9:16 am May. 25, 2011
The American Republic maintains an elaborate social and material infrastructure for choosing, housing, venerating, and disciplining its Vestal Virgins, much as the Roman once did before it.
These were, in the latter, daughters of the senatorial class; they tend, in the former, to be just as likely plucked from regions below the Mason-Dixon Line or between the Mississippi and the Rockies. But they become, whatever their origin, icons of civic health, wealth, and fashion.
If a Vestal broke her celibacy or let the sacred flame she was defending go out—then as now, one’s more or less considered a sign of the other—she was entombed alive in an underground chamber. That is, sacrificed in a manner slow and operatic enough not to spill any of her blood, which remains sacrosanct, and so ripe for a death-watch liveblog.
In late 2007, when Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame was being recorded (“Just Dance” made it to the airwaves April of 2008; the album arrived the following fall), the grisly vivisection of young female bodies and psyches as material for the celebrity–industrial–iTunes complex had reached something of a crisis point. Blackout, Britney Spears’ fifth studio album and her first post-postpartum derangement, arrived October of that year. Distant, inorganic, orgiastic, and bleak, that Schopenhauerian classic was the album of the last decade. At the time, however, it was merely assumed to be Spears’ last record (and, perhaps, will and testament), with the opening line, “It’s Britney, bitch!” a defiantly tawdry culmination of a public deflowering that played out like a decade-long Lars von Trier movie.
Spears herself had led into the House of Vestals perhaps its most capable and conniving class ever, girl–women who cut their deciduous teeth in preteen battles over Mouseketeerships. By 2007, once in her cohort—Beyoncé Knowles—had, with the indomitable hypercompetency of a model bureaucrat, ascended to demigoddess status. The rest turned half-heartedly against the institutions that made them, staking out positions as various flavors of anti-Britney in a pose of self-realization that simply added to the taint of prefab dependence a reputation for sovereign bad taste. No longer interchangeable ingénues, we had the desperately warbling would-be nymphomaniac (Christina Aguilera), the tough-as-manicures feminist manquée (Pink), the Machiavellian stay-at-home ditz (Jessica Simpson). This was the new American-Girl dream: spit out, from nowhere, and chewed up, by everyone, everywhere.
Even those who by dint of talent or temperament could avoid the cursus honorum that begins with a childhood Disney contract could hardly escape, or resist, the sheer pagan spectacle of pop-tart stardom. Critical consensus, like crack cocaine, hits even harder and faster than powdery teen popularity; the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse in 2007 was so radically ballistic, it’s hard to remember whether it actually happened, as logic would dictate, in that order. (Look out, Adele!) As conditions for pop flameout, drugs and drink and deadbeat significant others are sufficient, but not necessary. Any hint of human vulnerability—interests in vices and virtues besides Fame—can do you in; consider the Winehousian trail blazed a decade earlier by Lauryn Hill.
Yet once the stakes of Dionysian meltdown or Apollonian apotheosis pass, so too wanes our interest in the young chanteuses and divas and dancing queens. The second best album of the last decade—the decidedly uncontroversial Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine—was held up for years, for purported lack of commercial appeal; a dully bowdlerized version officially appeared in 2005, well after all interested parties had downloaded the real thing.
The appearance of Lady Gaga three years ago really seemed to portend a revolution in pop’s means of confession (even as handwringing over autotune, et al. fed a red-herring debate about modes of production). With or without studio Svengali, the honest artist was supposed to be the one who channeled the desperate particularities of her own life into lyrics or delivery or (video) images or all three. We need to believe, truly, that she wants to be a slave for us or doesn’t want to be in rehab. Gaga radicalized matters by making, repeatedly, the one confession so deep, dark, and world-historically distressing it at last provided some durable psychological protection against the public’s right to ever further incursion to, and colonization of, our idols’ inner lives: That is, boys, Dad, and drugs notwithstanding, all she sincerely cares about, intellectually and aesthetically, are the vicissitudes of becoming and being famous.
Celebrities have long boasted some self-awareness about the sausage-making mechanisms of mass-media infamy; usually, this comes off as pitiable (see Carlos Estevez). In The Fame and its annotated edition The Fame Monster (2009), Gaga wasn’t simply self-aware; she was self-interpreting. I am the postmodern Prometheus, she seemed to be saying, most incredibly of all in the Frankenstein-meets-Thriller-meets-Kubrick video for “Bad Romance.” As bottle-blonde bombshell, I am the monstrous culmination of Madonna and Britney, Gwen Stefani and Debbie Harry herself, as closed hermeneutic loop, a zeitgeist machine choked off from the biological frailties of fluctuating mood, weight, energy, interest. And it must be said, as mortal coil, the former Stefani Germanotta has been a model of such fastidious, fascistic opacity as to tell the lie to the privacy hysteria she nodded to in “Paparazzi”; one of the most photographed women in the world, and have you ever seen her candidly eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, driving, being driven, or looking tired, let alone on a date with a human (gross!) or out in sweatpants? Gwen Stefani is not Just Like Us.
Put another way, the innovation of Lady Gaga in the desultory days of 2007 was the difference between becoming a youth icon at 16, as Britney and her ilk did, and becoming one at 22, after a diploma from Sacred Heart and a few solid semesters at New York University—and so, presumably, with enough Freud, Marx, and Gawker to understand her identity as a commodity, and what that really meant. For all its sonic wonders, part of what made Blackout so good in 2007 was how difficult it was to listen to: like watching a martyr being hanged, drawn, and quartered to the beat at Bucharest’s dankest, dodgiest warehouse party. The Fame, by contrast, was unmitigated fun, a likeable young trader making a killing for her personal account with crafty biography arbitrage—who knew there were inefficient markets willing to pay so much for “shut my playboy mouth” and “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick”?
It’s hard not to be moved by the decidedly un-genius bourgeois conventionality of Lady Gaga’s rise: to become a pop star, she didn’t join the toddler beauty pageant circuit or have her mom put home videos on YouTube. She habituated the downtown music and club scene, went to college, read all the critical texts on the subject, surveyed the industry’s employment scene, put together a five-year plan, networked incessantly, and went out and nailed the interviews. She became Britney Spears the way Britney Spears would have if she knew what it meant to be Britney Spears.
Is that enough? A funny thing happened on the way to Gaga’s actuarial calculation for inheriting the pop universe. Britney Spears did not die; she’s released two more astonishing albums not, as Gaga’s latest singles suggest, by being her true self (whether that be “transgender,” “lesbian,” “Lebanese,” or “Orient”) but becoming ever more the zombie ProTools muse on ever more avant-garde numbers produced by young men from Scandinavia and urban America writing about the personality and exploits of Britney Spears™. From Katy Perry to Ke$ha to Rihanna, Nicki Minaj to Janelle Monae, the Gaga path of monastic monomania—fame as a scholastic commitment to thinking deeply, and commenting, about fame—seems to have been choked with bramble and closed off as quickly as it had appeared. Again, Justin Bieber. And Mylie Cyrus. People seem intent on talking, and singing, about the experiences (breakups! breakdowns!) and changes (puberty!) in their lives, whatever the psychic risk.
This makes Born this Way, the Gaga follow-up out today, oddly inert. There is certainly a programmatic theory here about what a progressive pop album should be, and the Gaga who wrote that action plan surely remains one of the suppler thinkers on the subject. But critic finally can’t substitute for genius: Born this Way feels like a novel by Harvard literature professor James Wood or a building by Bernard Tschumi, former dean of Columbia’s architecture school. That is to say, I can appreciate the unmatched care it took to make it—anchored not least in a true enthusiast’s understanding of the canon—but I would really rather be listening to something else.
“Born this Way” and “Judas,” the thumping lead-off singles, sound like the cracked, hadron-colliding soundscapes of Britney’s recent Femme Fatale running on a Pentium III. The Christian-baiting references strewn throughout seem both perfunctory and posed; the young Madonna we could understand as a lapsed Catholic; her name was actually Madonna! Gaga takes as blaspheming the chant, “I’m in love with Ju-das, baby …. Ga-ga! Ga-ga!” Love, perhaps, but Jesus actually kissed the guy.
It’s the late excavations of '80s cheese—saxophone solos are here—that critics have fingered as evidence of trendsetting Gaga lunacy. In fact, hair-metal power-chords and power-sentiments have been an album-track trope for some time now; Rihanna’s absurd and wonderful “California King Bed” is already being featured in a Nivea commercial.
The decent timidity—and, now, unfortunate irrelevancy—of the Gaga moment is cemented on “Hair,” a sugary confection that goes on for too long (past five minutes) in a Cyndi Lauper idiom that would seem to be a natural fit. I want to “die living as free as my hair,” it explains. This eventually becomes, I’m as free as my hair / I’m as free as my hair / I am my hair / I am my hair, nearly ad infinitum. It’s really a very elegant metaphysical conceit, if one dissects it. Raccoon stripes, red highlights, bangs: these all have a very specific bearing on the generic female- and youth-empowerment Gaga theorizes.
But, unfortunately, the emancipatory potential of hair is already a settled issue and one that’s been settled with the reckless pop abandon even bone implants can’t substitute for. It’s one thing to be beaten to the punch by Britney Spears, who, in that famous February 2007 fit of rage, shaved off the blonde locks forever damaged by the spotlight heat and exploitative weaves of high showbiz.
It’s quite another to be preemptively shown up by Willow Smith.