This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.
If I just listened to her music, I'd only be moderately interested. I think her music is perfectly fun, well- above- average dance pop music. But I've been watching her music videos... and they're making me think that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. (Yes, I realize she doesn't direct her own videos -- but they are clearly collaborations, strongly shaped by her artistic vision, and they're a central part of her public persona.)
And what's striking me about Lady Gaga's music videos is not just how smart they are, or how imaginative, or how lovingly crafted and visually stunning, or how just flat-out funny. What's striking me about Lady Gaga's music videos is how strongly influenced they are by sex culture: by fetish fashion, by sexploitation flicks, and by plain old dirty porn.
What's more, they seem to be strongly influenced by these cultures, not as an outsider, not as someone who's manipulating this imagery to titillate/ shock the audience, but as an insider, someone who's intimately familiar with both sex culture and sexual marginalization. This isn't Britney Spears, using schoolgirl or slavegirl or girl- on- girl imagery to excite her audience without any apparent understanding or affinity for it. Lady Gaga's music videos (coupled with her interviews about her work) show a thoughtful, informed insight into polymorphous perversity. She has an analysis that could easily hold its own in any queer theory/ gender theory/ sex theory forum -- and damn do I love a sexy girl with an analysis! -- and her freak flag is waving high and proud.
In a way that -- if I can be crass for a moment -- makes her videos very functional as porn. I've certainly seen other music videos that turned me on. I can't remember seeing any that made me this hungry to watch them again and again... with a vibrator handy.
"Telephone" may be the best example of these porny influences. A brazen riff on "women in prison" sexploitation flicks -- and "women in prison" porn flicks -- the video plays with kinky imagery, catfight imagery, and girl-girl porn imagery... all reclaimed into a defiantly queer sexuality. (Yes, Lady Gaga is an out bisexual.) The women are costumed in the sexist, sluttiest, most wildly fantastical, least plausible prisoner uniforms imaginable, far outstripping the implausibly slutty costumes of any "women in prison" porn or sexploitation movie I've seen: elaborate platform heels, leather bondage collars, luxuriously trashy lingerie, chains draped around bodies, sunglasses made of cigarettes, leather gear studded and zippered within an inch of its life. Latex prison stripes for Ms. Gaga herself -- rudely stripped off by the butch prison guards, to reveal black taped X's over her nipples and fishnet hose with nothing but pixels underneath. All with cleavage and thighs and asses on meticulously offhand display. And all with breakneck-speed costume changes that defy even porn logic.
Although... well, maybe "Beautiful, Dirty Rich" is the best example. A decadent, libertine, "beautiful useless people" bisexual free-form grope-fest, its vision of trashy affluence would do the excesses of either the Weimar Republic or the Roman Empire proud. Statues get humped, piles of money get rolled in, and the brass railing of a posh elevator gets used like a stripper pole. All in a style that hints at both amateur basement porn and "La Dolce Vita."
And now that I think about it... maybe "Bad Romance" is the best example. This may be both the strangest and the kinkiest Lady Gaga video of all. (Not surprisingly, it's also my favorite.) In a futuristic bathhouse, strangely costumed women perform a private stage show for wealthy, sinister men who sit back calmly and consume the entertainment. (Much like we, the audience, are consuming the entertainment.) Gaga is forced by her fellow dancers into displaying herself and performing a sex-kitten lap dance for the audience, and later takes herself into the bedchamber of one of them, who seems to have paid for the pleasure at an Internet auction. (I think. This particular video seems to have been influenced by Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" films as much as by fetish porn, and the storyline is a little surreal and hard to follow.) This is Lady Gaga, though, always firmly in control even when she's wildly out of it, and she takes her revenge in the end by... well, I don't want to spoil such a lovely surprise.
The fashion in this video isn't just influenced by fetish fashion. The fashion is fetish fashion: from the masked latex catsuits to the strappy red lingerie to the six- inch- heel patent leather boots. Much has been made of the unwearable Alexander McQueen "alien" shoes that Lady Gaga proved were wearable in this video. I have not yet seen any mention made of the fact that the things bear an uncanny resemblance to pony play shoes. The ones that look like hooves.
But then maybe... oh, you get the idea. There's "Paparazzi", an ambivalent encomium to exhibitionism, sexual and otherwise, which eroticizes crutches and wheelchairs in a way that makes me think Gaga must have seen Japanese medical/ bandage porn. (Not to mention David Cronenberg's "Crash.") There's "Poker Face", featuring yet another bisexual free-for-all grope-fest. There's "LoveGame", with the poles on a subway car being repurposed as stripper poles, and the male dancers getting arrested and bent over cop cars, and Gaga seducing a cop in the security booth. (A cop who, mysteriously but alluringly, keeps switching genders.) I could go on.
But I kind of want to get to the point here.
Now, Lady Gaga is far from the first person to incorporate porn imagery into pop culture. She's not even the first person to incorporate it into music videos. Madonna leaps immediately to mind, as does Fiona Apple's "Criminal," as does every rock or rap video with scantily-clad coochie girls, ever. But Lady Gaga does it in a way that seems to be unique. (At least, I haven't seen it before. Again -- middle-aged lady here. Not exactly a connoisseur of the contemporary music video genre.)
The way Lady Gaga incorporates porn imagery into her music video is entirely shameless.
And by "shameless," I don't mean "flaunting it" or "in your face." I mean, quite literally, "without shame." Lady Gaga's music videos incorporate a fascinating assortment of influences, from culture both high and low. I see Fellini in her videos, and Matthew Barney, and David Cronenberg, and "Natural Born Killers," and the high-art end of high fashion, and "Thelma and Louise," and much more.
I also see sexploitation, and fetish culture, and porn.
And nowhere do I see any hint that these influences ought not to be mixed -- or that some are more equal than others.
The high-art influences and the porny influences are folded into one another seamlessly. The "women in prison" story in "Telephone" is given equal weight to the "women on the road/ mass murder" story. In "Bad Romance," the latex fetish gear contributes as much as to the unnervingly antiseptic surrealism as the glossy white sets and the cyborg facial jewelry. The sexual exhibitionism in "Paparazzi" is as much a part of the commentary on fame as the flashing lights of the cameras. Sex is clearly a central part of Lady Gaga's life and work -- and she explores it in her videos with every bit as much enthusiasm, and every bit as much gravitas, as she does any other aspect of her life and work.
And I think this is not only why I like these videos so much, but why I find them so arousing. My favorite porn is almost always porn that (a) vividly gets across the feeling of a unique sexual experience, and (b) applies careful and loving craft to the medium in question, in a way that enhances the expression of sexuality rather than obscuring it. My favorite porn is almost always porn that recognizes the human complexities of sex... while luxuriously rolling around in it, and enjoying it to its fullest.
Lady Gaga's music videos do all of that. They don't just incorporate porn and sex-culture imagery. They do it with passion, and with respect. They do it with a "fuck you" defiance, not only of sexual repression and demonization, but of sexual trivialization, the notion that sex and the body are petty distractions from the loftier arenas of human expression.
And that makes them both artistically compelling, and totally freaking hot.
(Note: This piece was written before the "Alejandro" video was released. Which is a shame, since it's dirtier and kinkier and queerer than all the other videos put together. I may have to write a review of that video all on its own.)