Six months ago, in my first piece on Lady Gaga, I asked, "Is this the real her? Have we reached peak Gaga?" Since then, the Lady has continued her conquest of all media, guesting on Oprah and Ellen while taking time to install herself as performance art at the Los Angeles MOCA, right before having an apocalyptic duet with Sir Elton John and jetting off to receive accolades from the Queen of England. Meanwhile, her fans worldwide are responding with tribute videos and performances—everyone from middle school phenoms to the 82nd Airborne Division. She has the most-viewed YouTube video in history and Time Magazine has called her one of the most influential people in the world. Oh yeah, and she has her own comic book. If this isn't the definition of "peak Gaga," then I don't know what is.
But what's the answer to the first question? What's the real Gaga? Personal narratives tend to be fascinatingly difficult to unravel; as mainstream sources confront the Gaga narrative looming in front of them, each tries to wrestle with what she really means. In primetime television, Gossip Girl rushed to be the first in line with a performance from The Fame Monster while mumbling something trite about "a satirical commentary on fame, glamour, and our society's obsession with the shiny new thing." Glee recently had a more nuanced take, locating Gaga at the intersection of theatricality, identity politics, and personal expression. (They also had the insight to stage an acoustic version of "Poker Face" between a daughter and her estranged mother, giving a whole new meaning to the line, "I won't tell you that I love you, kiss or hug you.")
Others are trying to write their own version of the Gaga narrative. Music producer Rob Fusari's recent $30 million lawsuit against Gaga is, at face value, primarily about fees and financial compensation. However, the subtext of the suit is positioning Fusari in the public record as the architect of Gaga's rise. While tacitly agreeing with most of the commonly accepted facts of the performer's public biography, the text of the suit paints a picture of an impressionable "Italian girl 'guidette'" that Fusari took under his wing and molded into the star we know today. Fusari claims he was looking for "a dynamic female rock n' roller with garage-band chops to front an all-girl version of the Strokes," and though Stefani Germanotta failed at that, Fusari saw a pop star in the making and took a chance on her. He even lays claim to christening Gaga as Gaga; those two precious syllables come from the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga." (Gaga has credited Fusari for the name in the past; though now when asked about it, she gives the vague answer that it was a nickname given to her by "friends.") From the leaked details of the suit, one gets the feeling that the money doesn't matter; Fusari wants the world to know that he "made" Gaga.
This is, of course, slightly at odds with the dominant image and history of Gaga: a perhaps slightly mad artistic genius who quotes Lorca, Rilke, and Marx, who dropped out of college to troll the underbelly of the New York club scene in her underwear and setting things on fire, who gave up cocaine to become addicted to her work. It would be pat to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it's telling that Gaga's origin is already up for debate like some kind of legendary creation myth.
But Gaga doesn't want to be a legend (at least while she's alive), so it's intriguing to see the turns the Gaga story has taken of late. We can see it in the way news articles about her Monster Ball Tour seem to take on the role of letters from doting parents, worrying every time she shows evidence of exhaustion on her marathon of a tour. It's in how she turned a Berlin sex club into her own little confessional. It's in the way she recently revealed that she's tested borderline-positive for lupus. These all point to a humanizing of Gaga, of reducing the emotional distance between her and the world.
Although this is undoubtedly refined by Gaga's publicity machine, it's an impulse that springs organically from a dialogue between the singer and her fans. Gaga, behind her masks and glasses and costumes and veneer of slick pop, is an enigma. So even the briefest glimpse of humanity, a little peek at the woman behind the curtain, is all it takes to forge an emotional bond that's both illusory and real at the same time. Gaga, like other savvy artists before her, understands that pop is about the resolution of binary oppositions. It's about the fusion of high aesthetics with base passion, about the creation of a singular emotional experience for an individual fan—and then repeating that experience millions of times over.
But there seems to be one binary that eludes Gaga. The only time you can get her flustered is to prod her on the topic of sexuality. When Barbara Walters asked her point blank, "Have you had sex with women?" she was left speechless and stammering. In his interview with Gaga, Larry King tripped over himself to ask, "Are you with men more or women more?" and Gaga tripped over herself to give the non-answer, "I'm looking for love just like everyone else."
Of course, Gaga responds like practically anyone would when the issue's put so bluntly. Interviewers and critics feel that she's fair game for these questions like she's the avatar of decades of gender and queer theory. Our impulse is to categorize her and put her in a box. We know her aesthetic is sexually charged, and pop stars selling sex is a concept we can understand. But while Gaga's sexual imagery is at times alien, aggressive, theatrical, and raw, it's rarely titillating for its own sake. Perhaps we think that if we know what Gagasex is all about, it'll all make sense. Gaga is (rightfully) loathe to give us these kinds of answers.
And we're unlikely to find them in the video for "Alejandro," a bizarre and beautiful cocktail of fetish and fascist imagery that has quite a bit of bared flesh and simulated sex on display but seems to speak to something else. Released from the narrative constraints of Gaga's other recent videos, "Alejandro" washes the viewer in a sea of pure image and kinetic motion, and is all the more glorious for it.
Gaga has called the video "a celebration of my love and appreciation for the gay community, my admiration of their bravery and their love for one another." It's intriguing how this is expressed through leather and latex, and through choreography that's aggressive and militant. It frames its sexual issues as a violent struggle, ricocheting between repression and anarchy. The clip uses the iconography of dominance and submission, and conflates the fascist and the religious. When she's not a begoggled ice queen in a tower watching her men parade around in military review, she's clad in St. George's Cross (the Gaga Cross?), preaching to us while the hellfire from a riot rages behind her. (Also, the things she does with rosary beads are unlikely to win back friends at her old Catholic high school.)
Gaga has deployed fascist imagery before; one of her outfits in "Lovegame" paid homage to Charlotte Rampling's Nazi attire in Liliana Cavani's 1974 film The Night Porter. The aesthetic in "Alejandro," however, is dominated by it, from the stark red, white, and black palette to the violent bondage games enacted atop military bunks. The opener sets the tone, with the titles slamming into the viewer like irrefutable propaganda while the smoky half-lit shots of weary soldiers in a lounge recall the chilling sexuality (and Nazis) of Cabaret.
Undoubtedly, this is due to the influence of Gaga's collaborator, director Steven Klein. The video is a seamless marriage of the pair's styles, with Klein's own grace notes such as a golden handgun finding a home beside Gaga's. As a photographer, Klein has worked with Madonna countless times, and while some sequences in "Alejandro" may feel vaguely "Vogue," a more immediate inspiration comes from Klein's own work in W Magazine, where model Lara Stone exerted sexual dominance over a squad of schoolboys in bowl cuts.
Gaga and Klein draw greatly on the German Expressionist tradition; light and shadow control the space, and they manipulate the geometric and stylized backgrounds. In one shot, the environment is oppressive and overbearing, pushing through the frame onto the characters; in the next, it recedes to nothingness, allowing Gaga and her dancers to play their games on an infinitely sprawling empty stage. In just one of many indelible surreal moments, Gaga and her entourage march through a snowstorm; the men are pallbearers while Gaga is out in front carrying a human heart that is pierced and pinioned with the letter "A."
With her bobbed hair, expressive eyes, and pursed crimson lips, Gaga seems to be channeling Dietrich or Garbo: icy and remote, yet with a beckoning sexuality corralled by authority and power. Rather than being the energetic driving force or the object of desire, Gaga hides in the shadows and looks out and down. She's not the one being watched this time; she's the voyeur.
Of course, the hierarchy and order at the beginning of the video collapses into an anarchic mass of writhing bodies and torn clothes, as the men all swarm her. The scene is sexually charged, but it's hard to attribute these elements to sexual fantasy: she begins the song with the lines, "I know you that you may love me, but I can't just be with you like this anymore," and the video ends with her lying in repose, separated from a man (Alejandro?) and as chaste as a woman in a latex nun's habit can possibly be.
If this video is a tribute to and celebration of the gay community, it serves as a mystery play. Gaga takes on the role of the oppressor, writing onto herself the iconography of control—religious, political, and military, complete with her assault rifle brassiere—and is then symbolically purged by pure sexual force. Unlike the juicy but scattershot "Telephone," all the elements of "Alejandro," down to the way the light audibly glints off a man's sunglasses, seamlessly click into place. It's a struggle for identity, told through sex, violence, and violent sex. Perhaps it doesn't give us any more insight into the "real Gaga," but it does give us another peek behind the curtain.
Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.