Fri. September 2
Performance Art: The Faux Creativity of Lady Gaga
To help promote Acculturated Templeton Press is making select essays from the book available for free on this website. This one, courtesy of Emily Esfahani Smith, tackles the tricky issue of creativity in our post-post-(one more post?)-modern world.
In 2008, Lady Gaga’s debut album “The Fame” topped the pop charts worldwide, and its first two singles—the disco-inspired “Just Dance” and sexually-provocative “Poker Face”—were international number one hits. In 2009, hungry fans made her the most-Googled female celebrity of the year. In 2010, the sadomasochistic music video for her booming hit “Bad Romance” became the most watched item in YouTube’s history, receiving nearly 180 million views (update: 406+ million views at time of posting). That same year in March, Yahoo Music reported that Lady Gaga became the only act in the digital era to top the 5 million sales mark with her first two hits, while the tech-website Mashable noted that Lady Gaga was the first artist to have her videos reach one billion viewer hits. She is the only pop-artist in history to snatch six consecutive number one hits on the Billboard charts.
How did Lady Gaga become such a standout? To begin with, she’s got a knack of sending sadomasochistic rape-like fantasies—in songs and videos that double as catchy club hits—to the top of the charts. The song Poker Face, which is about being with a man while pretending to be with a woman, has a nod rough sex in it (“baby when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun”). The music video for Bad Romance is about being a sex slave. The climax of the video hits when she’s thrown at the feet of a group of shirtless, tattooed men who look like Russian mobsters. “I want your revenge,” she howls in the song. In the same song, she craves a “leather-studded kiss in the sand.” Then there’s her song, “I Like it Rough,” which needs no explanation.
Lady Gaga is no simple pop-star, she is a pop phenomenon—in the overheated rhetoric of The Atlantic Monthly, she is “something like the incarnation of Pop stardom itself.” Gaga’s wild popularity—from the cult-like adoration of her fans, whom she calls “little monsters,” (a hat tip to her second album “The Fame Monster”) to her record-breaking hits—can be chalked up to her creativity, or so say her little monsters. She is “creative and fresh,” one young fan tells me, she’s “something that I haven’t seen before in pop culture.” Lady Gaga and her fashion sense are “one and only” in the world, says another, whose first language isn’t English. One fan idolizes Gaga’s creativity because “she has broken ground and put a new face on this decade of music”—“this decade” being the only one the fan knows culturally.
That new face, in case you’ve never seen a picture of Lady Gaga, looks like that of a woman posing as a cross-dressing man—a woman who celebrates rough sex, rape-like fantasies, and murder—a woman whose message is, as she told the LA Times, “I want women—and men—to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they’re always trying desperately to hide. I want that to become something that they cherish.” She is all at once vaudevillian and carnal. At all times, she is in full Gaga-attire, which means she either looks like a cartoon-alien or a “transvestite ballerina,” as a writer for the UK’s Times Online puts it. “Look at her fashion statements,” one fan says, when I ask why Gaga is creative.
To her young audience, Lady Gaga is the epitome of creativity, which is why she is so successful. But on a cursory glance, it looks like Lady Gaga is recycling old ideas—how creative can that be? She takes her cues from Andy Warhol, Queen, Grace Jones, Prince, and David Bowie. To those with a longer memory than her fans, her disco-hits and androgynous-flare descend from the Glam-Rock of the ’70s. She is a sexual provocateur, like Madonna was in the ’80s and ’90s.
Yet her fans swear that she is something new, and different, and rebellious—which is the paradox of creativity in pop-culture. In pop culture, the market replenishes itself with new young faces every decade or so. Most of Gaga’s fans weren’t even alive over 30 or 20 years ago. Here, Gaga is cutting edge. “I am fascinated by and respect her uniqueness and unabashed embrace of her own outlandish ideas,” one fan swoons.
That definition of creativity has come to dominate the popular culture in modern times—being creative means being novel, outlandish, a one-off. But it was not always thus.
Throughout Western history, the definition of creativity has remained fluid. The concept of creativity was initially limited in the West by strict canons and divine order. Eventually, though, that notion of creativity gave way to a tide of romantic individualism in the 19th century and even rebellion in the 20th century. In the twenty-first century, being a rebellious individual is the apotheosis of creativity.
In the classical Greek world and during the medieval times, the concept of creativity was attached to the concept of divinity. Mortimer Adler, the American philosopher who wrote extensively about the West, explains Plato’s take: “There are two kinds of creativity—divine and human.” Divine creativity “brought the world into being” while human creativity concerns itself, to quote Adler, with the “fashioning of works of art out of natural materials.” In making art, humans were not creators, but craftsmen. Art, to Plato, was imitation. He writes that, painting “is just the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature.”
The craftsmen of ancient Greece fashioned their art by following strict canons ordained, they believed, by divine powers. Though the artists were making something new, there was little to no room for imagination, or for creativity as we use the word today. Adler writes, “In the Greek tradition, artistic creativity is associated with discipline, conscious purpose and acquired skill. It is a rational and deliberate process.”
For instance, the glowing sculptures of the high classical period in Greek art did not seek to imitate the body of an athlete or a young girl, but they sought to replicate the essence of the platonic form of the body. Keith Sawyer, who has spent his academic career studying creativity at Washington University in St. Louis, notes that the Greek craftsman was “someone who was particularly skilled at representing the pure essences underlying certain forms” using natural materials. And with music, the composers, too, were following a canon: one that replicated the harmony of the orbs in heaven.
The great exception to this rule was poetry. For the Greeks, the poet could be endowed with creativity, but only through communion with the divine—for instance, with the Muses. In this sense, poetic creativity was a form of divine, not human, creativity. Interestingly, in The Republic, Plato banished poets from his ideal city, saying that their daemonic powers were dangerous.
In the Roman world, the human being became the central focus of art. Rather than depicting the gods or stories from myth in art, as the Greeks did, the Romans focused their attention on emperors and historic events, aristocrats and senators, soldiers and slaves. Art was brought down to earth: humans, not gods, were the subjects of art and the curators of creativity.
But with the onset of Christianity, creation again is delegated to God alone. He created the world from nothing, creatio ex nihilo. During the medieval period, artists were viewed as craftspeople—like shoemakers or smiths—hired to serve a function. Patrons would pay artists and specify what they wanted in a work, which was usually religious art for worship. The artist in turn was less an “artist” as we think of the word today—a lone creator—but more of a studio manager. The master and apprentices all worked together to create a work of art. It was not an individual effort.
During the Renaissance, the philosophical ground for and individualism was laid. But it took some time for it to be applied in the popular culture. It isn’t until the 19th century, with the dawn of romanticism, that creativity becomes the province of the individual. In that period, the poetic creator, says Sawyer, is a “lone, solitary artist expressing an inner vision.”
Think of Samuel Coleridge. He longed to create a public image of himself as a solitary genius. There’s a story that he wrote his famous poem “Kubla Khan” in an opium-induced haze—with no revisions. It turns out that Coleridge fabricated this tale. In fact, he labored over multiple drafts of the poem. But he sought a certain image that was admired during that period and still is today (like rock and roll singers getting high on drugs and then composing their music—another common fabrication). A few decades later, Sigmund Freud affirmed this notion of creativity. As Adler writes, Freud sees “artistic creativity as originating in the unconscious depths of the mind and as expressive of emotional impulses.”
This is the concept of creativity that takes hold of Western culture until the mid-20th century. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock even made spectacles of their lone-creativity by inviting audiences into their studios to watch them, in their manic crazes, paint. But the 1960s changed all that.
Andy Warhol, the most famous spokesperson of the pop-art movement, rejected the idea of the lone, creative artist. Warhol famously said, “I want to be a machine,” “I like boring things,” “I like things to be exactly the same over and over again,” and “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Art was a commodity to be mass-produced for a mass-public, not a carefully planned and executed work that was emotionally inspired—thus Warhol’s famous painting of repeating Campbell’s Soup Cans. Authenticity in creativity was out; the market was in.
At the same time creativity was becoming increasingly defined by rebelling against authority and convention. The more provocative one was, the more attention one received and the more successful one could become. Nowhere was deviance more palpable than in the rock and roll scene that began in mid-1950s America and took off in the ’60s. The currency of pop-music and pop-art was the utter irreverence to authority. With pop-music, the best way to inflame social mores was through sex. Think Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations. As Camille Paglia, the social critic who wrote Sexual Personae, notes, “If you live in rock and roll, as I do, you see the reality of sex, of male lust.”
A major point of departure between the pop-art and pop-music, however, was authenticity: bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, assumed the image of singer-songwriters, artists who created music themselves. Warhol, by contrast, reveled in inauthenticity. For the next four to five decades in pop-music, stars who fashioned themselves as authentic singer songwriters—like Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and numerous rap stars who allege to be “legit” and from the street—coexisted on the pop-music scene with those who were shamelessly inauthentic—the Disco movement, Madonna, and Britney Spears.
In interview after interview, Lady Gaga cites Warhol as a chief inspiration to her work. Like Warhol, Gaga revels in artifice—her songs, videos, and live performances are heavily produced—but she also claims to be authentic, to write her own songs. Like Warhol, she has a manufactured image, which by this point has become an iconic brand, but she’s also starkly individualistic.
Lady Gaga’s secret may be that she’s carefully walked the line between authentic and inauthentic. She has managed to take the market appeal of pop-art and the rebellious spirit of rock and roll and combine it with her outlandish individualism. The common thread running through all of these elements of her persona is, of course, sexual deviance and mass-produced hedonism.
A good many pop-culture critics compare Lady Gaga to Madonna, saying that like Madonna, Gaga is a savvy exploiter of her sexuality. Madonna, in her 1990 music video, Justify My Love, was unlike anything seen at the time. The video was banned from MTV for sexual content. She released an entire CD in 1992 called Erotica, devoted to sadomasochism. A feature of her worldwide tours was masturbating on stage. By provoking the culture, she ensured that she was a constantly relevant, constantly famous figure in it.
While pushing boundaries is nothing new in the world of pop-music, every generation of pop-stars must push the boundaries further to make their mark and stay relevant. Lady Gaga, especially as a woman, knows that to sell more records, she needs to incorporate sex into her image. And, because she’s a savvy businesswoman, she knows that the only way to stay relevant in the market is not just to be sexy, but to do something new with her sexuality that reflects current sexual kinks. In today’s culture, homosexual and transgender sexualities are highly fashionable. And to quote a recent salon.com column by Paglia, “Entertainment, media and the arts are nonstop advertisements for homosexuality these days.” Playing into this, Gaga has adopted an androgynous, homo-sexy look.
Like most people who claim the transgender mantle, Gaga does not look sexy, but grotesque. Instead of pleasure, she celebrates pain. As an LA Times culture columnist writes, “Gaga’s work abounds with images of violation and entrapment. In the 1980s, Madonna employed bondage imagery, and it felt sexual. Gaga does it, and it looks like it hurts.”
In the age of the internet, when people have easy and quick access to an ever-larger, ever-replenishing pool of pop-music, stars have to do more and more to make themselves stand out against their competition. According to Gary West, “Her audience likes to see how far she will go. I think that’s how they define her creativity.”
With Icarean hubris, Gaga thinks she will leave no boundaries behind—thus, The Atlantic’s brash conclusion that “She’s the last pop-star: Apres Gaga, the void.” But there will always be more limits to push. The only question remains: does pushing them make you creative?