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!

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11 Responses to “Iphone, U-Phone…Or Is Gaga the new Dada?…Or Roll Over Andy Warhol…”

  1. alex March 23, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    I love what you all are doing with them. But, at the end of the day or video, can it really be all that good to be an object, once the gloss is gone and the glamour fades? Sure, they’re smarter and faster than us, but on the Pussy Wagon to where? Finally, phony certainly works best for a quickie theory riff, a stutter spectacular, but is it any way to live?

    • bullybloggers March 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

      Are you so sure you are not an object? or that being a subject is so great? “On the Pussy Wagon to where?” who cares! And as for phony being theory baloney (I am paraphrasing) but not a way to live…again, are you saying there is some real world that is not already phony for most people? I mean your work on youtube suggests that the line between reality and representation or material and phony is getting really hard to find so I wonder what your investment is in a “real” world where the glamour is gone and the Pussy Wagon has been parked…thanks for the comment! Oh and The Owls is pretty much about phoniness too! yours, jack

      • MP:me March 24, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

        A lot of my work on phoniness (on YouTube/OWLS/Watermelon Woman) is attempting to name when this tactic is productive–useful towards lived ends, dreams, shared goals–and when it is a deflection, pose, style or gimmick without chops. The real meat of my question is thus, what would be the lived reflection, goals, or project underwriting the masterful, fun, sexy, smart phony world envisioned by Gaga? I’m truly curious, not rhetorical, and here’s where the object comes in. Of course I’m an object, so not what would a collective politics of objecthood look like (this video), but rather what would it stand for, what would it demand or want?

      • Tavia March 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

        I don’t have an answer to this huge question, but your asking it made me think again of Anne Anlin Cheng’s essay, “Psychoanalysis without Symptoms,” where she talks a lot about the potential political productivity of the shift from subject to object thinking. Part of the anxiety she sees accompanying this shift has to do with how our image of democracy seems to entail a subject. however minimal, one that would want and stand for things, etc. So an object-oriented politics might be in this specific sense post-democratic, although not for that reason post-political. Just an unfinished thought. — Tavia

  2. Suzanne March 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    I love your blog format, talking to each other….just wanted ta tell ya.

  3. JP March 24, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    This article has definitely put Gaga in a better light than I had imagined… but I must admit, that I still cannot think of her artistic output and career as particularly Dadaist. Sure, some of her imagery is surreal, and embraces the irrational, but Dada was more than that. It was a rejection of capitalist art – Gaga’s obsession with the concept of fame seems to be at odds with the original Dadaist agenda. Dada ignored notions of aesthetics, while Gaga is a master of it. Dada intends to offend. Gaga is catchy. Dada was a movement to destroy the commercial art community – Gaga wants to run the factory herself! As you have very nicely outlined, Gaga’s work is filled with messages and ideas… Dada in many ways rejected this notion, striving to have no meaning whatsoever.

    Warhol on the other hand… now that I can see :)

    • Tavia March 25, 2010 at 5:30 am #

      Are you sure you are not falling back on the nostalgic image of a heroic male avant-garde which constituted a real rejection of capitalist art, while latter-day women and queers and people of color all somehow embody it, no matter how radical or innovative their work seems? The dialectic between the European avant-garde and American commercial culture — from Charlie Chaplin and Krazy Kat on — is more complex than the simple dichotomies you present. What is innovative about Telephone is its upending of the heterosexual fantasies that underpinned both the archive of mainstream representation and so many of its intentionally offensive and transgressive alternatives. Of course Lady Gaga will not destroy commercial art: neither did Dada. And of course her intention is different: repeating by rote the gestures of the 1910s and 1920s would hardly be in the iconoclastic spirit. Hence the suggestion that Gaga is the new Dada, with the emphasis on current and relevant. — T

  4. J.R. March 27, 2010 at 6:47 pm #

    All of these posts are wonderful. As for where the end of the video leaves us–and also the question of distinctions made and unmade among “objects, subjects, male, female, phalluses and fetishes”–I’ve been thinking about the visual pun that closes the last shot before the credits roll (in reverse). The camera’s following the Pussy Wagon at full speed, with the shadow on the road of the police helicopter closing in; then, at the moment when the copter should enter the frame from above, we get the Venus-symbol wipe and the credits, which is perfect, because the shadow itself was already framed as a Venus symbol. The wipe works as a kind of reiteration of the blur from earlier, maybe–the lesbian phallus is right there, but so is its impossibility; it simultaneously appears and disappears and literally closes off the visual field. But this ♀ is also the law, normativity, surveillance (there’s a helicopter hovering above the prison yard earlier, just after the kiss). And it’s a giant ringing siren-phone. What could follow an ending like that?

  5. kryddersild April 1, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    I have a comment to Jacks comment about the opening of the Bad Romance video. I have been watching some old science fiction movies and I think the dancers climbing out of the pods also are a reference to A trip to the moon – the “first” science fiction movie made. The same creatures are visible in the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight Tonight.
    They are kind of demonic creatures, you can destroy by hitting them on the head with an umbrella (that’s what they do in the mentioned works).
    Well this does not contradict your reading, but just adds a little extra.

    Anyway – excellent blog, interesting writing.

  6. rozele August 24, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    glad to have run across this, even so late on.

    a few visual references that i was surprised didn’t come up in here:

    - the gowns at the end don’t strike me as looking directly at stevie, but at stevie through priscilla, desert & all. one of a number of moments in the video where the fem dyke / fem queen / diva allusions collapse.

    - the “bad romance” pods. so many things.
    “a trip to the moon”, sure, but more recently “the matrix”‘s image of capitalism & the society of the spectacle. and through that whole SF trope, disch’s “camp concentration”, card’s “ender’s game”, and the rest of the ‘boys in boxes’ virtual-reality-as-exploitation lineage.
    vampire coffins. neatly labeled, as usual, with cross and “MONSTER”. the coffins dracula goes on vacation in, when he’s got a minion with an SUV and roof-rack. and begging to be over-read with the white/red vampire fluid dynamics of blood and semen and bathhouses and HIV and abstinence and so on.
    and maybe most relevant to the racial dynamics of “telephone”, the descending capsule stage entrances that define a certain mode of afro-futurist performance: parliament’s spaceship; earth wind & fire’s pyramid; whatever the hell it was sun ra used.

    love it.

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  1. More Lady Gaga | Queer Mobilities, Queer Citizenship - May 23, 2011

    [...] Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o on “iPhone, U-phone…or is Gaga the New Dada…or Roll over Andy Warhol” [...]

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