Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known to the world as Lady Gaga, has had a meteoric rise in the world of pop music with the release of her debut album The Fame. With her catchy lyrical hooks and slick electronic beats, Lady Gaga may not necessarily break any significant musical ground; she beats her critics to the punch and says that “My music isn’t me jerking my dick off all over a piano trying to feel something. I make soulless electronic pop.” But that electronic pop is an excellent springboard for a rich output of visual media, including not only music videos but also short films as well. Throughout it all, one can detect a singular vision that expresses a consistent visual style and explores a tightly-knit set of questions and themes. By examining her videos and films, one can see that Lady Gaga is trying to be a different kind of pop star. She’s an auteur in the truest sense of the word, claiming ownership of her visual output as a slice of a larger mode of artistic expression.
It is often difficult to locate a sense of authorship in the popular music world, much of which is manufactured by committee and corporate dictum and bears more than a little resemblance to the Hollywood studio system. Not every pop musician can claim authorship over his or her work; in fact, few can. Before one can examine Lady Gaga’s body of work for an authorial voice, one must justify that the body of work belongs to her in the first place. What separates Gaga from most other pop singers and musicians that we can even begin to ask the question, “What is Lady Gaga’s authorial signature?”
Take your typical pop singer (Britney Spears, etc). However entertaining or meaningful their music may be, it is fairly evident that they are not the guiding force behind their music or even their own images. Their songs are constructed by semi-anonymous songwriters and producers, leading much of the resulting product to be generic: it is undifferentiated and could be interchangeable between performers. This means that at best these artists are journeymen churning out variations of a standard product, and more typically these pop musicians are blank vehicles on which an image or style is imposed externally. The result is that the visual components of these songs—the music videos—are similarly alienated from the artist whose name is on them. The videos are simple products designed to promote another product: the musician and the music. Even musicians who have more control over their images and their music—Beyoncé, let’s say—are at a remove from the visual components of their work. The music video becomes a secondary form of expression that relies on the backing song to inform its meaning. Typically the music videos from such artists may be visually striking and inventive, but they do not all fit into a coherent aesthetic framework, having only the barest threads of stylistic or thematic connection. If a guiding hand can be attributed to the music video, it is often to the individual director’s and not the musician’s.
Where does Lady Gaga fit into the typical conception of a pop musician? The answer is that Gaga sets herself apart by self-consciously acknowledging the constructed nature of her music and her image, and then positions herself as the sole controller of both. She has both the practical and theoretical background to justify such a claim; the first comes from her days as one of the aforementioned semi-anonymous songwriters, penning tracks for other artists including the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears. Her theoretical understanding about the nature and the role of her music shows through in her discussion of it. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones notes that “[s]he cites Andy Warhol, claims to be a ’fame Robin Hood’ who has lost her mind, opines in public about whether a certain shade of red is ’Communist,’ and has dropped Rilke’s name more than once.” The music itself is full of knowing winks and nods; there are layers upon layers to decode, even in Gaga’s own self-described “soulless electronic pop.”
At the very least, this establishes that the music from The Fame primarily originates from Lady Gaga, and that the secondary works emanating from it—such as the music videos—have the potential to be Gaga’s work as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are; after all, the individual video directors could override Gaga’s own sensibilities with their own artistic direction. However, this isn’t the case. Lady Gaga does not abandon the visual component of her music. Rather than the videos being ancillary products designed to promote the music, Gaga treats the tracks on the album as equal opportunities for visual expression. This is a one of Gaga’s principal aims as an artist; she has said that “It’s the artist’s job to create imagery that matches the music—something powerful that will really grab the audience and create a memorable impression,” and claims that:
“What has been lost in pop music these days is the combination of the visual and the imagery of the artist, along with the music—and both are just as important. So, even though the carefree nature of the album is something that people are latching onto right away about my stuff, I hope they will take notice of the interactive, multimedia nature of what I’m trying to do. The things I like to do and the theatrics, I like to incorporate them into the choreography. With my music, it’s a party, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s about making the lifestyle the forefront of the music.”
Consider the two facets of authorial signature that are used when examining the work of film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick: first, the auteur explores a consistent set of themes or questions throughout their body of work, weaving it into disparate plots regardless of the actors, producers, or studios involved. Second, the auteur maintains a distinctive visual and technical style that crosses multiple films; these distinctive markers and motifs can be used to identify an auteur’s work.
Can one detect an authorial signature in Gaga’s videos and films, regardless of who she is collaborating with? She does claim ownership of her work; in discussing the music video process, she says that “my biggest challenge working with directors is that I am the director and I write the treatments and I get the fashion and I decide what it’s about and it’s very hard to find directors that will relinquish any sort of input from the artist.” There is a consistent set of themes explored in Gaga’s videos, with the three most notable strands being: the intersection of sex, mortality, and public image; the ambiguity and blurring of sexuality and gender roles; and pop music and its attendant fame as an infectious, devouring monster. These themes are bound and unified by a distinctive visual style: at once literate and hedonistic, and possessed with a beautiful alien eroticism. This is most evident in Lady Gaga’s notorious penchant for elaborate and exotic costumes, but it can also be seen in the distinctive visual motifs and patterns present in all her videos. We have evidence that these are all conscious choices and not accidental: it’s called the Haus of Gaga. The group consists of artists of various stripes, including fashion designers, installation artists, filmmakers, and stylists handpicked by Gaga herself. It is her conscious attempt to recreate an artistic collective in the pattern of Warhol’s Factory. She describes its formation as:
“I called all my coolest art friends and we sat in a room and I said that I wanted to make my face light up. Or that I wanted to make my cane light up. Or that I wanted to make a pair of dope sunglasses. Or that I want to make video glasses, or whatever it was that I wanted to do. It’s a whole amazing creative process that’s completely separate from the label.”
The purpose of the Haus of Gaga is to create the visual framework that defines the Gaga aesthetic: the costumes, the props, the accessories, and the choreography. In collaboration with the members of the Haus and the directors of her videos, Lady Gaga is attempting to inject the word “Gagaesque” into the visual lexicon.
To fully explore the development of Lady Gaga’s aesthetic in her visual work, we can attempt to periodize the examples of that work—the films and videos—as one would do for any other auteur. These periods include an initial stage where the artist is learning the limitations of the form and the expectations of her audience, and yet manages to retain her own originality in the process. Then there is a period of development, in which the auteur finds her voice and develops her signature style—often subverting the system as she does it. Then the auteur reaches the height of her expression; the machine is running strong and she makes her most distinctive works. One can see all three stages in Gaga’s work to date.
1. “Show him what I’ve got”: Centrality and positions of power in the frame. From top, left to right: (a) Colby O’Donis and Akon in “Just Dance” (b) Lady Gaga in “Poker Face” (c) “LoveGame” (d) “Paparazzi”
Forming an Identity. There are some striking commonalities in Lady Gaga’s early video work: first, they all revolve around parties and dancing, which is an unsurprisingly common premise for dance music videos. But at the same time, each video shows Gaga using her indefatigable personal style as a weapon against compromising external forces. In fact, there is a clear progression across videos, portraying Gaga as an infectious intruder; her sense of style takes over the people around her. Taken individually, the videos may be unremarkable: “Just Dance” portrays Gaga crashing a party and bringing it back to life, “Beautiful Dirty Rich” features Gaga and company dancing around an expensive-looking penthouse apartment, and “Poker Face” features more of the same but replaces the apartment with a mansion. The three videos are also threadbare in the sense of narrative progression, something which is challenged in later videos; in this period of Gaga’s work, the visuals require the pure force of the music to drive them forward. But consider the videos together as Gaga’s first steps, and you can see the development of her process and her struggle with reconciling her own personal vision with the external voices of her influences, patrons, sponsors, and benefactors.
The video for “Just Dance,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, has as its basic premise a party populated by ghosts (of a sort) resurrected from their slumber by the power of Gaga’s music. It is the most chaotic and raw of Gaga’s videos, and relies on a great deal of handheld camerawork; it lacks much of the precise coordination and attention to detail present in much of her other work. Working from the premise of the song (which features the lines “I love this record baby but I can’t see straight anymore”), it’s designed to be drunken, messy, and fun. Yet in the midst of this out-of-control setting, Gaga maintains control of one thing at all costs: her personal style. Her main outfit in the video (featuring the iconic lightning bolt on the face) is a take on David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” character; Gaga claims the gender-bending Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and the glam rock style as primary influences for her own work. As we’ll see across the rest of her work, Gaga is shameless in quoting and referencing her predecessors and influences; she takes their inspiration and blends it all together to form her own style.
Note the strong presence of Colby O’Donis (her collaborator) and Akon (her patron) in this video. The two artists make a strong showing in the video, and their depiction is perhaps the most conservative—even patriarchal—imagery on display in Gaga’s work to date. While Gaga is an active force of change, rushing from room to room and constantly in motion, O’Donis and Akon are both conservatively attired and stationary. They remain seated on the couch in a throne-like manner, occupying a position of power surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women. This notion of positions of power is returned to in the videos for “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi”; however, in those videos Gaga inverts the image and claims the power position for her own.
Where the main thrust of “Just Dance” is Gaga invading a space and bringing life to a deadened and initially resistant populace, the video for “Beautiful Dirty Rich” depicts a small cadre already in line with Lady Gaga. Like the Haus of Gaga itself, the backup dancers form a core nucleus of Gagaesque style, reflecting and complementing her costumes and mimicking her movements. Once again, “Beautiful Dirty Rich” shows signs of external forces bearing down on Gaga: the video was timed to help promote the second season of the ABC television show Dirty Sexy Money, and the luxurious penthouse apartment in the video is the main set for the show. But Gaga, continuing to work with Matsoukas, makes the space her own. Rather than the airy, bright, opulent space depicted in the show, Gaga and her backup dancers march through a darkened, claustrophobic environment. The heavy use of frontal lighting and low camera angles help contribute to a sense of intruding and commandeering the space; with their angular dance moves and the burning, eating, and wanton destruction of paper currency, Gaga and her crew are like frenetic robots invading the domain of the rich and claiming it for themselves.
This second video also displays the most common motif in Gaga’s work—the eyes. Perhaps playing on the “eyes as windows” trope, a main feature of the Gagaesque style involves the occlusion, marking, or obscuring of the eyes; most of her outfits include this, beginning with the dark jewel-encrusted shades on the album cover for The Fame. The eyes are such critical parts of establishing a visual identity, and in destroying or hiding them Gaga becomes a cipher and a dangerously unknown force. Many of her dance moves play around the eyes, such as the “peek-a-boo” style moves employed in “Just Dance” or “Paparazzi.” Other devices include the masks and meshes used in “Poker Face” and “LoveGame”, and sunglasses that show up in almost everything—in the video for “Poker Face” Lady Gaga deploys a pair of video-screen glasses that transform the eyes from instruments of perception to instruments of transmission. In “Beautiful Dirty Rich,” Gaga and her backup dancers wear striking bands of makeup around the eyes, while she alternatively obscures and accentuates her eyes by fanning around hundred-dollar bills from the piles around her (when she isn’t literally consuming them by eating them).
“Poker Face” is the last video in Gaga’s early period, and as such features many elements of birth and transition; the opening features her emerging from the water, flanked by a pair of Great Danes—a pop culture Aphrodite rising from the foam. She also reveals herself by prying off a mask and tossing it away; timed with the release of The Fame LP and benefiting from a larger budget, “Poker Face” displays the conception and realization of a fully-formed Lady Gaga: the fusion of technology, fashion, and pop culture. Once again, sponsorship and cross-promotion are factors; the mansion in the video was provided by the gambling Web site Bwin.com, and their logo is featured prominently in one shot. But Lady Gaga, working this time with director Ray Kay, again commandeers the space and transforms it into a house for Gaga. One segment of the video features Gaga wandering around the mansion’s pool while she is surrounded by statuesque mannequins—mechanical abstractions of people that are frozen in the poses that will be adopted by her backup dancers and the crowds in subsequent scenes. If “Just Dance” showed Gaga injecting a dose of chaotic avant-garde culture into an unsuspecting populace, and “Beautiful Dirty Rich” showed Gaga with a small core of like-minded artists, “Poker Face” represents the fruition of Lady Gaga (and a pop culture movement) infecting the populace: the crowd has adopted Gaga’s style as their own, and everyone moves to Gaga’s beat.
Just as the visual iconography of the Gagaesque style begins to consolidate in this video, the themes and questions that Lady Gaga wishes to consider begin to snap into focus as well. Beneath the ever-thumping beat and the stutter-stepping lyrics of “Poker Face” is a dangerous sexual undertone; a write-up of one of her live performances noted that “the song is about her personal experience with bisexuality. To an enthusiastic crowd reaction, she stated the song is about being with a man but fantasizing about a woman; hence, the man must read her ’Poker Face.” When considering pop stars (especially female ones) and their central role in such a visual medium as the music video, it’s impossible to escape discussion of things like the “male gaze” and female sexuality—it’s almost a given that pop music sells sex and that mainstream artists have images designed to titillate and to put their sexuality on display. Most of them are supposedly positioned as vixens or sex goddesses, but the artificiality makes the whole thing unsettling; as these women put their bodies on display, it’s evident that they are partially or wholly ceding control over their own images.
Madonna, the originator of many of the techniques used in the past quarter-century of pop music, attempted to subvert the concept by pushing her sexual display to the limits in order to seize control of it. Gaga takes a page from her playbook; although she is notorious for eschewing pants with her outfits, she pays meticulous attention to her image. Her work in fusing of influences from male glam rockers (many who played with gender boundaries themselves) and the bleeding edge of avant-garde fashion creates a conceptual image of Gaga that is not primarily designed for another’s titillation, but for the fulfillment of her own sexual expression. Lady Gaga commented in one interview that “I’m not trying to make your dick hard the way other girls are. I’m trying to teach your dick to get hard when it looks at other things. I love Grace Jones and David Bowie because they played with gender, with what ’sexy’ means.”
The imagery used in “Poker Face” matches that: the futuristic sci-fi styling (that includes sculpted shoulders, bold lines, and video screens replacing the eyes) connotes an alien sexuality. Even when she employs a provocative concept such as a game of strip poker, Gaga is the orchestrator rather than a helpless body put on display. In the most blatant displays of sexuality in the video, it’s the man who is passive and practically naked while Gaga approaches him from a position of power. To get a real sense of the stark difference in presentation, contrast “Poker Face” with more traditionally-styled displays of female sexuality, such as in the music videos for Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” or Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty”.
2. “Brown Eyes”: Lady Gaga’s use of the eye motif. From top, left to right: (a) “Just Dance” (b) “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (c) “Poker Face” (d) The album cover to The Fame (e) “Eh, Eh (Nothing I Can Say)” (f) “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” (g) “The Fame: Part One” (h) “LoveGame” (i) “Paparazzi”
Developing the Vision. When an auteur develops her visual vocabulary, it is important to define its edges. Gaga explores one extreme in the video for “Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say),” but for the other edge, she steps away from being tied to any one specific song and works in the realm of short films for “The Fame: Part One” and “Who Shot Candy Warhol”—bursts of visual expression that develop the Gagaesque style as a whole. “Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say)” as a track is an intriguing case: rather than the tech-assisted sexy-androgynous dance pop that dominates a good chunk of The Fame, it and its sister tracks “Brown Eyes” and “Again Again” are evidence of a stripped-down, simpler, sincere Gaga. As such, the accompanying video also serves as a contrast to her body of work—now that the Lady Gaga persona has been fully established, it’s time to fill in the negative spaces and the shadows. The video doesn’t say that Lady Gaga is a character being played by Stefani Germanotta, but it does remind us of the essential humanity of the artist. What’s striking about it is how much it feels like Lady Gaga is playacting: the video has a nostalgic, dreamlike tone. Set in a stylized pastel 1950s Little Italy (and perhaps playing on a version of Ms. Germanotta’s own roots growing up in New York), the video plays heavily with stereotypical and historical shorthand as it displays mustached chefs, macho men in wife beaters, cute Vespas, and spaghetti and meatballs.
Working with veteran music video director Joseph Kahn, Lady Gaga mashes all these elements to create the feeling of a fashion dollhouse. She even plays house and engages in activities that, while not necessarily feminized, are at least domestic: cooking meals for her man and doing his laundry. But the tasks feel unreal, as if she is going through the abstracted motions—this is reinforced by the fact that she sings and addresses the viewer as she’s doing them. She’s not in the moment, but is instead playing a feminized role in a dreamlike space; this quality is accentuated by the bright and blown-out color palette, and the numerous shots of Gaga in bed or sleeping. The cumulative effect is that it asserts the Lady Gaga of the previous videos to be the real one, and the Gaga in “Eh Eh” is a character that she is playing. There’s a definite sense of progression in her work to this point; “Eh Eh” couldn’t have been her first video, because it relies on its contrast to the foundation laid by her previous videos to make complete sense. By showing us this playact, it reinforces the other elements of the Gagaesque style.
Music videos are not the sole component of Lady Gaga’s visual palette; aside from the heavy emphasis on fashion and costume that turns her every public appearance into an artistic display, “The Fame: Part One” and “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” are works unbound from the demands of the music video format. These short films allow Gaga to pursue more challenging lines of expression and help her to better elucidate some of her core themes. “The Fame: Part One” is a short designed to promote the release of the eponymous LP; it uses a medley of Gaga songs as its soundtrack. Directed by Constellation Jones, the film has the clearest narrative threads of any Gaga work to this point. It follows the travails of Lady Gaga and her backup dancers as they rob a jewelry vendor, explore the urban landscape, and face betrayal and reunion. The film is heavily inspired by the French New Wave: all the dialogue is overdubbed in French, and it plays with a fractured timeline, unexplained character actions, jumps in time and space, and heavy use of hand-held cameras in public places. It’s telling how many of these stylistic elements have been incorporated into contemporary music videos in general, but in this context Gaga and Jones strip the structure bare and play with it. It’s also a polyglot film: besides the French dub, the film features burned-in subtitles in both English and Chinese—Gaga’s thinking globally.
This concept of reaching the whole world is important; Gaga announces at the beginning, “Together we can conquer the world.” In fact, one can consider “The Fame: Part One” as a manifesto of sorts, laying out all of the major themes Gaga considers important. In one shot, Gaga’s video glasses proclaim that “Pop music will never be lowbrow.” This film also features one of the first explicit mentions of the Haus of Gaga, which conceived the “art and technology” on display in the film; the most prominent example of this is the “discostick,” one of Lady Gaga’s most iconic props. The discostick is cane-like and has a beacon of light on one end, usually making it the brightest thing in the frame and giving it a somewhat magical quality. In “The Fame: Part One” it is used as a weapon and force of transgression: Gaga draws it out like a sword from a sheath and uses it to smash a display case. This sense that Gaga is a trespassing alien force unleashed on the populace runs throughout the film; with their distinctive costumes and robotic synchronous movement, she and her dancers stand out from the drab urban landscape and draw the attention of all the relatively normal people around them. They tear a path through a marketplace, accosting and discomfiting everyone in their way.
Death imagery is a powerful motif in much of Gaga’s work, and it is on full display in “The Fame: Part One.” Gaga hangs one of her dancers with a length of rope, an image that is revisited in the video for “Paparazzi.” That same dancer suffers a symbolic death when Gaga discovers that she is a traitor—the enemies of Lady Gaga are “bigots,” as that is one of the epithets she hurls when visiting her punishment upon the dancer. The nature of this punishment is to strip her naked; Gaga yells, “Get the shoes, the jacket… Get everything!” To be stripped of one’s clothing and costume is to be denied an identity. Gaga eventually reunites with the woman, but on strange terms. In the ending to the film, Gaga’s dancers are reduced to the status of props; Gaga uses one as the stand for her keyboard, and while she embraces the other and lights her cigarette, the dancer is frozen in place like a mannequin. This hints at one of the potentially more alienating themes embedded in Gaga’s work: pop culture is a monstrous assimilating force, and for people to have any permanence in the face of it, they must become empty vehicles for its transmission. Lady Gaga may be sacrificing her identity on her own terms; but like every other pop star, she is still sacrificing her identity.
This concept is further explored in “Who Shot Candy Warhol?”—a series of short films used as introductions during Lady Gaga’s live performances. Also known as “The Crevette Films” and “The Heart/The Brain/The Face,” the series of films owes a great stylistic debt to the work of Andy Warhol. Lady Gaga’s body of work elucidates and expands on many of his thoughts on the nature of fame and the role of pop culture; it’s only natural that she would look to him as a major influence. The visuals of “Who Shot Candy Warhol” are designed to recall many elements of Warhol’s work, down to the appearance of being shot on grainy, aging 1960s film stock or recorded on distorted reused videotape; in “The Heart,” Gaga gives herself an all-black outfit and cropped platinum hair, sculpting herself in Warhol’s image. Other homages to Warhol include relying on minimalist settings to the point of abstraction and investing a great deal of attention on repetitive actions such as taking off gloves or brushing hair (which itself is quoting a scene from Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls).
The three films of “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” are all slices of the same subject, revolving around the “beautiful monster” of Pop claiming various parts of Gaga’s character (the Candy Warhol of the title); in each, she engages in a dialogue with a mysterious male figure who probes her with questions. Both speak in a robotic monotone, divesting their speech of emotion. Gaga tells the man that Pop ate her heart; but instead of feeling empty, she feels free. She tells him that Pop ate her brain and replaced it with a machine. In the final film, Gaga tells the man that Pop wanted her face; after she introduces herself, the man asks her for her real name. But she tells him that she doesn’t understand the question—she has no identity except for what Pop has given her. Each film then ends with a barrage of images leading up to Gaga’s entrance on stage for the concert. In keeping with one of the main Gagaesque motifs, in each film Lady Gaga blocks her eyes in some fashion: with sunglasses, with a hairbrush, or with a mask of pantyhose—the last one distorting her entire face and literally removing her identity.
The most intriguing element of “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” is how Lady Gaga is able to locate such a strong avant-garde tendency in something as supposedly mainstream as a pop concert. Every stylistic element in these films is purposefully designed to be alienating; they are filled with obtuse imagery and abstract dialogue, and the countdown to Gaga’s arrival consists of snippets and flashes of her disembodied eyes, lips, and face that strobe through garish purple filters or that are chopped into an epileptic barrage of shots. At the risk of making a broad generalization about Lady Gaga’s audience, it seems like this is the type of visual art that most people would not seek out on their own; they are only able to properly experience it because of the context Lady Gaga puts it into. Whereas “Eh Eh” only makes complete sense when taken as a contrast to the rest of Gaga’s work, “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” only makes complete sense when taken as an example of Gaga’s artistic tendencies pushed to the extreme. It’s a statement made by an auteur seizing the reins; at the end of “The Heart,” she announces “Revolution is coming. And I want—we want—you deserve the future. My name is Lady Gaga, and this is my Haus.”
3. “Lady No More Gaga”: Death imagery in Gaga’s work and beyond. From top, left to right: (a) “Just Dance” (b) “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (c) “The Fame: Part One” (d) “Paparazzi” (e) “Paparazzi” (f) Melanie Pullen’s “Half Prada (Hanging Series)”, part of High Fashion Crime Scenes
Expanding Horizons. When the auteur has received some measure of popular or critical acclaim, and when she is experienced enough to wield the tools of her craft with confidence, she enters into a distinctly new period of her career. The primary pressures are no longer external (although commercial demands may never go away), but instead come from within. The auteur must work to create something that elucidates and builds on what has come before while still being compelling as an individual work in its own right. An auteur’s vision must be continually reproduced in new and interesting ways while deepening and widening the stylistic palette. Lady Gaga’s most recent work, which include the videos for “LoveGame,” “Paparazzi,” and “Bad Romance,” all show the artist more deeply exploring her core themes while adding flourishes and layers to her signature. In these videos, Gaga is fearless in synthesizing her influences and forebears, assimilating them into the Haus of Gaga’s framework.
Directed by Joseph Kahn back-to-back with “Eh Eh,” “LoveGame” continues the thematic trend of Gaga as invader, starting with her gang of dancers charging through Times Square; they heft a manhole cover branded with the words “Haus of Gaga.” The sanitized and glittery New York of today is contrasted with the deliberately anachronistic and raw gang outfits straight out of the New York of the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the video is a direct homage to the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which was a display of a pop musician and his dancers flouting boundaries and challenging authority. In “LoveGame” this challenging of authority ranges from jumping subway turnstiles to Gaga co-opting the police with the sheer force of her sexuality. While every Lady Gaga video features numerous costume changes, in “LoveGame” there are three distinct fashion styles used by Gaga to illustrate specific elements of the video’s core theme of sexual expression and dominance. The first is used in the opening of the video, as Gaga brings her gang of dancers all around her. Dressed in light colors to make her stand out from the crowd, she is also hooded and hides her eyes behind a fence-like mesh. Lady Gaga wields her discostick like a scepter, and all eyes follow its bright light as she waves it around. The effect of the whole ensemble is to make Gaga seem ethereal or even magical; although she is surrounded by athletic, towering men, the diminutive Gaga is clearly the dominant figure in the space.
The second style is employed outside the main narrative and intercut throughout the video: Gaga is engaged in a liaison with two men on a subway bench, and she is fully nude save for being covered with shiny makeup and jewels. As in the couch shots from “Poker Face,” Gaga claims the power position. Even though she is naked and ostensibly vulnerable, she remains the dominant force; the men have the words “Love” and “Fame” shaved into their hair, and they are passive—almost symbolic—playthings for Gaga. Like the “Haus of Gaga” inscribed into the manhole cover at the top of the video, Gaga is physically carving her presence and style into the world. The makeup gives her an angelic or alien appearance; she is transcending concepts of shame or modesty.
Lady Gaga transforms into the third style during a ride on the subway (the symbolic meaning of trains speeding through tunnels being almost hilariously blatant). She goes from a light-colored outfit to the leather and dark colors of her gang, taking on the markers of counterculture and subversion before her confrontation with the police. Her dance moves incorporate furiously pounding her fists on the hood of a car, almost challenging authority to come and get her. Authority responds and the police swoop in, apprehending the members of her gang. But Gaga gets the upper hand, and the officers become enthralled with her. The most subversive element of the video is almost subtle enough to go unnoticed; consider that most representations of homosexuality are still tainted with a sense of “otherness.” When female homosexuality is deployed in pop music, it is usually as a source of titillation for male viewers (such as in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”) or purely for its shock value (such as the kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna). However in “LoveGame” not only is Gaga fawned over by both a male and a female cop, the quick cuts and flowing camera movement between each liaison give both equal weight; the man and the woman are practically interchangeable in Gaga’s eyes, and gender is merely another boundary to transcend in her sexual expression. This idea continues into the final section of the video, where Gaga pays homage to Michael Jackson by appropriating his iconic crotch-grabbing dance moves. Gaga not only uses the move forcefully and aggressively, she incorporates a fist held high in the air, an unmistakable signifier of power and authority. “LoveGame” displays a Lady Gaga fully confident in her expressive sexuality, able to use it as another tool in her stylistic palette.
The video for “Paparazzi” explores themes that could be considered the flipside of those in “LoveGame”: the nature of mortality, and using fame as a bulwark against death. “Paparazzi” is the collision of fashion, sex, style, and death; to elucidate these themes Lady Gaga draws on two major sources of inspiration—classic film and fashion photography, both of which are able to eke out a sort of permanence from seemingly transient forms. “Paparazzi” is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who is known for his own transgressive and gender-bending work, such as the video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” His collaboration with Gaga is an extremely ambitious work: it’s an epic that clocks in at almost eight minutes and features an extended introduction. The video’s narrative is seemingly simple—Gaga is almost killed by her boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), but survives and murders him in order to catapult herself back into fame—but it’s filled with layers of references and encoded meaning.
Gaga draws on a rich filmic tradition to inform the work. The flamboyant opening titles and shots of a sprawling, empty estate recall Xanadu from Citizen Kane; like that film, which had as a core theme the attempt to understand a person from the exterior and the secondhand, “Paparazzi” also uses newspapers to convey plot information, and even uses the simple act of reading newspapers to symbolically convey distance between a man and a woman. Kubrick’s hand is also at work here: the same blend of alienation, sexual transgression, and mortality evident in Eyes Wide Shut is on display. Gaga’s dance moves in the video exploit the dynamic tension between sex and death, often being unclear whether she is representing the throes of death or the throes of orgasm. After her near-death experience, Gaga is confined to a wheelchair, barely able to control her own body and wearing thick rounded sunglasses—she’s Doctor Strangelove. At several points in the video, Gaga even employs the so-called “Kubrick stare,” the low gaze looking up from below the brow line and often coupled with bared teeth that Kubrick often employed to signal intensity and derangement. But if there’s any director that Lady Gaga is consciously channeling, it is most certainly Alfred Hitchcock; for a brunette-reinvented-into-a-blonde making a video about sex, murder, and voyeurism, it would almost be a crime not to. (As if to assuage concerns about who had Hitchcock on the brain, Gaga’s “Bad Romance” features the lines “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick/Want you in my Rear Window, baby it’s sick.”) Gaga’s near-death by being pushed off the side of a building consciously recalls Vertigo; the point is hammered home by the use of spiral imagery in shots of staircases and with the dreamlike shot of Gaga slowly falling through what looks like a card from a Saul Bass title sequence.
While Lady Gaga’s fall is referencing Hitchcock, fashion blogger Superqueen points out Gaga’s death pose is also quite similar to Helmut Newton’s photograph “Central Park West, New York, 1978.” This is just one of many uses of fashion and photography; others include a robotic outfit and helmet by Thierry Mugler and Mickey Mouse-style sunglasses by Jeremy Scott. The most prominent fashion inspiration for “Paparazzi” comes from works like that of Melanie Pullen, whose photo series High Fashion Crime Scenes juxtaposes elements of high fashion and couture against grisly death scenes such as hangings, drownings, and shootings. Recreations of these photographs are interspersed throughout the video, and the contorted death-poses of the bodies seem no more than fashion poses frozen in time or extremely lifelike mannequins. There is an interesting tension when attempting to ascribe a concept of artistry to death, and in both High Fashion Crime Scenes and “Paparazzi” aesthetic beauty is written on the bodies on the dead, giving them a sense of permanence. After all, the beautiful deaths are the memorable ones; as the paparazzi crowd around Lady Gaga’s broken and bleeding body, they call out, “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Her murder of her boyfriend is the work of art she creates in order to catapult back into stardom. All these elements support the main narrative thrust of the video, which is about the demands of fame and the metamorphosis required to meet them. At the beginning, Gaga’s character is heartfelt, trusting, and vulnerable; her resistance to the demands of the cameras and the media gets her killed. She is reborn into a robotic, emotionless shell, and in the end she revels in the attention she gets from her murderous act—her painted-on purple tears stand out against the black-and-white photography. For all the glitz and the glamour, “Paparazzi” is a meditation on the dark undercurrent that runs through the monsters known as Fame and Pop.
This concept of metamorphosis is an important theme to Gaga, and the main one she is considering for her re-release album, The Fame Monster. She states:
”[W]e talked about monsters and how, I believe, that innately we’re all born with the monsters already inside of us—I guess in Christianity they call it original sin—the prospect that we will, at some point, sin in our lives, and we will, at some point, have to face our own demons, and they’re already inside of us. So we talked about growth, and that led us into this kind of scientific space, and we started talking about evolution and the evolution of humanity and how we begin as one thing, and we become another.”
With The Fame Monster, Gaga is beginning as one thing and attempting to become another; this is made especially clear with her latest work, the music video for “Bad Romance.” Although it’s evident from frame one that this is a Lady Gaga video—the glasses, the Great Dane, the costumes—in “Bad Romance” Gaga surges forward and claims new ground.
The premise of “Bad Romance” (directed by Francis Lawrence) is human trafficking, and with it Lady Gaga makes literal the unspoken plight of the pop star—being transformed into an empty vessel and reshaped into a commodity to be put on display for her audience. Metamorphosis is key; Gaga and her dancers emerge from cocoon-like coffins and are covered from head to toe in pupa-like full body suits. Elements recalling avant-garde art film such as the Cremaster cycle (and which were hinted at in “Paparazzi”) come out in full force here; Gaga and her cohort take on animalistic and alien form-distorting costumes, and their dance moves are not acrobatic but both hyper-precise and off-kilter. They take on bestial aspects as they perform for their half-human, half-mechanical all-male audience. (The main antagonist even looks like a cross between Matthew Barney and an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen.) White-clad captors shepherd Lady Gaga through the “Bath Haus of Gaga”; the stark and empty white cube resembles the final destination of Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What’s striking is that none of the references is necessarily as direct as they have been in other works. It’s more as if Gaga has tapped into the same thematic space as these other artists, and has pulled out similar resonant images. It’s the sign of a confident hand creating a more syncretic work of art. Even when Gaga deploys signature imagery, it’s used in new and intriguing ways. For example, the eye motif is again seen in sunglasses—she wears her Versace 676s and a unique contraption constructed out of razor blades. She uses jewel-encrusted veils and masks, and there are even shots of Gaga where she has extremely dilated pupils and enlarged eyes, giving her a bizarre neotenous doll-like look. But the most potent eye imagery is only in the video for a few brief seconds, and in it we see a Lady Gaga we haven’t seen before. She’s in extreme close-up: no makeup, no masks, and no glasses. She stares directly into the camera and then away with a plaintive look. She isn’t playing; a tear rolls down her face. Is this the real her? Have we reached peak Gaga?
Of course, the final seconds of the video are of Lady Gaga lounging in bed next to a charred skeleton, smoking a cigarette as sparks shoot out of her explosive brassiere. There’s more to see from Gaga yet, and she’s more than happy to show us.
Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.