Monday, July 12, 2010

Gaga Frees The Masses.

The Monster Ball at Madison Square Garden was worth every penny I paid for my spontaneous (impulsive?) floor ticket purchased on Stub Hub the night before the show. In a sweaty, mostly young sea of sequined Gaga mega-fans, I unexpectedly felt my heart swell. The woman that is the phenomenon that is Lady Gaga proved to be a talented performer with audible and visual roots in burlesque. Her dance moves, outfits, and lipsmacking guy-on-guy/girl-on-girl-teeth-baring dancers are straight out of New York's gay club scene--a school system of sorts for many of cultures smartest artistic (and vainly glorious) movements. From piano ballads vibratoed with the full-bodied voice of a true singer, to techno-filtered, audio-manipulated, pure pop thumpers, the numbers were expectedly fantastic and theatric a'la her many televised performances. The energy in the packed arena was palpable, and I was genuinely entertained as I thought I would be. But, the thing that got me most about the show and about her, the thing that filled my heart was her sheer insistence on pushing the traditionally grotesque, outcast, abject into the glimmering spotlight of beauty.

From a fashion standpoint, Gaga's embrace of the marginal lay mostly in her get-ups that take odd shape. She's a dancer, so some of her show gear was based around the tight silhouette of the leotard, legging, or catsuit. But, more often than not there were outfits that were latex, rubber, and injection molded plastic (dusted with glitter or studded or sequined, as the number demanded). Many of her costumes appear shocking in ways because their shapes are so exaggerated or unexpected. A purple leather motorcycle jacket had towering, box-like shoulderpads that could have put her next in line for tackle practice on the 10-yard line. A transparent, milky rubber dress was wide at the shoulders and tulipped out at the thighs. Worn with a huge skeletal hand brace, the outfit had a nurse-gone-mad sensibility.

Shoulderpads and plastic wear.

With latex comes subtext. There is an obvious undertone of fetishism in Gaga's usual wardrobe, but that undertone went into overdrive in one of the show's highly engaging video interludes. In the black and white short, she elocuted a manifesto of sorts on behalf of her adoring legion--her Little Monsters. While a voice over played, she was shown in BDSM masks, her face obscured by slick black hoods, or misshapen by the push of rubber or metal. One of the things that keeps Gaga interesting, and that forms a strong backbone of her driving aesthetic, is her repeated insistence on bucking beauty shots. She's not steady-camming with hairblowers and bobmshell makeup (well, unless she is of course), rather she can look downright scary and unrecognizable. As the video in the piece lurched and shook, the movements onscreen looked more and more sexual. In the steadier shots Gaga pushed fingers in and out of her mouth which was covered in fabric that gave way. She opened and closed an eye that wasn't immediately recognizable as an eye. It all was unnerving, unsettling, displaced, but yet tempered with shots of the blonde's genuine grin and calm eyes.  When the masks were off and you could see her face, Gaga looked blissed and free. She looked satisfied and spent.

In my favorite digital piece from the show, Gaga's glam was defiled by a black-clad dancer inducing a waterfall of shimmering/pastel blue vomit. The video was shot in the hyper color of Nick Knight's directorial palette and evoked a memory of the dearly departed (and close Gaga collaborator) Alexander McQueen's catwalk show where two robots shot streams of paint at a helplessly rotating Shalom Harlow. In her version of it, Gaga stands in a glam pose with those aforementioned blowing fans billowing her prudent white dress and her Veronica Lake waves. She seems not to mind, and even welcomes the purged stream of blue. It happens over and over again via Knight's loop and elicited a few audible "ewws" from the audience. But, I was struck by how pretty the visual was--how tough Gaga looked and how, like everything else she does, it pointed a finger back at her favored medium of expression: dress.

To a fashion savvy viewer, the action in the video is a jab at the industry of pretty people. It raised flags of bulimia and pain-before-pretty ethos that saturate the sartorial world. The video goes on to show Gaga regurgitating blood while eating her own shiny, gnashed heart in close up before we see her standing on a platform being infringed upon by a stand-in for a photoshoot employee. She's taped-up, sprayed, slashed, and powdered. It seems violent and she takes it, because ultimately, Gaga goes from recognizable glam to her brand of pretty--which is roughed-up, dirtied, and toughened.

Fetish gear gone Gaga.

This translates into her power. She's not pretty. At one point in the show Gaga asked the crowd, "Do you think I'm sexy?" The thunderous yes wasn't enough for her. She asked again, sternly, "I said, do you think I'm sexy?" A louder yes came back with screams and "I love you!!'s" thrown in to satisfy the star. Just then her steely pose melted and she laughingly admitted that she "sometimes abuses that part of the show because [she] wasn't very popular in high school." Later in the show ( and during at least three more key moments) she vehemently addressed her fans and let them know for certain that they are all famous (read: popular, read:pretty) and that they should be themselves no matter how gay, weird, fat, geeky, gawky, misshapen, or outcast they may be or feel. She swore with emotion in her voice that being yourself would lead to The Fame, her code words for freedom. Love, acceptance, and success are yours once you realize you have them. The empirical evidence is in the phenomenon of her mainstream acceptance, not inspite of, but because of her weirdness.

All in all, I'm thrilled to live in a time where the biggest pop star in all the land champions ugly, embraces fetishes, regurgitates blood on screen, and is flanked by genuine black tranny superstars. It's refreshing. It's freeing.

All costumes styled by Nicola Formichetti and the Haus of Gaga. Images via Nicola's Blog and vidoes via Youtube.

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