Monday, September 20, 2010

Two Italian Women Walk into a Bar or What We Can Learn from Camille Paglia's Rant Against Lady Gaga

"Equality is America's prime rib." -Lady Gaga

"Efficiency liberates; egalitarianism tangles, delays, blocks, deadens." -Camille Paglia

Recently I came across a link to an essay written by Camille Paglia espousing her distaste for Lady Gaga and what she called the "Gaga Generation." Before I go further let me note that I am a huge fan of Lady Gaga and am also very familiar with Paglia's body of work and commentaries. Paglia I have never been a fan of but have always accepted her and the place she holds in what I like to call "backlash" feminism. Now that you know my potential biases lets continue.

My very first reaction to the Sunday Times excerpt was anger. Not at Paglia herself but at the millions of people in the world who feel a need to wax philosophically on a subject they not only know little about but feel a need to hate just because it's popular. This kind of behavior is often outgrown but for many they just can't seem to grasp the idea that the world is much bigger than what goes on in their heads. Alas there is a lesson here about patience for those who care less about knowing and taking the time to understand their topic. When we hear negative attitudes from sparsely informed people we can breathe and remember "they know not what they do" and remember to pause before judging. An informed analysis is not only more interesting but also a more loving energy to bring to the world. We can disagree, but don't have to be disagreeable. This is the first step in negating undue conflict.

So just what did Paglia get wrong? Let's start with the title and subtitle of her piece. "Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex: An erotic breaker of taboos or an asexual copycat?" The subtitle alone gives us information about the author's mindset. Here she is saying this is an either - or situation. There are no multifaceted variable understanding and no multiple interpretations. To Paglia we only get black or white, sexiness or stark asexuality. There is no in-between and there is certainly nothing beyond her particular paradigm. Then we have the main title which is more of an announcement that simply makes no sense. Sex is dead... because of Lady Gaga! This pronouncement gives a heck of a lot of power to one pop star and makes the rest of us pretty powerless over our personal lives. If this is the case than I'm pretty sure DADT will be repealed tomorrow without a hitch.

Now lets get into some of Paglia's conjectures. The essay noted in the first paragraph that Lady Gaga is always on tour. This is true, however the idea that Gaga has "escaped serious scrutiny" because of this is ridiculous. Millions upon millions have formed all kinds of opinions about her but those in the music, arts, fashion and other industries have examined her work for a few years. Not to mention Gaga has been discussed meaningfully by culture critics, feminists and LGBTQ writers for quite a while. Many of these observations are dismissive while some embrace Gaga's music, dress, videos and politics/business. Love her or hate her or something else, many people have taken the time to examine Gaga's various deeds. A simple internet search is all it takes to know that, yet Paglia couldn't bother.

Next Paglia opines that Gaga's fans "swallow the whole line" when it comes to Gaga talking about truth and lies. The truth is (ironic) that her fans (like myself) don't swallow everything Lady Gaga says. Some of them do I'm sure just like some swallowed Paglia's ill-informed piece. Some people will always do that with whom or what ever they wish to favor. However I've seen many fans question what Gaga means about all kinds of things she says, especially about how Gaga hates the truth. Not all of her fans like that she say's that, yet still enjoy her music and persona. We humans get to take what we like and leave the rest and I don't know of any fan of any artist who hasn't had to do that at some point. And to be clearish, Gaga's hate for the truth when dissected is pretty intriguing. What is truth? What does it mean to be real or honest? Are there times when a lie is for the best? How can a lie bring an individual closer to the truth? In the quest to love and know ourselves these are important questions and I know for myself there are many days I have parts of myself I don't always show to others. At work I play the part of a helpful worker until I become that. That lie helps me and it is something we all do at points.

The relationship Ms. Gaga has with her fans in Paglia's view is insincere. That Gaga encourages her fans to love themselves " while their cash ends up in her pockets" is certainly worth looking at. However I'd rather pay to see an artist who sends out a message how fabulous we are than one who I pay only to be told over and over how fabulous they are. I can't remember the last time I wanted to buy show tickets for any major label artist without gasping at the expense. Unfortunately that's show business. One nice thing to note is that when Lady Gaga came to town she made a sizable donation to a local LGBTQ youth organization. She may take money but she gives back, something Paglia forgot to mention. And really is it so awful to spend $100 dollars to hear "You are perfect just the way God made you." One therapy session alone is $120 and I don't even hear that.

Paglia's dig about Gaga's manufactured personality sounded wildly close minded. Since when is it not okay for a woman (or anyone) to reinvent themselves from time to time. People change and grow, especially in their twenties. Lagy Gaga is only 24 and is still growing into herself. How many times in films, TV shows and other places do we witness a metamorphosis in a person? Several. And too boot how many of those changes occur alongside a change in outer appearance? Most. How we dress is an expression for many of us, of who we are inside. As we grow is spirit and mind so too do our wardrobes change. Fashion and style give us a medium to grow into ourselves and deepen our connection to who we are and how we represent ourselves. Gaga's outfits are increasingly theatrical and my guess is as she grows and changes those outfits will do the same. Why is that so bad?

The actual text within the essay, in reference to Paglia's main title, about Lady Gaga being and representing that which is sexual but unsexy is filled with hyperbole. Take these lines for example:

"...despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?"

"Every public appearance, even absurdly at airports where most celebrities want to pass incognito, has been lavishly scripted in advance with a flamboyant outfit and bizarre hairdo assembled by an invisible company of elves."

Wow! I hate to say it but someone sounds jealous. On and on Paglia insults Gaga and her supposed generation while claiming "we may have reached the limit of an era." How many times have young people heard something similar? Did we not hear similar arguments about Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Prince and even Madonna? We all have heard and even said "what is the world coming to?" when we witnessed a star pull out their kooky-sexy bag of tricks. That is the nature of pop stardom. The stars output of sexual energy has always sat on the edge of taboo. Taboos change as society changes and much of art these days embrace the macabre. My guess is that two wars, increased poverty and a continued allowance of physical, mental and spiritual violence against the marginalized of the world may have something to do with that.

Madonna was mentioned often in this piece and I could go on and on about why we shouldn't try to compare Gaga to Madge however I want to note something from an astrological view. Lady Gaga has her Sun in Aries and her Moon in Scorpio. Madonna like Gaga has a fire sign Sun, but this time it's in Leo while her Moon is in Virgo. Aries energy is like that of spark. Aries is the beginner and therefore a little rougher, tougher and brighter. Leo is more like a flame. A flame is smoother and beautiful but can become larger or smaller depending on other elements. Gaga burns brightly and what some may see as too hard or too creepy is more of an energy that incorporates all there is to begin a journey. Remember before Aries is Pisces, which marks the end of all things. It is no wonder that there seems to be so much going on with Gaga all the time. Madonna's Virgo Moon notes a sexual energy that likes authority (think naughty Dwight Schrute) while a Scorpio Moon is deep and asks for a bit of danger. So yeah Lady Gaga may indeed like a little death with her sex but she is certainly not the death of it.

One thing oddly fascinating about Paglia's piece was her constant comment on how Gaga looks. I thought that sort of thing we left to chauvinists and catty fashionistas. Referring to Lady Gaga's body as "gangly" is not only mean but couldn't be further from the truth. Gaga has an amazing ass and has actual curves, something we don't celebrate in American culture enough. Beyond that why is Paglia under the impression that Lady Gaga doesn't look sexy to the rest of us. Perhaps what many of us find most attractive about the Lady is that she is confident and presents herself in a way that pleases herself. Gaga is hot because she knows she's hot and she also knows she's changing what others have typically thought to be beautiful in the last several decades. If you're not a perfect size six that is white, young, scar-less, able-bodied and blond in this society, then you're an other. Gaga has a prominent nose, big eyes and a booty. This doesn't make her ugly but for the countless hoards of people who have been brain washed into believing the above mentioned is the ideal, it may be hard to see Gaga as anything else.

Ugh! So many of Camille Paglia's points are off and off-putting that they can't all be addresses without eventually growing bored so here are some highlights:

"She wants to have it both ways – to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal, a practitioner of gung-ho “show biz." And that's bad because...?

"Most of her worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion." Didn't Janis kill herself and Tina get her ass beaten? When Gaga screamed to President Obama "are you listening" about gay rights I guess she was being flat like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. And many of Gaga's fans have the capacity to love Gaga & Janis & Tina. Some of us do enjoy variety.

"Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied..." Huh? What kind of ageist crap is that? And as far as atrophied voices go, the many millions who have benefitted from the ability to give voice to their thoughts, feelings & ideas because of technology I'm sure feel just as alive and able to make use of the internet to share their opinions as Paglia obviously has.

Folks the lessons that Paglia has provided from her essay are many:

1. Have patience with those who rant when they don't know what their talking about.
2. When writing an essay try to actually know what your talking about.
3. If you dislike something get to know it properly so the understanding is clearer and from a more loving place.
4. Chauvinism comes in many forms and ageism is not sexy.
5. When making a point try going beyond the "back in my day" arguement and opt (again) for actual research.
6. If you're feeling jealous try not to take others down just because you feel bad.

In my mind Camille Paglia is not America's foremost critic nor is she much of a feminist. Did she demolish Lady Gaga in her essay? Not in the least bit. Her message to Lady Gaga and her fans was to shut up and try to look sexy in the "normal" way. Paglia grunted her misunderstandings only to those who, like her, don't care to really listen to Gaga's music, lyrics or message. That's okay because the rest of us are going to dance, be free and love ourselves. Whenever Camille is ready I know she too is invited to the party.

Links on the topic:
Critics Notebook
What's Paglia Got to Do with It?
Camille Paglia's Attack on Lady Gaga
and for a little balance

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