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Tom Gliatto

Tom Gliatto

Posted: September 14, 2010 06:45 PM

Lady Gaga and Camille Paglia

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Camille Paglia has published a long piece in the British Sunday Times Magazine in which she articulates her dislike for Lady Gaga and dissatisfaction with what she calls "Generation Gaga."

Paglia is an entertaining and brilliant cultural critic, but she has a habit of throwing out too many ideas and references and in the end securely grasping only a few -- she's like an octopus determined to juggle with all eight tentacles when two would suffice.

Here, in an essay that mentions everything from the old Hollywood production code to Holly Woodlawn, she principally makes the objection that Lady Gaga is not sexy. On that point Paglia is absolutely correct. Gaga's body, despite her willingness to display it, is gangly and awkward, and her dance moves are almost desperately clunky. Nor does she does look particularly alluring wrapped in yellow police tape. When she sings about sex you get the feeling she finds it generally predatory, incomprehensible and weird.

Does this mean, though, that Gaga "represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution," as Paglia asks? Isn't it possible that Gaga is instead a female performer whose main interest is producing hit music, rather than projecting a sexual persona? At her age and this early in her career, she may not actually know what she's trying to say, regardless of the rhapsodic, school-girlish grandeur of some of her interviews--there's something unformed about her, and about her parade of outrageous looks.

At any rate, if you like to be photographed wearing a gown of Kermit the Frog dolls or a dress made of raw meat, sex appeal would seem to be beside the point.

Still, sexual iconography is an irresistible topic for Paglia, so she dives into a quick history of great pop-cultural sirens, pausing long enough to let us know that we probably should not believe rumors that Clara Bow "bedded the entire University of Southern California football team." Then she settles into a discussion of Marlene Dietrich ("the cardinal sexual pioneer") and Madonna. They both represent vital carnality, sex as the life force, DH Lawrence in a bustier, and for Paglia they are the bee's knees. Not so poor Gaga. In her case, sex "is mainly decor and surface; she's like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture."

But, again, why should Gaga have to be descended from Dietrich, who herself ended up looking like a piece of Lladro?

Paglia's soundest point is to suggest that Gaga is closer in spirit to Bette Midler. That's Paglia's only concession to the possibility that Gaga is actually funny, or at least campy. An earlier point of reference might even be Carol Burnett, with her talent for masochistic comedy and fantastic costumes. And if this isn't sexy, so what? Paglia herself admits that audiences still have "tigresses" who include "Beyoncé, Shakira, Rihanna, Lily Allen, Nelly Furtado." Gaga is doing something different.

Again, though, what is she doing?

I can't pretend I understand the outre, even grotesque style and barbaric melodrama that characterize Gaga's videos; or why she thinks of herself and her fans as monsters and freaks; or why her face and expression are always masked (literally and otherwise). Paglia doesn't really understand, either, treating Gaga as a hypocrite for creating a bizarre public image that has nothing to do with her privileged Manhattan upbringing or corporate deals.

These issues, though, are all secondary to the sheer power of Gaga's yowling, throbbing voice (Paglia doesn't care for her singing), and her charismatic, brazen love of performance -- a fundamental force so strong that she's somehow at her best when she dares to be most absurd. (Standing frozen beneath a preposterous, phone-shaped wig, she becomes an angel of death in the "Telephone" video.) Yes, Paglia is right, Gaga borrows from everyone, particularly Madonna. My guess is that she believes she can make any music her own -- like Mozart improving on Salieri or Bob Dylan appropriating a folk song. It's hubris and it's shameless but, for the most part, she's right. "Alejandro" is an infectious homage to/pastiche of/ripoff of "La Isla Bonita" as well as ABBA's "Fernando," and more entertaining than either.

This is a more plausible explanation for Gaga's popularity than Paglia's argument, which is not only that Gaga isn't sexy but also that young people wouldn't know a true sexual icon if she stepped out of a laptop and offered a free lapdance. Their world has been pathetically attenuated by too much technology: "Their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages." But Gaga's voice isn't atrophied or atomised. It has both snarling command and an unpinnable mystery that suggest the breakthrough, not the absence, of inchoate emotion.

If we're going to discuss Lady Gaga in terms of venerable sexual personae, I'd say she's Bette Davis to Madonna's Joan Crawford -- the repulsive yet riveting oddity to the controlled goddess. I'll take the first.