Pop Culture

What’s Paglia Got To Do With It?

By Jack Halberstam

Oh no! It was just as a new semester began, as the football season kicked off and right when Jersey Shore moved to Miami…right when Justin Bieber was adjusting his diaper for the VMA’s and the Jackass crew had figured out new ways to showcase male moronism in 3D…indeed just as Gaga chopped up her filet mignon to wear the next night at the VMAs, just then, someone let Camille Paglia out of her box:

Once a decade, Paglia, an acid tongued Susan Sontag wannabe, rents space in some national newspaper to tell us that we are all wrong about everything. Usually we are all wrong about a cultural icon we all love…or else we are all wrong about an entire movement of theory and philosophy, or we are simply wrong about our historical moment, the meaning of sex, the politics of gender, Madonna, Italians, John Donne, lesbians, drag queens, the economy, universities, cultural revolt…and now, we find out, **newsflash** we were all wrong about Lady Gaga. Yup, we were wrong. We all thought that Lady Gaga was actually doing something interesting, cultivating new combos of avant-garde innovation and popular recycling. We thought she sounded good, looked even better and straddled the divide between Warhol and whimsy while flashing her notoriously ambiguous meat purse. Many of us found her musically interesting, culturally thrilling and inordinately fabulous. We liked her in leather, in chains, in a wheelchair, in bed, in a sandwich, in a pussy wagon, on the phone, in jail, under meat, we liked her but then we found out that, well, we were wrong.

Lady Gaga, I learned from Camille Paglia, is just a copycat who latches onto a generation of glazed eyed internet clones and exploits its incapacity to think without an Iphone app at hand or to know anything without a twitter feed. She is a rich girl playing at being marginal, “a diva of déjà vu,” less sexy than a drag queen, less talented than Elton John, less charming than Lily Allen (is that possible??), and a “rootless” pretender who manipulates her fans, the “little monsters,” into pathetic displays of fanatical admiration. Gaga, for Paglia, represents the end of culture, the end of civilization, the end of truth, values and meaning, the end of sex, and the triumph of a kind of Baudrillardian age of the simulacra (only she wouldn’t cite Baudrillard because he is French and therefore…wrong).

In a kind of counter-Haraway move (think Haraway of “Cyborg Manifesto” rather than Haraway of “Companion Species Manifesto”), Paglia argues that we have lost touch with what is real, true and good in our mania for media manipulation, video games and cell phones. If Haraway recognized an interpenetration of humanity and technology in the digital age that was exciting and wondrous (even as it was also exploitative and dangerous), Paglia, sees, predictably, a manufactured public realm populated by media puppets and their passive and stupid fans. If Lady Gaga’s supporters have recognized in her a newish formula of femininity, phones and desire, Camille Paglia sees only same-old same-old or, in her words “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.”

Like a bad drag queen imitation of Allan Bloom, the prophet who preached the end of culture just two decades ago in The Closing of the American Mind, Paglia worries that “the younger generation” is missing out on all the really important cultural texts that made up her own education. The Iphone generation take pleasure in cheap imitations when they could be thrilled by “real” culture, i.e. canonical English literature; they are literate in texting but hopeless at real expression and they are not even original in their forms of rebellion. Paglia has always seen it all before and she never tires of sending her readers back to school circa 1950 to bone up on their John Donne, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Like a manic T.S. Eliot guarding the “great tradition” and prowling around its archive with claws out, Paglia reminds one of the schoolmarm host of the British quiz show The Weakest Link. Ann Robinson became famous for dispatching her victims on the show with the immortal words: “you are the weakest link, good bye.” And it is this tradition of learning (rote memorization of the tried and true authors memorialized by new criticism) that Paglia returns to time and time again. Why the popular media returns to Paglia time and time again is another question! But probably the answer has something to do with a kind of media masochism, a desire to be spanked for not paying attention or for succumbing to banal mind candy. But at any rate, when Paglia does come out of her box, we get to watch a completely unselfconscious right-wing libertarian blurt out high-minded nonsense while thumbing her nose at all the other academic drones who believe in crazy shit like “the construction of gender,” the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction and the mediated nature of reality.

Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations.

Many people have noted that Lady Gaga lives in the long shadow of Madonna but noting this is not the same as totally collapsing two performers from very different historical and cultural milieux. Weird then that Paglia condemns Lady Gaga for her “poker face” when she adored Madonna’s performance in 1990 in “Justify My Love” because it confirmed that “we are nothing but masks.” Strange that Paglia charges Gaga with “obsessively trafficking in twisted sexual scenarios” while casting Madonna’s Christian upbringing as inspiring because “without taboos, there can be no transgression.” Bizarre that Paglia is so taken with Bowie’s androgyny and Warhol’s relation to the marketplace but can find not a single shred of glamour or talent in Lady Gaga’s gender-blending and articulate performances.

Ultimately, what Paglia thinks about Gaga is about as interesting as what Sarah Palin thinks about feminism or what Glenn Beck thinks of Eminem. More important is the issue of what narratives about the popular, the avant-garde, innovation and cultural appropriation make it into the mainstream media. And somehow, Paglia always seems to find an open page ready to receive her rants, her crazed generalizations (“most of Gaga’s worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”), her nutty projections about a generation, a culture, a movement. While Paglia is stuck in 1990, still spinning her narratives about atrophied affect, cultural decline and sexual inertia, we have actually entered new debates, developed new vocabularies and in creative interactions with new media, we have all of us become little monsters, chasing our own gaga urges and moving steadily further and further from the modernist splits between high and low, good and evil, sex and death.

25 replies on “What’s Paglia Got To Do With It?”


My brain sort of shut down when I read “first major star of the digital age”.

Paglia makes some okay points, but her haterade is just too strong for me to fully enjoy/agree with her. The drag queen line is mean and irrelevant, the Madonna comparison is laughable (as she was and is just as manufactured and calculated like any good pop star would be), and the asexuality = sexual dysfunction logic is disappointing and narrow-minded.

But most of all, I find Paglia’s condescending and hyperbolic rhetoric describing “the digital age” – i.e. Gaga’s fans – grossly misguided because, um… generally, our generation is *not* comprised of easily-fooled, indulgent consumers “addicted” to technology (danah boyd would so go off on her for this), and most of us *aren’t* mired in “emotional poverty” or are uncaring of private/public boundaries.

I don’t know what else to say other than I can be a critical thinker *and* simultaneously enjoy Gaga nattering on about her vaginy or Ronnie and Sam exploding.

We’re *that savvy* Paglia.

and my question is why does Paglia not attempt a New critical analysis of Gaga’s texts??? Absolutely and deservingly scathing response especially the nod to Palin!!

So great.
She really is such a buzz-kill. I think “Paglia” is going to become my new safe word for kinky sexual escapades.

amazing jack, so necessary in this time we have now found ourselves, post-Gaga-gaga, where every cultural critic seems to be blasting incessant tirades about the pointlessness and fakery of Gaga as if we weren’t already aware that Gaga’s fakeness and pointlessness is so key to the beauty of her work and the statement she makes…
And Paglia? Don’t get me started on Paglia… xx

The truth is that Gaga ripped of Marilyn Manson far more than she ever ripped off Madonna, and in the end Camille Paglia is just a pale imitation of the things she worships.

Now, having said that, I really can’t stand most of Gaga’s music, and I find much of her attempts at shock to be disingenuous.

“The truth is that Gaga ripped of Marilyn Manson far more than she ever ripped off Madonna”

I can only assume that you’re unaware that Marilyn Manson not only praises Gaga, but recorded a track with her. Either that, or you’re been inclined to agree that Marilyn Manson will do ANYTHING for popularity and money.

And yes, to the author, thank you. I was totally unaware of Paglia before her scathing attack, but I was pretty incensed at the things she was saying. Some of it was simply bile, attacking Gaga’s looks, or the attack on an entire generation.

I think we live in a weird time. At first, it seemed that people rejected Gaga right off the bat simply because it was pop music. Now it’s because she’s ‘fake’. I wish people could remember back before she was on the scene, the dire, dire state that the music industry had fell into. It seems, for some, the only genuine stars are those that strum a guitar and stay relatively under the radar.

I love how completely transparent Camile Paglia is. She simply mines the recent culture, its icons and trends; then constucts a mound of “prose” geared primarily to bring attention to herself and her ASSertions. It’s cute though how Paglia thinks she’s still relevent.

Holy cow, Jack–Paglia even LOOKS like Ann Robinson!

Thank you for a thoughtful, well-written, glorious response. You are brilliant.


she’s a popstar.

In 10yrs, long after we have all forgotten lady GaGa some new pop-star will come along. And someone will waste their time writing about how important he/she is and about how he/she ripped off Lady gaga. And then you can come to her defense. And then someone younger than you will write about how you are old and have no right to have an opinion on such things, and make catty comments about your appearance. And on and on…

that is how it works isn’t it?

Paglia is a gloriously fractured crotch-sniffer who seems to be the only one in any room who can catalog the stench. If nothing else she has allowed us to contextualize the Gaga infection although we certainly balk at her cruel attempt at character assassination. Point is that Madonna did soil the underthings of Priests and Bishops everywhere. She oozed body rock and every teenage boy and girl just wanted to taste her. We know better now. Whatever runs through Gaga’s veins is most likely toxic. Her great gift is her ability to encapsulate the death/sex dynamic which is the impetus for every gothic/romantic fantasy. It is perfect that Vampires seethe so readily at this moment. We say “please bite us, Gaga and make us into one of you.” But like a true sadist she refuses to capitulate to our desire.

[…] What’s Paglia Got To Do With It? « Bully Bloggers Paglia knows better. She knows that women are women, feminists are stupid, communication networks have replaced real intimacies and Madonna was ripped off. What she doesn’t seem to know is that all cultural production consists of wild combinations of the new and the old, the borrowed and the bold, the real and the fabricated. She also doesn’t seem to know that every generation must have its icons and the tired cycle of oedipal denunciations within which older people sneer at younger people’s tastes never does change anything. She also does not seem to know that Madonna was the queen of rip offs and that her cultural borrowings were almost never acknowledged and often fell within a long tradition of white absorptions of Black cultural innovations. (tags: celebrities lady.gaga madonna female.musicians feminism music) […]

I’m wondering how GAGA’s really intense homonationalism over the last few months will affect the analysis of her on this site. Her “queer politics” are continually reliant upon the (living) deaths of people of color in prison and/or the (millions of) deaths of people of color across the globe produced by the U.S. military. Why is this person a queer/feminist hero when her politics are a nightmare for so many?

A decent critique from a queer Iraqi is here:

JH, I loved your take on this. What Paglia has missed out on, with all that high-minded charading is that Gaga is managed by Guy Oseary–who manages Madonna. Gaga’s video directors include Steven Meisel–who has directed Madonna’s image evolutions more than once AND Madonna’s Sex book. So, to contrast Gaga and Madonna is really a futile exercise.
All these academics who find Gaga a ground breaker need to read up on what female artists have done before her. Like Orlan, Vallie Export, Abramovic, f•ck, even Bjork! Hey, I don’t mind Gaga, but she’s not a ground-breaker…not yet, at least.

Gaga’s upcoming album is entitled “Born This Way.” This sort of epitomizes her gay rights philosophy, which is very much of the mainstream “biological determinism” or “minoritizing” or perhaps even “essentialism” camp. She showed pretty wholesale enthusiasm for the HRC and seemed out of touch with the trans or other lefty critiques of the organization. Based on her philosophy, intellect, and energy, I would compare her to Margaret Cho. Of course Cho has more race and class awareness but Gaga has more reach.

One of the first quotes I ever heard from Gaga was that she wanted to be interesting but still commercial. So Paglia need not warn us that Gaga “wants it both ways” like it was some covert operation. Gaga’s voice, dance moves, and appearance aren’t enough to stand-alone were she not so eccentric, fresh, and cerebral. But she’s also not deep, brilliant, or soulful enough for scholars and academics to fuss about if she weren’t so successful and visible in the mainstream. I think Gaga’s so popular precisely because she falls perfectly in the middle of this binary. Not in spite of it.

I agree with a lot of Paglia’s observations except I don’t agree how she frames these observations as criticisms. For Paglia, sexual revolution seems like a linear trajectory where hemlines are raised another inch every generation. Or maybe Gaga should one-up Madonna’s fellatio with fisting.

There is something impressive about managing to look more “clinical” than slutty while wearing sex laborer’s regalia through an airport. There’s something refreshing about a loyal fan base that is drawn to Gaga for her public sexual statements and isn’t really curious about her private sexual behaviors. There’s something provocative about the image of an oft-half-naked performer whose best weapon for keeping our attention is her unpredictable imagination, as opposed to the one-trick pony pop stars whose range of aesthetic variability consists of miniscule fluctuations to the inert boundary between revealing the predictable assets and leaving the outstanding balance to the imagination.

Paglia is the go-to intellectual for superficial fools who crave confirmation for their anti-liberal bias. It is incredible to me how willingly she allows herself to be used as the rhetorical trumpet for neo-conservative voices. When she isn’t functioning in that capacity, she devotes her time to the oh-so culturally relevant pursuit of… slagging off pop celebrities.

Much like the aging Hollywood star, desperately clinging on to an image of youthful sexiness, Paglia seems wedded to her manufactured image as a contrarian firebrand, and just like the aging star, she is fast becoming a tragic figure. She has cornered herself long ago by allowing herself to become a product, boring and predictable, and now she has nothing left to do except to repeat, repeat, repeat her tired old tricks. Of course she will attack Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift because they are not Madonna. Of course she will praise Sarah Palin and Donald Trump because they are conservative. It is so predictably, tiresomely part of her brand.

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