09/22/2010 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lady Gaga and the Episode with the Meat

Ever since the episode with the meat, I've been leafing through the papers, and thinking that if there's not a picture of Lady Gaga immediately to hand, then something's wrong. Perhaps, for a moment, there's been a lull in the debate about whether or not she's a feminist icon, or maybe something else world-changing has happened.

All this noise is saying that we don't know how to respond to a woman who arrives at a party dressed as an abbatoir. The signs are that she doesn't know either. There now seems to be a formula for answering this question. Let n equal a statement of something Gaga believes in, therefore "I am not a piece of meat." For example, Gaga thinks that gays in the military shouldn't have to hide their sexuality, ergo "If we don't stand up for what we believe in, if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as many rights as the meat on our bones." Are you following this so far?

Me neither. But, like everyone else, I've been worrying about it. Luckily for you, I've been worrying about it for the past five years, so that now I can tell you, straight out, that, like Arthur Rimbaud, "I hold the key to this savage parade."

Let's start with the fairly safe assumption that Lady Gaga is a consummate artist, and as an artist she does more than non-artists do to tap into her subconscious. It's what surrealists do, and I don't think Gaga would mind being called surreal. And what are these subconscious impulses telling her to tell us? Some kind of an answer can be found in myth, ritual and sacrifice.

Sir James Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, is full of all three. It appeared a century ago and surveys worlds and ages of ritual to bring us to a few big conclusions. The most read section looks back to the Aztecs. Their rituals emphasized the continuity and newness of life, which is ironic, since they involved killing people. In one, a woman represents the mother of the gods. She is sacrificed, and skinned; then a man dances around in her skin. Frazer speculates that this could "represent the resurrection of the slain goddess in the person of the priest who wore her costume and mask and dangled the severed head of her slaughtered representative".

Now, Lady Gaga might not plan on embodying the Aztec mother of the gods. But let's start by looking at this on the level of metaphor. She is the most exposed celebrity there is at the moment. She's reached this position by the occasional first-rate song, and by some punishingly uncomfortable outfits, often in rubber -- a second skin. And, as a famous person, she knows that this exposure will be fleeting. Her audience - us -- will require new celebrities to sustain us; we need constantly to replace the gods and goddesses to worship.

I see our veneration of celebrities, and the harsh way in which we dismiss them, as nothing new, and in my book, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Out Cult of Celebrity, I look at past cultures to ask if the way in which we have treated celebrities throughout time has changed that much, and if so, what does that tell us about ourselves? I think that we have always needed idols, and that they bond us; but then, tearing them apart has bonded us even more.

For whatever reason, Gaga is in touch with this, and she's found a ghoulish way of representing it. But it's no more ghoulish than anything earlier civilizations came up with. We needn't even dwell on the practice of human sacrifice: the ancient Greeks were keen enough to allude to it in their plays and their ceremonies, even when they were killing cattle.

To a Greek worshiper, it was important that the animal being slaughtered looked like it was assenting to the chop. The victim would be wreathed, and wearing gold: a priest would scatter water on it, so that its head wiggled in a yes sort of way. And then, at the moment of death, the women present would shriek. The priest would then divide up the meat in equal portions - not in neat cuts, like Gaga's. There would be no distinction between, say, topside and rump. There would be plenty of blood.

Sacrifice was the ancient Greek excuse to eat meat. But, like in the Abraham and Isaac story, the victim can be seen as a substitute for a human one. When the Trojan War was about to start, the gods would only let the Greek ships sail if King Agamemnon slew his daughter, Iphigenia. In a play on this subject, she ends up recognizing that she will win glory from this, and so will the Greek army. So she agrees.

In this respect, Lady Gaga cuts straight to the chase. She sacrifices a lot to her audience -- her energy, her comfort and her privacy -- to become this living work of art. And her latest metamorphosis involves looking like she's sloughed off her skin. The metaphor's just as strong in a Robbie Williams video that some broadcasters have banned -- he performs a striptease for eager women, then removes his skin, muscles, tissue and so on. As his meat flies into the crowd of women, they rub it over themselves, like young fox hunters who are initiated into the hunt when they are "blooded" by the dead fox, or else like the women who follow Dionysus, god of wine: they rip their victims apart, and are so high they can't tell man from beast.

It's like Britney Spears sang in an earlier song: They all want a piece of me. Look at me, Gaga seems to be saying: I've come dressed as a barbecue. I'm more raw than cooked but hey, help yourselves. You know you want to. You always have.