"Do you think I'm sexy?" Lady Gaga poses this question in her best rock-arena growl. The Toronto audience, easily 15,000 strong, roars its positive response as she flips back her crayon-yellow hair and semi-pornographically writhes on the floor.
"I wasn't very cool in high school, so sometimes I abuse this part. Do you think I'm sexy?"
This endearing admission, made to a crazed, capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre, easily sums up why the cult of Gaga has risen to rapid glory. She is that awkward, misunderstood high-schooler all grown up, raising a big ol' fuck-you middle finger to everyone who said, "No, you can't because you're too ugly/fat/stupid/uncool." Submerged in the spectacle and decadence of her Monster Ball, she's still very much that moody teen reject because, despite her all triumphs, she needs us to tell her we adore her. And when we do, she's so genuinely in awe of the crowd's frantic adulation. It seems like she has no idea how and why this all happened, how she went from bedbug bites in her New York apartment to God-like status in such a short period of time.
I've been trying to figure out "what Gaga means" for months now, using my decade-old Women's Studies degree to try to decipher how her torn fishnets and Kermit-coat fit into this big, sugary mess we call pop culture. Yes, I love Lady Gaga, and it's hard to write about something you love so much when you don't really understand why you love it. An obscure music-snob at heart, I've already given my pedestrian Gaga-passion more deliberation than I'd like to admit. Hell, after eighteen straight viewings of the homoerotic, militaristic, sex-fighting BDSM homage that is the "Alejandro" video, I've actually developed entire sociological theories of dominance and submission based on her shoe choices.
I think my obsession has a simple explanation - I, too, was not cool in high school. At all. I had braces. I cut and dyed my own hair. My wardrobe consisted of fun fur, soccer socks, and tragic dresses I made myself. Gaga resonates with me because, despite the fact that she functions in the mainstream, she deliberately embraces those cast-off kids and their creative impulses, and it amazes me that no one has ever thought of this fame tactic before. A Gaga show is a Virgin Mobile–funded celebration of the square peg, and you'd have to be pretty heartless not to be inspired by all the kids with their Coke-can hair curlers and police-tape dresses.
While Gaga is a corporate-sponsored pop-culture sexpot, she's also a champion for the freaks in a way that Miley, Britney, and Christina can never be. Most top-forty gals (knowingly or not) drive impossible standards of airbrushed beauty and vanilla (straight) sexuality, but Gaga deals in the grotesque and absurd. She preaches at the really convincing church of "Be yourself!" and "Fuck the haters!" (Who wouldn't want to belong to that congregation?) While Gaga's basic counter-culture message is not new, it's never been so popular. Her videos, launched as epic events and gobbled up to the tune of 45 million YouTube hits, are packed with subversive imagery. (Sparkler bras! Mass murder by ladies! Boys in stilettos!) Collaborations with Steven Klein and Jonas Åkerlund have inspired a music video renaissance unseen since the days of Madonna and MJ. [Ed.: Careful - Kanye West may not let you finish.]
Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole Gaga package is that her sexuality, which is ridiculously in your face (I often wonder who is her tireless bikini waxer), is not the standard performance for the male gaze which we're accustomed to. Admittedly it's still white, able-bodied, skinny-female sexuality, but there's something jarring about how visceral and filthy the imagery is. Semi-clad ladies writhing around on MTV is not new, but with this brand of turn-on, with its fetish culture and sci-fi references, Gaga has taken a shot at the yawn-fest heterosexual status quo. She represents easy, accessible, and really fun feminism, no academic or ideological training required. You don't need a degree to understand why it's charmingly subversive when she yells "I have a tremendous dick!" on stage.
Finally, there's the music. Gaga has made a career out of the meaningless pop crack, her general lyrical sentiment nothing more than "have whiskey/wine, will dance." Her Beyoncé-backed hit "Telephone," for example, is essentially a song about how she's too busy to answer her cell phone, but somehow it's become an anthem for rabid female independence. And that's the beauty of it. Gaga's music is so inane that it can't help having widespread appeal, allowing listeners to project any range of emotions they wish onto her throw-away lyrics. My concert companion summed this up when she said, "I'll admit it, sometimes when I'm sad I'll just listen to ‘Alejandro' and cry." I'm quite sure no one knows what "Alejandro" is about, but to say it doesn't elicit an emotional response would be to deny the emotions of so many teary-eyed concert goers.
Much like they did with Kelly Clarkson, the critical cool kids are sheepishly coming out of the Gaga-love closet and acknowledging that she might be the long-overdue force that finally fills Madonna's massive shoes. Given the rise of American sexual conservatism, with its abstinence pledges and gay conversion camps, the climate is right for the tiny, envelope-pushing powerhouse to collect up all the social rejects in stadiums and inspire them to be their happy, slutty selves.
Admittedly, live, Gaga lays on the "Love yourself because I love you" diatribe a little thick, and I may have thrown up in my cynical mouth if it wasn't all so gosh-darn sincere. The "I'm okay, you're okay," Monster Mama persona has certainly worked for her in the cultivation of fame, and it's difficult to argue against the self-acceptance love-in of 15,000 people when: (a) the powers that be remain big ol' homophobes, and (b) the self-esteem of the average teenage girl is circling the drain. Gaga may be an over-the-top weirdo, but as far as role models go, she's certainly not the worst option. She's business savvy, talented, and her relationship to men is more gay-boy dance-floor accessory than devastated, good-girl Taylor Swift with a broken heart and intact virginity.
The backlash will eventually come. The media machine will find some flaw in the theatrics to exploit, but if Gaga's reaction to the lady-with-penis accusation is any indication, she's thick-skinned enough to have Madonna-style staying power. Unlike her pop-tart contemporaries (and like Madge), Gaga understands that female sexuality, much like fame, is nothing but performance and artifice. Like a pop music JT Leroy, in tricking the media machine into making her famous, she has proved it to be meaningless.
The whole Gaga concept has this uncanny ability to separate the hopeless cynics from those of us who still have a sense of humour and a firm belief in the triumph of the underdog. I will even argue that anyone who was cool in high school will have a hard time understanding her eccentric appeal. Fact is, there are really only five "cool kids" in any given high school class, so Gaga has culled her tribe from the "rest of us" side of the spectrum. That's why her exclusive family of "little monsters" is quickly becoming a majority made up of everyone from flamboyant teen queers to suburban soccer moms.
It would be easier to dislike Gaga if she denied this contradiction. Instead she embodies it from the bottom of her Frank Gehry-ish heels to the top of her chemically created hair. "We're not the freaks," she pronounces from the stage. "Everyone else is the freaks. All the freaks are outside, and I locked the doors."
This post originally appeared on The Walrus. Republished with permission.
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