The Queen Is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Mark the historical date and place: Saturday, November 14, 2009, at MOCA's 30th annual gala, Lady Gaga threw Madonna off her throne as queen of pop.
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mark the historical date and place: Saturday, November 14, 2009, at MOCA's 30th annual gala, Madonna was thrown off her throne as queen of pop. Madonna, who ruled over minuscule, mostly reality TV produced rivals that she routinely trampled with a few splits here and there and, say, an occasional duo with prince of pop Justin Timberlake. Madonna, the world's absolute queen of pop for a full quarter of a century. Who could have seen it coming!? We do recall her frowning once at the annoying rise of a Disney-produced blond singer. But Madonna neutralized that potential rival with a much publicized and fatal kiss. And, oops, the queen had only to perform it once...

But on Saturday, November 14, 2009, at MOCA's 30th annual gala, Lady Gaga, her hat poply architected by Frank Gehry, sat at a pink Steinway piano all blue butterflied by Damien Hirst's scientific popish brush and performed her new song, "Speechless." She sang and made history before the VIPest of VIP crowds: Bradgelina, but also Takeshi Murakami and Pharrell Williams, while Bolshoi dancers, themselves tutu-ed by Madame Miuccia Prada, entrechatted below a sea of chandeliers, their crystal softened by undulating red velvet curtains... A feast of glamour for the eye!

A few feet away the creative orchestrator of the event, Francesco Vezzoli, sat with his back turned to the singer, seemingly oblivious to her throaty, orgasmic voice, and concentrated on his needlework. Half-hidden behind a black Venitian mask, he wove a red thread in and out, in and out, in... It was with delight that I found again the brilliant artist I'd had the amazing chance to work with as a publicist for "Democrazy", his video spoof of a U.S. presidential election commercial, at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Madonna always conceded she was not the world's best singer nor the greatest dancer, but she was Madonna. In "American Life", she sings: Do I have to change my name? Should I lose some weight? Am I gonna be a star? Check, check, check, she did it all. She even had Botox injections in a music video! How provocatively cool is that!? Super. And yet. Madonna's last reinvention was to bare it all by showing the current reality of her life: the battle with age. The sadly ironic part is that she is in fact winning. She's undeniably in much better shape than Lady Gaga. And yet. Just like the geopolitical 21st century started on September 11, 2001, the new century for pop music started on November 14, 2009. The morning after Lady Gaga's performance at MOCA, Madonna might have asked "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land of pop is hottest of all? "Lady Gaga is hottest in the land of pop," is what she heard...

How can Madonna be kicked off her throne so violently, so irrevocably, like there's a before and an after November 14, 2009? Lady Gaga surely clawed her way upward, Madonna-style: fierce belief in her own talent, lots of energy, and a sharp, steely shoulder for any nay-saying fool that'd dare come too close.... Madonna, the material girl, wanted diamonds. In "Bad Romance", Lady Gaga wants "everything as long as it's free." So, what happened? Francesco Vezzoli lui-même is what happened.

If Vezzoli were a thing he'd be that magical solution used in photo labs that makes the latent image on the film or print visible. Vezzoli became his own "photography developer", and showed the invisible phenomenon that is celebrity. He makes video recording his own "fixer," which permanently freezes the image. Vezzoli wants to reveal celebrity. He wants to hold it in his fist like poet Stephen Crane wanted to "hold his heart in his hand and [eat] of it". Vezzoli wants to strip celebrity off its owner. He wants the egg without the shell, floating in air, as if still resting in its shell. Does it taste more like salty sweat or sweet candy? Vezzoli wants to know. In his video installations and performances, Vezzoli shows what celebrity smells like, metaphorically and literally as with his fake perfume, "Greed," also video-staged by Roman Polanski with Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. He wants to peel off celebrity's armor. Vezzoli loves celebrity viscerally, and he serves it raw.

Vezzoli did not make Lady Gaga the gigantic pop queen that she is today, but he revealed it. That's what artists do: they borrow from nature, from anything that's not man-made. The singer herself borrowed from birds. Vezzoli sets himself apart from other artists in as much as he attempts to extract and capture the essence of a phenomenon. Vs. an actual thing like, say, Koons whose pink plastic dogs are still just dogs. Vezzoli wants to first find celebrity, then he wants to actually take hold of it, then he magnifies (both zooming in and embellishing) it with his own interpretation of what else this celebrity could have achieved (say, Vezzoli's remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula), and then digitally freezes that impossible phenomenon.

How does he do it? For material Vezzoli taps into celebrities' vanity like uncle Scrooge takes a morning dive in his dollar-filled pool: e perque no? Vezzoli knows that paradoxically the more famous celebrities are the more they are lured by the bait of a road not taken. Want a self-proclaimed high-Qed Hollywood star? Throw Sharon Stone a world leader's suit. Want a world top public intellectual? Throw Bernard-Henri Lévy a presidential candidate's tie. Want Cate Blanchett? Throw her a stage at the Guggenheim Museum.

Vezzoli's stars all have something in common: they have genuinely embraced arts outside of their own. Vezzoli firmly believes, as does Lady Gaga, that not just art forms but also all art industries have to mingle. That's the true future. When Vezzoli picks a celebrity such as Lady Gaga for instance he sweeps up a bunch of other unique figures, those that inspired her in the first place. Russian doll-style. Like Daphne Guinness. Guinness is another Lady--a real one, in fact--and an inspiration to many of today's art world's enfants terribles like artist David LaChapelle or photographer Stephen Klein. She's any fashionista's goddess. Not surprising that there is an inspired hint of Lady Guinness in Lady Gaga's stunning and ground-breaking video "Bad Romance"! Vezzoli's agile genius is enough to make Andy Warhol shift in his tomb. Of envy, of course...

On Monday, Lady Gaga was introduced to Queen Elizabeth II, that is, a real queen. Should Real Queen ever ennoble Lady Gaga, will she go by "Lady Lady Gaga" or was the Lady part of Lady Gaga always a hint to Real Queen for the in-due-course?... After all, isn't a perfectionist's secret talent the art of timely anticipation?

As for Vezzoli, his ultimate quest is the blueprint of celebrity. Like a vampire, he'll need to suck up the celebrity of a few more stars to get there. So, who's next? Marilyn Monroe, the blondest of all, sadly for Vezzoli, is dead. Maybe he could wake her up from her Snow White sleep with but a few drops of "Greed"?....