The Lady Gaga phenomenon seeps incontinently into every crevice of popular culture. She is, in the words of Madonna’s song, Vogue, on the cover of a magazine or, more correctly, every magazine. She has become a “living sculpture” that claims to fuse raunch, mortality and violence into an art form with its own pop soundtrack. At first glance, she and her arresting visuals look like performance art but, on closer inspection, they are too self-conscious, premeditated to be anything more than an exercise in crepuscular camp. With her Marge Simpson wigs and “look at me, look at me” shock tactics, the Lady Gaga brand has become as ubiquitous as Nike trainers and McDonalds. You can sneer at her, but it is hard to ignore her. She has become the Damien Hirst of the music industry, a headline junkie.
“Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F. Gonzales-Crussi explains, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” Lady Gaga’s striptease creates an aesthetic of the funeral parlour. Her walk-in freezer complexion and cat suits that give her an anorexic silhouette locate her inspiration in the mortuary. The Jacobean revenge narratives of her videos (that involve male models being burnt and poisoned) are meant to reveal “the skull beneath the skin”. Recently she has captured the headlines by wearing a dress made of proscuito crudo. Remember man that thou art meat. The more twisted and macabre, the better in this weird carnival of death. The cultural commentator, Camille Paglia writes in a recent article for The Sunday Times Supplement:
At last year’s MTV awards show, Gaga staged a barbaric spectacle where she was seemingly crushed to death by a falling chandelier, after which her bloodied body was hoisted up to dangle limply above her piano. On her current tour, she appears to be killed by a psychotic stalker, who gnaws her throat as the blood pours down her chest. Monster claws and other horror-movie regalia are a Gaga staple...All the frantic, flailing arm moves imposed on her by professional choreographers can’t disguise her essential depressiveness and spiritual paralysis...
It's not clear what Paglia means by “spiritual paralysis” but she captures the idea that something innate to the human person is damaged by such nihilistic preoccupations. This is the soul of man dragged through the sewers of the imagination or what the American art critic, Adam Gopnik, describes as the High Morbid Manner:
A detached, distanced, oddly smiling presentation of violence – a pageantry of violence – is, as every evening’s television and every summer’s big movie demonstrates, as much the popular fashion as the avant-garde one...The shock of the new, which for most of the century could reside as much in a black square as in a slit eyeball, isn’t available any longer. It’s not possible to shock any more by being new. The only way to shock is by being shocking.
Lady Gaga may dress as if she is the high priestess of the avant garde but she is simply appropriating the ambient culture around her – the torture porn of horror films and the drive-by fantasies of Grand Theft Auto. Her music sells because she can write a hook. She sells because she has tapped into the maggot infested corners of the contemporary imagination. "I want your ugly/ I want your disease," she sings. Disease and ugliness is what we get. The pursuit of Beauty is forsaken.
Without any eschatological hope or reference point, the secular mind ekes out a little comfort from futile distraction. With annihilation offered as our ultimate meaning one endures this living death by downloading Bad Romance and dancing like zombie.