A preface: This post is not about Lady Gaga. Even though, sure she’s crossed my radar with troubling transphobic/intersex-marginalizing comments in the past, this post is about us/we/people in general: how we consume pop culture and how we politicize those choices. I have absolutely no interest in debating her artistic merit, and will probably ignore your comments if you want to. There are many other places to do that if you like.
I’ll admit this, I have never been much of a fan of the sort of music Lady Gaga makes. My own relationship with dance music hit its apogee during New Wave in the early 1980′s, and once Simple Minds crossed over/was stolen into “bands the dudes who beat the crap out of me now listen to” category I was pretty much done (my own path of consumption wandering off into hardcore, indie, and other genres associated with Chuck Taylors and surly moods). As such, and as with many new artists in that genre, the emergence of Lady Gaga was something I was vaguely aware of but didn’t pay much attention to.
I did take note, however, when she seemed to be gaining a great deal of credibility in the lefty/feminist/queer communities I run in for being an important artist. I began to hear applied to her those terms the media loves to grant female artists who are ‘outside of the mainstream:’ “empowered,” “strong,” “taking ownership of her sexuality,” and so on. Eventually (inevitably?) people began comparing her to Madonna.
Not wanting to remain completely out of touch, last week I found myself watching the video for “Bad Romance” with a friend. Again, to make the point this isn’t a critique of Lady Gaga, I found the song catchy enough, the video was clever (if lacking the strong artistic narrative/vision I’d been led to believe it had from the reviews of peers), and, well, the YouTube feed didn’t underbuffer. Still, I didn’t see how the experience was any different from any number of other songs by any number of other artists. Lady Gaga herself seemed to me just another mainstream attractive, white, thin, cis person with an autotuned voice and a slick video.
As I thought about this Emperor’s New Clothes-like inability to get what the fuss was about, I began thinking about diversity and consumption, and expectations of the viewer. While Lady Gaga might seem like a shift from the standard white/cis/thin/able-bodied/mainstream attractive centre to someone whose own existence is closer to that centre than mine is, from my place out on the fringes of cultural relevance (I’m a trans woman, trust me, I know where I lie on the population distribution chart) I don’t see the shift as being that great. Once I began thinking in those terms it seemed a case of privilege and centering, and I came back to the realization that culture, by and large, is not designed for my consumption.
That Lady Gaga is positioned as a great shift away from, I suppose, less “radical” artists reaffirms the position of cultural consumer as one who exists close enough to those ideals as to see her as significantly different. For those of us who cannot claim for ourselves any part of that position, though, this quickly becomes about disempowerment and reaffirmation of marginalization, because ultimately this is about consumption in its most basic form: the bodies we as a culture declare as attractive or worthy of desire. Even if you cannot check the boxes of privilege Lady Gaga has, if you can check enough of them to envision yourself in the position of viewer/her audience your experience of her is going to be much different from those who cannot. And many cannot.
I’m not suggesting people stop enjoying Lady Gaga, or any of the pop culture they enjoy (I certainly consume my share of it). I do think a more nuanced analysis is always useful, however, and that a far more radical act than declaring something empowering might be to step away from it far enough to see how very little empowerment is has, and for how few.