‘I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong’ : Dissertation Introduction
On the 25th August 2013, Lady gave her first public performance of ‘Applause’ at the Video Music Awards in Brooklyn. (Gaga, 2013c) Not only did the performance serve as the musician’s ‘comeback’ to the public sphere but it also aimed to explore the nature of the female pop icon as a culturally constructed identity. At various points in the song Gaga was actively transformed into a number of blonde personae from throughout her career through the use of wigs, make-up and clothing applied to her by backing dancers, drawing inspiration from the song’s consideration of the perpetuation of the pop icon as dependent upon cultural interaction. The underlying symbolism of the routine in relation to the central themes of ‘Applause’ was also undeniably clear: the ‘blonde pop icon’ is created, reinvented and perpetuated by the culture around her. In case this metaphor was not obvious enough to the viewer, one particular transformation featured a backing dancer applying smears of paint to Gaga’s face directly from an artist’s palette, literally rendering Gaga’s cultural body as a blank ‘canvas’. (Woodward, 2002; 19) (2013c; 3.17-3.21)
The performance also echoes earlier statements made by Gaga in relation to her creative interest in the public lives and surrounding cultural phenomenon of figures such as Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe. Speaking in 2011, she noted:
I’m just fascinated with the decay of the blonde pop icon and how culture loves to give birth to fantasies and then destroy them and what that means. It’s something I want to explore on my next album.
(Gaga, 2011d; 4:25-4:43)
As evident in her debut performance of ‘Applause’, Gaga did explore these ideas further. Building upon the exploration of concepts such as identity, fame, society, gender, sexuality and self-exploration prevalent in her earlier work, Gaga’s latest album, ARTPOP, was billed, ahead of its November 11th 2013 release, as aiming to usher in a ‘new age’ of pop music in which ‘the artist once again is in control of the “icon”’. (Gaga, 2013e) Gaga’s direct intention through ARTPOP was to consider the cultural power structures that permeate and manipulate both iconicity and the individual in society. (For if the artist is not in control of the icon then what is?) Thus, ARTPOP’s goal to explore ‘Gaga’s existence as a cultural interface’ (2013e) can be understood as an exploration of the Foucauldian power structures that appropriate and utilise iconicity to reinforce pre-determined social values upon the individual and, in particular, the cultural female.
Considering these ideas, I began researching the ‘blonde pop icon’ as a culturally constructed and manipulated identity in society. Throughout my reading, I repeatedly came across critical analyses of figures such as Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe that were rooted in theories of light as a cultural force. From the flash bulbs of the paparazzi lens and the glow of movie and television screens to the very ‘star’-like nature of the pop icon that is conferred upon the individual and then utilised by cultural power structures to control and repurpose her as a mass-market ideologue, the effect and power of light becomes the ultimate discourse regarding the ‘blonde pop icon’. Simultaneously Gaga’s focus on the dazzling nature of fame, typified by the portrayal of the ‘Paparazzi’ figure as a cultural love interest in a post-Diana society, is contrasted by her utilisation of darkness as an empowering feminine cultural space. Gaga’s conceptualisation of this space offers women an opportunity to escape the culturally restrictive effects of phallocentric light that enables the male gaze to control them in much the same way as ‘blonde pop icons’, such as Marilyn and Diana, were culturally appropriated.
Utilising these concepts as the springboard for this project, I will explore the use of light as a defining and controlling force upon the ‘blonde pop icon’ before analysing Gaga’s use of the imagery of light and darkness. This will be discussed in relation to the cultural constraint and empowerment of women, aligning ARTPOP’s intention to restore the artist’s ‘control of the “icon”’ as analogous to developing a cultural alternative to the cyclical ‘birth’ and destruction of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as if she were a mere ‘fantasy’. From this, we can infer a manifesto for all women in society who are constrained by patriarchal power structures and wish to free themselves from these cultural restrictions through self-empowerment.
I will begin my analysis by exploring the use of photological imagery in academic considerations of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana as Foucauldianally-constructed cultural identities in Chapter 2, before turning my attention to Gaga’s use of light as a culturally constraining force against iconic individuals in Chapter 3. Following this, Chapters 4 and 5 will then explore Gaga’s portrayal of darkness as an empowering feminine space and consider its anarchic and anti-phallogocentric qualities as fundamental to expressing feminine cultural identity in radical new ways, in accordance with Hélène Cixous’ ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’. I will conclude my analysis by identifying potential weaknesses in Gaga’s utilisation of anarchic darkness as an empowering concept by assessing its intersectional relationship with racial identity and non-whiteness in Chapter 6, before summarising the outcomes of my analysis in the conclusion.
While ARTPOP will be the key concern of this project, my thematic analysis will also draw upon other texts from Gaga’s wider oeuvre as I aim to show the creative progression of these ideas. My analysis will also primarily focus on the lyricism of Gaga’s music, supporting my arguments with related imagery from music videos and live performances when appropriate or available. Although elements of musicality and poetics briefly inform aspects of my reading, my central concern will be the examination of Gaga’s work as cultural texts that consider issues of ideology, identity and social discourses. The reasons for these decisions are twofold: first that this project is primarily focussed on feminist considerations of cultural identity and not the poetic nature of modern pop music. Second, Gaga’s position as both songwriter and creative director for her work – as well as her distinctive focus on the performative dimensions of her music, shows, videos and public appearances compared to that of her creative peers – suggests that pop music is not the explicit outcome of Gaga’s work. Rather, it is the medium through which her views on cultural identity, gender, sexuality, fame and society are expressed, disestablishing her work as purely a commercialised media product with little theoretical interest. It is from this perspective that my analysis of Gaga’s work has been conducted.
Gaga, Lady (2011d) ‘Lady Gaga X Terry Richardson on Access Hollywood’ interview, posted on ladygaga.com, 29.11.11. Electronic version cited: youtu.be/MXrRA138g-U. Original article cited: bit.ly/GHQ2xr. (Accessed on 7.10.13)
Gaga, Lady (2013a) ‘Applause’, Track 15 from the album ARTPOP, 2013. Written by Stefani Germanotta and Paul Blair. Produced by Stefani Germanotta, Paul Blair, Dino Zisis, Nick Monson and Martin Bresso. (California: Interscope Records.)
Gaga, Lady (2013c) ‘Applause’, performed at the 2013 Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, 25.09.13. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1aPMctC. (Accessed on 19.11.13)
Gaga, Lady (2013e) ARTPOP press release statement. Originally posted to facebook.com/ladygaga, 12.07.13. Electronic version cited: on.fb.me/134jaa5. (Accessed on 13.07.13)
Woodward, Richard B. (2002) ‘Iconmania: Sex, Death, Photography and the Myth of Marilyn Monroe’ in All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader, edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough, 2002, Pages 10-34. (New York: Simon & Schuster.)