This past summer, I found myself in Chicago’s Grant Park amid a sea of zealots. They were pushing and laughing, or cheering with their eyes squeezed closed in ecstasy. They were wearing t-shirts that said things like “He ate my heart” and “Just dance,” body paint smeared with sweat in the August heat. There was not a place they would have rather been.They were there for Lady Gaga — pop star, tabloid dream, contested feminist icon.
I was a few rows from Gaga herself, her chest heaving, her lips right up to the microphone and frozen in an open-mouthed snarl. The show was a tangle of set changes and light tricks and video montages, Ms. Gaga at the center of it, on the floor wearing ripped fishnets and a bubble dress spattered in fake blood, being humped by nearly naked greasy god-like gay dudes, shouting out every few minutes how much she loved us, her little monsters, how we can be anything we want to be!
How did Lady Gaga get here in front of hundreds of thousands of people, just two years after her first album, The Fame, was released? People can’t look away, and she won’t let them. And with her lightning-fast ascension, she has become the focus of much discussion about how — or whether — it’s possible to fit pop celebrity and feminism together. During this short time, while I’ve been immersed in a loose configuration of young feminist bloggers/activists/writers, I’ve watched Lady Gaga and other feminist-tinged pop culture figures be skewered for not being feminist enough. But I think she is a feminist — as much as you can be a coherent feminist icon and a pop star at the same time. At the very least, she’s cheering us on, and she’s lightyears ahead of her peers.
Despite how much attention she gets, her music is run-of-the-mill. Her lyrics are mostly boring, and her catchy songs get lost in the crowd. (She does get points for playing real instruments onstage.) The woman used to write songs for Britney Spears, for chrissake. It’s her performance that turns my head. And not just the kind of performance I attended in August — although they’re epic, more Rocky Horror Picture Show than concert — but her performance as a woman, as a celebrity and as a piece of art. She never wears pants and never wears the same thing twice. Every dress she dons is a statement: made out of fatty, slimy, gory meat, or made out of a million Kermits, or simply see through. She compares herself to Andy Warhol while boasting about her originality (and ignoring comparisons to Madonna and other pop stars). She’s not afraid of ugliness. In fact, she embraces it.
She does all of this while simultaneously inducing eye rolls and adoration. I’m a fan, but I don’t remember the last time I’ve listened to one of her songs without watching a video on YouTube at the same time. I stick up for Lady Gaga, but I get tired of her continued attempts to be “original” — which, eventually, just end up being contrived themselves.
The eye-roll/adoration relationship extends to feminism. At first, she clearly had no idea what the word meant; in an interview with a Norwegian journalist, she called out double standards in the music industry, then balked at being called a feminist, saying that she “loves men, hails men!” Later, she told Ann Powers she was “a little bit of a feminist” in the L.A. Times. At that point I perked up, but then she annoyed me and a lot of other pro-sexual liberation feminists when she said, while promoting her Viva Glam campaign, “It’s not really cool anymore to have sex all the time. It’s cooler to be strong and independent.”
Lady Gaga has vacillated on the actual word, but she has a very real opportunity to make feminism go just as pop as she has made herself. Gaga has sold out gargantuan stadiums in this paltry economy, as others have cancelled shows and tours. In terms of numbers and fans, she’s up there with the bubblegum good girls of the present and the past — Beyonce and Taylor, Mariah and Shania. Except she uses the F words —both “fuck” and “feminism.”