Occupy, Gaga

Under review:
J. Jack Halberstam. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2012.

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The stardom of Lady Gaga has stimulated academic studies in ways that few celebrities typically have (aside from icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson), including an entire journal called Gaga Stigmata, edited volumes like The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays, Mathieu Deflem’s “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” course at the University of South Carolina,1 and my own Journal of Popular Culture article on the trope of monstrosity on which much of Gaga’s cultural project is based.2 A central concern of this research has always been the relationship between the anxieties of the present day and the works of the pop superstar, upheld as she is by a powerful record label and a fan base brought together via social media. But the initial phase of scholarship focused on Gaga’s cultural project–made up mostly of interpretive readings of her performances and videos–is gradually giving way to a new wave of writing, one engaged in more thorough contextualizations of her work in broader social crises and the responses of Occupy movements and others engaged in imagining alternative futures.

The September 2012 publication of J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal can be seen as a point of departure for this new phase of scholarship, one that more strongly articulates the connections among social ruptures, change movements like Occupy, and the creative practices of Gaga and other performance artists. There is perhaps no one better to launch this new wave than a central figure in queer studies and cultural studies like Halberstam. Both passionate and serious, her Gaga Feminism is also often humorous and unafraid to draw links to romantic comedies, animated films like Finding Nemo and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and television shows like The Wire. Halberstam even relays conversations with her children as well as her candid reactions to students who have taken her gender courses. She effectively uses these stories to illustrate how scholars are as ensnared in the maelstrom of meanings that drive mass culture as non-academics. We are therefore also deeply invested in the emancipatory possibilities of the new framework that she envisions.

Halberstam characterizes gaga feminism as “a form of political expression that masquerades as naive nonsense but that actually participates in big and meaningful forms of critique. It finds inspiration in the silly and the marginal, the childish and the outlandish. Gaga feminism grapples with what cannot yet be pronounced and what still takes the form of gibberish, as we wait for new social forms to give our gaga babbling meaning.”3 This notion elegantly captures the etymological power of a household word that has been invested with new meanings as a household name, while at the same time raising questions about the need to actively generate new forms. Situating Gaga alongside Marina Abramović, Shulamith Firestone, and Yoko Ono, Halberstam sites Gaga as the locus for new revolutionary aspirations and efforts to loosen the strictures on individual identity. As she writes, “gaga feminism will locate Lady Gaga as merely the most recent marker of the withering away of old social models of desire, gender, and sexuality, and as a channel for potent new forms of relation, intimacy, technology, and embodiment.”4 Gaga is a cultural space and stage being occupied by those who demand and create new models of social relations. But Gaga is herself an occupier of spaces and stages from which transformation might not be expected, especially the glass and steel towers of media empires. Tampering with corporate logics from within can go hand in hand with social movement demands from below.

Halberstam’s reading of Gaga as a way to promote a radical rethinking of the ‘ties that bind’ can be aligned with other research on her enterprise, including my own interest in Gaga’s relationships to New York subcultures, an area that is increasingly acknowledged as important to understanding her impact. Describing her status as “an adopted national hero” in Japan, the recent Vogue cover story noted, “There’s also the fact that the spirit of the Club Kid, that early-nineties New York City invention (a moment that clearly left a mark on LG), has never died in Tokyo.”5 In addition, Marvin J. Taylor at NYU’s Fales Library has begun to curate a Lady Gaga Collection. The school is an appropriate setting given Gaga’s time at NYU Tisch and what Taylor sees as the discernible influence of NYU scholars from the concretist movement in poetry. In fact, Taylor curated an exhibition at NYU about concretist poetry inspired by lyrics in Gaga’s song “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion.”6 As Taylor told me, Gaga is “such a product of NYU,” given his belief that her familiarity with concretist themes can be directly tied to her coursework at Tisch. Understanding Gaga’s links to these strains of thought–something best accomplished by asking her directly–will shed light on the ultimate potential of a gaga feminism.

There were some parts of Halberstam’s book where I wished that she had gone further, as in her analysis of the “Telephone” video. While plenty of observers have noted the video’s Warholian celebration of pop artifacts, Halberstam draws an unexpected but appropriate link to Warhol’s would-be assassin, the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. Halberstam was also too quick, I think, to jettison the Born This Way album as a pillar of gaga feminism (the eponymous Foundation is not mentioned). I would claim that a song like “Hair” is one example of a gaga feminist work in which the body is shown to be imbricated with the norms that constrain alternative expressions of gender. “Judas” was perhaps Gaga’s most explicit encounter with the role of women and female icons in ancient spiritual narratives. And what better representation of the kind of alternative intimacies in which Halberstam is interested than a video like “Yoü and I,” with its depictions of a mermaid in love with her mad scientist captor as well as Gaga in drag (Jo Calderone) romancing Gaga as a nymph of the cornfields?

Far from being a pop paean, Halberstam’s work is unenthusiastic about Gaga’s efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to promote gay marriage. Halberstam forcefully defends her own position against gay marriage, arguing that it is not worthwhile to defend legal attachments to a failing social arrangement. Still, the outrageous nature of Gaga’s performance art and her popularity among mainstream media elites and music industry veterans means that she is a powerful vehicle for the transformative agenda that Halberstam sketches. Since Gaga’s pop performance art remains the best proponent of the radical queerness that the book envisions, Halberstam can link her arguments to both the intensely frustrated vigor that animated the Occupy movement and a music superstar currently touring the world. The reader may be skeptical until considering the following as one expression of possible common ground between Occupy activists and Gaga supporters: “New affiliations between bodies, sex, and power remind us that the categories of being that seemed to specify and define human nature over one hundred years ago have quickly become rather inadequate placeholders for identity.”7

Still from commercial for Lady Gaga's FAME fragrance
Still from commercial for Lady Gaga’s FAME fragrance

  1. Curiously, Gaga would eventually tell Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that she was a student of “the sociology of fame.”
  2. Victor P. Corona. “Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga.” Journal of Popular Culture 44(2): 1-19.
  3. Gaga Feminism, xxv.
  4. Ibid., 25.
  5. Jonathan Van Meter. “Dream Girl.” Vogue September 2012, 804.
  6. “Concrete Poetry to Free My Mind,” Open House Gallery, New York University.
  7. Gaga Feminism, 67.

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Victor P. Corona

Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., (http://victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist at Hofstra University. He is currently writing a book that traces a social and aesthetic lineage from the Warhol Factory to the Club Kids and the current generation of performers, artists, and nightlife personas in New York.