I think time will be kind to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Critical favor has a tendency to wax and wane, and after initially quite strong and promising reviews, it seemed that all you heard about the album was negative. It seemed all you heard about Lady Gaga herself was negative. I think the pendulum will swing back, and time and perspective will bring the album into focus for the pop historians: it is a sprawling and messy affair—sometimes by design, sometimes not—and if it is imperfect, it is admirable and quite remarkable in its ambition.
But time is not something pop stars have. Pop moves at light speed and waits for no one, not even its chief architects. And for a while, Gaga worked that to her advantage. Always the chameleon, she took the sort of evolutions Bowie and Madonna built album cycles around and accelerated them, undergoing complete metamorphoses from day to day, sometimes minute to minute—whole evolutions played out for us at a single televised awards show. And like evolution in the biological world, it seemed Gaga’s transformations were a form of self-defense, a mode of survival. I speak, of course, in commercial terms—the transformations helped keep Gaga commercially viable in a popular culture with an ever-dwindling attention span. But I’m speaking in personal terms, as well. Gaga has made much of the way her outlandish fashion, her myriad wigs, and her precision poses were all defiant acts of self-actualization, a way to create what she wanted to be rather than to have anyone dictate her identity to her. Gaga’s micromanaging of her image has afforded her a creative freedom rare among major label-signed pop superstars.
Matching speed with the relentless march of pop culture—as Gaga does—is a tall order, and her audience was never going to keep pace. So while Gaga ran the marathon, it was inevitable that there would be calls for her to slow down. Calls from a demanding audience to drop the artifice. Calls to show us the “real” Gaga behind the transformations.
One of the great ironies of Lady Gaga’s career to this point: through always foregrounding her artifice, she has worked tirelessly to be pop’s most transparent star, but her audience continues to see this only as obfuscation. She has told us again and again to read every moment as “performance,” but people just can’t take her word for it. “No one performs all the time,” is the predictably skeptical response (a response that completely misses the most compelling truth that Lady Gaga lays bare to us: that we all perform all the time).
Ever since the moment she ascended the peak of pop during her Fame Monster days, people have been poised to challenge Gaga’s every move and hungry to see what lies beyond the persona. The cred she had established with some critics and the hipster contingent was squandered by her disarming naïveté and earnestness during her Born This Way album cycle. It might be hard to remember, but just a few years ago, Gaga was the mainstream pop star it was okay to like. Now, a “Gaga closet” exists, and few seem to be coming out. It was perhaps a predictable turn of events, but it’s still a disappointing one. Gaga’s sincerity and optimism are actually pretty radical in an irony-drenched and deeply cynical, postmodern world. But this schism between her persona and the cultural moment perhaps explains why she failed to connect with those outside her most ardent fans during the Born This Way campaign.
And so this is the somewhat hostile environment in which Gaga will be launching ARTPOP. How can she reconnect to a wider audience? How can she give her audience what it wants and somehow let them in, while remaining true to her ideal of perpetual performance? We may be seeing the answers in Gaga’s recent live performances. At her iTunes Festival set, Gaga made her costume and wig changes part of the on-stage act, sitting in a chair, conversing with the audience while her assistants and stylists primped and prepared her for the next songs. When she peeled off a wig in favor of her real hair, the audience saw this transformation. The same was true of her debut performance of “Applause,” the lead single off ARTPOP, at the VMAs. Gaga changed costume mid-song, directly referencing previous “looks” she had made famous. These sorts of transformations have always been part of the performance, but now Gaga is literalizing them. In this way, she can answer her critics while maintaining her own cohesive artistic vision. These meta flourishes also underscore Gaga’s self-awareness, which was one of her biggest draws when she landed on the scene, but which sometimes became harder to distinguish in the messianic uplift of her Born This Way persona. If we want to see Gaga deconstructed, she will turn that deconstruction into part of the act.
Perhaps it makes sense that Gaga recently referenced The Wizard of Oz in a performance for Good Morning America—we’re poised to find out the woman behind the green curtain. Gaga’s charge, then, is to let us in on this revelation while also making us realize why the big green, booming head and the pyrotechnics are so necessary. You see, the Wizard is the theatrics. If you saw The Wizard of Oz as a child it is that image, after all—the image of the terrifying god-like floating head—that marked itself indelibly on your imagination. The Wizard wasn’t an illusion, but a projection. In a new song from ARTPOP, the controversial, culturally appropriative “Aura,” Gaga takes this theme head-on. She creates a rather dense layer of signification out of a play on the words aura/awrah, and asks us directly, “Do you wanna see me naked lover? / Do you wanna peek underneath the cover? / Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Posing it like a question turns it almost into a threat. This “peek” isn’t an act of appeasement but a challenge. One of the most rewarding things about Gaga is that she constantly emphasizes her own agency: it’s always on her terms. And on November 11th, we’ll find out exactly what those terms are. – Michael Ward
[author ]Michael teaches college English and Composition courses in Ohio and subjects students to his fascination with movies and pop culture on a regular basis. He is a member of AwardsWatch and the International Cinephile Society and has been published in the Bright Lights Film Journal.[/author]