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Lady Gaga’s Social Agenda

In Serious fun stuff on May 12, 2011 by azybazy Tagged: , , , ,

The aim of this article is to highlight the social agenda behind the ‘spectacle’ that Lady Gaga constructs in her performance. I believe that Lady Gaga questions and critiques the process of Othering and racial stereotypes through ‘spectacle’ although it may appear to function as a publicity stunt or a form of brand equity. In doing so, I feel that she emulates Caliban, Shakespeare’s ‘Monster’ in The Tempest to create a sense of identification with the Other through her body, movement, make up and attire. Thereafter, I shall attempt to highlight the way in which Lady Gaga strategically creates a space for the valorization of the Other in her music videos.

Firstly, I will situate this topic of research within the theoretical framework of Othering and the politics of the body. Secondly, I will discuss various enactments of Shakespeare’s Caliban with particular focus on the Georgia Southwestern State University’s (GSSU) production of The Tempest at the Rylander Theatre and Centre Stage’s performance of Caliban’s Rebellion at the Punchi Theatre. The analysis of the above performances is aimed at highlighting Lady Gaga’s emulation of the Other. In doing so, I shall highlight the way in which Lady Gaga appears to draw from different performances of Shakespeare’s Caliban. The different performances of Caliban shall be divided into two sections based on the interpretation of the Other by the playwrights. Thereafter, I shall highlight the way in which Lady Gaga, strategically appears to adopt aspects of the Other highlighted in the performances of Caliban for two reasons.Firstly, to create a sense of identification and secondly, to create a space for the valorization of the Other in the music videos ‘Bad Romance’ and ‘Born this way’, from her album ‘The Fame Monster’. Finally, this paper shall highlight the way in which Lady Gaga assumes the role of a social critique through her musical performances.

Theoretical Framework

The concept of the Other has been developed predominantly in relation to women (de Beauvoir, 1949) and in relation to anthropological representations of race and ethnicity (Said, 1978). Gates (1986) points out that race acts as “a unifying, and forceful sign of difference in the service of the Other”. de Beauvoir (1949) mentions that no group ever sets itself up as the ‘one’ without at once setting up the Other over against itself…to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’ and aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists. However, it is evident that in creating the Other, a process of hierarchy is involved in order to establish distinctions between the two groups. Said (1978) elaborates on this creation of the Other through Orientalism, the framework that is used to understand the ‘unfamiliar’ and the ‘strange’ by the west.

Said (1978) mentions that Balfour and Cromer describe the Oriental as irrational, depraved and childlike. He also states that in Balfour and Cromer’s language, the Orient is depicted as something one judges (as in court of law), something one studies (as in a curriculam), something one disciplines (as in school or prison) and as something one illustrates (as in a zoological manual) However, Said contradicts this view of the Oriental by stating that the identity and intelligibility of the Orient results not of his own efforts, but due to the complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the west. Wilkinson et al (1996) mentions that Otherness, according to Winzeler, that headhunting, cannibalism, human sacrifice and culturally sanctioned sexual promiscuity are among the best known instances of ‘ethnographic exotica’ in anthropology which symbolize savagery. Henceforth, it is evident that the idea of Otherness, which is constituted through characteristics of savagery, has been used to justify imperial expansion, warfare, Christian Evangelism, colonial control, slavery and appropriation of aboriginal lands. As a result, Said (1978) mentions that these Orientalist notions influenced the people who were called the Orientals as well as those called the Occidental Europeans or westerners. In short, Said believes that Orientalism is better grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought.

According to these arguments, colonialism has not involved simply the use of physical force and military might, it has also involved the construction of representations or discourses of the oppressed which serve to justify the legitimate oppressor. Said (1978) mentions that Europe came to terms with its colonies in the Orient by inventing a discourse of Otherness which involved the re-creation of the people’s history by those ‘outside’ of it, and in doing so established hierarchies of knowledge and power. Therefore, Said’s central argument is that the concept of the Other, which is the acquisition of knowledge about people by virtue of the color of their skin, is not innocent or objective. However, it is the end result of a process that reflects certain interests that are highly motivated.

Another theoretical framework that I will be using to analyze Lady Gaga’s performance is the theory on the politics of the body. Martin (1990) mentions that ‘The body as it is revealed through performance stands as a source of political activity which responds to a particular history’. This concept is very pertinent in understanding the body of Lady Gaga as I believe that it cannot be reduced to a mere reflection of what it opposes about the concept of the Other. I believe that Lady Gaga’s body can be interpreted as taking the shape of the Other not only to critique the concept of the Other. However, to also valorize the experience of being different in a cultural and social hegemony The arguments put forward by the critics with regard to the conceptualization of the Other will be highlighted through the discussion about the theatrical performances of Shakespeare’s Caliban.

Enactments of Shakespeare’s Caliban

The character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be interpreted as the Other due to the following reasons. Firstly, Caliban is presented as the son of a witch named Sycorax, who is an Other in Oriental terms and are considered to be the natives of the island. Secondly, he is presented as a grotesque being that is ‘dark’. Interestingly, the color of Caliban’s skin can be interpreted as an allusion to the element of race, which is predominantly used to create the Other according to Said. Moreover, Caliban is also described as being ‘deformed’ and “like / A thing most brutish” (I.ii.359–360) who needed “human care” (I.ii.349). Also, the fact that Prospero refers to him as a “devil, a born devil’ (IV.i.188) and Stephano’s perception of Caliban as “the most ridiculous monster” (II.ii.157) clearly indicates the derogatory stature given to him due to his position as the Other.

Therefore, this section of the research paper shall discuss the ways in which playwrights’ interpreted the role of the Other in their performances of Caliban. Trevor (1983) mentions that prior to the nineteenth century, critical responses to Caliban were dominated by the interest in ‘preternatural beings’ which exercised most notably Dryden, Rowe, Warton, Johnson, and Mrs Montagu. He also states that in the nineteenth-century theatre, interpretations of Caliban gradually came to reflect broadly colonial and republican themes with Caliban appearing as an ‘underdeveloped native’, a Darwinian missing link and as an oppressed minority.

Trevor mentions that when the actor Benson first played Caliban in the I89Os, he was the first performer who consciously played the part ‘as a sort of missing link’. Benson took his missing-link conception seriously enough to spend ‘many hours watching monkeys and baboons in the zoo, in order to get the movements in keeping with his make-up’. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News according to Trevor mentioned that Caliban was performed as a kind of man-monkey engaging in various acrobatic feats, and passing through a series of grotesque antics, grimacing and gesticulating, grinning and chattering and making a series of discordant, inarticulate noises.

Trevore mentions that George Foss, who directed the play at the Old Vic in I918, portrayed Caliban as someone ‘slow moving and walrus-like’. He was also presented as possessing ‘a fish-like body, with green scales and a most dejected green face’ that was ‘amply repulsive and beast-like in his half-man, half-animal creation’. In Foss’s version of The Tempest, Caliban adopted a particularly gruesome make-up, with an ape’s face, ‘but more hideous, with deadly eyes, a monstrous flat nose, long, thick protruding lips, and two prongs of teeth projecting’, long ‘steel’ nails on each finger and toe, and a ‘sickly yellowish green’ skin covered with long hair to provide the terrifying side of Caliban.

Geogia Southwestern State University’s production of The Tempest also portrays Caliban in animalistic terms as the video clip indicates in four distinct ways. Firstly, the posture of Caliban resembles an animal as he appears to be ‘crouched’ like a four legged animal while the placing of the hands appear to be functioning as paws. Secondly, his green makeup and skimpy white attire resembles an animal or sea creature as opposed to a human. Thirdly, the fact that he produces animalistic sound as opposed to language when he gets the cramp and his positioning of the body during the cramps indicates the director’s interpretation of Caliban as a monster. The portrayal of Caliban in the performances discussed so far clearly highlights implication of the director imbibing the portrayal of the Other through the framework of Orientalism.

The justification for presenting a detailed analysis of the interpretation of the Other is in order to highlight the way in which Lady Gaga draws form these characteristics to create a sense of identification with the figure of the Other. Therefore, in assuming the role of the Other, I believe that Lady Gaga’s motive is not to essentialize the traditional portrayal of the Other in Oriental terms. However, to create a sense of recognition with the depiction of the monster which traditionally alludes to the concept of the Other.

Brief Introduction to Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga, is an American pop singer/songwriter. Heos (2011) mentions that she began performing in the rock music scene of New York City’s Lower East Side in 2003 and enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Lady Gaga is popularly known for her unconventional and exotic attire that attracts the attention of the whole world. Recently, she wore a dress made out of meat for an award show which sparked a great deal of debate, controversy and criticisms. The two songs titled ‘Bad Romance’ (Lady Gaga, 2009) and ‘Born this way’ (Lady Gaga, 2011) are taken from her second album The Fame Monster which consists a collection of eight songs. The first single from this album ‘Bad Romance’ topped the charts in eighteen countries, while reaching the top-two in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, Gaga became the first artist in digital history to have three singles (along with “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”) to pass the four million mark in digital sales. The song won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance while its accompanying music video won the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video. Heos mentions that Gaga’s second studio album and third major release was ‘Born This Way’. The day the single ‘Born This Way’ was released, a tweet by Gaga described the single as “a marriage of electronic music with major […] metal or rock ‘n’ roll, pop, anti-thematic style melodies with really sledge-hammering dance beats”. Lady Gaga’s Emulation of Caliban in her Music Videos The title of the album from which ‘Bad Romance’ and ‘Born this way’ is taken is rather significant in two ways. Firstly, I felt that the title ‘The Fame Monster’ invokes the concept of the Other literally through the use of the image of a ‘monster’. Secondly, it also indicates Lady Gaga’s larger project, which is critique and to valorize the monster, which traditionally alludes to the Other, through her music videos.

Therefore, the aim of this article is to identify the ways in which she identifies with Caliban, the Other, and critique the concept of the Other through her music videos. Lady Gaga in her music video ‘Bad Romance’ takes on the role of Caliban in numerous ways. Her body resembles the body of a monster rather than a conventional female pop artist. Her eyes are made up in such a way that it appears to be too large in proportion to the size of her face. This invariably produces an effect of horror amongst the audience (refer appendix 1). Moreover, Lady Gaga’s body is presented in a curvy position in many instances in the video which I believe draws from the ‘crouched’ position of Caliban as witnessed in the performance of Georgia Southwestern State University’s (GSSU) production of The Tempest. I felt that this was a rather symbolic as it is possible to interpret this crouched position as Lady Gaga’s way of symbolizing the characteristics such as incompetency, inadequacy and savagery, which are traditionally associated with the Other through movement. Therefore, it is possible to draw parallels between this posture of Lady Gaga’s body to the posture associated with Caliban. Moreover, the movement of her hands during the dance in the music video is shaped similarly to the paw of an animal, which interestingly is reminiscent of the hands of Caliban in GSSU’s production of The Tempest. Furthermore, towards the end of the video Lady Gaga wears a white dress that is made of fur which is attached with the face of polar bear at the back (refer appendix picture 2). I felt that this was reminiscent of Caliban’s depiction as ‘amply repulsive and beast-like in his half-man, half-animal creation’ as mentioned by Trevor. Moreover, in that very scene, there are two monument of a deer attached to the wall which furthermore emphasizes the animalistic nature that she embodies and represents. Significantly, I was also able to see a parallel between the similarity between the type of sound produced by Lady Gaga and Benson’s performance of Caliban. Trevor, as previously mentioned, states that Benson produced ‘a series of discordant, inarticulate noises’. The chorus of ‘Bad Romance’ also consists of such noise and sounds such as ‘Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah /Roma, roma, ma ma/ Gaga, ooh, la, la’ which is repeated six times through out the video. I felt that this was rather indicative of one of the primary characteristic of Caliban, which is his possession of his native language.

Significantly, at the beginning of the music video of ‘Born this way’ there appears an exotic looking woman with blue eyes who is giving birth to a child. I was able to draw a parallel between this woman and Sycorax due to two reasons. Firstly, she has blue eyes and therefore is similar to Sycorax who is described as ‘the/ blue eyed hag’ (1.ii.272). Secondly, she gives birth to a child who can be interpreted as Caliban, as Lady Gaga is presented as half animal and half human in the video (refer appendix picture 3) . Lady Gaga embodies the half human half monster image through make up and attire. Her make up draws from animalistic features that resemble a cat with whiskers and black nose whilst her attire conforms to one worn by humans, which is a tuxedo. These instances clearly highlight Lady Gaga’s emulation of Caliban, the figure of the Other to a great extent in her music videos. As mentioned previously, these aspects that Lady Gaga has borrowed from the performance of Caliban belong to the depiction of the Other in its traditional sense of being ‘the missing link’. However, I believe that Lady Gaga provides a space where the Other is critiqued valorized in her music videos. In order to highlight this, I shall draw parallels between Jehan Aloysius’s Caliban in Caliban’s Rebellion and Lady Gaga in her music videos of ‘Bad Romance’, and ‘Born this way’.

Parallels between Lady Gaga and Aloysius’s Caliban in Caliban’s Rebellion I was told by my superiors and peers that Jehan Aloysius interpretation of Caliban subverted the characteristics that were traditionally placed on the Other. As I did not watch this play, a guided interview with Jehan Aloysius was conducted to gain a comprehensive understanding of the character portrayal of his Caliban. My intention for interviewing the director was to firstly identify the way in which he subverted Shakespeare’s Caliban through the character portrayal of his Caliban. Secondly, to identify whether Aloysius’s ‘subverted’ Caliban shares similarities with Lady Gaga. Interestingly, during the process of the interview it was evident that his character portrayal of Caliban was not confined to the characteristics traditionally placed on the Other. In fact Aloysius’s Caliban possessed agentive and subversive qualities that questioned and critiqued the concept of the Other.

Jehan Aloysius mentioned that his Caliban was not as animalistic as Shakespeare’s appeared to be. He mentioned that he provided a humanistic element to Caliban by making him fall in love, play musical instruments and provide the ability to share a cordial relationship with Miranda. Furthermore, Caliban was projected as the hero of the play as he was a good looking, muscular and rebellious individual who was larger in size than Prospero, Ariel, Ferdinand and the rest of the characters. Aloysius mentioned a few interesting ways in which he differentiated his interpretation of Caliban from Shakespeare’s Caliban. He firstly mentioned that he shows a progression in character through the posture of Caliban. Aloysius mentioned that during the initial stages of the play the posture of Caliban was rather ‘crouched’. However, as the play progressed he gradually started to straighten up. Consequently, when Caliban confronts Prospero, he is presented as more of a human that an animal who is vertical in posture and is also larger and muscular than Prospero. Secondly, a sub narrative of Caliban is presented on stage with the appearance of Sycorax and the history of his birth. Thirdly, his native language is valorized when it is given significance through a chant Caliban recites to conjure the dark arts. Fourthly, Caliban attempts to teach his native language to Stephano and Trinculo, which I thought was rather interesting as it is given a sense of recognition as opposed to being considered as ‘animalistic’ noise in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The above interpretations of Jehan Aloysius about Caliban contests the notion of the Other while creating a sense of significance to characteristics that is considered to be unique to a particular kind. The fact that he present Caliban, rebelling against Propero, the figure who is a part of the powerful white hegemonic structure, is very significant due to two reasons. Firstly, he highlights Caliban as possesing the potential to fight against a powerful white leader. Secondly, Caliban is presented as more physically able and larger than the leader of the hegemonic power structure in the play. These second instance in particular, clearly highlights the way in which the traditional depiction of a larger body of the Other is used to valorize strength of the Other. Therefore, it is evident that Jehan has used the body to contest the traditional conceptualization behind the Other.

Interestingly, Martin (1990) mentions that the body is poised to produce physical expressions. It does not lie passive as an object, but has the capacity to act. In particular, the performing arts permit the study of the production of desire as defined. They provide the laboratory that isolates the body’s practice from its submerged status in everyday life and thereby provides the model that displays the body’s capacity as the agent of activity. Therefore, theories of politics, which are full of ideas, goes nowhere without bodily movement (Martin.1998). As a result, the body and its movements are the means and ends of mobilizing political theory. I shall use this theoretical framework of the execution of political ideologies through the body and bodily movement to highlight the way in which Lady Gaga uses her body movements to critique the concept of the Other.

Lady Gaga also appears to use the technique Jehan Aloysius uses to highlight the gradual development of the Other through posture. For example in the music video of ‘Bad Romance’, she initially comes out of a white closet that is laid on the ground with the label that says ‘monster’. The label does not only signify Lady Gaga as a monster, but it also symbolically highlights the way in which the Other is traditionally viewed in relation to the lower stage of development of a human being (the concept of Darwin’s ‘missing link’). Interestingly, she comes out of the closet in a ‘crouched’ position like Aloysius’s Caliban. However, she gradually straightens up to a vertical position. As mentioned previously, I believe that this change n posture critiques the backward nature traditionally placed within the concept of the Other. Interestingly, as mentioned previously, Lady Gaga wears a dress that is made of fur and has the face of a polar bear which indicates her half human and half animal body. However, I believe that Lady Gaga is making a very bold and political statement when she burns this dress with the face of a polar bear. I believe that through the erasure of the animalistic dimension on her body, she is claiming the fact that the Other doe not possess characteristics that are associated with animals such as being primitive, savage and inadequate in terms of knowledge and physical development.

Therefore, there appears to be a sequence of character development from the ‘crouched’ figure that comes out of the closet to the human body that remains at the end of the video. Consequently, the in-depth analysis that has been put into this character development is one similar to those in narratives such as in Aloysius’s Caliban’s Rebellion. Hence, I believe that the music videos of Lady Gaga contain a political ideology that is generally presented in narratives and academic discourse. Significantly, Vernallis (2004) mentions that of the other existing narrative music videos, only a handful are developed. He justifies this observation by stating that if the intent of the music video imagery is to draw attention to the song, an in depth analysis of the imagery will take away the concentration of the audience from the song. Therefore, the fact that Lady Gaga’s videos draw the attention of the audience through body, movement and attire cleanly highlights the fact that it is not only aiming at producing musical entertainment, but also ideological critiques and debates that contest social discourses.

Moreover, in the video of ‘Born this way’, Lady Gaga gives recognition to Sycorax, as Aloysius does in Caliban’s Rebellion, who is also represented as the Other, marginalized by both race and gender in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although she is not given a narrative or a sense of presence in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Lady Gaga gives her a narrative of her own and places her as the source of inspiration behind the creation of the song. The music video begins with the words ’This is the manifesto of mother monster’. The fact that the lyrics also say ‘My mama told me when I was young / We’re all born superstars /She rolled my hair, put my lipstick on / In the glass of her boudoir / There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin who you are/ She said, Cause He made you perfect, babe”. Therefore, it is evident that the Other, Sycorax is not only given recognition but is highlighted as the oracle that provides inspiration to Lady Gaga, the body that mobilizes political ideology in the music video. The mobilization of the political ideology is brought out through the lyrics of the song. Vernallis (2004) mentions that there are different aspects of a single topic in a music video. He says that the verse may lay out the situation, while the bridge presents a solution to the problem and the chorus a crystallization of it. Therefore, when a musical and visual section repeats in a music video, we are made to focus on the interest of the performer.

Significantly, the chorus of the song mobilizes the political ideology through words and movement.Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that the chorus ‘I’m beautiful in my way/ ‘Cause God makes no mistakes / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way /Don’t hide yourself in regret / Just love yourself and you’re set / I’m on the right track, baby /I was born this way’, which is repeated six times, mobilizes political ideology as it motivates individuals to be proud of who they are in expression through words and dance, a source that inspires energy to drive an individual to achieve goals. Therefore, I believe that these lines valorize the concept of the Other. The fact that music video begins by stating that this is ‘a birth of magnificent and magical proportions’ furthermore emphasizes the theme of the song, which is the valorization of the Other. Also the lines ‘Don’t be a drag, just be a queen /Whether you’re broke or evergreen /You’re black, white, beige, chola descent / You’re Lebanese, you’re orient / Whether life’s disabilities /Left you outcast, bullied or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today /’Cause baby, you were born this way No matter gay, straight or bi /lesbian, transgendered life /I’m on the right track, baby /I was born to survive’ furthermore illustrates the contemporary way in which the Other is perceived in terms of nationality, sexual orientation, physical capability.

Therefore, the fact that Lady Gaga gives recognition to all types of ‘Others’ in a contemporary context besides gender and race as mentioned by Said, clearly highlights two interesting facts. Firstly, she is giving recognition to all types of Other. Secondly, she is also creating a space to valorize their difference in a hegemony by stating that they were ‘born to survive’ and not be intimidates by those claim power due to their inclusion in hegemonic power structures. Therefore, I believe that the spectacle Lady Gaga creates through her body, attire, make up and movement are not to merely create a brand in the music industry that consists of numerous pop artists, but due to her intention of making her audience aware about the type of social discourses we unquestioningly imbibe. The fact that she provides a space in her music video to understand the process by the way in which the Other has been constructed, she is making her audience question concepts such as Said’s Orientalism through the body, attire, make up and movements. Moreover, she also provides a space for the valorization of the Other, in order to give recognition to those who are marginalized. Henceforth I would like to conclude this research paper by stating that Lady Gaga is indeed ‘meta- pop’ as she exceed the expectations of a conventional pop artist by not only providing entertaining musical performances, but also a critical space to question and critique concepts of the Other.