In 1990, I was 20 and GaGa was 4. In 1990, Madonna’s career was already way past boiling point.
In 1990, things hadn’t yet warmed up for academic pest Camille Paglia. Late that year, the Yale alum took the temperature of the culture and published her results in The New York Times.
When she declared Madonna the degree zero of pop, Paglia herself became white hot.
”Madonna is the true feminist,” wrote Paglia in 1990. The professor hailed the music video for Justify My Love as ”an eerie, sultry tableau of jaded androgynous creatures” and, in short, the future of a liberated art.
At the time, I agreed. As I was that sort of girl.
Here at last in Madonna’s reworking of Cavani’s The Night Porter was a positive and empowering vision of female sexuality. That’s what we said at the time. And, because back in 1990 being a feminist was about as much fun as being a bank clerk, it was an enormous relief to claim Madonna as our own. When Paglia introduced the metrics of sex, we immediately added it to our ledger.
Together, Paglia and Madonna launched a thousand term papers. Hungry for a bit of smut, feminist art critics wrote essays praising Madonna with titles that sounded like Justify My Ideology.
God. I think I turned something in to my professor about the song Borderline and how its lyric uttered ”Madonna’s transgressive sexuality”. I’m pretty sure I got an A.
Whenever a woman artist took her clothes off and demonstrated that femininity was a performance, you could be sure an undergraduate would write an essay about it.
For the next little while in the worlds of pop, the avant-garde and academia, things proceeded in this vein. From the Queer performance of Holly Hughes, whose work was praised by The Times for scraping ”away decades of encrusted decorum”, to the girl power of the Spice Girls, the new camp feminism could be felt. This was fun. It seemed that we’d all finally caught up with the prophesies of Susan Sontag, who said, ”Camp sees everything in quotation marks”. It is never a woman but a ”woman”.
The woman on stage, or ”woman”, could not lose with her new weapon of irony. However, like Madonna, this ironic ”woman” business began to get a little old.
Anyone who has ever sat through a shitty burlesque routine on the Lower East Side, or seen the movie Spice World, may have seen the cracks. Literally as well as figuratively. At a certain point, an audience begins to wonder: am I seeing tits or ”tits”? And, really, is there a difference?
Often, there is no difference. Often, burlesque or striptease can be so blankly ironic that it has about as much theatricality and power as you might enjoy at Scores.
But, every now and then, Paglia’s promise of ”woman” might be properly observed.
Gaga dialed up the promise presaged by Paglia and co. More than quotation marks, we see, amid a cast of trans-gendered, hyper camp enchantment, entire bound volumes shrieking ”woman”. Within the first 30 seconds of the video Telephone which I still LOVE these months later, Gaga evokes the rumor that she has a penis.
From the first, I knew that GaGa was special.
One day, I was at the gym on the elliptical trainer coaxing my body into a shape more suitable for 1990. Before me on the television screen was the promotional video for Poker Face. As I am very short-sighted with non-correctible vision, I might not have bothered moving up to the rowing machine for a second look at GaGa had it not been for her brickbat rip-off of Peaches, the rudest woman I’ve ever met.
In short, here was the most beautifully constructed bit of vision I’d seen since I Don’t Know When. I was particularly tickled to hear the phrase, “I’m Bluffin’ With My Muffin” and I was returned immediately to a youth where I passionately wrote horrible papers about Madonna, performance and feminism. Or, “performativity” as we Judith Butler fans of the early 1990s liked to say.
For the first time in forever, I wished I was young again. I knew that if I was 20, I’d devote myself utterly to reading the “text” of Lady GaGa. How could a young feminist academic even begin to resist analysis of “bluffin’ with my muffin”? Here was a burlesque refugee using the (broadly disputed) “fact” of her genitals to bluff. GaGa’s clear lack of knowledge about the rules of poker aside, if I was 18 again, my head would have been reeling with the promise of cultural studies funding.
What the fuck, I asked myself, was not to love about Lady GaGa? She was transgressive, post-ironic and irrefutably, wonderfully Queer.
I searched to find what Paglia had to say about the ”woman” who actually wears real masks in public. There wasn’t much.
In Salon.com, Paglia advised Gaga: ”Give it a rest, and focus on the music.”
In the meantime, I’m turning my old volumes of Paglia into a dress to wear next time GaGa comes to play in my town.