It began last fall. It's escalated since. Now even my students know I have a seriously academic fascination with not one, but TWO culturally distinct pop phenomena: Kate Bush and Lady Gaga. You may be gasping and sputtering. You may be nodding. Distinctive as they are, Kate and Gaga have aesthetic similarities that appeal very much to the poet voyeur in me, and if Kate Bush ever came to town, you can bet I'd fork over any amount of cash to see it; Gaga IS coming to town and I've forked over a reasonable amount of cash for kick-ass seats to a concert I will doubtless be one of the oldest people attending (that is, of those not accompanying minors). I am not the lone academic persona with an eye on Gaga. She's captured even the eyes of the legitimately snobby "New Yorker" and I doubt we'll have to wait long before some cultural theorist publishes on her work.
As I said, Kate and Gaga are quite different. But how they work is quite similar. They both managed to do something that few do, and that is to mostly remain in control of their production. One of my favorite distractions in graduate school was Gaffaweb, in particular the logs from the era of "The Dreaming," where one gets the distinct impression that Kate Bush and her brothers and their friends were basically indulging in artistic projects they'd been dreaming of doing anyway, just now there was also an audience for it. Not so different the "Haus of Gaga". The twist is that the main sujet is the figure of fame and a vested interest in embracing what is usually dismissed and denigrated as "pop culture". Lady Gaga is not an uncritical observer or devotee of fame--she is a pastiche of fame, a burlesque act lampooning its own cause celebre, and it just keeps getting more fun to watch.
The video for "Bad Romance," the lead single from her not-yet-released album "The Fame Monster," is the work of someone with big ideas who finally has the resources to realize them; as ever tongue in cheek, the vampire imagery--from the Monster capsule caskets in the cellar to the grimacing bat headdress and the enhanced spines, ribs and eyes--is mostly IN Lady Gaga, suggesting much of what transpires is within her grasp. She is her own victim and savior. The shoes, masks, unabashed sexuality of her act got her into this mess (in this case sold off in an auction to the Russian mafia; in "Paparazzi" pushed off a balcony by her Swedish "boyfriend") and in the end it is this very camp that saves her, as she fortunately has a bra that is also a flamethrower--a great stage prop but it turns out also a handy item for destroying potential rapists. As she stands defiantly in front of the raging flames, draped in a stunning faux polar bear wrap and made up to high heaven, I can't help but get the feeling the artist Gaga (as opposed to the fictional character Gaga) is smirking as the flames blow absurdly higher, having created this artwork, at once beautiful and ridiculous, thoroughly enjoyable and collaborative. Not unlike Kate darting her eyes back and forth, you know, in case any demons are lurking off camera.
Silent film actress Louise Brooks made a career out of her own failure. From bad personal and professional decisions to a self-devouring aura, Louise Brooks was a victim of her own Fame Monster, but managed to reforge a legacy reflecting on and embracing that failure. Lady Gaga's project takes all this from a distance Brooks didn't have at the time she was creating her hot mess and parades it in grand parody up and down the catwalk. The obvious pastiche element prevents it from being just another pathetic fashion victim or witless slave to celebrity; Lady Gaga is having fun with this object called fame, and the act exudes legitimacy in its lack of pettiness or agenda. Underneath the direction of the Disco Stick is a thoroughly critical, non-partisan examination of every aspect of "Fame", rife with material to analyse for those who are given to analysis and just fun to dance to for everyone else. Walter Benjamin wrote of Charles Baudelaire, "The depiction of the confused is not the same thing as a confused depiction." Many pop acts are confused depictions; Gaga gives a thoroughly calculated depiction of the confused. It's fabulous, it's cerebral, it's pop. And while I don't entirely agree that pop culture will never be low brow, I do absolutely agree that Lady Gaga's conception of pop culture is not low brow. And I can't wait for "Monster Ball." Maybe I'll go in my Academic Robes and Hood...and 6 inch platform heels...