‘Bleach out all the dark / I’ll swallow each peroxide shot’: Phallocentric Photology and the Constrained Cultural Female
The cultural construction and manipulation of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as explored within the previous chapter focusses upon photology as a patriarchal force for ideological dissemination. Similarly, Lady Gaga’s explorations of pop stars, cultural icons and famous women in society also extensively utilise light-centric imagery as key cultural methods to constrain female characters. From their cultural value as sexualised objects to their utilisation as ideologues for patriarchal power structures, Gaga portrays light as a pervasive force in the pernicious narratives of the constrained cultural female.
The depiction of patriarchal photology as a cultural method of constraining female agency can be read as a central aspect in the music video for the 2009 single ‘Bad Romance’. Featuring a narrative in which Gaga is drugged and kidnapped by ‘supermodels’ (Vena quoting Gaga, 2009) and sold to a group of gangsters, the video utilises brightly lit scenes to portray points in the narrative when Gaga is restricted by the actions of others. Key examples of this include scenes featuring Gaga surrounded by men staring at her and she poses in the center of the room in her underwear, surrounded by floating diamonds catching the light, (Gaga, 2009b; 3.03-3.18, above) and others depicting Gaga in statuesque positions wearing an elaborate aluminium costume with surrounding reflective metallic halo. (2009b; 3.20-3.40, below) These scenes not only portray light as phallocentric (and an empowering force for the male gaze) but also indicate that light is a restrictive, constraining force against women in society.
The only opportunity for Gaga in to regain her personal autonomy within ‘Bad Romance’ is during the video’s climax when her new ‘owner’ invites her to join him in bed and she spontaneously catches fire. (2009b; 4.15-4.32) In these scenes, Gaga’s reappropriation of light is directly linked to her sexuality, her transformation into light precipitated by sexual contact. In the final moments of the video we see Gaga reclining on the incinerated bed next to her lover’s skeleton, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, as the metallic bra she wears over her underwear spontaneously sparks, giving off flashes of light. (2009b; 4.57-5.08, below) The prop worn by Gaga suggests that the cultural in society can only harness the cultural power of light for themselves by utilising their sexuality, the sparks emitting from her breasts representing the inherent phallocentric nature of cultural photology.
The prop was also worn by Gaga in the final song of her 2009-2011 Monster Ball Tour, in which during her performance of ‘Paparazzi’ a literalised ‘Fame Monster’ appears on stage, undresses her with its tentacles and then consumes her. (Gaga, 2011f; 1.30-2.27) Gaga’s resurrection from the jaws of the anglerfish inspired creature, a fish that lures its prey into danger by dazzling them via bioluminescence, is facilitated by the rendering of her sexuality as available to the male gaze as she bursts out its body with the help of firework bra and underwear. In the context of the Monster Ball narrative, light is never truly a feminine concept. Instead, it can only be utilised by the cultural female in her rejection of a cultural pressure (in this came the ‘dangers’ of fame) but this invariably results in her further constraint within another as she literally ‘lights up’ her erogenous zones in order to highlight them specifically for the male gaze. (Gaga, 2011f; 2.44-3.15)
The effects of the cultural female reconceptualising her body to appeal to phallocentric discourses is also explored by Gaga in relation to the ‘blonde pop icon’. In ‘Princess Die’, a song written during the ARTPOP era and extensively performed on tour, Gaga considers the psychological effects of phallocentric photology on the ‘blonde pop icon’ as she sings, ‘Leave the coffin open when I go / Leave my pearls and lipstick on, so everybody knows / Pretty will be the photograph I’ll leave’. (Gaga, 2012; 0.27-0.50) Just as figures such as Diana were actively reduced to ‘two-dimensional’ (Ebert, 2010; xiv) pictorial personas by patriarchal media discourses, the protagonist of ‘Princess Die’ is fixated on the visual legacy she will leave behind. Princess Die’s systemic constraint within phallocentric power discourses has lead her to only consider herself from a patriarchal perspective, her extensive exposure to phallocentric light inhibiting her self-identification. Just as Scott Wilson argues that ‘To the end, Diana’s face was covered by the dazzling images that immortalised her’, (1999; 40) Gaga’s homage protagonist understands that her aesthetic memory will be the only reminder of her life and its effect on culture.
The ‘blonde pop icon’s psychological constraint within media discourses is also explored as Gaga sings, ‘Bleach out all the dark / I’ll swallow each peroxide shot’. (2012; 0.58-1.05) Princess Die’s only method of counteracting the isolating ‘darkness’ that plagues her when she steps out the public eye is to reaffirm her connection to her cultural identity as a ‘blonde pop icon’. Her attempts to internalise her innate blondness reflect not only her self-perpetuating ‘complicitious’ constraint but also the pervasive inescapability of phallocentric photology.
The destructive dependency of this photology features within Gaga’s work as early as her 2008 single, ‘Paparazzi’. While ‘Princess Die’ positions the allure of fame as a life force for the ‘blonde pop icon’, ‘Paparazzi’ conceptualises the relationship between the icon and media discourses as a romantic narrative. As Gaga sings, ‘Got my flash on, it’s true / Need that picture of you / It’s so magical; we’d be so fantastico’ (Gaga, 2008; 0.11-0.23) the song implies a union between the two can be forged through the flash of the camera, the resulting photographic proof the cultural evidence of their love for one another. The ‘magical’ quality of this cultural relationship reinforces the power of light to create, manipulate or affect individuals in this fashion. As the photographer is empowered by phallocentric photology to succeed in their attempts to possess the object of their fascination, the ‘blonde pop icon’ begins to desire the camera’s adoration. The cultural outcome of this mutual obsession is represented by Princess Die’s final desire to leave her coffin open, giving one last glance back to her beloved.
The personal consequences of being constrained within with phallocentric discourses are also highlighted with the music video for ‘Applause’, ARTPOP’s first single. In one scene, Gaga is portrayed as locked in a cage wearing ghoulish makeup, a canary yellow wig and an outfit designed to emulate a skeleton. (Gaga, 2013b; 0.17-0.28, above) The outfit not only reprises a hairstyle modelled by Gaga during the ‘Telephone’ music video, (Gaga, 2010; 4.23-8.25) but also has been compared to the 1962 Andy Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe, (Zafar, 2013) noted by Woodward as keenly insightful in its depiction of Marilyn’s relationship with fame. (2002; 31) [The exaggerated blondeness of the ‘Telephone’ wig was noted by Elizabeth Switaj to draw attention ‘to the artificiality of the hair’s colour’ due to its ‘cartoon’ like yellowness’, (2012; 41) reflecting the constructed nature of the ‘blonde pop icon’.]
The depiction of Gaga as a trapped, zombie-like figure (yet with impossibly vibrant blonde hair) not only aims to explore issues surrounding the manipulation of the ‘blonde pop icon’ by media discourses but also the perpetuation of her cultural iconicity long after she dies. The comparative youthfulness of Gaga’s hair is obviously contrasted by her ghoulish attire, suggesting that while individuals may die the cultural legacy of the ‘blonde pop icon’ will be eternal. The skeletal outfit worn by Gaga also echoes Ebert’s earlier conceptualisation of Monroe’s ‘electric double’ (2010; 61) as ‘split from the bone core of the real Marilyn’, (2010; 65) suggesting that Gaga’s constrained character is a visualisation of the ‘real’ Monroe’s suffering at the hands of patriarchal media.
Similarly, the lyrics of ‘Applause’ can be read as an exploration of the destabilisation of the pop icon’s personal identity as their sense of self becomes blurred with wider cultural symbolism. From the song’s opening line, ‘I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong’ (Gaga, 2013a; 0.13-0.20) ‘Applause’ implies that the song’s narrator has lost control of her personal agency, her personal autonomy constrained by her need for cultural validation. The song’s key refrain, ‘I live for the applause’, (2013a; 0:40-0:47) directly summarises this cultural restriction by phallocentric discourses as the constrained pop icon cannot live without the audience facilitated by patriarchal power structures, an audience who she in turn must actively impose their phallocentric ideology upon.
These issues culminate in the chorus as the narrator speaks directly to her audience: ‘Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights out) / Put your hands up, make them touch (Make it real loud)’. (2013a; 0.54-1.03) In the first half of each line, the song’s narrator appears to submit to her cultural restraint by media discourses while attempting to subvert their control in the second. Although she may beg for applause in an attempt to perpetuate her place in the spotlight, the echo-like replies to these requests serve to disconnect the narrator from her cultural dependency for adulation. Both her demands for the audience to ‘Make it real loud’ and her threat to ‘turn the lights out’ aim to deprive the audience of the narrator’s ‘star’ quality as she attempts to escape the media ‘glare’ that traps her within a perpetual spotlight.
The constrained pop icon’s cultural rejection of phallocentric light also features within ARTPOP track ‘Aura’, in which the song’s protagonist attempts to reconnect with personal identity through the power of darkness. Focussing on the cultural ‘glare’ of the media spotlight, ‘Aura’ aims to conceptualise the differences between a female pop star’s public and personal identities through the cultural image of the burqa-wearing woman and the related cultural notions of exposure and privacy. The song’s chorus line, ‘Do you want to see the girl behind the aura?’, (Gaga, 2013f; 1:48-1:54) clearly associates the public and private aspects of the pop icon’s identity with the concepts of light and shade, aligning darkness with the pop star’s ‘true’ self and positioning the burqa as a cultural accessory of rebellion. Gaga’s rejection of the ‘aura’ of fame that constantly shines upon her is reflective of her desire to regain her own cultural agency, rejecting the constructed media identity imposed upon her by media discourses. This search for feminist empowerment sees the pop icon ‘behind the aura’ reject the cultural allure of phallocentric light and instead embrace the cultural uncertainties of the dark.
Ebert, John David (2010c) ‘Andy Warhol’s Cult of the Dead Celebrity’ in Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar, written by John David Ebert, 2010, Pages 83-94. (Santa Barbara: Praeger.)
Gaga, Lady (2009b) Music video for the single ‘Bad Romance’. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/8EHtZN. (Accessed 02.12.13)
Gaga, Lady (2010) Music video for the single ‘Telephone’. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/cVvABS. (Accessed on 02.12.13)
Gaga, Lady (2011f) ‘Paparazzi’, performed by Lady Gaga on The Monster Ball Tour, second version, in New York, 21.02.11. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/NGmxgz. (Accessed on 02.12.13)
Gaga, Lady (2013a) ‘Applause’, from the album ARTPOP. 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 (2013b) Music video for the single ‘Applause’. Music video directed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Electronic version cited: youtu.be/pco91kroVgQ. (Accessed on 09.10.13)
Gaga, Lady (2013f) ‘Aura’, Track 1 from the album ARTPOP. Written by Stefani Germanotta, Anton Zaslavski, Amit Duvdevani and Erez Eisen. Produced by Anton Zaslavski, Stefani Germanotta and Infected Mushroom. (California: Interscope Records.)
Switaj, Elizabeth Kate (2012) ‘Lady Gaga’s Bodies: Buying and Selling The Fame Monster’ in The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, edited by Richard J. Gray II, 2012, Pages 33-51. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company.)
Warner, Marina (1994) From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tales. (London: Chatto & Windus.)
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.)
Zafar, Aylin (2013) ‘Every Cultural Reference You Probably Didn’t Catch In Lady Gaga’s New Video’, published on BuzzFeed, 23.08.13. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1dAZIXh. (Accessed on 02.12.13)