"What you like is in the limo
What you get is no tomorrow
What you need you have to borrow"
- "Fame," by David Bowie (w/John Lennon and Carlos Alomar)
At some point in the final reel of Crayton Robey's Making the Boys, Dan Savage argues that, "To be a dumb gay person is a luxury that was won for you by gay people who came before, when being gay was so complicated and so difficult that dumb gay people didn't last." Clips of Project Runway personality Christian Siriano are then offered as evidence that the torch has indeed been passed to a less intellectually gifted generation. I can only hope that this is achieved through cruel tricks of editing.
Savage makes a good point. Gay men have held an honored place among the intellectual elite since Sophocles (at least). So there is a palpable anxiety at the prospect of a sinking common denominator, the inevitable byproduct of a larger out community. The fear is that the quality of gay culture is falling, not unlike SAT scores, as more people participate. Or, perhaps, that the kids just aren't that bright, because they no longer have to be.
Reprehensible elitism or a healthy appreciation of intelligence? Probably a bit of both.
Whatever it is, one feels the lash strike queer culture each time, for example, Lady Gaga misuses the term "shade" in reference to direct insults or criticism. It began after the appearance of a Gawker story about the "Born this Way" debacle, which in and of itself is telling. The piece not only defined the term but directed readers to Paris is Burning, the film through which it entered the American vernacular. It is explained very, very clearly. Gaga still doesn't know how to use it. This means that the lead singer of Aerosmith has a greater understanding and appreciation of that hugely important piece of drag culture than the self-proclaimed LGBT youth messiah.
Still, Gaga spent Monday night filming famous drag queens without their knowledge or permission for use in her new lyric video. That's something, right?
Somewhere on a shelf in my hallway stands a copy of Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour, a Christmas gift from someone who heard I had attended the live show. Like the boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder books clearly visible over Michael Musto's shoulder in Making the Boys, it is unopened, still sealed in its original plastic. Apparently, my desire to relive that experience is on par with his yearning to revisit that Little House in the Big Woods.
While we can't confirm that it goes back as far as Sophocles, gay men have also long been the diva's best friend. Those pop heroines of gay culture have historically traded in camp--material that embraces theatrical artifice, defies negative judgment and achieves a certain sophistication through an extreme awareness of its own shortcomings. This demands an expectation that the audience isn't dumb, that they know exactly what's going on. It is best appreciated with sincerity rather than irony, but if one were to claim that a performance by the Scissor Sisters had been too dumb, it would still be akin to bragging about not getting a joke. Like the best human minds, camp is smart enough to feel dumb.
There is a strong argument to be made that the opposite of camp is art's infamous enemy pretense, which might summed up as, "dumb enough to feel smart." Or, if my experience was any indication, as "The Monster Ball Tour."
Throughout the show, Gaga remained painfully unaware that her material fell far short of the brilliance she attempted to project. Her expectation, perversely, seemed to be that if she hyped it sufficiently, the audience would be dumb enough to mistake it for artistic genius. In speech after speech, her oeuvre was presented as if "Paparazzi" were some miracle collaboration between Bob Dylan and Bizet. Time and again, she asked her fans to put their paws up, not as a silly gimmick, but as a true show of reverence and devotion. Grace Jones it was not.
It could be appreciated as accidental camp, of course. Mommie Dearest is often (wrongly, I think) described as the campiest film of all time. That doesn't seem to have been the director's goal, but it does make for an enjoyable experience. It is similarly unlikely that insufferable pseudo-intellectualism is what Gaga has been shooting for all this time. Yet, insufferable it remains. And there is something vaguely unhealthy about laughing at, rather than with, an entertainer.
Jump forward to this Monday. Gaga's new single drops, more or less with a thud. I give it a listen. I do something vaguely unhealthy.
"Is... Is she doing a David Bowie impression?" I think aloud. "Like straight up pulling a Rich Little on the verses?"
She is. It is jarring to hear Gaga's horrendously delusional lyrics delivered in Bowie Voice. Bowie sang that "Fame" is, "where things are hollow." On "Applause," Gaga dreams, "If only fame had an IV."
A friend of mine reluctantly acknowledges, "It's a nod."
If that's a nod, the cover is a full body seizure brought on by attempted corporeal possession. The artwork features Gaga as a Pierrot with smeared makeup. Mixed-cursive writing scrawled in the white border surrounding it announce her name and the title. In other words, it is the cover of Bowie's Scary Monsters, simplified. Reduced, one might say, if they knew the meaning of reductive.
I can't help but find the lyrics hilarious. I chuckle when she announces, "Some of us just like to read." Seems unlikely, all things considered.
I roar with laughter when I realize she has just declared, "Pop culture was in art / Now art's in pop culture / In me!" Take that every musician in human history! Especially you, The Beatles! What you were doing wasn't art. Music only became an art form when Lady Gaga told people it was, within the context of a mediocre dance song about how much she loves being famous.
Delivered with a sense of irony, it could be a line from the Pet Shop Boys' "Ego Music." Maybe they can add it to future mixes. It would be especially at home on a reissue of PopArt, their 2003 greatest hits album.
Back when Gaga announced the coming of her ARTPOP album in that embarrassing-for-us-all press release, she vowed to "bring ARTculture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition." The supposition that a "reverse Warholian" anything in that context is by definition possible makes clear that her understanding of Warhol's work and impact is derived mostly from the opening lines of his Wikipedia entry. I wish someone would explain it to her. Miranda July, you busy? Maybe you could start with, you know, The Velvet Underground, and their manager, Andy fucking Warhol.
And the suggestion that pop stars have not already long looked to the world of high art for inspiration is especially rich coming from Gaga. I once wrote that, "As an artist, Lady Gaga is essentially a human Tumblr account, a hauntological soup of a woman who recycles -- but rarely re-purposes -- whatever happens to catch her eye." Because I am a Nazi, who should be murdered, obviously. In the time since, she has been dutifully diligent about living up to that description. Surely in this plunder she has become aware that pop music has, particularly since the '60s, all but milked the worlds of performance and visual art dry. I mean, she is copying Bowie copying commedia dell'arte right there on the cover. Didn't a certain other pop star reference Warhol pretty prominently on her third album? And didn't someone else known to dress as a wheelchair-bound mermaid parody the phenomenon way back in 1984?
It is undeniable that Gaga did learn one thing from Warhol, though: that it's more important to make headlines than to make art.
"I must be artistic!" One imagines her crying into the night.
"You could write a really good song," one of her handlers suggests.
"Or," says another, "You could wear this funny hat..."
The hat is fabulous, of course. And, yes, it is art. But it isn't her art, and it doesn't take a genius to wear it.
So it is supremely annoying that we are asked to believe that she is so artistic, you guys, for having discovered Andy Warhol 15 years later in life than most. More annoying still is that anyone is fool enough to buy it. At this rate, she'll discover Orlan and Colette mere decades after the suits are settled. By then, she won't even need a Haus of handlers to supply appropriated art to pass off as divinely inspired.
Even more irksome -- and downright depressing -- is that Gaga's appropriation strongly discourages any serious interest in art and, for that matter, popular music. Her combination of cult-like indoctrination and reliance on rote regurgitation forms, among her fan base, a powerful aversion to the betters that preceded her. A psychological need is created: if Mother Monster did it, it must be original. These kids aren't rushing out to buy Bowie recordings any more than they did Madonna.
I am not saying (as some commenters will, I'm sure,) that Lady Gaga is untalented, or makes especially bad music, or even that people shouldn't enjoy it. She can write a hook. She knows what makes people dance. She can sing. I would never write a piece simply because I felt someone's art was bad. What would be the point? There is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone, talented or otherwise, making art. If you don't like it, don't listen to it. Moreover, she is talented and I hope that she continues making music for the rest of her life. And, frankly, if her first album had been bad, nobody would be paying attention now. I would never have been at that trainwreck of a live show.
What I am saying is that much of the anxiety about Gaga (including my own) is rooted in how blindly so many kids take her for a Very Gifted and Serious Artist, when in fact she has demonstrated even less originality than her peers. Perhaps less than any pop act since ABBA Teens--unless you count the cast of Glee, which is certainly no comfort. Can we really, we wonder, be this dumb? We see visions of Hypatia facing the mob.
So is Lady Gaga a major contributor to the dumbing of gay America? Or does she, like LOGO and five installments of the Eating Out franchise before her, merely lay it bare? Will the Little Monsters, like their peers destined to abandon Bieber for Kanye, move on to more sophisticated music once they get that learner's permit? Or will they stick with their baby for a thousand years? And will they ever really get that last reference? I mean, really get it? And is there any hope for -- egads! -- the adult Little Monsters?
I suspect we'll find out, sooner rather than later.