Why do people hate Gaga? The release of Lady Gaga’s new video ‘Telephone’ featuring Beyonce has split ranks in my friendship circle. (If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, it’s amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ95z6ywcBY). When I say split ranks, I mean more that it has left me isolated on a little desert island of my own frustration. In fact, on many occasions I find myself becoming increasingly more irate as people with whom I normally share musical and cultural tastes condemn the Lady G. I for one am a massive fan. Except I only became aware of this as I was forced to defend what I think is the greatest pop innovator of our measly lifetimes.
Why do some people hate her so vehemently? And why do I apparently love her so much? I think the answer is this: Gaga is a gender crusader and a force for female empowerment all in one. A subtle gender bender, she has managed to co-opt herself into the mainstream, becoming one of the biggest selling female artists in modern times. And yet, while she cultivates an ever growing fan base, she provokes ire in otherwise perfectly reasonable people. Their criticisms?: “She’s ugly”, “she’s just so weird”, “she looks like a man”, “I even read that she admitted she was a man, with a penis and everything!”
Gaga is not beautiful, like Cheryl Cole beautiful, or Beyonce beautiful. And she certainly is weird. Anyone who wears lobsters or telephones on their heads as fashion is definitely a bit weird. But this is why she’s fabulous! Unlike Cole, or Beyonce, the two darlings of today’s female pop industry, she is a creator, not just a performer. Her talent lies in brilliant songwriting – no one can formulate catchy poppy hooks like this mother. She is also an innovator. Working with famous fashion designers and her own Haus of Gaga, she has infiltrated the fashion world, disseminating shoulder pads, robot-like body structures, underwear as outerwear and surrealist forms throughout the glossy magazines and high street clothing racks of the land. Not only that, but she is responsible for the content of all her live shows. In short, she is an artistic director of the highest order. And she is so important precisely because of her prime position at the helm of popular culture.
It could be said that Gaga has a big nose. Gaga has a kind of wide set face. Gaga has not got very large breasts. Yet despite this, she’s carved a space for herself in today’s visual culture through recourse to escapist surrealism. Here she follows the precedent set by Bowie, who portrayed himself as an alien sent down from Mars and in doing so could escape the shackles of gender, donning lipstick and heels in an attempt to imagine a world without gendered boundaries. Gaga does the same, albeit in a more subtle way. In her weirdest outfits she doesn’t look much like a biological human at all, let alone a woman or man. To stoke press fires she claimed she has a penis. Even when she highlights her feminine features, it’s in figure morphing robotic structures that distort as much as they complement. It doesn’t matter much if she’s ‘ugly’. Using her creative impulses she stretches visual boundaries. Her beauty is in her individualistic expression, and from this maybe we can all take a message of empowerment, especially in the context of our gendered (or ungendered) identities.
Though not stereotypically feminine with the soft features desired by many, she does harness the powers of sexuality in her music and videos. Yet this sexuality rests on aggression and assertiveness. She uses her ugly to shock, repulse, disgust but this only draws us in further. Wrapped in police tape and clinging to prison bars baring her genitals in a form of confrontation, the new video displays Gaga’s violent sexuality and is threaded with homoeroticism. This assertive, aggressive form of sexuality contravenes expectations of the feminine, and until Gaga has largely been absent from female pop performers.
In stretching gendered boundaries, and presenting a form of sexuality which clashes with accepted notions of the feminine, Gaga gains herself enemies. This has been brought to the fore in the reaction I’ve seen to ‘Telephone’, where Beyonce has seemingly been drawn into Gaga’s bizarre, surreal, filthy, ugly world. My friends have expressed anger and disappointment at this. Why would Beyonce do that? She has a better voice and a better body. I guess they just can’t understand why she would choose to sully brand Beyonce. What has struck me the most however, is the incessant need to immediately compare the two. They are pitted against each other as if there could only be one talented female popstar. This viewpoint conflicts with everything feminists have been fighting for! And in their minds Beyonce will always come top. The criteria used to judge here are not creativeness, innovation or imagination, but rather physical attributes, and the singing voice. It’s almost as if years of dull female popstars who have little creative authorship but can possibly sing well have lowered expectations of what women can achieve. The potential for invention and creativity is forgotten in this debate, as if a female body is an immediate signifier of all things physical and mechanical, so singing, dancing and beauty come to mind first and foremost.
When I watch ‘Telephone’ I feel a strange sense of empowerment from seeing two of the most successful female popstars collaborate and support one another. Though it’s a bit of an old-fashioned concept, it’s the first time I’ve felt a connection to ‘sisterhood’. In the mini debates I have been witness to I have been disappointed by the standards with which women have judged other women. I think there is a bigger issue here, which is maybe why I get so irate when Gaga is unfairly criticised. This is not just about Gaga but about expectations of the feminine. In a contradictory way, Gaga at once dispenses with gender while transforming previous articulations of the feminine to throw down a new gauntlet of female sexuality. We should celebrate her success as a strong role model to young women, and not criticise her for her failure to live up to dull, sterile precedents.