have a baby), but for its own sake.  Because it’s something of which they should be proud.  Because it’s one of many things that makes them powerful.   Gaga is a role model, because she encourages sexuality without making it about pleasing others.  Your sexuality is something that’s yours – to cherish, flaunt, or keep to yourself as you see fit.  It’s interesting that a feminist like Camille Paglia can’t appreciate that about Gaga.  Would she rather Gaga just put on the “innocent yet devilish” act that made Britney Spears famous?  And did Ms. Paglia have a problem with “Oops, I Did it Again?”

Paglia: Peeping dourly through all that is Gaga’s limited range of facial expressions. Her videos repeatedly thrust that blank, lugubrious face at the camera and us; it’s creepy and coercive. 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.

Jusino: This paragraph just made me angry.  I have nothing much to say about it except how dare you, Ms. Paglia.  You don’t like Lady Gaga’s face, so she doesn’t deserve success?  She’s not pansexual enough for you, so that means she’s inauthentic?  Wearing costumes whenever you damn well please is a sign of sexual dysfunction?!  Judging a woman’s worth based on how appealing she is/isn’t sexually?  Again, how dare you.

Paglia: Compare Gaga’s insipid songs, with their nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables, to the title and hypnotic refrain of the first Madonna song and video to bring her attention on MTV, Burning Up, with its elemental fire imagery and its then-shocking offer of fellatio.

Jusino: I don’t think Paglia has actually listened to a Lady Gaga song all the way through.  She, as is the way of most people who deem themselves above pop culture, thinks she’s gleaned all there is to be gleaned after a superficial listen and hasn’t gotten past the “nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables” to listen to the actual lyrics.  “Poker Face” – about expressing the fact that she fantasizes about women, while reassuring her boyfriend that she still loves him.  “The Fame” -actually, a song about how superficial fame is.  “We live for the fame” is followed by “isn’t it a shame?”  “Telephone” - well, you read about that in my last article.  “Bad Romance” – is about wanting a passionate relationship from someone who, up until now, has only been a friend. “Alejandro”- about a straight woman wanting the guy who says he loves her to be true to himself and go after the guys he wants instead.  These are not insipid themes and topics, and if Paglia isn’t willing to do the work to listen past the dance beat, that’s her problem.

Lastly, re: Madonna – yes, she IS a feminist icon.  She has a body of work and a career that can’t be rivaled.  But let’s remember that her first single was “Holiday”, a song that’s about, um, going on vacation.  And, um, how that’s awesome.  Were those lyrics insipid?

Ms. Paglia seems to long for a kind of pop star that has outlived its usefulness.  Lady Gaga is a role model for young women precisely for every reason she gives to try and tear her down.  Perhaps you should just stay out of the way.  The next wave of feminism knows what it wants and what it’s doing.

This Isn’t Burger King! You Shouldn’t Always Have It Your Way!

Published January 12, 2010 by Teresa

SOUNDTRACK FOR THIS POST: QueenRadio GaGa

A little over a year ago, I had a strange hankering for something that I hadn’t wanted in years.  Yet suddenly, there it was, this hankering that evolved into a burning desire gnawing away at me until I had no choice but to satisfy it.

I needed to listen to the radio.

For the past several years, I’ve noticed that the prevailing attitude among my peers has been this weird pride in not listening to the radio.  I’m sure this conversation will be familiar to many of you:

Friend #1: What the hell song is this?

Friend #2: I don’t know.  God, I haven’t listened to the radio in years!

Friend #1: I know!  Neither have I.  I haven’t watched MTV in years, either.

Friend #2: Seriously!  I have no idea what “the kids are listening to” these days.

Friend #1: Whatever. They only play crap nowadays, anyway…

I’ve heard this conversation.  I’ve had this conversation, steeped in a pride in musical ignorance.  I’ve made those general statements about “music today” without really knowing anything about it save the stray notes I’d hear from a passing car, or on some channel or other while flipping with my TV remote.  For several years after college, I relied on my friends for musical recommendations.  Once I discovered Pandora Internet Radio, I thought I’d discovered the best of all worlds!  Here was something like radio with the added bonus of being shaped by my musical tastes!  It recommended new artists that have ended up becoming favorites of mine.  It is something I can reliably leave on all day at work, knowing it will provide me with a steady stream of music.  Great, right?  Pandora was surely the thing that would successfully transition me into being a musically mature adult!

Except that after a while, my stations started becoming repetitive.  With nothing but my limited taste to guide them (and I have a pretty eclectic musical taste!), the same songs and artists kept coming up.  The same problem I ascribed to broadcast radio – “They play the same 5 songs over and over!” – was happening to me here, too.  Suddenly, the advantage I thought internet radio had over broadcast radio wasn’t so clear an advantage.

Then I realized an even bigger problem, and it connects to that all-too-familiar conversation above.  I realized that I’d been limiting myself to music I know I like.  Friends who think like me were recommending music to me they already had an idea I’d enjoy.  I was listening to my own music collection ad nauseum.  Pandora was using its fancy-schmancy algorithm to spit out songs and artists it knew I would like.  This is a great thing in theory.

Except that I got bored.

I missed something as simple as not knowing what’s coming on next.  I missed being able to turn on music and say “I don’t like that.”  I missed taking a chance on something new and forming a new opinion.  I missed hearing radio personalities who are steeped in this music talk about it.  And I realized that the attitude I had about “what the kids are listening to” was doing nothing but insulating me in a snug (and smug) self-satisfied little cocoon.  This is a difficult realization for a Native New Yorker.  We Native New Yorkers pride ourselves on being open-minded, and we love nothing more than to look down on other people and places that don’t think the way we do and make fun of them.  But…wait…aren’t we then doing the exact…same…thing we criticize them…for doing?

Indeed.

So many people I know, myself included for a long while, stopped listening to the radio because we equated the songs found there with hormone-addled teenagers and our “less sophisticated” brethren in Middle America.  God FORBID we be anything like THEM!  And it is here where I will make a startling confession.

I LOVE POP MUSIC! Whew! That feels so good to say out loud.  I think I’ll say it again.  I.  LOVE.  POP.  MUSIC.  It’s something that, for a while, I felt uncomfortable being honest about.  And so, even when I’d come out and say something as risky as “I like Britney Spears”, it would have to be said with a trace of irony in the voice.  Because no one over the age of 16 actually likes Britney Spears, right?  Or Kelly Clarkson?  Or Lady Gaga?  Or Justin Timberlake?  Or, um, ANY hip-hop?  And it wasn’t just me.  Whenever many of my friends “confess” to enjoying a pop song, it’s always with some sort of qualifier like “It’s a fun, fluffy song!”  or saying that some pop singer or other is a “great performer!”  Both of those statements being code for: I can’t admit that I just like this song, but I can get around that by complimenting an element having nothing to do with the music or lyrics while simultaneously acknowledging that I “know” the song is “actually” bad.

Why do we do that to ourselves?  Why do we punish ourselves for what we like and make ourselves listen to music that bores us just because it’s more critically acclaimed or has more hipster cred?  And why do we dismiss pop music out of hand, as if it doesn’t contribute anything valuable to our culture, as if its lyrics can say nothing to us, or as if its melodies and beats have no artistic value?  Popular music is popular for a reason, and instead of ignoring it out of some false sense of musical superiority, perhaps it would behoove us to examine that reason, those reasons, and become a part of the conversation.  Perhaps if we do participate, pop music will evolve in our image.  Just as you can’t complain about the results of an election in which you haven’t voted, you can’t complain about the state of pop music and make snarky comments if you’ve purposely separated yourself from it.  Let’s remember - Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang “pop music.”  The Beatles were “pop music.”  Motown churned out “pop music.”

Pop music can change the world, if you let it.

Since I started listening to the radio again, I’ve heard some now-favorite songs of mine (like Ke$ha’s Tik Tok and Pink’s Sober), I’ve heard an interview that solidified my love of Lady GaGa, I’ve been regularly listening to a morning show I used to listen to all the time when I was younger and didn’t realize I was missing until I heard it again (Elvis Duran and the Z-Morning Zoo!), and I’ve discovered a new radio station that I’ve fallen in love with (101.9 RXP, the only rock station in NY playing NEW rock as well as classic rock) which introduced me to a UK band that might become one of my favorites very soon – Florence and The Machine. I’ve rediscovered the joy that is being part of the musical mainstream.  I know, right?  But willfully distancing yourself from “what the kids are listening to” is just as misguided as a teenager sticking his/her nose up at “old people music” for no reason other than it being outside their experience.  And they’re young, so they understandably don’t have the historical perspective to appreciate anything before their time.

What’s your excuse?  :)

For my part, I’ve decided to start a new feature here at The Teresa Jusino Experience called Pop Goes Teresa, wherein I will attempt to analyze/speak intelligently about a pop song, a pop artist, or trends in pop music.  I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll participate and give me suggestions as to what you’d like to talk/hear about!

I’ve also decided long ago to stop being ashamed of what I like.  That way of thinking is annoying and was giving me an ulcer.  :)

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