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…
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 …
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?
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!