Gaga-Speak

I recently read Camille Paglia’s fascinating deconstruction of Lady Gaga from The London Times in September. The piece is utterly surprising and amusingly scathing–surprising because Paglia, a prominent American intellectual and social critic, once called Madonna “the future of feminism”; scathing because, well, Paglia describes Gaga as a “plasticized android” and “laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture” who “represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”

But the really fascinating part of Paglia’s critique was, for me, where she tied in Gaga’s over-the-top one dimensionality with the current generation’s inability to understand nuance, connected dots, and nonverbal communication in the age of disembodied Twitter culture.

Paglia argues that the Internet has “fragmented and dispersed personal expression, draining energy from the performing arts, with their dynamic physicality,” which she ties in to Lady’s Gaga’s woefully inexpressive human physical presence, characterized by “blank, lugubrious face” and a “limited range of facial expressions.

Paglia suggests that:

“Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions. They don’t notice her awkwardness because they’ve abandoned body language in daily interactions. They’re not repelled by the choppy cutting of her videos (in febrile one-second bursts) because that’s how they process reality — as a cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits… Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media.”

This observation is disturbing to me, because I think it’s true. Are younger generations beginning to lose the ability to notice the nuances of facial expression, body language, and physical communication as they live more and more of their relational lives via keypads and computer screens?

I recently interviewed psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee, who specializes on the neurological, relational and intrapersonal impact of technology usage on young people. In our conversation, one of the things Dodgen-Magee said she observed was that young people today are increasingly awkward in physical, face-to-face conversation, because their natural environment of communication is textual: e-mail, Facebook, text, etc.

Have you noticed this with the Gen Y digital natives that you know? What do you think about the idea that our highly mediated, short-burst, status update tech culture will render us less and less capable of picking up on the complicated dynamics of in-person, physical communication?

I’m not sure Lady Gaga is quite the harbinger of doom Paglia makes her out to be, but I do think there’s something to the idea that Gaga–what with her perpetual trunk show of freakish Kermit/raw meat costumes signifying nothing other than fetishized pop-kitch fabulousness–is a symbol of the culture’s eroding ability to decipher semiotic meaning.

What does Lady Gaga mean? What does she stand for? Very little, argues Camille Paglia. But that’s precisely the sort of cultural icon this generation relates to. Gaga=flashy lights, bright colors, pleasing sounds, funky beats, shocking vaudeville clips, “what is she wearing?” hyperlink viral fodder, and bits and pieces of politics thrown in for good measure. In short, Gaga is a million little pieces of random amusements that clutter our feeds, walls, channels, apps and inboxes in this gleefully Google-Gaga world.

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12 responses to “Gaga-Speak

  1. Having lived in Kenya the past 2 years and admittedly removed from popular culture I am amazed that someone so seemingly devoid of talent but all image could become so popular. What does it say about what we value?

  2. Gaga is, at the moment, the most interesting entertainer available. But, she is like a living Tweet. There isn’t much going on under surface level, and her recent attempts at being vocally political don’t mask this, but expose it. If there is something deeper, probably satire and dark humor, if anything, one cannot focus on it. She flits to another wild outfit, new album, or outlandish episode. She could launch tens of full-blown fashion trends per year, but she never wears any one thing more than once. And this, is really Gaga. Like the Dada art movement 1916-1923 (right after WWI) the Gaga era is too about transience and meaningless barrage of sight and sound bits, that leave us disoriented and restless, as much as they themselves are so.

    I am not so much alarmed; it seems a natural progression of postmodern to its obvious eventual disintegration (or implosion). A counter-movement should be at its heels, for some. Unplugging and being more unavailable. (If history tells us something. Notwithstanding that many in the Gaga era can’t see past themselves to appreciate history.)

    We have a generation of “generalized autism” bringing with it aberrant communications that are now the norm, though not normal or life-giving.

  3. I feel compelled to offer a counter-argument. I think spectacle is the point of Lady Gaga, and why is that such a bad thing? We’re not talking about Stefani Germanotta here. We’re talking about an affected stage personality, an extended performance art piece. The outfits, the dancing, the over-the-top everything, it’s all rather amazing. I find her socially awkwardness highly appropriate for what she does. She’s not a politician, she’s an artist. It’s refreshing to see a pop star flick off the establishment & refrain from spending countless hours in interviews complaining that no one understands her.

    Is she my favorite artist? By no means. Could I listen only to Gaga? No way. But I do think Paglia’s remarks reek of an older generation grumbling at youngsters today. Yes, things are changing, and that means good things as well as bad.

  4. I really like Rachel’s point, but can appreciate the overall sentiment of the article. A few things:

    1. A while back I heard a local Columbus news personality speak to a group I was in at school. She talked about how local news had changed. When she first joined the news team, she did a serial piece that went 10 minutes for 3 consecutive nights on the 11 o’clock news about a convicted rapist in prison. This was 2007(?) and, she was convinced that because of our generation (I’m 23) and our lack of attention, that she could never, ever air that now. She’d be lucky to get one night with three minutes. Even the NEWS has to get cut quicker.

    2. This blog post, and the psychologist you interviewed, portray this as a bad thing. It’s much to early to tell if it’s a bad thing or not, and it will be another 10 years, at least, before a judgement can be made. All we know for sure right now is that it’s *different*. Which brings me to….

    3. Lady Gaga is at the apex of this *difference* or even *change*. It feels weird to be the “older” people now and not part of the new generation doing thing their way. At my age (close to yours, I believe) we have one foot firmly in each generation.

    Is Lady Gaga leading a change in culture?!

  5. Lady Gaga to me represents to me the problem with youth today. All style and no substance. Lady Gaga isn’t a person as much she is a product. Also, people praise her for being “different” or “creative”, but again, it lacks any substance. It’s all a gimmick and our the youth today love it because it entertains their ADD mind. I just heard Kesha’s new song today and it’s a complete replica of her first song “Tik Tok”. It will be a huge hit regardless because it’s catchy, artificial and temporarily entertaining.

  6. Why do women like Madonna and that Duke girl get praise from feminist for being sexually crude? They condemn women like Sarah Palin, regardless if you agree with her views or not, has I think has helped make a forward step for women in politics.

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  8. I have very little exposure to Lady Gaga because I don’t listen to radio stations that play popular music and when I heard all the hype, frankly, I just didn’t care. But I saw her perform on Ellen and I was quite surprised. The girl can sing! Since I’ve heard her compared to Madonna and Britney I thought she’d be all show and no talent – but I was wrong! And while she’s pretty she doesn’t look like most of the Pop artists that seem to be a manufactured perfect style/face/body product to attract attention. I kind of like that.
    Then again, maybe she feels she has to be weird because she doesn’t have the current cultural equation to win a following. I was just happy to hear she could sing.

  9. Have you seen this ad?

  10. The first time I heard a Lady Gaga song on the radio, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she had a career. And then it kept going, and going, and going. Why and how is anybody talking seriously and with any sense of intrigue about this “artist”. I love your article, but I wonder if by spilling any ink (or the metaphoric ink of blogs) we are just helping her exact her plan of destruction and pointlessness on mankind as we know it.

    I’m kidding…a little. This is an incredibly interesting post, I just really don’t like Lady Gaga.

  11. Paglia is very well on track with the aesthetic choices of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, physicality and performance. But that is within her music video/stage representation. I wonder what Paglia’s thoughts are when Lady Gaga actually speaks, constructs sentences to make a point or non-point, sits down to an interview and even conduct an exposé as in a recent Rolling Stones article.

    Though there may be a tinge of generation gap within the London Times article there is no doubt that Gaga bespeaks of postmodernism and fragmentation. If mash-up is a culture then her style might very well be a “mash-up” style. If Gaga represents the short bursts that is representative of youth culture today then what are her intentions with short bursts? And it is not just Gaga who is a part of the short attention span and short burst messaging. There are certain characters of news media who are just as robotic as Gaga. I feel as if this reply has gone on far enough so consider this (or not):

    As society further pushes upon our minds the need for short term information, fully knowing that information overload is imminent, we are sold digital appendages to help us with the overload. I don’t know if this is the golden age of new media but possibly down the line our devices will become the tools in which future generations will want to get away from, for they will know that there is no freedom within them, only without them.

  12. I just read this the other day, very interesting.

    I also find it interesting that Gaga, along with other celebrities like Usher and Alicia Keyes, have just announced they will not be using social media until $1 million is raised for the AIDs charity, Keep A Child Alive.

    Read more here

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