Written Monday, February 21, 2011.
It's strange to start an essay on Madonna and Lady Gaga with Christina Aguilera, yes?
But watching “I'm Not Myself Tonight” on YouTube (and seeing inane commentary to the effect that she's “wack fr tryin 2 b Gaga”) finally pushed me into writing something that's been simmering in my brain since the day I saw Gaga's “Bad Romance” video for the first time.
Xtina was merely showing the most sense God's given a diva in a long damn time. (Not to mention great taste in bondage gear—black and white rhinestone chains, no less. Very “Azzaro's Spring Collection Meets Coco de Mer's Paul Seville Collection”...but don't those chafe?) The entire video is a tribute to video vixedivas of yore—and Gaga and Madonna are unmistakably, god-how-dumb-are-you-not-to-see-this, front and center (filtered through Xtina's adorably skanky performance, of course).
As well they should be. Between the two of them Gaga and Madonna have designed some of the best music videos ever created, and between their deeply differing aesthetics and remarkable musical talents they've managed to push three generations far past their visual and psychological comfort zones while staying smack in the center of the musical mainstream. Not bad for two bleach-blonde pop stars.
Gaga is indeed the Heir Apparent to Our Lady (rarely has a baptismal name been so appropriate). Madonna, being the most successful female recording artist of all time, is the standard by which success is measured for all female pop artists, and so Gaga’s been compared to Madonna for several years now.
There've been others who aspired to the title of Heir to Our Lady of the Garter (Britney most openly, or perhaps only most pathetically). But two things have always stopped the starlets: the first is the nature of their attempts at heirdom (imitation does not, after all, a Blazing Original make), the second their exclusionary approach to visual and musical artistry.
That kind of exclusion is utterly incompatible with either the personas or the music of Gaga and Madonna. A hallmark of both women’s performances is that it's impossible to draw a meaningful distinction between visual presentation and musical substance when watching them—and it’s that lack of boundary between the auditory and visual aspects of their art that helps set both women apart from those aspiring to heirdom. The marriage of visual to auditory art is at the center of both Madonna’s and Gaga’s musicality.
Hollywood’s never been known for economy of scale; its record companies know how to put on a show on behalf of any number of stars. But Gaga and Madonna have something different than the general run of flash and spark that passes for “image-building” amongst musical stars: a unique and constant self-reinvention resulting not only from their incredibly strong grasp of the word spectacle (and hence spectacular), but more importantly from genuine and highly individualistic visual aesthetics.
Madonna modeled for Basquiat at the start of her career; Gaga created her own production company from the band of visual artists and designers she befriended while living in New York. Because both are musicians, their personal visual aesthetics are filtered through the lens of their music...but neither woman relies on her music to justify her aesthetic. Visual and auditory aesthetics are, for both, part of a larger identity as an artist—a whole which neither feels a need to define or divide.
Because of that holistic approach—and their enormous talent as visual as well as musical artists—both Madonna and Gaga have created visual art (spectacle) which can stand independently of their music, art that is both visually overwhelming while remaining (you'll pardon the pun) in concert with the feel of the song for which it's created. Other musicians pawn off this aspect of their image or artform onto producers and stage directors; their visual and musical representations aren’t different faces of the same polished structure but a piecemeal, jagged collage. The difference, literally, shows.
Madonna's Fritz-Lang-inspired “Express Yourself” video is a case in point. No-one else would have conceived the visual interpretation of a song about female empowerment in sex and romance as an erotic reinterpretation of 1920's German expressionist anti-capitalism cinema. With a cat.
She wrote the script. Chose the costumes. Chose the cat. Oversaw the set. In other words, Madonna ran the show—the director took her lead on nearly everything, wise man that he is. (His name? David Fincher. Yeah—that Fincher.)
Gaga's artistic vision is, if possible, even more exacting. Her “Haus of Gaga” is a group of artists she chose and nurtured herself; her creative control over every aspect of her production is as near absolute as a group of artists working collaboratively allows. Her visuals are both rendered and timed with enviable rigor—her most distinctive video, “Bad Romance” (a tale of kidnapping and prostitution at the hands of the Russian mob) contains sequences designed to be spliced to millisecond precision (the less-than-a-second series of gestures she makes about 2 ½ minutes into the song is both meticulous and potent).
So. Visual artistry and creative control are the first area in which Gaga—and no other female pop artist—is Madonna's equal.
The second thing, the one that makes Gaga the true Heir to Our Lady, is the (pardon the buzzword) transgressiveness of her persona.
Many, many female artists transgress boundaries. (Most good art, in fact, does.) But all the Heir-Aspirants to Madonna attempted to transgress the same boundaries that Madonna did—boundaries she'd already trampled so thoroughly that her followers' attempts were meaningless.
Madonna's persona was original in the world of pop music. One does not become heir to the truly original—whether persona or idea—by imitation.
And Madonna personified Sex.
Sex in all its forms. Open, covert, digressive, transgressive—Madonna was the first female pop artist who flaunted her sexuality openly regardless of criticism or consequence. Desire, power, the language of deviance—she took them all on, subverted both the imago and imagery of sex for nearly three decades. (It still astonishes me that anyone mentions Britney or Xtina in the same breath as Madonna. “I'm a Slave 4 U” or “Dirrty” versus “Justify My Love”: the latter visually and lyrically redefining gender roles and acceptable sexual norms; both of the former individual statements of sexuality. Not transgressive—or even relevant on a larger scale.)
So. Madonna = Sex.
And in a time where openness about one's sexuality adulterated that which made one a desirable woman—violated the idea of female sexuality—being openly sexually desirable and openly sexually voracious made Madonna the Transgressor.
And now? Post-Madonna? In a world where female pop stars appear sexually voracious as a baseline—in an attempt to establish sexuality? Now we have Gaga.
And Gaga = Fear.
Oh, the sex is in there. No question. Gaga is as or more sexually brash than other Heirs-Aspirant (check the bench scenario in the “Lovegame” video in the unlikely event that you need confirmation of this). But the thing which sets her apart is a sensibility that is both obvious and coequal to sex in her visuals: a fascination with the grim and grotesque. That fascination lends a razor edge, a subtle and vicious backhand, to most of her sexuality. Her sex appeal almost always contains a taunt, a threat, a grimace.
Gaga's persona, and her biggest transgression, is based on fear—of the threat of violence, of the grotesque, of the monstrous—and its disturbing mixture with sex.
“Paparazzi”, “Telephone”, and “Bad Romance” are the videos which display her fascination with fear most clearly. It's a toss-up as to whether her Mickey-Mouse makeup as she murders her boyfriend, her dance in the middle of a diner full of corpses, or the hat fashioned from a dead, fanged piglet is the most telling of her visual grotequeries thus far; but the touches are there in nearly everything she's done. The performance of "Paparazzi" in which she ended up on a meathook. The Grammy performance of “Born This Way” in which she's visibly deformed (this is actually a theme in several of her videos, including “Bad Romance”).
Madonna transgressed societal boundaries with sex. Gaga transgresses psychological boundaries with the interplay between sex and fear. (Or sex and death.)
Madonna and Lady Gaga. Both mega-stars. Both brilliant visual and musical artists. Both transgressive.
One aggressively sexual. The other sexually grotesque.
Both captivating. Both seductive.
Like Love. Like Revenge.