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Gaga Gags Paglia and Kills Sex

Camille Paglia in the UK's Sunday Times magazine, writes a systematic and devastating critique of the undisputed icon of today's popular culture, Lady Gaga.  The link provided will only get you a tease as (perhaps fittingly) you have to pay if you want the full satisfaction of witnessing the hammer come down on Gaga.  Though, after reading what Paglia has to say about Gaga, one wonders whether hammers or no hammers might be all the same to that purported Diva. 

Paglia is particularly repulsed by Gaga's "banal voice" and her "lugubrious face" both of which, Paglia argues, come together awkwardly in the Gaga music videos and live concert productions, to produce an over-manufactured as well as shamelessly plagiarized product that is anything but sexy.  Paglia takes pains to demonstrate how erratic and, seemingly, pointless are Gaga's borrowings.  There is copying that can come from inspiration and a desire to pay homage to a thing one considers great. But this is not what Gaga offers--for nothing is great and nothing moves in the Gaga universe.  Gaga, it seems, copies out of boredom--the way teenagers text at the bus stop or while "talking" to their parents.  Gaga is pop music at the end of history.  It is the place where the soul cannot be stirred. 

Her catchy, but soul-numbing lyrics in "Poker Face," Paglia suggests, offer a window into Lady Gaga's soul (though not, of course, into Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta's) and that "soul" amounts to an excuse for what Paglia considers her pathetic artistry.  Yet the "little monsters" of the digital age--who, like Germanotta, were raised in a political correct and sanitized world that offered almost no suggestions of an alternative--eat it up.  Sadly, rebellion without authority turns out to be pretty unexciting . . . and it degenerates, quickly, into a silent scream of horror.  It is fitting that Gaga calls her fans "little monsters" . . . for they, like she, have been denatured.

Paglia tries to illustrate this point by offering a contrast between Gaga and one of her presumed fore-mothers, Madonna, that bears repeating at some length:
Gaga's sexual reticence can't be chalked up to priest-ridden guilt: although she was nominally raised Catholic, her father (an internet entrepreneur who was once a bar-band rock musician in New Jersey) was clearly less repressive than Madonna's old-school authoritarian Italian-American father. In fact, the puritanical strictness of Madonna's background sparked her ambition and strengthened her best work. Without taboos, there can be no transgression -- which is why Madonna's ideas waned after she drifted into misty Kabbalah. There is no religious frame of reference in Gaga's songs, aside from the passing assertion, "Got no salvation, got no religion" (in So Happy I Could Die); there is nothing remotely comparable to the sweeping gospel-choir crescendo of Madonna's Like a Prayer. So it is unsurprising to hear that Gaga is consulting celebrity "spiritual guides" like Deepak Chopra. [Italics are mine, ed.]

We note, too, that in another of Gaga's more famous works (a work that earned her top honors at the MTV VMA awards), Bad Romance, the lyrics--to say nothing of the visual suggestions--are remarkably un-erotic horrors cheaply packaged in what is taken by those who haven't experienced real eroticism to be an erotic envelope.  Passing over without comment the mangled "tableau" at the end of video (which depicts a typically expressionless Gaga perched in bed over an incinerated corpse), take note of the tiresome refrain, "I don't wanna be friends."  

No, she doesn't.  But neither does she want that "something more" than friends suggested by true eroticism.  She does not want to know you, as there is nothing to know.  Paglia is disappointed that the only connections offered in a Gaga universe are those of a "filial" nature--and she disapproves, strongly, of Gaga's supposed celibacy.  But Paglia's use of "filial" strikes me as off.  Gaga doesn't want any of the varieties of friendship previously known or celebrated by humanity through the ages--nothing filial or erotic.  Instead, what she seems to offer is exactly the thing that is already tired and passé in this Facebook/My Space generation: the "friending."  Paglia bemoans the ways in which the "hook up"--once a kind of thrilling dash into the forbidden today, "blends friends and lovers, with sex becoming merely an excuse for filial hugging."  But the hugs that gag Paglia aren't even "filial" hugs.  They are less than that.  They are the utterly meaningless expressions of nothing; ways to pass time in stupefied comfort and they have about as much real meaning as air kisses.  Though those, at least, had a mild taste of disdain in them.  The "seduction" of a Gaga video is similarly indefinite and equally meaningless.  You might touch--you might not.  You might be an onlooker, you might erupt in flames.  You might be the equivalent of Facebook "friends" but you're really not anything to anyone . . . so you just aspire to acquire and conquer or kill for the sheer thrill of pretending to feel.  Because, hey . . . why not?  Nothing is real.  All is a lie.  What is the difference, then, if we incinerate and die?

Categories > Pop Culture

Discussions - 14 Comments

I am not so sure that GaGa is conveying a "nothing is real" message. Paglia does not like her because she is sexless (one presumes Paglia would also not like the 1970s David Bowie too who GaGa is clearly ripping off, though she is more violent and spirited to Bowie's tilting effeminacy). GaGa kills eros, and that is the reason why GaGa engages in the perverse violence she does in her videos (like in Alejandro). GaGa is a lost soul looking for eros and logos. In her flailing she finds the only thing real is what is felt--feminine version of Fight Club. That is what is real for GaGa. Pain.

Paglia worships Madonna far too much. In my opinion, she is blind to how Madonna has been a precursor to all this. Paglia also seems to be unaware that the most interesting music being made on the four chord, 4/4 time side is in the Indie genre. Indie, more than GaGa, is a bigger influence on our youth. GaGa is so passe.

We talked about Gaga and this article the other day in my class in relation to art and beauty. (It is only an English class, so we may.) Are there absolutes to beauty? Someone said that beauty is whatever people say it is and anyone can decide for himself who is beautiful. So is Lady Gaga beautiful if someone says she is? Maybe, said a few. No way, said several men. Yes, said a couple of girls. She is beautiful no matter what anyone says, said one young woman, "She is special and does what she likes." And that's beauty? I ask.

I wish she were as passe as all of you say, and that the "sexual revolution" were passe, too. I have been hearing about this sexual revolution about since I hit puberty, which was a very long time ago. I was afraid the revolution was over and that we were stuck with the codified result. The apparent acceptance of gay marriage -- sex and sexuality must be irrelevant.

Although as long as we are human, I don't see how it can be.


I was talking musically with the passe comment. There is a whole "movement" if you will that views pop as contrived, old, and really, unimaginative. There is a determined effort to strip down rock to the essentials--see the efforts of Jack White an his new label that will only produce vinyl records, and his band the White Stripes, which is essentially a 2 piece band.

The death of terrestrial radio is a manifestation of this change in thinking and musical taste. The "cool" kids are listening to Indie, not top 40. Siriius XMU, the now deceased Indie 103.1 in LA (though it lives on via the internet), and other stations like WKNC in Raleigh--which out polls many commercial stations--are just a few examples of the trend at hand.

I wonder if a visual side-by-side of GaGa...and, Sophia Loren might force your students to think again a second time:

It is an experiment perhaps I should run as well.

Your excellent description of your class experience is really not that different from mine in government class. And, the answers provide us the great opportunity to ask, as Socrates did, about the "isness" of the thing. It allows us to move the many from opinion to real knowledge.

Perhaps age-determined, but once we get past the earliest 90s disco stuff, Dee-lite and perhaps that "macarena" song, 99.8% of the pop/disco stuff since then just sounds indistinctly sucky to my ears. And more indistinct-y than sucky. I lose track of what is what. Watching PBS's Latino music documentary tonight for example, I could not understand why Ricky Martin was at all a big deal. A couple songs sort of rising to catchability level...but I dunno...not really reaching it...the songs just sort of pound at you. Madonna I hated and still do so, but the gal did have some tunes and could sing. "Borderline," "Like A Virgin," and even "Holiday," I mean, you can understand why they could become hits.

Gaga, sound-wise, falls into the sonic wilderness of beat-beat-beat mush to my ears. Perhaps unfair, because I'm not sure I've ever had the patience to actually listen to one of her "songs" through. I certainly cannot name a single title or hum a single bit. But I could say that about most the disco-esque "pop" stars these days. (Does Whit Stillman like THIS stuff? It surely makes 70s disco seem a grand thing, even if is rhthymn-wise more complex.) Or put it this way, there are songs I know I detest..."Hotel California" "You Light Up My Life" etc...but amid this beat-beat-beat mush there is no distinct segment of sound I can isolate and care about one way or the other.

Yeah, Gaga's trying to do the Bowie/Madonna thing of playing with the shape of one's stardom. Trying to make the very process of fame-getting and attention-getting a kind of pop-art. Image. Video. And maybe a Paglia will come up with a Theory of Your Significance. Of course, Bowie was the first to do this flat-out, and he had the lyrical artistry (and some pretty fine music) to back it up. Madonna had the songs, at least, and video was a newish medium.

Gaga just seems another bit of evidence of the burned-out Marilyn Manson/Houllebeck zietgeist we live in these days, and have for some time.

Erik, your line about a female Fight Club is should check out Geoffrey O'Brien's Sonata for Jukebox. Indie-ans can only do so much with the pop legacy, but some of them are noble "copers" given the bad hand we've been dealt.

Gentlemen (and Lady who is NOT Gaga) -- some good observations all around but Erik and Carl . . . do read the full text of Paglia's critique of Gaga. She addresses some of your observations about Bowie, etc.

On the whole, however, I think the Gaga phenomenon Paglia is addressing (and the whole pop phenomenon, in general) is really less about music than it is about these larger points about the culture . . . which is convenient (I admit) for me since I have many times pronounced myself to be a musical idiot.

Erik, I think you are correct to note the disconnect between Paglia's disdain for Gaga and her worship of Madonna. But that is too obvious to be the whole story in the end, isn't it? I think Paglia is correct to make the distinction between the two that she does, not because I share her adoration for the Material Girl, but because there is a material difference between the worlds Madonna and Gaga profess to rebel against.

What Paglia misses, it seems to me, is this: the true (though barely admitted) desire of these rebels is an answer. Like all attention seeking children, they live to be admonished. But what happens when you rebel against God and you can no longer hear His answers above the din of the rabble in the rebellion? What happens in the era encapsulated by the inane phrase "It's all good"?

Paglia, it seems to me, cannot stand her own progeny . . . It all reminds me, in an odd way, of the disdain Boomers on the Left (led by Hillary) had for Obama. HE was the bridge to far . . . but he used their map to get there. So it is with Gaga and Madonna and Bowie before them both. The difference is only one of degrees and of audience shaped by the journey they've been leading.

Oh for heaven's sake....she's a singer who has a schitck that is momentarily making her a boatload of money. Of course she's ripping off Madonna, Bowie, Liberace, and any number of other performers. Her lyrics are nonsensical, but the tunes/music/riffs are phenomenally catchy. Cotton candy should be enjoyed, not analyzed.

A diet of cotton candy is not good for us and we should know it. Culture and food are not really related, but to extend your analogy anyway, if we live on cultural cotton candy of that type it might indicate some deeper problem with the culture. Certainly no one would use cotton candy as if it were cotton. Even just in terms of music, that is the complaint about Gaga here.

Let's look at Books 1 and 2 of the Republic: there is a real problem to our souls by taking our morality from the poets because they speak to our emotions and disdain reason/philosophy. Music has a similar effect. So, what should be "enjoyed" in Gaga? What is there good for us in her words, or music? I think Kate is spot-n in this regard.

Julie: I finally read the entire piece, and you are correct that she does address some of my concerns. I am not sure Paglia has persuaded me fully though. The Bowie/Madonna nexus of the impersonal hook-up culture they helped to create would seem to naturally lead to the next step--alienation of the soul and hence all that is human. GaGa just took them places they did not have the courage to go. Perhaps I am wrong about this though.

Scott: Thanks! And great post.

Amen. Lady Googoo is about as talentless as Madonna and most of the so-call Artists of the last 15 years. She will never be a Tina Turner.

Well, having been raised in a household where the ONLY music we heard on the stereo or in the car was classical, I guess I find myself in the enviable position of loving all different kinds of music, each for its various purposes. I'm as comfortable in a symphony hall as I am at a pop concert. Living in the south, I've developed an appreciation for (new) country, and the blues move my soul in ways that other forms can only approximate. Jazz is a current favorite that challenges my ears and my brain. My students are also a source of great musical pleasure, as they hear the radio on in my office and they direct me to their favorites who are unfamiliar to me. Some I like and some leave me cold, but such is the nature of maturation and musical tastes. I wouldn't want a steady diet of Lady GaGa, but she can get the body dancing!

I am as you are. My parents raised me on classical, jazz and show tunes. My kids got all of that and more. Now, my children give me music to listen to; mostly the Indie or alternative music Erik refers to. They must be cool. As with any art form, there is that in music which we love because it beautiful and there is that which we like for different reasons.

Being sensitive to words, I have bad time liking the easy-to-move-to music as I cannot hear it without hearing what is said. In places like stores I try to tune such stuff out, but it comes sneaking in my ears, bothering me while I am trying to think. As a result, I have heard the words of songs I would not have listened to otherwise. Sometimes words are obscured by the music or by bad production and sometimes that is a blessing. Once aware of the words or having read or heard in conversation what some song says in it lyrics, I cannot hear that song without knowing what is in it.

For example, I was at a wedding where the first song played (loudly) after the bride and groom danced was "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson. It is an anti-wedding song if I ever heard one. It did get the kids out on the dance floor. I turn to the people around me with a "What the heck? Who is the disc jockey tonight?" and all ask what the heck I am what-the-hecking about. My 30 year old son said, "Mother, how many times have I told you not to listen to lyrics! No one else does." He may be right, but then why have lyrics?

On the other hand, if Lady Gaga were going through the gyrations to that song Julie mentions in the post and that I have now seen -- even more unbelievable. What the heck?

Sorry I am late back to this post, but Kate says much that rings true. As far as lyrics are concerned, my anecdotal experience with the younger Indie set is that they pay attention to the lyrics and the music (rhythm and harmony). They also make a lot out of the songwriters--as in they are far more impressed with bands that write and compose their own music instead of carping from professional writers. It is a somewhat snobby approach to music that I appreciate, but still, which, is problematic for its simplistic appeal to the soul.

Erik, you are a man after my own heart. The problem with gaga lovers isn't that they aren't snobby so much as that they are hostile to snobs.
Gaga is all about manufactured "acceptance" as an absurd product for kids who live in a world where everything they want "goes". how much MORE acceptance do they need before they feel "normal" ?!

I take down paglia for taking down gaga on my own blog:

(I take down gaga too, but I don't think I could draw in gaga fans by saying "a critique of gaga")

It's good that we can receive the loans moreover, that opens up completely new chances.

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