The Teresa Jusino Experience

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Pop Goes Teresa: Loving Lady Gaga Part 2 – Camille Paglia and the Death of Reason

It’s been a while since my first Lady Gaga post!  In it, I promised two more: one about how Gaga is a role model, and one about why she’s important to pop music and the art world.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while now, in deference to other things that needed doing/writing, but a couple of days ago I came across this article by Camille Paglia called “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” In it, Ms. Paglia pretty much blames Gaga for all of society’s ills.  This article forced me to come up for air enough for me to write part two of this series.

Paglia: Although she presents herself as the clarion voice of all the freaks and misfits of life, there is little evidence that she ever was one. Her upbringing was comfortable and eventually affluent, and she attended the same upscale Manhattan private school as Paris and Nicky Hilton. There is a monumental disconnect between Gaga’s melodramatic self-portrayal as a lonely, rebellious, marginalised artist and the powerful corporate apparatus that bankrolled her makeover and has steamrollered her songs into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere.

Jusino: Because…there are no such things as misfits in the world of the rich?  Because if your parents make a certain income, you’re exempt from being an outcast?  I think the fact that she was cozying up to performance artists and performing at places like New York’s The Bitter End when she was 16 or 17 while her peers were busy worrying about being trendy and going to parties speaks for itself.  Gaga was never a “marginalized artist.”  It was the art community that welcomed her.  What she was was a marginalized rich girl, who didn’t share the same concerns and goals as many of her peers.  That’s what set her apart and made her a misfit.  It was her drive that allowed her to seek solace elsewhere.  Let’s not forget, Paris Hilton has corporate money backing her up, too.  She also tried making an album, remember?  You don’t?  Exactly. The point is, it’s easy to say that Gaga’s success is entirely due to her social status, but that’s just not the case.  Just as her talent and ambition set her apart from her peers in high school, they were also the things that allowed her to play the piano at 4, that got her into Tisch at NYU, that pushed her to forgo college and pursue the life of a performer instead, and that allowed her artistic vision for herself to get bigger and bigger.  The “disconnect” between her misfithood and her family’s finances is not so “monumental” as Paglia would have you believe.

Paglia: Lady Gaga is a manufactured personality, and a recent one at that. Photos of Stefani Germanotta just a few years ago show a bubbly brunette with a glowing complexion. The Gaga of world fame, however, with her heavy wigs and giant sunglasses (rudely worn during interviews) looks either simperingly doll-like or ghoulish, without a trace of spontaneity. Every public appearance, even absurdly at airports where most celebrities want to pass incognito, has been lavishly scripted in advance with a flamboyant outfit and bizarre hairdo assembled by an invisible company of elves.

Jusino: What Ms. Paglia fails to acknowledge is that the personality is manufactured by Gaga.  Those airport moments are scripted…by Gaga.  That’s the difference between a corporate pop star and an artist.  She’s no Justin Bieber, given careful, sanitized talking points by a publicist for the teen magazines.  She is someone who, according to an interview she did with Rolling Stone, studies pop culture like an academic, going over magazine articles with a highlighter, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and using that study to carve out her place in it.  She has turned her whole life into a performance art piece, and will rarely leave the house not as Lady Gaga.  And what is wrong with that?  What’s the inherent value of going incognito at an airport?  If a celebrity wants to maintain privacy, that is of course their right, but Paglia assumes that that is the only respectable way to be.  I think a lot of people do, which seems terribly hypocritical to me.  We want our celebrities to be accessible and buy all the magazines with their pictures in them, but then we criticize celebrities if they enjoy it too much.  Or, in the case of Lady Gaga, when they manipulate that fascination for their own ends.

Paglia: Furthermore, despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?

Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…

Jusino: I find it interesting that Paglia criticizes Lady Gaga for not being a pop star the way she thinks a pop star should be.  She calls her asexual as if that’s a bad thing.  She sounds like a male chauvanist, demeaning a talented musician for “not being hot enough.”  All that remains is for Ms. Paglia to start screaming “SHOW US YOUR TITS!”  It doesn’t take talent to be a pop star who’s sexually appealing in the teeny-bopper, non-threatening way that you’re used to.  But Gaga has said in numerous interviews that the covers of her albums and many of her photos are deliberately asexual, because she wants young girls to know that you don’t HAVE to sell yourself as cheesecake to be a pop star.  And when she chooses to wear less clothing and be more sexual, she is sexual in a powerful way that she OWNS.  It’s not about kowtowing and hoping men find her sexy.  It’s about knowing that she’s sexy and just BEING it.

And yes, I think this does point to a shift in how “Generation Gaga” is relating to sex, but it’s certainly not the “death” of it.  Today’s young women aren’t afraid to not only ask for sex, but demand it.  Women think of their sexuality not only in terms of men, but in terms of themselves and in terms of each other.  They express their sexuality not just as a means to an end (ie: attracting a man to get married and have a baby), but for its own sake.  Because it’s something of which they should be proud.  Because it’s one of many things that makes them powerful.   Gaga is a role model, because she encourages sexuality without making it about pleasing others.  Your sexuality is something that’s yours – to cherish, flaunt, or keep to yourself as you see fit.  It’s interesting that a feminist like Camille Paglia can’t appreciate that about Gaga.  Would she rather Gaga just put on the “innocent yet devilish” act that made Britney Spears famous?  And did Ms. Paglia have a problem with “Oops, I Did it Again?”

Paglia: Peeping dourly through all that is Gaga’s limited range of facial expressions. Her videos repeatedly thrust that blank, lugubrious face at the camera and us; it’s creepy and coercive. Marlene and Madonna gave the impression, true or false, of being pansexual. Gaga, for all her writhing and posturing, is asexual. Going off to the gym in broad daylight, as Gaga recently did, dressed in a black bustier, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels isn’t sexy – it’s sexually dysfunctional.

Jusino: This paragraph just made me angry.  I have nothing much to say about it except how dare you, Ms. Paglia.  You don’t like Lady Gaga’s face, so she doesn’t deserve success?  She’s not pansexual enough for you, so that means she’s inauthentic?  Wearing costumes whenever you damn well please is a sign of sexual dysfunction?!  Judging a woman’s worth based on how appealing she is/isn’t sexually?  Again, how dare you.

Paglia: Compare Gaga’s insipid songs, with their nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables, to the title and hypnotic refrain of the first Madonna song and video to bring her attention on MTV, Burning Up, with its elemental fire imagery and its then-shocking offer of fellatio.

Jusino: I don’t think Paglia has actually listened to a Lady Gaga song all the way through.  She, as is the way of most people who deem themselves above pop culture, thinks she’s gleaned all there is to be gleaned after a superficial listen and hasn’t gotten past the “nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables” to listen to the actual lyrics.  “Poker Face” – about expressing the fact that she fantasizes about women, while reassuring her boyfriend that she still loves him.  “The Fame” -actually, a song about how superficial fame is.  “We live for the fame” is followed by “isn’t it a shame?”  “Telephone” – well, you read about that in my last article.  “Bad Romance” – is about wanting a passionate relationship from someone who, up until now, has only been a friend. “Alejandro”– about a straight woman wanting the guy who says he loves her to be true to himself and go after the guys he wants instead.  These are not insipid themes and topics, and if Paglia isn’t willing to do the work to listen past the dance beat, that’s her problem.

Lastly, re: Madonna – yes, she IS a feminist icon.  She has a body of work and a career that can’t be rivaled.  But let’s remember that her first single was “Holiday”, a song that’s about, um, going on vacation.  And, um, how that’s awesome.  Were those lyrics insipid?

Ms. Paglia seems to long for a kind of pop star that has outlived its usefulness.  Lady Gaga is a role model for young women precisely for every reason she gives to try and tear her down.  Perhaps you should just stay out of the way.  The next wave of feminism knows what it wants and what it’s doing.


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  1. Angela

    I like her music, but I’m not a Gaga fan. Having said that, I didn’t really agree with the Paglia article either because she just did not know what she was talking about at all. It’s like all she knows about Gaga came from gossip sites, and we know how reliable they are. She also kept negating her own arguments, like how she went on and on about Gaga’s manufactured persona and then criticized her manufactured persona as if it were her real self. Her blathering about Gaga’s lack of depth in lyrics is what really proved that she has not paid enough attention to Lady Gaga to write an article on her. Boo Paglia! Yay Teresa!

  2. Oh – and in addition, I’m SO happy with her messages about the treatment of gays in the military. I love the fact she openly and passionately supports the gay community.

  3. Rachel H.

    Great article, Teresa. I loved the way you countered Paglia’s opinions on Lady Gaga. I’m admittedly not a big Gaga fan, but I like some of her stuff. More than that, I appreciate Lady Gaga for what she is, a musician AND a performance artist — the latter which seems to be lost on Ms. Paglia.

    I don’t know about Paglia’s idea on feminism and sexual dysfunction … I just don’t think she GETS Lady Gaga. Camille Paglia’s views on Gaga and her societal impact seem terribly askew, somehow. Actually… I guess Ms. Paglia just annoys me — she annoyed me years ago when I read her stuff & saw her in interviews, and she annoys me just as much now.

  4. Amen! 🙂 I’m so glad someone else has noticed that Gaga approaches her image with the passion of a grad student, highlighting, planning, and crafting every aspect so that it communicates EXACTLY what she wants it to – yet, like literature or a Dadaist work of art, leaves it open for interpretation. FREX: I hadn’t gotten the secret lesbian desire theme from “Poker Face,” but I totally got it in “So Happy I Could Die;” OTOH, I interpreted “Bad Romance” as a satire on those people who go after over-idealized, impossible, and drama-for-the-sake-of-drama-because-that’s-cool relationships that TV and film feed us.

    Great post! I don’t get to comment as often as I like, but I enjoy all your writing! 🙂

  5. Kristen

    This is beautifully articulated. Camille Paglia often makes me wonder why she’s termed a feminist. Most of her icons, seem to adhere to the standard of the male gaze. I agree, she doesn’t seem to have any concept of what Gaga is DOING, but because she doesn’t understand/agree/like what she’s doing, Paglia’s default seems to be saying it’s WRONG. I admit, this makes me gnash my teeth. Thank you for a clear, concise, and reasoned rebuttal.

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