Most obvious to the outsider in any of Lady Gaga’s music is her use of hypersexuality. In terms of what can be sung about over the radio or shown in a music video, Lady Gaga has always been transgressive, pushing the boundaries of what we in the modern world consider taboo or uncomfortable. But, as many people have pointed out, Gaga is good at being sexual without being sexy. Whereas her contemporaries’ output features lots of sweaty, sensual rendezvous, Gaga’s videos and music have always had a seedy, more thoughtful undertone which robs her almost nude image of any of its attractiveness. If any woman ever had the mind of a gay man, it’s Lady Gaga. Her strapping, gold-skinned entourage gyrates around her while she remains as alluring as a mountain of snow.
In the context of The Fame Monster, this surprisingly illuminating duality is most apparent in the video for the album’s third and final single “Alejandro”. The song itself is somewhat conflicted. To date it is Gaga’s darkest single. A melancholic violin solo lifted from Monti’s “Czárdás” evolves into an angsty cacophony of synthesized chords which brood and swell like thunder clouds. And what better way to compliment all this tempestuousness but with a sunny Latin dance beat?
The video of course has nothing whatsoever to do literally with the song. It appears to take place in some cold Northern gulag over which Gaga is a vampiric dominatrix. Her soldiers are a well-trained dance troupe of gay Nazis in tight black uniforms. Throughout the video Gaga is dressed in her standard bra and panties, or in a latex nun’s habit. Most of Gaga’s colleagues in the realm of slutty dance music would have played up the sex appeal in such a situation, and Gaga does indeed, though instead of spreading her legs she is passed around and abused before finally being gang raped by her horde of goose-stepping minions.
Her makeup, too, betrays our expectations. Her hair is short and awkward, her breasts made to look very small. She looks more like a young teenage boy than a woman in her twenties. As you can tell, there is something very disturbing lying under the sexy surface of Gaga’s art. Similar tropes run throughout The Fame Monster. “Bad Romance” has much the same aesthetic musically and in its respective video. In “Dance in the Dark” Gaga sings about a woman who will only undress in the dark so that her partner won’t see her body.
Such attitudes toward sex are rampant in our present culture, and it is somewhat unclear whether Gaga agrees with them or is making an ironic commentary on them. In the early Church, even as early as the writing of the New Testament, a heresy arose which was given the name Gnosticism (from the Greek for “knowledge”). Though it died out relatively quickly, its shadow has haunted Christianity and Western civilization ever since. The Gnostics as a sect of Christianity were a group of Platonists who believed they had been given a secret knowledge which allowed them alone to be truly enlightened. The specifics of this vary, but in every iteration of Gnosticism is a strong commitment to dualism: the belief that the spiritual world is good and the physical world is bad.
We see dualism rearing its ugly head over and over again throughout history. There are basically two kinds of dualism. One holds that the body and the flesh are evil and therefore must be scorned, mortified, and escaped from. This type of Gnosticism flourished after the Protestant Reformation’s denial of the Sacraments and found its fulfillment in what we might today call Puritanism. The other kind of dualism believes that the spiritual is all that matters, and therefore what one does with the body is unimportant. This is called hedonism. This latter version of Gnosticism is extremely deeply rooted in the modern world. We believe in sex without consequences. We have one night stands. We spend all our time in cyberspace rather than in the marrow of real life. Any time someone says, “All that matters is what’s in your heart,” they are expressing a more benign form of dualism.
Gaga, whether she intends to or not, shows us the grim and seedy reality of our present conundrum. Her art is at the same time promiscuous and anti-sex. Just this past year she released a song called “Do What You Want (with my Body)”, in which she gives the deranged R. Kelly permission to do whatever he wants with her body as long as he doesn’t use her heart or her mind. Gnosticism pure and simple. The great thing about The Fame Monster is that it does not give us easy answers. Continuing with a recent theme around here, it does not give away its mystery all at once. Is Gaga celebrating the dualism plaguing the West, or is she condemning it? Does she intend to do either? Does it really matter? The answer is, as usual, probably not . . .