While it’s impossible to agree with the sweeping conclusion implied by the headline of Camille Paglia’s new article, “Lady Gaga and the death of sex,” as with almost everything la Paglia writes, it’s certainly a fun ride along the way:
Lady Gaga is a manufactured personality, and a recent one at that. Photos of Stefani Germanotta just a few years ago show a bubbly brunette with a glowing complexion. The Gaga of world fame, however, with her heavy wigs and giant sunglasses (rudely worn during interviews) looks either simperingly doll-like or ghoulish, without a trace of spontaneity. 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.Furthermore, 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? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era…
Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…
Gaga seems comet-like, a stimulating burst of novelty, even though she is a ruthless recycler of other people’s work. She is the diva of déjà vu. Gaga has glibly appropriated from performers like Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani and Pink, as well as from fashion muses like Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness. Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is.
Of course, every pop artist steals to some extent when he or she is first coming up — Keith Richards played Chuck Berry riffs better than Chuck himself before forming his own style, heavily dependent on an open-G guitar tuning. And Eric Clapton borrowed extensively from all of the Kings of the blues — Freddie, Albert and B.B. — before creating his own unique sound. But perhaps today’s present-tense culture makes it much easier for artists to steal, particularly not someone’s sound, but his visual iconography. Madonna stole David Bowie’s quick change chameleonic visual style. Slash and Izzy in the early Guns & Roses were the spitting images of Jimmy Page and Keith Richards respectively (even as concurrently, the Black Crowes were borrowing Keith’s open-G guitar riffs). And Marilyn Manson was warmed-over Alice Cooper. As Mark Steyn wrote a few years ago:
“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.
As Steyn noted in his brilliant obit for rapper Tupac Shakur almost 15 years ago, reprinted in his Passing Parade obituary anthology, when the deaths of famous musicians of the past were announced, everybody instantly recalled at least one of their big hits. As I believe Mark wrote, when Sinatra died, everyone recalled “My Way,” when Crosby died, we all remembered “White Christmas,” and for Lennon, it was “Imagine” and scads of great Beatles tunes — but who could name a single Tupac song?
When Lady Gaga’s obit is written, hopefully many decades from now, for a media superstar whose excesses are capable of such far reaching implications as “the death of sex,” as Paglia’s hyperbolic headline trumpeted, will anybody be able to remember any one of her songs?