Lady Gaga: Pop Star for a Country and an Empire in Decline

"If there are zeitgeist moments for products, movie stars, and even politicians, then such moments can exist for weaponry as well. The robotic drone is the Lady Gaga of this Pentagon moment."

So wrote Tom Engelhardt, in an essay titled "America Detached from War," and he couldn't have picked a more perfect metaphor. Gaga is sexy, ubiquitous, and oh so of-the-moment. She exists on a line between monstrous and beautiful, making us ask questions about progress, about agency, about control, about men and women, about Americans and the world. She is both a perfect embodiment of American cultural dominance and subverting what that means at every turn.

Gaga-analysis could fill a library at this point. It is impossible to ignore her. She demands in a voice somewhere between a howl and a snarl at the Grammys "I wanna be a star!" and she makes philosophers (like Nancy Bauer, in a New York Times piece) as well as pop critics talk about her.

The Predator drone is the latest and sexiest symbol of American dominance through military technology; Gaga is the latest and sexiest symbol of cultural hegemony. The media is full of both of them, breathlessly discussing the capabilities of the unmanned drones, a giant leap forward in our technology, a way to detach us even further from the reality of war, to spend a day at war and then go home to the family at night. And of course picking over the latest Lady Gaga video -- a cultural event that has turned YouTube into the site of the new Fireside Chat. Instead of talking about the news, millions of Americans talk about the new Gaga video.

Meanwhile, Predator drones kill civilians in countries that millions of Americans probably couldn't find on a map. Wars continue, dead bodies pile up. The living bodies of women are contested territory abroad and at home. And the body of a 24-year-old white woman who regularly calls herself a monster is one of the few things we come together to discuss. America dominates the world; Gaga dominates our pop culture universe.

We have made monsters out of others in order to kill them without fear. Gaga makes herself a monster to try to show us ourselves.

So Succsexy

Follow the pattern -- the hemlines, the headlines/Action distraction,faster than fashion… War as we knew it was obsolete/Nothing could beat denial

So sang Canadian indie pop group Metric in the run-up to the Iraq war. Iraq was our Lady Gaga back then, with all the hype about new technology and American sex appeal splashed all over the headlines, the TV. We heard about smart bombs and "shock and awe." It was broadcast as entertainment as much as news.

When when the news flash came announcing the beginning of the Iraq invasion I was trapped in my house on the third day of a blizzard and had succumbed to watching American Idol. The broadcast broke right from a pop song to bring me footage of explosions in the sky over Baghdad.

Fast-forward more than 7 years later, and we've reached a saturation point --Iraq doesn't even get day-to-day coverage in the corporate media. It has faded into the background, just another facet of our lives. People in their twenties now have grown up on war. People Lady Gaga's age (she's 24).

Empire Down

There's always been something deeply problematic about the way war is sold, about pitching the idea of heroism to young men (and now to women too). The Iraq war was sold like it was a pop star, something sexy to look up to, and snuck into video games and YouTube videos, and the mainstream media mostly didn't question. We saw stronger, fiercer critiques of war from our pop music than we did from the people we were supposed to look to for guidance.

The selling of war has informed our pop culture as much as any previous stars have. Where fame was something that happened to stars before, Lady Gaga launched a full-on assault on the culture and scrambled her way to the top, planted a designer six-inch heel and raised her flag. More so even than Madonna, she has learned her technique from America itself. As much as sexiness, violence and a sense of unease and even voyeurism saturate her music and her videos.

Tom Ewing at popular music criticism site Pitchfork wrote of Gaga entering her "imperial phase," a line he took from the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant. Something about the phrase is so right, as he notes: "It holds a mix of world-conquering swagger and inevitable obsolescence. What do we know about emperors? That they end up naked: The phase always ends."

Command and self-definition are two of Ewing's requirements for the pop imperial phase. These are obvious: like any nation's imperialism, they require not only the ability to get there but having a concept that can be packaged and exported. The U.S. didn't create an empire by invading each time; we have imposed our idea of America on the world, as often through selling and spreading pop culture as through selling weapons and dropping bombs. Gaga is not only a metaphor for American imperialism, she is part of it.

But the third requirement Ewing lists is the most interesting. He says, "Stars have to get through this barrier -- they need a kind of permission to become imperial." But a few sentences later he notes that Gaga "grabbed this permission," calling into question his own definition of the word -- if it's something you can grab, after all, what kind of permission is it?

Does it mean, perhaps, that Gaga, or the U.S. had to make themselves palatable, package themselves well so that you want to take them home and love them, even want to be loved by them? The popular YouTube video of the former Stefani Germanotta, before she became Lady Gaga, performing on a piano, her hair long and brown, singing her heart out, still an NYU student, is compelling but ultimately forgettable -- making herself blonde and pretty as well as covered in glitter and couture is part of the persona. The package is all-important, the right colors and shine.

The U.S. cannot drop its veneer, its own belief in its benevolence, or the whole charade falls apart. We are perhaps more dangerous now under Obama, with a sheen of multiculturalism, change, democracy, than we were under Bush, who provoked the world's hatred by not caring what they wanted. He imposed American empire; Obama looks for permission.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Lady Gaga is almost unavoidable in the world of mass pop culture. Just type one L into YouTube search, as I did while writing this article, and "Lady Gaga" is the first suggested response. In part because she is the first true Internet-age pop star, the first one who has mastered the use of YouTube instead of MTV to release videos-as-cultural-events, in part because of her aforementioned "imperial phase." On the other hand, you have to get as far as I-R-A before "Iraq war" is even a suggested option in Google. More people want to learn about inspirational quotes or the band Iron Maiden, it seems, than the war.

Gaga is the monster. She's embraced the term, loves it. Re-releasing her album The Fame as The Fame Monster, adding tracks and self-awareness at the same time, she knows that her appeal lies in subversion as much as anything else, that she attracts and repels simultaneously. That she is blonde and thin and scantily clad -- American as blonde-apple-pie -- but also consciously twists and misshapes her body, slathers on makeup and impossible shoes, adds oversized eyes and a protruding spine. She's a female-to-female drag queen, playing with the artifice of Western femininity, showing it for the performance it is, showing the ugliness just below the surface.

The third-wave feminist line "fuck your fascist beauty standards" comes to mind; in her most recent "Alejandro" video she is consciously playing with fascist beauty imagery. Gaga's soldiers are perfectly sculpted mostly-naked boys, Aryan, white, uniform, dressed in black. She's made whiteness itself into an army (in a song where she fetishizes a Spanish-named boy with the crude line "hot like Mexico"), while she makes a weapon out of her body, strapping machine guns to her breasts as she dances surrounded by her leatherclad soldierboys, while she simulates violent sex with herself in the top position, the "male" position.

In her video for the song "Telephone" she also plays with the rumor that she's a hermaphrodite or a transgender woman, even while reasserting (through the mouths of two prison guards whose bodies hardly fit gender norms themselves) her femininity?one guard to another "I told you she didn't have a dick" -- she is replanting the idea in people's heads that behind that blurred-out box over her genitals there might be something threatening. And her rendition of a "cell block tango" inverts prison stereotypes, all white women, tattooed and studded and snarling.

The real-life Gaga has embraced the gay community, not only in her ambiguous sexuality in her videos and her toying with rumors about her biological sex, but literally, speaking at the National Equality March and thanking the gay community even when appearing on The Today Show. Gaga is not only America's dominant cover girl pop star, but she chooses to align herself with a marginalized community over and over again. While even Obama, elected with the gay community's support, quietly disappoints, Gaga reminds over and over that this marginalized community is part of America too.

While sexuality is always present in her videos, Gaga often plays as well with the idea of wounds, of injury, of disability. She shows up to award show performances splashed in fake blood, puts herself in a wheelchair in the "Paparazzi" video, then crutches. While we see bloodless warfare on the nightly news and photographs of actual dead soldiers are cause for controversy, Gaga's fake blood gets the media talking. She features burned-out bodies (the video for "Bad Romance") or diners full of poisoned corpses("Telephone"); she makes a cool 911 call at the end of "Paparazzi" and informs the operator "I just killed my boyfriend. Indiscriminate murder is one of Gaga's themes. She reminds us that American culture is drenched in blood, and couples those images with constant references to her own fame.

She seems to ask with each outrageously violent image: since she is famous, can she do whatever she wants?

Gunshots By Computer

It seems our favorite pastime has become our most fair future Technology has failed us, gunshots by computer

"Gunshots by computer," Saul Williams' line, is the best single phrase to sum up the new horrors of warfare, the new age of drone-dominance. Not only are most of us detached from the consequences of war, now even those who fight it are detached from it.

We've had a cultural obsession with machines growing beyond our control for years, from the Terminator movies to The Matrix. We fear creating monsters in the machine, but we don't stop moving forward with technology that we can't quite control: we don't seem to be able to see the connection between those fears and the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, say, or our ongoing deficit spending to finance wars. It's not the machines that are growing too human; it's that we are dehumanizing ourselves.

Ann Powers noted that part of Gaga's appeal is that "She's tapped into one of the primary obsessions of our age -- the changing nature of the self in relation to technology, the ever-expanding media sphere, and that sense of always being in character and publicly visible that Gaga calls 'the fame' -- and made it her own obsession, the subject of her songs and the basis of her persona."

Of course Powers probably intends reference more to communication technology, to our on-demand lifestyles, than she does to warfare. Yet Gaga has embraced artifice, created a pretty pop persona, then makes herself threatening with false eyes and a protruding spine, commits murder, makes her very body a weapon. In the "Alejandro" video she takes Madonna's "bullet" bra to a whole new level with actual guns on her breasts. She is conducting pop dominance as warfare, though disguised in nonsense words and club beats.

She makes herself into a weapon while America pulls itself further away from the scene of the killing. If we can operate drones in Pakistan, a country where we haven't declared war, from an office in South Dakota -- if we can wiretap people at home without warrants -- where is the battlefield? Where is the home front? Where are we? What are our limits? If we enter Lady Gaga's cultural universe, we might wonder if we have any.

James Parker, at the Atlantic traces Gaga's trail of destruction through pop: "She's finishing it off, each of her productions gleefully laying waste to another area of possibility." She is, he says, the Last Pop Star. She's on top for now, the appropriate star for a country and an empire in decline. When she is gone, what will be left?

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