Caught in a Decline’s Advance

To be accused of inciting Islamic fundamentalism as well as Christian blasphemy is no small feat.  It is but one achievement of international singing star and sartorial sensation, Lady Gaga.

Born into a middle class Italian-American family in New York, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta began performing at open mike nights in her early teens.  The clichéd life of a hustling troubadour ensued after she dropped out of college to pursue her music career, with the requisite false starts with opportunistic managers, gigs in sketchy bars, and descent into drug addiction.  One of her early producers supposedly liked to play the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga” every time the theatrical Germanotta arrived at the studio.  A felicitous glitch on a text message that changed “Radio” to “Lady” created the stage name that stuck.

Lady Gaga’s 2008 breakout debut album “The Fame” sold 3.3 million copies in the US alone.  Two of its tracks went to number-one in numerous markets.  Another best-selling album followed, as did a highly-successful world tour.  Her burlesque-inspired music videos have garnered an unprecedented one billion views, making Lady Gaga one of the biggest celebrities on the planet.  Time named her as one the world’s most influential people.

Gaga’s “theatrical pop” fuses varied harmonizations inspired by glam rockers like David Bowie and Queen with irresistible uptempo dance hooks.  But it is spectacle, above all else, that defines her inimitable brand.  A freakish flair for fashion featuring latex, plastic, masks, bustiers, with each outfit more bizarre than the last, makes the strong impression that Gaga’s music does not.  The odd ensembles’ unifying theme is ominous and often homoerotic-eroticism, which dovetails with a dark current running through her lyrics and videos.  Love, much less its pale approximation, sex, are overshadowed by a foreboding motif promising violence.

In “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga sings, “I want your ugly, I want your disease,  I want your everything as long as it’s free,” which yields to the song’s chorus, “You and me could write a bad romance…caught in a bad romance.”  In the hit’s music video, Gaga, decked out in high boots and a gem-encrusted bra and panties, discordantly preens and prances with a cast of similarly unclad female dancers before a jury of tattooed males wearing strange metallic headgear.  Hers is a seduction, though it is unclear what sort.  The video’s conclusion provides clarification.  The final scene features Gaga reclining on a burnt mattress with her presumed erstwhile lover now just a skeleton wrapped in parched skin, a victim, one assumes, of her treachery.

The feral madwoman getting even with one and all features regularly.  Poisoning is her preferred means of revenge.  In “Paparazzi,” Gaga slips some toxic powder into the drink of her lover who earlier threw her off a balcony, while in “Telephone” she disposes of the gluttonous patrons of a greasy spoon with rat poison.

It is provocative stuff.  Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal opines that Gaga represents the latest embodiment of what Egyptian Islamacist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress,” or exemplar of libertine values that are offensive to traditional Muslim values.  Meanwhile, some Catholics have taken offense to another Gaga video where she wears, in turns, a latex nun’s habit and a crucifix-emblazoned robe with a cross over her crotch, which she dons while sucking on rosary beads during a gay orgy.

What does Lady Gaga say about our times?

Her music, clearly, is not yesterday’s bubblegum pop of Britney Spears (for whom she once composed) appropriate for the self-indulgent escapism of the Bush II years.  Gaga reflects the bitter nihilism which has followed.  The fleeting optimism that a “Yes We Can” ethos could deliver has been gutted by leadership seemingly incapable of getting a grip on the enormous challenges confronting us—a moribund economy, never-ending wars, uncontrollable oil spills, etc.

Our angry dejection is reflected in historically low levels of trust in major institutions, from Wall Street to our dioceses to our own government.  All have failed us spectacularly.  So it is fitting that our fictional entertainment, like so much of the real world around us, is a vulgar burlesque—appropriately, Gaga calls her fans “little monsters.”  And where can we turn for relief during these monstrous times when so many of our once-vital institutions are in disrepute?  To paraphrase Gaga, you can call all you want, but there’s no one home, and you’re not gonna reach anyone on the telephone.

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