Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images
She may remind you of Madonna, but Lady Gaga has a different reputation to uphold.
She may remind you of Madonna, but Lady Gaga has a different reputation to uphold. Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images
Elizabeth Scalia lives on Long Island. She is a contributing writer for First Things Magazine and a panelist on In the Arena, a current-events program produced by NET-TV in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Scalia has run The Anchoress Blog since 2004.
Someone sent an e-mail linking to Lady Gaga's appearance at Sunday night's Grammy Awards with the subject header "ugh."
Is Lady Gaga an "ugh," though? She may be the most interesting pop idol to come down the pike in several decades.
Certainly, Gaga is a bit derivative. Much of her choreography and staging owes acknowledgment to Madonna, Michael Jackson and David Bowie, and she is currently busting the record charts with what boils down to fleshed-out house music presented with verve and humor.
While ironically lifting the idea from a text artist, U2's Bono once sang, "Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief." Lady Gaga has done her share of thieving, but she may be a genius at deconstructing her pirate's swag into something that seems new.
Nearly 30 years ago, we were told that Madonna was a "genius," particularly at marketing and reinventing herself, but time has not borne that out. Her music has held up well, but Madonna herself has been a dead-bore for decades, largely because her marketing and reinventing always come down to sex. But sex — thanks in part to Madonna, herself — has long ceased to be a daring or provocative subject.
Madonna tried standing conventionality on its head with an idea that began and ended with embracing the inner sex object, but her art flowed along very conventional lines of what bad and good (or chastity and promiscuity) meant. Madonna's exploration of human sexuality lacked real depth; after her cone bras and pinstriped girdles, she had no more tricks up her sleeve.
Gaga, on the other hand, is advising the world to embrace the inner monster, and this is a much more daring proposition; our objectifying ourselves as sexual beings might be easier to cop to — in any age — than the admission that we each of us house "inner monsters" of ego, selfishness, rage, manipulation or superior disdain. Lady Gaga has assigned herself the role of monster's cheerleader. She says, "Be the monster! I love your monster!" What she does not say — because she cannot yet know — is where the unleashing of millions of pent-up monsters may lead.
Gaga will have to work on that if she is to sustain her hold on the public's imagination. Madonna could find no road back from the Land of Saturated Sex; if she had something interesting to say about post-menopausal sex, or how diminishing sex drives open other paths to fulfillment, she might be able to find resolution to her early ideas. But she seems uninterested in going there, and so we are forced to page past her yearly airbrushed crotch-shots as she beats a sad and worn-out theme to death.
Lady Gaga is a good musician, therefore she understands the need for resolution. That may help her to move beyond the initial monster call-out. If she cannot, she will fall as quickly as she has risen, having unleashed onto a generation an idea that, like Madonna's mindless sex fest, is ultimately empty, bleak and unhelpful. Even monsters need purpose and redemptive love, as Mary Shelley knew, or there is no place for them but exile.