Gaga AKA The Real Phony
The identity and cultural role of Lady Gaga is reminiscent of a line in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (adapted from Truman Capote’s short story.) Holly Golightly’s agent, O.J. Berman quizzes Paul Varjack on the phoniness of Holly:
Berman: Answer the question. Is she or isn’t she?
Berman: A phony.
Varjack: I don’t think so.
Berman: You don’t huh? Well, you’re wrong. She is. But on the other hand, you’re right, because she’s a real phony. She honestly believes all this phony junk.
Lady Gaga resides and functions culturally as a “real phony.” A living simulation wherein what you see in the celebrity sphere is what she is 24/7, Gaga pushes the boundaries of the public/private identity as well as challenging the concept of the hyperreal.
O.J. Berman’s question about being a phony is a prescient one because it reveals the conundrum of authenticity. How genuine is an identity that is based on an amalgam of others?[i] In the film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the query asks for a decisive judgment on authenticity, Berman’s own answer is reflective of our current navigation of identity and culture. The question: “Is she or isn’t she?” and the answer: “You’re wrong. She is. But on the other hand you’re right. Because she’s a real phony…” presents a situated identity. An identity that is at its core a “phony” but at the same time, always authentic, a “real phony.” It’s a good question, “is she or isn’t she?” The question is a barometer of how inauthentic one is. It’s the most appropriate question to ask when doing a cultural critique of Lady Gaga. Not to say that she is the Holly Golightly of our time – that would be presumptuous. However, the question remains, “is she or isn’t she?”
This line of inquiry has been the basis of much critical banter surrounding Lady Gaga: is she gay? transgender? performance art? Madonna derived? Warhol derived? The question of “is or isn’t” even goes to the essentials of her identity: Is she Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta or Lady Gaga? While Ms. Gaga provides an abundance of material to sift through, the answer to the decisive query is always indeterminable. This is because she is a “real phony.” She is always the expected cultural sign (rock star, feminist, outsider) in the midst of her performance (both on and off stage), music and lyrics. The subtext of the phony is that there are multiples that hide the original/authentic. This serves to undermine the idea of the original artist (especially in the rock music world which still holds to the idea of an “original” or “one of a kind” artist as the most significant/successful.)
For a cultural theorist, Gaga is a compelling subject to study because she is a signpost for the cultural shifts we are currently undergoing. She exemplifies Baudrillard’s idea of simulation, the thing that represents the Rock Star and ultimately replaces the original context; in that sense she is the cultural avatar of a rock star. As the oft quoted Baudrillard states: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”[ii] Placed in the context of Lady Gaga and the celebrity machine, Gaga is a simulated hyperreality. It was inevitable that we would arrive here in the pop culture world. Gaga’s progenitors, Bowie, Warhol, etc. were the first harbingers to experiment with the hypperreal. Now that we are living in the era of American Idol, where the star is manufactured by the mechanizations of the music industry and audience consensus, the traditional mode of star building is not the only way to go (and quite possibly the more outdated way to generate stardom.) Gaga as part of her manufacture, functions knowingly as an avatar to many. In Rolling Stone, Neil Strauss describes Gaga’s understanding of her audience as “a collection of mini versions of her socially and romantically rejected self..” This collection of mini-me’s is an integral part of the Gaga identity. As Gaga states: “Music is a lie…Art is a lie. You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it true.”[iii] The Gaga identity and its meaning making relies on emulation and re-interpretation by her fans. It is their desire to sing Gaga songs and dance her moves that makes the Gaga enterprise and identity so powerful. It is the fans that build meaning and politic on Gaga. With singable songs and easy choreography, they can be her – not in the secret of their teenage angst rooms, but in public; on Youtube, in karaoke bars, and most importantly, at her concerts. She doesn’t call them fans but her “little monsters” and by that nomenclature are acknowledged, active participants of her “Monster Tour.” This is an intimate relationship – it doesn’t end when the concert ends, but continues in the digital sphere – where fantasy can continue ad infinitum.
This is why Gaga is fascinating. She put her performance art/art background and pop aspirations upfront and then proceeded to redefine the boundaries of the two. Not many are buying into this with the majority of the press focused in on her inauthenticity as little more than mimicry. Part of the reason for this is because she is claiming identity via surface; simulation/simulacrum. She is deliberate in how her fans manifest her identity, and all the while, she claims that her surface, her shimmer, is all there is – that it is the REAL. This is where she pushes boundaries. She is, by default, repositioning the real with the hypperreal. As Berman says, “she’s a phony but a real phony.”
When Gaga says, “this is me all the time” and gestures to her leotard clad body, stockinged legs, and platinum blonde hair in a bow, she is saying that the simulation – the surface – is 24/7. Hence, there is little difference between the persona in her music videos, the concert performer, and the woman attending a baseball game. They are all the same. She blatantly acknowledges the celebrity machine and then proceeds to function in it. So the paparazzi can never take a “candid” shot of her – at the grocery, dry cleaners, shopping, etc. – because she has already laid claim to all aspects of the Gaga life as “all the time.” In effect, she has co-opted all avenues of exploitation and marketing for herself. No one can cut in on her visual and conceptual property by unmasking the puppeteer behind Gaga. She has already said in effect that “this” is all there is. Her mutable, hypperreal identity is a constant displacement and as such she can operate in contradiction (artist/mimic, real/fake, etc.) without issue.
Simulation and simulacrum in the early 21st century was often a singular project by artists; contained in one setting or event (like an experiment in a petri dish.) Gaga is one of the few simulations that have been deliberately constructed as an all-encompassing surface. As she states: “I talk about myself in the third person all the time. I don’t live my life in the way someone like you does.”[iv] Her embodiment of the surface has complicated the boundaries of the real and the phony. Being a “real phony” has loosened the grasp of those who want a piece of the Gaga property because only Gaga, as the hypperreal can own it. Whether she is being candid or not is something we can never distinguish because to us, all are the same. There is no difference at this juncture because we cannot recognize who is Germanotta or Gaga. Her insistence and vigilance at not showing a thread of contradiction between what she states (“me all the time”) and her public presence gives us no footing upon which to see through the surface. All the while, it is at her leisure to use both Gaga and the Haus of Gaga as her marketing tool and her promotional object.
By all accounts, Madonna at her debut had been pronounced by many to be groundbreaking, meaning that she broke away from a pre-existing entertainment industry (system) to re-establish it in her own terms (not my claim – I am summarizing others here.) If that is the comparative case, then Gaga is the saboteur; one who acts as a participant in a system in efforts to infiltrate, undermine and reconstitute the system. Gaga wholly embraces the established music entertainment industry and the rock star role that serves as its apex. She states that her future plan is to become the ” ‘grandmother of pop music,’ ” bringing up new bands, nurturing their talents, watching them grow.”[v] However, her means of getting there is through appropriation of past rock star identities which in effect renders them as types. Rather than rising to rock stardom by pronouncing the prerequisite rebellious manifesto, Gaga acts as a flickering cultural sign – embodying all the different apexes of what has been identified as “rock stars.” Lady Gaga, in pilfering through snippets of rock history, is actually speeding through the life cycle of the rock star. Her versions of Ziggy Stardust (via her costuming in the video “Pokerface”), her Madonna references in “Alejandro” and her public script of “be yourself” calls attention to the artifice of the rock star. The mounting criticism of Gaga as a thief who has no substance of her own attests to the insecurity within the rock star/music system that she invokes by her artifice.
This is the critical difference between what many writers have considered as the “truthiness” of Madonna and the “phoniness” of Gaga. As one writer put it, “unlike Madonna–who was willing to tie provocation to a discernible purpose in ‘Like a Prayer’–Gaga offers no synthesis.”[vi] The assumption that the writer makes here is that rock musicians, as defined by their transgressive identity, must “provoke” to “purpose” to be a real rocker. In effect, the music news media is claiming that this is what Lady Gaga must do to be a verifiable performer of significance. Gaga, by her seeming imitation of the rock star, actually calls attention to this assumption and presents a problem as she lacks not only that definition but any current definition to address her practice. There has been little exposition on how Gaga is significant for the purposeful detailed perpetuation of the rock star façade.
Madonna was a product of her cultural time and as such, the “female rock star” identity of the 80’s was solidly based on the (quite fictional) truth of gender and body. This was an essential identity whose political power firmly rested on proclaiming both difference and the site of oppression for this difference. Part of Madge’s prerequisite rock rebellion was to push her female desire and female body as the site of controversy because it was an oppressed gender. The problem with this model – as we have come to know since – is that it actually serves to contain the oppressed identity by having it continually claim its oppressed status. Like a broken record – the statement was always contingent on suppressed, oppressed female desire; to attempt to expand beyond that would remove the urgency and veracity of this voice. This identity structure is predicated on what it is oppressed by – when Madonna touts her sexual desires and appetites in her 1991 documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare, her transgression is displaying that she has such desires (because she is not allowed them as the oppressed identity.) It is the quintessential psychoanalytic Other. This is a constant subtext in Madonna’s first phase. When she is dressed as a nun, dressed as a virgin, and kissing the black Jesus (see Like a Prayer) – the transgression in all of these tropes is that she, as a woman, is not allowed desire.
Gaga is beyond the Other identity in that she performs the rock star role rather than be the rock star; both on and off stage. Her lyrics, dance moves, press statements are all crafted and planned out by the Haus of Gaga (her staff of magic makers: manager, stylist, concert designer, etc.) As Gaga says, “I don’t want people to see I’m a human being. I don’t even drink water onstage in front of anybody, because I want them to focus on the fantasy of the music and be transported from where they are to somewhere else.”[vii]
Gaga is fantasy but rather than be limited to the stage, she performs Gaga at all times. Her constant emphasis in the press to assure the readers and fans that the theatricality is her all the time dovetails with her music videos and televised performances. It is a seamless simulation of Gaga. This is evidenced by the many interviews in which she refers to Gaga: “If I were to ever, God forbid, get hurt onstage and my fans were screaming outside of the hospital waiting for me to come out, I’d come out as Gaga. I wouldn’t come out in sweatpants because I busted my leg or whatever.” To be as Gaga is to be dressed in the now definitive haute couture fetish wear, complete with hair and makeup. Part of this production is also the script that goes with it; her pronouncements to her “little monsters” (fans) to embrace who they are – freaks and misfits, along with her persistence that the simulation is who she really is.
Gaga is a cultural development that exemplifies identity in our time in the sense that we are a post-“Matrix” or, even further back, “Blade Runner” generation. The body and self are not essential in our cultural agency, politic, or the way we think. (Facebook, Sims, multi-gamer platforms – there is a reality within the non-physical space that we function in daily.) Now, the surface or simulation is just as important a player in the politics of culture and identity. Gaga, as part of the generation having been raised on a digital lifestyle, would be a different kind of identity than that of Madonna. Her artistic and creative touchstones may be from a previous generation (or further back) but Gaga’s realization of their style comes from a life experience that is wholly different from those artists. Lady Gaga is aware of the way politics can be played out on a body (many have already discussed how she takes a page from Madonna’s playbook) the difference between Madonna and Gaga is that Gaga makes her body mutable and polyvalent (through her interactive, digital, live concert relationship with her fanbase.) The Gaga persona has been constructed to be a surface, a screen upon which viewers can place their hopes, dreams, aspirations, fantasies, aspersions, and criticism.[viii] The costumes, the origin myth of the Gaga moniker, her collaborations and performances, the seeming frankness of her life; all sum up to function as a mutable surface on which to read multiple meanings. We have never really seen a true, candid moment with Gaga – all is surface. We never see “real” because as she performatively claims, the Real is the façade. The multiplying of her image and persona via Youtube, Facebook, twitter, music videos, stage performance; they build an accretion around any semblance of a real individual. The end result is that in true Baudrillard fashion, the simulation has superceded the real individual. In effect, there is no need for anyone behind Gaga. This allows for contradictory stories, interpretations, and meanings to take hold all at once. Gaga is a manufactured presence and as such has opened up a new kind of political body as a form of cultural practice.
[i] This is the most asked question of Gaga – her authenticity. The sheer volume of articles on this topic is revealing of how Gaga – as a vacillating cultural sign (unfixed, contradictory) is threatening in itself. Not to mention a symptomatic evidence of our cultural present – as not having identifiable, discursive terms for dealing with a hypperreal identity model.
[ii] Baudrillard, Jean, “Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard Selected Writings, Ed. Mark Poster, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 166-184.
[iii] Strauss, Neil, “The Broken Heart & Violent Fantasies of Lady Gaga,” Rolling Stone; 7/8-7/22, 2010, Iss. 1108/1109; pg. 66.
[iv] Silva, Horacio, “The World According to Gaga,” New York Times, March 4, 2010.
[v] Sullivan, Brendan, “The Grandmother of Pop,” Esquire; May 2010, Vol. 153, Issue 5, p. 96-99.
[vi] Walls, Seth Colter, “The Blah-Blah of Gaga,” Newsweek; 11/30/2009, vol. 154, issue 22, pg. 57.
[vii] Strauss, Neil, “The Broken Heart & Violent Fantasies of Lady Gaga,” Rolling Stone; 7/8-7/22, 2010, Iss. 1108/1109; pg. 66.
[viii] While the role of the fan has always been to project their desires onto their stars, the Gaga experience differs through her incorporation of them into the Gaga persona and production. Gaga has been deliberate in the ways she has navigated fandom.