Wednesday, January 4, 2012
January 4, 2012: Gaga for American Studies
[This week I’ll be highlighting some of the benefits of an American Studies methodology. This is the third in that series.]
How an American Studies approach can reveal the threads of contemporary and historical connections that weave together around one of our most unique pop culture forces.
Whether you’re a card-carrying member of her Little Monsters or think that she’s a sign of the imminent apocalypse—and full disclosure, my wife’s a big fan so I’ve gotten to hear pretty much all of her music to date and certainly lean more toward the former category—you’re not likely to disagree with the sentiment that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, is a strikingly original popular musician, artist, and presence. That’s perhaps especially true of her performance artist-like qualities—the meat dress, the giant egg on the red carpet, the 10-minute movies instead of conventional music videos, and so on—but even her songs, while often clearly influenced and inspired by earlier artists (such as Madonna), have a sound and feel that is very much her own and unlike anything else on the contemporary pop music scene.
Yet an American Studies approach to a figure like Gaga would stress the significance of connecting her to different cultural and historical narratives—not to minimize her individual and unique qualities, but to make clear how they exist in those broader contexts and conversations. Of the many aspects of our contemporary society and world to which I might connect Gaga—our digital and socially networked communities, transnational influences and identities, the role of ITunes and YouTube in 21st century pop music—perhaps the most complex and interesting is her relationship to what we might call post-gendered America. As with narratives of Obama and “post-racial America,” I fully understand that any argument about the ways in which America has moved past traditional gender identities and roles is going to be immediately and importantly complicated by lots of other ongoing realities; but nonetheless, I think a comparison of Lady Gaga to Madonna is illuminating here: Madonna rose to prominence and kept herself relevant by embodying and even selling a strong female sexuality, whereas to my mind Gaga has done so by embodying and even publicly advocating for multiple sexualities, cross- and trans-gendered identities, and generally an complication of any and all such boundaries.
At the same time that we American Studiers seek to understand the contemporary and concurrent conversations to which any individual artist and American connects, however, we also work to put every individual moment in its broader cultural and historical contexts. Some of the most obvious, and certainly relevant and illuminating, such contexts for Lady Gaga are to postmodern and avant-garde American artists, and most especially to their defining representative Andy Warhol; like Gaga, Warhol utilized and profited greatly from (and so could be seen as “selling out” to) popular and consumer culture, while at the same time offering counter-culture critiques that complicated dominant narratives of fame, success, and identity. Yet Gaga’s career to date, persona, and voice also interestingly echo those of one of the 19th century’s most famous and success women: Fanny Fern. As her era’s highest-paid newspaper columnist, Fern could certainly be described (in comparison to contemporaries like Margaret Fuller and Lydia Maria Child) as more commercialized and less genuinely counter-cultural; but at the same time Fern used her invented persona and tremendous media success both to advocate for controversial and critical social causes and to develop a voice and style unlike any other writer of her day.
You might make entirely different contemporary and American, cultural and historical connections for Gaga, of course, and that’s precisely (or at least a large part of) the point. It’s the American Studies approach and perspective that’s important, to help us realize how much any artist, even and especially the most unique, can tell us about our culture and society. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? How would you analyze Lady Gaga? Or are there other contemporary cultural figures you’d think about in these ways?
1/4 Memory Day nominee: Max Eastman, the poet, journalist, and political activist whose complex and always interesting and inspiring writings and life can help us trace many of the 20th century’s most prominent communities, from the Harlem Renaissance (for which he was a patron) to 1930s Communism, his modernist literary efforts to post-World War II conservative turns in his political and philosophy ideas.