Mark Simpson on the Camille Paglia vs. Lady Gaga Feud

9.26.2010

By Mark Simpson

That mesmerizing meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards -- where she picked up eight trophies, including Video of the Year for 'Bad Romance' -- displayed a spooky kind of prescience. The inevitable lip-smacking Gaga backlash seems almost to be a predetermined part of the Gaga plot. And to those who like to tut and roll their eyes over the meat dress and intone 'It's been done before, dear,' please remind me again which year it was that a female artist, let alone the biggest artist in the world, accepted an MTV award, or any music award, dressed as a rib-eye?

Gaga 'wants to have it both ways,' complained Paglia in The Sunday Times, 'to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal.' But isn't that what really great pop -- pop as a total art form -- tries to do? Put images and concepts into contexts they're not supposed to inhabit? Like the pop charts? Isn't that what Madonna at her best was doing? Yes, it's probably ultimately a doomed project, but if there's anything that approaches avant-garde for the masses, it's that meat dress at the MTV awards, or that jaw-dropping video for 'Bad Romance,' complete with smoking skeleton and sparking bra.

In the indignant roll call of the artists Gaga has 'ripped off,' one who is rarely mentioned is the Australian-born performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related illnesses. Bowery defied gender, and pretty much any category you care to mention, with his stunning, hilarious, and terrifying body-morphing outfits, sometimes fashioned out of his own (ample) flesh. Like Gaga, he had a very keen sense of humor about what it means to be human and set out to sabotage conceptions of 'sexiness.' Famously, he once lay on a divan in a shop window in a London art gallery preening himself for a week.

Gaga, however, is reclining in the shop window of the world. Paglia's accusation that Gaga is 'asexual' spectacularly miss the point that Gaga is postsexual. She's post'the now boringly compulsorily 'sexy' world that Madonna helped usher in, bullwhip in hand, which is now as burned-out as that 'Bad Romance' skeleton. Gaga isn't asexual or even particularly androgynous -- she's transexy. She's deliberately overexposing 'sexiness,' making it as transparent as her skin sometimes seems to be. Instead of just rubbing herself up, she's showing gender and sexuality up by taking them to grotesque extremes. Even if she sometimes looks like Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.

But I doubt any of this will persuade those of my generation who have decided to spoil the younger generation's fun and let them know how ignorant they are. After all, that's the only kind of fun we oldies have. Even if her detractors' dreams came true and Lady Gaga was publicly burned at the stake in Central Park, they still wouldn't be happy. 'Oh, look at her!' they'd say, rolling their eyes. 'She's so tired! Joan of Arc did that in 1431. She had much better hips. And she did it in French!'

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