Madonna modelled herself on a sexually unrestrained, powerful and de-sanitised version of Marilyn Monroe and rebelled against patriarchal Catholic constraints of the feminine, using the notion of wanton sexuality as her arsenal. Michael Jackson refused to be categorised according to race and gender and mixed these up in both theatrics and surgery, to much public speculation and psychoanalysis. Freddy Mercury was openly sexually promiscuous and gay and celebrated his choices with an engaging and charismatic physical vitality.
These are just some of the ground-breaking pop icons that Lady Gaga has modelled herself upon. She has said in interviews that her influences are rooted in the past and include singers (David Bowie), actors (Marlene Dietrich), artists (Picasso) and filmmakers (Hitchcock/Fellini).
The result is a hodgepodge that many outside of her fan base find difficult to attribute sense and meaning to.
But perhaps Gaga is an icon that is not meant to be understood or defined. Certainly she has done more to engage the world in a speculative debate about what she is than any of her predecessors who, though complex, were much easier to pigeonhole. Gaga, it seems, is indefinable.
Reading Gaga through the postmodern literary lens, as if engaging with an open-ended text, is perhaps one way to grasp the slippery Gaga phenomenon. Like a postmodern writer, she has borrowed from the stable that preceded her and has plagiarised, layered herself, and constructed a bricolage into the sculptural persona she has become and upon whom it is difficult to attach a singular interpretation.
Gaga is a metanarrative. There is an element of reflexive self-consciousness in all her spectacular public appearances. She has openly declared that she went back and looked at who was original, quirky, offbeat, different and then used all these influences to write herself. This has resulted in a multi-layered, mosaicked and exploded spectacle that cannot be categorised or contained in a definite critique.
While some attribute deep meaning to her persona others decry it as meaningless.
Drawing from theorist Roland Barthes’s text, “The death of the Author”, Lady Gaga reads like a text, which does not rely on deep meaning or lucidity. She becomes a “multi- dimensional space in which a variety of influences, none of them original, blend and clash”. She has set herself up as an “eternal copyist”, at once sublime and over the top and whose profound ridiculous dimensions of the spectacular indicates precisely the truth of any art form. The contemporary artist “can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original”.
One could easily believe that she has imbibed Barthes’s theory into her own assemblage — that the artist’s only power is to mix influences, “to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them”.
Gaga is a modern day Alice in Wonderland and she appeared on the scene as if she had just arrived through the looking glass.
Hers is a macro-text that makes use of borrowing, parodying, quoting and mimicking other art forms with an emphasis on pastiche, bricolage and intertextuality. The entire wonderland spectacle that she pieces together seems to be a bizarre pictorial play on various theories, including Dada, deconstruction, horror, body grotesque and monstrous feminine. Her use of the term “mother monster” is not unintentional.
Unlike other pop icons such as Britney Spears, she has not relied on overt sexual performance to up her street cred – neither does her sex appeal lie in the groin thrusting palpable sexuality of Madonna. It is more a kind of untouchable exhibition of the possibility of sexual adventure. It is there, both hidden and exposed, and definitely not to please the patriarchal view of a woman. Gaga is both self-contained and open. She plays with gender roles. Her sex appeal clearly speaks of a new form of sexuality that is not rooted in 20th century feminism – but in a contemporary androgyny that expresses self-pleasing rather than other pleasing.
Could it be then that Lady Gaga is indeed the first icon that resonates with a postmodern reality?
She is a postmodernist in every sense of the word. She has set herself apart from the 20th century modernists who try to uphold the idea that “works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning that has been lost in most of modern life”.
As literary theorist Mary Klages points out, “postmodernism, in contrast, doesn’t lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence, but rather celebrates that”. The motto here is: “The world is meaningless? Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning then, let’s just play with nonsense.” And this is what Gaga does in both her appearance and her music, which some have compared to nonsense nursery rhymes.
Gaga’s music, though described as bubblegum pop, is infused with deconstructive discourse and pulls apart the ethereal meaning that the public has attached to sanitised icons such as Lady Di (Lady Die) or a White Jesus (Black Jesus). So detractors of her music would do well to listen to her lyrics. Like Facebook memes which distribute radical feminist theory in easy pictorial quotes, perhaps bubblegum pop is the way to deliver a message that explodes and deconstructs societal hero-worshipping trends.
Whether this is her intention or not does not really matter. What matters more is that Lady Gaga is an open text – you can read her in any way you want. Who she is relies solely on the beholder’s interpretation of her. She is authored by her fans and she signifies the possibility of a futuristic cyber form of entertainment which relies more on computer-generated hype than flesh and blood.
Could it be then, that Lady Gaga is an avatar and not a human being – at least in the collective imaginary of her huge fan-base?
In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in internet forums and other online communities. The thing about a computer avatar is that the author is the user. It is he/she that dresses the character, chooses the hair, the look, the colour and so on. The avatar becomes the perfect conduit for personal neurosis, dreams, desires and fantasies.
Gaga models herself, perhaps unwittingly, on what a collective avatar would look like. Her sculptural, varied and bizarre outfits feed into the collective psyche of multifarious alter egos allowing many to believe that they have some hand in her creation — that they are the authors.
As the first huge star of the digital age this goes some way to making sense of her. She dresses outlandishly, she makes scant commentary on media platforms, she avoids the paparazzi’s invasion of her private life and her stage appearances are massively electronic and impersonal.
She fulfils the conservative mainstream’s political expectations by not taking sides and writing off activism as irrelevant — yet she will support the LGBTI movement. She wears animal fur and remains unapologetic to the many fans who challenged her on this issue. She will speak against some human-rights abuses yet still ignore an appeal from Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to boycott Israel.
Here in South Africa, she visited the Mara Primary School in Soweto, yet her security team prevented the children’s parents from entering the school — a bewildering and upsetting experience for the children and the parents.
All of this ambivalence suggests that she may not be human after all, but a cyber manifestation of the collective contradictory transferences and projections from the digital-savvy youth who have the power to create their own avatars in the endless cyber-fantasy world that is available nowadays.
Like a computer-generated avatar she changes her art, her definition, her outfits, her politics as if it is the collective imagination controlling her and not herself.
It is in the massive fan base and adulation she receives that we can be assured that she is fulfilling an archetypal notion that exists in the collective – and given the breakdown in meaning and logic of world events – it is a shattered mirror archetype indicative of a fragmented world.
She carries this fragmented worldview on her small frame like a slippery skin. She is both celebratory and cerebral, both computerised and human, both compassionate and inhumane. She is everyone and no one. Her appeal relies on both her presence and her evanescence.
Perhaps then, she is actually a post postmodern digital icon that heralds a future that those of us born in the 20th century simply cannot grasp in full.
This was first published on the South African Civil Society Information Service website.