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Iphone, U-Phone…Or Is Gaga the new Dada?…Or Roll Over Andy Warhol…

22 Mar

By Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o

JACK:

Andy Warhol was asked in an interview whether he thought people were more glamorous in the past or “now.” He looks into the camera for a moment, no reaction across his impassive face and then intones: “uh….now.” Period. He was completely right of course and glamour in the past quickly fades to camp leaving room for new signs of glamour in the present. In his day, Warhol thought he would like to be reincarnated as a ring worn by Liz Taylor…not so glamorous anymore but how about coming back as Gaga’s sunglasses, or Beyoncé’s lipstick, now that would be glamour! Or how about we think of the return of Warhol as a telephone call from the past, a ringing in the middle of a Gaga video, a call she refuses to answer but has always already picked up? If Andy Warhol’s genius lay in his ability to smash the boundaries between art and advertising, between fame and talent and between production and consumption, Lady Gaga is the new Warhol because while Warhol still glued glamour to subjects, Lday Gaga magically unleashes the power of objects.

The question of whether Lady Gaga just plays into male voyeurism and becomes a ready image for objectification is rendered moot by the fact that everything in her world is an object, including her, and the relations between objects (phone, car, butch, chains, honey, sandwich, prison) are more animated that the relations between subjects – which are for the most part conveyed via neutral interactions deliberately devoid of passion, emotion or affect. The phoniness of the entire mise en scene flattens the hierarchy of being that places subjects over objects and it attributes action to things (the sunglasses smoke in the prison yard scene, the pancakes bite in the diner) and object-like status to people – both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga become the thing they are doing – Gaga makes a sandwich and becomes a sandwich in her white outfit. Beyoncé hoards honey and becomes honey in her bright yellow dress. The becoming-object of Gaga/Beyoncé opens out onto a whole new domain of lesbian aesthetics – one in which the becoming-object is lesbian because lesbianism has already been defined as only always derivative, always unreal, the original phony. While lesbianism was largely absent from Warhol’s repertoire of glamour and success, it becomes the foundation for new formulations of fame precisely because it has always been conveyed as ugly, anti-aesthetic, and some combination of too real (hence unaesthetic) or too unreal (hence…The L Word?). The linking of beauty itself to gayness in Warhol’s world, a link that Valerie Solanas found so enraging that she tried to kill Warhol, has been replaced in the world of Gaga by an ongoing discourse of gender bending. But do Warhol and Gaga share something else, something less tweet worthy – the unbearable whiteness of being seems part of the repertoire of both glamour managers and despite the overwhelming presence of Beyoncé in “Telephone,” this video is wonder bread white…

TAVIA:

Yes, let’s run with the Warhol comparison as a bridge to talking about the racial dynamics at play. Your observation makes me think about of Warhol’s late-career collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat as a point of potential comparison to the Lady Gaga/Beyoncé dynamic. Basquiat has been on my mind recently because I just watched a documentary about No Wave cinema in which some talking head or the other was slagging off Basquiat for selling out the NYC 80s Downtown scene, as if everyone else in the documentary, who just happened to be white, were keeping it real! I do think there is still the assumption that the avant-garde is or should be white, and that people of color who stumble into it are always, through a paradoxical ideological operation, bearers of a commercializing, capitalist logic. Perhaps “becoming-object” takes on a different aspect when the bodies under consideration are racialized ones, bodies who bear a history of, shall we say, “having-already-been-object”?

It seems to me nevertheless (I’m borrowing here from José Muñoz and a slew of smart other Warhol critics) that the Warhol-Basquiat collaboration — while not always the most interesting to me in terms of the work they produced together — had a positive effect on Basquiat’s career when it comes to the unbearable whiteness of the avant-garde you identify. And not because Warhol legitimated Basquiat! But because their work together satirized the very notion of such legitimation. Having short circuited the gap between the avant-garde and mass culture, Warhol was hardly in a position to grant Basquiat the master’s imprimatur. Rather, their collaborations seemed instead to queer the trajectory of artistic influence and interchange, which is what I also see happening in the ongoing Beyoncé/Lady Gaga collaboration.

At one level it is of course the merger of two spectacularly successful corporations: one selling bootylicious diva attitude complete with a deliciously catty “Call her Miss Ross” back story, the other marketing fashion-damaged, art school antics to malls and cellphones everywhere. But at another level what interests me is how this merger sidesteps the stale narratives that tend to script black/white collaboration as either “miscegenation” or as a color-blind kumbayah moment. Their object-oriented lesbianism up-ends sexual anxieties based in reproductive logics and identitarian models of subjectivity.

The Lady Gaga/Sasha Fierce love affair rescripts the old Norman Mailer saw, as recycled most recently by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, about how American music gets its heat from a “musical miscegenation.” The stuttering, repetitive sounds of the disconnecting video/phone should cue us to an alternative logic of recursivity where both icons revisit a eroticized, racialized terrain only to drain it of its depressing teleology. Like Basquiat tagging SAMO© (pronounced Same-Oh) around lower Manhattan, taking the piss out of radical chic art scenesters while scratching his own name into a brand-addled mindscape, Gaga and Fierce amp up the noise to signal ratio on this “same old song.” Boys to the side, their version of musical homosociality doesn’t involve the dream of black people magically endowing white folks with rhythm (as Videophone proves!), but plays a staccato tune in which racial meaning itself is distorted, elongated, and striated, just as some of the most interesting black vocalists are doing with Autotune.

This is the dada or cut-up moment: Beyoncé as Michael Jackson busting a move in the middle of Thelma and Louise in the middle of Caged Heat wants to be starting something that is over and finished and already repeating before its begun …

JACK:

Three really quick responses: 1) Have you seen the Basquiat moments at the start of the Lady Gaga “Bad Romance” video? We are welcomed to the Bath Haus of Gaga – some weird mesh of a designer house, a bath house and a Bauhaus!! – and Gaga and others climb out of their white pods dressed like sperms with Basquiat like crowns on the top of white patent leather suits. Lady Gaga goes back and forth between black and white outfits while singing about love as a disease. It is all very “is the rectum a grave” and the sperm dance scene uses many of the same moves as in the diner dance scene in “Telephone.” In other words, Lady Gaga seems to have absorbed Basquiat along with a whole host of other queer art world references. But of course, you are absolutely right that the avant-garde sort of clings to whiteness in a way that always casts racial narratives as too…well…content driven.

2) True! Becoming-object means something different in relation to Black bodies and yet I think that part of Basquiat’s whole aesthetic was also to turn black bodies into icons, icons into objects and black objects into a different kind of fetish. In fact, are all objects fetishes in this sense or does the liveliness of the object in Gaga/Beyoncé land resist fetishization? Also, of course, to return to your discussion of the lesbian phallus as a sort of fetish, all phalluses disappoint but some are less disappointing than others – the lesbian phallus is defined as disappointment whereas the male phallus/penis conflation promises something that it cannot deliver – like enhancing designer underwear or something. So the video is making distinctions between and among objects, subjects, male, female, phalluses and fetishes and confusing them all at the same time. The many stutters in the voice, the dance moves and the music sort of signal the interrupted relays and connections along the many chains of signifiers. So lesbian phalluses and Black subject/objects are necessarily different than male phalluses, white subject/objects but the meaning of that difference changes all the time.

3) I think Set It Off is a really important reference for “Telephone.” Beyoncé is playing Stony, the one who gets away at the end…Tarantino may think that the Pussy Wagon ensures his male voyeuristic participation in the film but the Pussy Wagon is a kind of stand in for Cleo’s souped up a vehicle – another lesbian phallus and a reminder that the black butch rarely makes a clean get away – see Kara Keeling’s brilliant reading of Cleo and Ursula as the Black subjects who stand outside of the film’s ability to imagine queer worlds (The Witch’s Flight, Duke UP). Oh and apropos of nothing – what about the Stevie Nicks floaty gowns at the end?

TAVIA:

Talk about the witch’s flight! I am not sure what to make of these. I guess we will have to wait for the sequel!

You Cannot Gaga Gaga by Jack Halberstam

17 Mar

 

READ MORE ON GAGA FEMINISM BY JACK HALBERSTAM: GAGA FEMINISM: SEX, GENDER, AND THE END OF NORMAL – TO BE PUBLISHED BY BEACON PRESS, SEPTEMBER 2012!!

Can you hear me? Listen up: I am gaga for Gaga. I know we all are now, and I was already gaga for Beyoncé except now Gaga is gaga for Beyoncé too so…so I am gonna have to call them both up on the t-t-telephone and find out how to get a piece of the action. And the action, by the way, has little to do with the phallus, real, imagined, lesbian or bionic. Thanks to Tavia (see below) for his brilliant and on point reading of the disappointing and disappearing phallus but from here on out, it is about phones, headsets, hearing, receivers and objects that become subjects, glasses that smoke, food that bites. If the sappy, eco-friendly message of James Cameron’s bloated 3-D off-world was “I see you,” the cooky, cocky, whacky voice-mail left by Gaga/Beyoncé is “I hear you.” The ear and the phone are neither vagina and penis nor speaker and listener, in this agenda-bending extravaganza the telephone is an Avital Ronell wet dream – electric speech served with a twist of live wire. And, by the way, what is up with divas and phones? Remember that Blondie was hanging on one, Madonna was hanging one up, even Beyoncé in “If I was a boy,” was turning one off and telling “everyone it’s broken/so that they would think I was sleeping alone.”

“It is a question of answerability,” says Ronell in The Telephone Book, “you picking it up means the call has come through.”

But what is it saying? When you get the call, who speaks and who listens? And what happens when she tells you to STOP CALLING MOTHERF#*KER!

Telephone, for the two people who missed it, is the breakout online Gaga/Beyoncé extravaganza set in a women’s prison in LA. In this ten minute mini film,  Lady Gaga wears her diet coke in her hair, her heart on her sleeve and models a series of hats made out of telephones while she and Beyoncé perform in “Thelma and Louise” meets Marcel DuChamp meets Set It Off. They dip and bob, stutter and wink across a landscape of diners and deserts leaving a trail of bodies in their wake – the crime they are punishing? Honey theft. Yes, like queen bees deciding to kick the drones to the curb while keeping their honey for themselves, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé buzz around dangerously looking for the next sucker to sting.

Watch the video here: Telephone by Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé

In their “pussy wagon” Gaga and Beyoncé chart new territory for femme liberation, female aggression, feminine techno embodiment and instant gratification – using a Polaroid camera, Gaga captures her “Honey Bee,” (that’s Beyoncé to you) leaving the scene of the crime and promises that they are leaving and never coming back. Throwing the picture to the ground, the gesture suggests that images are cheap but check out the sound system. The telephone line goes dead, the connection is lost, the heroines are far from the law, lost to the boyfriends calling on their phones, far from home, and far from dead. Their honey is safe and their desire is as shiny and new as the glittering heels they used to walk over the corpses. Featuring cameos by female body-builders, female body artist Heather Cassils and Gaga’s sister, the video gives sisterhood a brand new name: NOISE . The prison yard kiss with Cassils, in particular, reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics. Cassils has talked in an interview about what the video has done for her visibility:

Interview in OUT with Heather Cassils

The blogosphere is already full of readings and revelations about the video – it is a Foucaultian take on prison and “technological entrapment”; here on Bullybloggers, it has been read as the channeling of Butler’s “Lesbian Phallus”; it is obscene, murderous, cruel to animals, misogynist, man-hating, homophobic and heterophobic; and I think you could safely place it as a Deleuzian exploration of flow and affect not to mention an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy. So whether the philosophy in question is drawn from Zizek on speed, Ronell on crack or Meillassoux on ecstasy, this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion. So what is the “telephone” in this sonic drama and what is Gaga doing with it?

Notice many of the phones in the film are landlines – the phone in the jail (or “club” as Gaga calls it), the green phone in Beyoncé’s bedroom, the blue phone that Lady Gaga wears as she makes sandwiches – these phones are fixed in place, not mobile, wearable but also restricting – “Tonight I’ll not be taking no calls because I’ll be dancing…Stop calling, stop calling, cause I don’t want to talk anymore/Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t want to think anymore/I got my head and my heart out on the dance floor.” The push and pull of the game of telephone resembles the rhythms of hetero dating – she waits, he calls; she answers, he speaks, she yells, he hangs up. But they also resemble stalking—“stop calling, stop calling”—and they sound like the surveillance calls brilliantly dissected as part of the marriage script in Laura Kipnis’s Against Love – “Hi hon, just called to check in…where are you now?” The mobile phone is a player in the battle of lovers and so Lady Gaga and Beyoncé decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone – instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone. The music pulses like a ring tone (like the ring tone it is about to anyway become), it burbles and beeps, hiccups and repeats, insistently, calling and ringing, ringing and calling and chaining us all to the charisma of the pop beat.

Like the ringing music, the choreography is also phony, phonic, supersonic – like the clipped conversations that lovers have on phones with reception and messages fading in and out, the divas strut and twist their bodies into jerking machines – in one remarkable sequence, a break in the dinette dance scene, Beyoncé, dressed in her Michael Jackson uniform complete with epaulets stands with her eyes wide open and her mouth opening and closing to the stuttering “eh…eh…eh…eh” of the music.  Beyoncé is channeling phone here, she is the receiver, the answering machine and the dial tone all in one and all are saying the same thing – no one is home! In another sequence when Gaga is leaving the prison, she stutter steps in another homage to Jackson but also to convey the shift in time-scapes from doing time in prison to taking a dropped call from Beyoncé out in the real world. Time, in “Telephone,” ripples with queerness, stops, starts, repeats: and while time stops for the losers in their way, Beyoncé and Gaga are tripping off to a utopia of milk and honey. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga repeatedly lift their hands to their mouths to make the telephone sign and they sing into handsets and hold the phone like a dick they are about to rip off. Is this film about castration? Oh yeah baby. Your phone is going to be off the hook, your land line is now cordless, your cordless lost reception, your mobile is turned off, your girlfriend is turned on and she is escaping in a pussy wagon with another woman!

Well, so is the phone the phallus after all? Is the mobile phone a dildo? Is the old landline a kind of metaphor for male penis and the new “virgin” cell phone a metaphor for the lesbian phallus? I still think that phallic as phones may be and phunny as the connection between phone and phallus becomes throughout the video, the real sex organ in this piece is the ear, and while the phallus may well circulate, this is pussy power all the way. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé demonstrate a femininity done right and over done to the point of parody. But here is where it gets interesting – while Lady Gaga always seemed like a drag queen in her outrageous costumes, in this incarnation she reminds us that no one does femininity like a fierce femme and while you can already see the drag shows going on in a bad gay bar near you with super tall drag queens lipsyncing to Gaga and Beyoncé and cat-fighting their way across the stage, remember you heard it here first – you cannot Gaga Gaga, honey so don’t even try! She is camping camp, she is dragging drag, she is ironing irony (ok…ok), she  has done it, been it, worn it. And be warned, don’t call her, she’ll call you!

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Weekend Video Inspiration

31 May

Thanks Kandia, for sending this our way.

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