feature - issue 418




Many write off Lady Gaga as the vacuous pop tart du jour; lyrics like “I want to take a ride on your disco stick” seem to speak for themselves. However, this kind of pretentious knee-jerk reaction is too simplistic.

Stefani Germanotta, aka the future Dame Gaga, wrote an essay at the age of 17 before dropping out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to chase her pop dreams. The paper was on Spencer Tunick, a photographer famous for creating images of masses of posed naked bodies in urban spaces. In it, Germanotta speaks about monstrosity, sexuality and transgression and invokes French philosopher Montaigne’s essay “Of a Monstrous Child.” Our Lady offers up thoughts like “The social body cannot exist, most specifically in the nude, as anything other than a sexual thing. This is our naked condition.” Clearly not the thought process of your average teenager or top-40 diva.

Michael Alig, the infamous leader of the early ’90s Club Kid movement, has followed Gaga’s ascent from his prison cell in upstate New York. “I love Lady Gaga,” Alig says. “She would have fit right in at Disco 2000.” Alig believes that “a lot of people don’t understand what she’s doing, but she is a satire of a pop star, and at the same time she’s going to go out and get everything she can by doing it.” Alig expresses pride that Gaga emerged out of the New York scene he and his fellow Club Kids helped to foster. He sees Gaga as the culmination of the Club Kid ethos that was cut short by the drug-fuelled murder of Angel Melendez. Just as Gaga actively presents herself as a kind of messianic figurehead for her fans, to Alig, the Club Kids “wanted to build an army of freaks and had imagined kooky kids in small towns everywhere living out their dreams and fantasies. Gaga represents both everything that is right with America — innovation, creative prowess, ingenuity, capitalism — while sort of poking fun at our overall superfi ciality and emptiness.”

Whether it’s the androgynous bathhouse aliens of “Bad Romance,” the ass-fucking fascistic go-go boys in Louise Brooks wigs in “Alejandro,” or the Russ Meyers glory of “Telephone,” Gaga takes joy in her influences. The aesthetic experimentation and visual references contained in these pieces of appropriation art are more challenging than a lot of performance art out there.

Gaga’s keen eye for visual sampling aside, the strategic way in which she has managed to become the most successful pop artist in the world by selling a downtown aesthetic to a midtown crowd is laudable. Seeing Gaga tongue-kiss trans performance artist Heather Cassils in a prison yard in the “Telephone” video is beautifully subversive. Cassils refers to Gaga as a performance theory Trojan horse; behind Gaga’s glossy pop exterior beats the heart of bent icons like Australian fashion genius Leigh Bowery and expressionist diva Klaus Nomi. Gaga is an artistic gateway drug. Tyson James — aka local gender artist Cassandra Moore — says that that his nearreligious devotion to Gaga has introduced him to members of the current New York avant-garde, people like Terence Koh and Steven Klein. “Nicola Formichetti always posts everything Gaga wears on his blog, and then I Google that person referenced and go to their website and read about them,” says James.

Gaga may not be as original as Bowery or as confrontational as Grace Jones, but her activism for the queer community rings louder than any of the artists, thinkers and activists she borrows from. Maybe this fact is a sign of troubled times, but if Gaga can ignite campaigns against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or rescue a gay teen from thoughts of suicide, then she’s a worthwhile ally. In the end, is Lady Gaga a fame-obsessed publicity hound, a self-fulfilling prophecy of her own creation, a pretentious Warholian fraud concocted in the name of greed, a cynical con job, an empowering queer messiah, a legitimate artist or a calculating business woman? I am interested in the possibility that she might just be all of these things and more. And I’ve got sexy fascist go-go boys on standby to help me figure it out.

Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical previews Sat, Feb 19 at 10pm as part of the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. Info:

Alistair Newton is a Toronto-based playwright, a director of theatre opera and a medium-sized Monster.

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