In 1991, all the cool people I knew seemed to learn a lot from Madonna’s Truth or Dare, a documentary chronicling events behind the scenes on her Blonde Ambition tour. The only thing I learned from it was that I would never be one of the cool people. My friends reacted with delight to Madonna’s eagerness to violate taboos and the licentiousness that characterized her world. I reacted with a horror that, in part, launched my adult quest to make sense of the modern world.
Understandably then, I approached the most recent entry in the “warts-and-all” pop star documentary genre with tense curiosity. Though some moments in Netflix’s newly released Gaga: Five Foot Two seem intentionally reminiscent of Truth or Dare, both the star and the times it captures differ radically.
Where the Madonna of Truth or Dare was devoted to tearing down whatever remained of traditional culture in post-1960s America, Gaga comes across as engaged in another, less well-defined project. Gone are the outrageous costumes and the ironic posturing. Rather, the Gaga of Five Foot Two is the epitome of the sincere but lonely celebrity. Madonna giggled and pranced her transgressive way across every taboo she could imagine. Gaga cries a lot.
Between Truth or Dare and Five Foot Two, the cultural dream of the 1960s died. As recently as 1991, Madonna represented the countercultural conviction that once the last vestiges of bourgeois morality and Christian tradition were excised from American culture, a grand sexual utopia would emerge. What has emerged instead, we now see, is a world marked by fear and tremendous pain.
Of this world, Gaga is chief troubadour. Five Foot Two shows Gaga as a confused but mostly kind woman, who, unlike Madonna, seems to have little faith in any overarching social program. Madonna was obsessed with celebrity as a tool to advance an agenda. Gaga has made ambivalence about fame central to her public image as if, without a cause to champion, she is unsure what fame is for.
The difference between the two becomes even more striking on video. Consider Madonna’s 1986 video for “Open Your Heart,” wherein she plays a dancer at a peep show who initiates a young boy’s sexual awakening. After being denied entrance to the show, Madonna meets the boy outside the theater where she kisses him on the lips, and the pair dance happily off into the sunset and the promise of sexual adventure, with Madonna as mentor and guide.
Twenty years later, Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video told an altogether different story. With its themes of slavery and monstrosity, the world of Gaga’s video is no less sexual, but much less idealistic. In this world, crossing taboos no longer promises fulfillment, and Gaga is no gentle guide into the world of fleshly delight. Rather, she is, alternatively, victim and monster, by turns pathetic and terrifying. In Gaga’s sexual world, only the roles of exploiter and exploited remain.
This contrast arises again in the Netflix documentary. Gaga comes across not as a hardened advocate of sexual experience as the road to fulfillment, but as a young woman broken by the false messages of her culture, even as she has exploited those same messages to great gain. In one poignant moment of the film, Gaga, sobbing, recounts simultaneously her massive commercial successes and her romantic heartbreaks. One gets the impression that, in spite of her image as a champion of hedonism, what Gaga seeks most ardently is a husband, a means of escaping a revolution she did not advance, but whose zenith she did, in her outlandish way, signal.
Having hailed the total victory of the revolution, Gaga seems to wish she could put things back the way they were. She is not alone in this. Her ability to connect with millions of others who are subject to the same longing is key to her massive fame. Sensing the emptiness of our materialistic, indulgent culture, but unable to escape it, she somehow gives voice to those who follow her.
Madonna’s star, of course, has faded, no longer lucky, it seems. She should have retired long ago, as wise revolutionaries do when their side has won and they have become irrelevant. Gaga persists in her despair—a despair which is, of course, no virtue, but an indictment of a virtue-deficient culture. By documenting her sadness so closely in this film, Gaga signals the necessity of the old virtues and, we can hope, opens the cultural space required for them to return.