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poker face
lady gaga's image control
by mike julianelle
8.6.10
pop culture

A few months ago I wrote a hilarious column about the ways in which women inadvertently make themselves less attractive to the very men they are attempting to attract. And it got me thinking about appearances and superficiality and celebrity culture. And even though my column was about ugly girls and not ugly guys, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Gaga.

Unfortunately, that was a column in which I encouraged girls to sublimate any and all ambitions beyond procreation and therefore concentrate on appealing to me sexually, not one in which I treated women as equals and celebrated any of them for being intelligent (sorry, Aimee!), so I pushed all thoughts of Gaga aside.

But they came back. Which is weird, because other than thinking her lace-mask at that awards show was pretty funny, I’ve never given Jamie Lee Curtis 2.0 (hermaphrodite!) much thought.

And she's nowhere near as funny as this chick:



Gaga is a media darling; a pop superstar in a time when we're sorely wanting for them. And she gets a lot of attention for her outfits and her wacky stage spectacles. People love extravagance, especially during a recession. That's nothing new. And it's not why she's interesting. She's interesting because she's managed to become a huge pop star even though she's kind of ugly.

When MTV killed the radio star, it became increasingly hard for ugly people to become famous, Snooki and friends being obvious exceptions. (I’m not referring to people that are ugly on the inside, Billy Corgan and Liam Gallagher would still be anonymous.) During MTV's heyday you were at a major disadvantage if you had a face better suited to an iPod, even if you had actual talent. You were either forced to hide behind better looking people, go into songwriting or hang yourself.

Happily, one of the byproducts of the digital age is a shift back to music for music’s sake – most people don’t spend their time downloading videos, legally or illegally – and that’s opened the door for uggos like L'il Wayne and that fat lady who impressed Simon Cowell on YouTube last year. But, though the door may have opened a crack, the door definitely still exists. You still can’t be a pop star if you’re not good-looking.

Which is why it’s been kind of fascinating to see Lady Gaga climb through the window.

Sex sells. And sexy people sell sex best. Sexiness and attractiveness do not necessarily go hand in hand (see: Madonna and Mick Jagger), but they work best when they’re at least on a friendly terms. Lady Gaga’s sexiness is up for debate (as are her looks, if you want to get all Christian about it), but I don’t think I’m being cruel or outrageous when I suggest that she’s not exactly the model for...models. Then again, neither was Madonna, and she sold sex like she invented it.

Lady Gaga is clearly the heir to Madonna’s throne - as a provocateur and pop star if not as a talent or a businesswoman – but she doesn’t sell herself via her sexuality. She sells herself by obscuring her sexuality.

Is she a hermaphrodite? No, but you never hear her object to the claim, or even refute it. Because it doesn’t matter that she’s not exactly good-looking or that it's possible she has a penis. She’s redirected the issue away from such middling superficiality by taking superficiality to an entirely new level.

She disguises her looks so they don't sabotage her, and in so doing she’s been able to reverse MTV’s destruction of music - by irrevocably attaching songs to visuals - by eliminating the impact of those visuals. How? By going uber-visual. The outfits she wears don't make any sense at all, they just look crazy; her videos have little to do with her lyrics, they're just publicity stunts. She's gone avant-garde; the lack of logic doesn't matter.

Lady Gaga offsets any debate about her unsuitability for objectification by making her costumes the attraction rather than her Y chromosome and sub-Streisand looks. She’s like Yentl 2K. (God, remember Yentl? Puke city.) Her brilliant use of outrageous costumes and set-pieces deflects fans/critics/media away from their typical bias towards attractive pop stars and puts the focus back on her music. Or at least on the fact that she's a musical artist.

It’s funny that for all this talk about Gaga being some avant-garde pop artist – much of it valid – it might actually be that her “art” is nothing more than a defensive mechanism, a calculated ploy to overcome a potential obstacle in music’s (counter-intuitively) image-obsessed landscape. She may call it “theatricality” but perhaps it’s really just camouflage. But I'm no Jason Seaver, so let's leave the armchair psychiatry to the professionals.

Whatever her motivations, she's a remarkable success story. She's made herself such a freak that no one considers her a freak, no matter how many times she calls her fans "monsters"; we consider her an artist. And in so doing she's muzzled the beauty myth that Don Draper-types and Hollywood and MTV have been shoving down our throats for decades. Maybe she'll create a world in which everyone wears masks and let's the music do the talking, and hopefully that world won't sound like GWAR's albums.

More realistically, maybe she can help erase some of MTV's perversion of what music is all about. After all, if this were the pre-MTV 60s or 70s, no one would care a) that Gaga isn’t necessarily gorgeous or b) that she dresses like a wacko. They would just care about the songs. Because most of the time, no one would see what she looked like or what she was wearing.

In the 2000s, everyone sees everything, all the time. So Gaga hides in plain sight, becoming a pop sensation by showing us bizarre things we've never seen before while simultaneously showing us nothing at all.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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