Monstrous Obsessions: Lady Gaga, Horror, and Subversive Desire

Posted by Rachel Bowles on December 26, 2010 in Blog tagged with , ,

“I have an obsession with sex and death. Those two things are also the nexus of horror films, which I’ve been obsessing over lately. I’ve just been sort of bulimically eating and regurgitating monster movies and all things scary.” Lady Gaga

“You’ve been a very bad girl, a very, very, bad, bad girl, Gaga.” Beyoncé

Lady Gaga is herself a formidable musical and cultural phenomenon. That an artist so prolific and central to 21st century media culture embraces ideas of the gothic, body horror and monstrosity to the point in which it infiltrates her entire aesthetic and lexicon, should be a point of meditation for those interested in the intersections of the gothic and wider contemporary popular culture. In her textual use, Lady Gaga religiously refers to horror, naming her legions of fans, her English twitter page alone totalling seven and a half million subscribers, “little monsters”, incorporating her celebratory message of the outsider and the freak- the queer, the bullied, the abject. She supports them, she cries for them. In a pithy statement worthy of a romantic or gothic heroine, Gaga at live shows plays an audio recording of herself, over a visual loop of surreal black and white images of her human figure no less, stating “when you are lonely little monsters, I am lonely too.” Her self-anointed status as queer, monstrous god is confusing for many as passionate (obsessive) and yet sensible (cynical) a fan as I am.  It’s how I imagine Stalinism would have been if it was about glitter, gothic glamour and throbbing electric beats, rather than the arguably more austere occupations associated with gulags and collectivisation.

And yet, Gaga’s ridiculous, overblown gothic cult of personality is in itself a reflection of our modern obsession with celebrity. Nothing Gaga says publicly is ever less than excessively dramatic, encouraging her “little monsters” themselves to be playful with their own identities and use of language. She reworks and updates the golden Hollywood glamour age, when stars always acted as if they were stars, rather than mere mortals. Though unlike Marilyn Monroe, Gaga’s ‘femininity’, if it can even be called that, is queered, playful and robust, played out through a subversive and postmodern engagement in gothic aesthetics within her music videos, her live shows and her music.

Gaga’s age of monstrosity arguably starts with the music video and single ‘Paparazzi’, a song about dark, obsessive love and a video of unprecedented violence. The video starts with a deceptively calm and idyllic mansion. Lady Gaga is kissing her boyfriend. He demands that she “Look at the camera!” as he kisses her and dangles her dangerously over the edge of a balcony. A dramatic montage of various shots from different angles follows, including a crosshairs (aligned directly with the spectator’s gaze) from an off screen camera. Gaga struggles, shouts “Stop!” and eventually smashes a bottle over her boyfriend’s head. He calls her a “cunt” and throws her off the balcony. In a sustained reactive shot of Gaga’s boyfriend, he grimly gazes down with an unwavering look of anger, clearly happy with his intentional use of violence. Lying sprawled on the floor, blood and smashed crystals around her head, her pearl necklace affectively sealing her mouth shut, Gaga’s unconscious, sprawled and stylised body is swarmed by paparazzi who intensely take photographs and shout “Beautiful!” The drums of ‘Paparazzi’ start and the scene cuts to Gaga, complete with neck brace, being helped out of a limousine and into a wheel chair by dancers. Gaga strips into a Metropolis-esqe golden suit of armour, and with the aid of crutches, walks shakily and monstrously into her mansion, jerking violently as she moves from one crutch to another. In Japanese horror films, such as in Takashi Shimizu’s Ju On, monstrous women sometimes crawl with jerky and unnatural motions, complete with crunching broken bones. This often signifies a general problem of oppression and violence against women, though here in the ‘Paparazzi’ video, the domestic violence is clearly physically enacted and embodied.

Non-diegetically, Gaga dances in the light, and writhes about by herself, and later, with androgynous partners orgiastically in the dark. These images are intercut with shots of highly Gothicised ‘faces of death’, models splayed in the grass with glittery blood seeping from head wounds, dispatched in the bath, hanging from the ceiling, with the shot cutting off her upper body, displaying only legs and ‘statement’ heels. As this montage builds up, and quickens in pace, cutting ever more rapidly from shot to shot of dead femininity and live monstrosity, Gaga herself seems to be turning into a more aggressive, rather than passive monster, pounding her fists on a wall and thrashing around as if possessed. Strobe lighting flashes and inverts her pupils into an unsettling white, her monstrous gaze is finally directly returned to the camera’s.

As the music slows, Gaga is seen in a placid and traditionally domestic situation with her boyfriend, the performativity of domestic bliss concealing underlying tensions. Noticing that there is a “new it girl” on a magazine’s cover, Gaga calmly gets up and mixes powder into a drink. A close up of her mouth shows she has painted lips in a geisha style, making them look closed and small, signifying constrained femininity. Mixing powder into a drink for her boyfriend, Gaga bares her teeth momentarily, her threatening agency flashing briefly, before passing the poisoned drink to him. He drinks, looks at her in shock and dies. Gaga simply smiles and then yawns, already bored. Extra-diagetically we hear Gaga’s emergency call, “I just killed my boyfriend” she purrs happily.  In a reversal of the video’s introduction, a C.S.I. team photograph and scrutinise the surface of her boyfriend’s body before Gaga is carted away in chains by the police. Happy to return to an outwardly monstrous notoriety that is consumed by hungry paparazzi, all is well once again in Gaga land.

Watch ‘Pararazzi’:

When murder is used as an aesthetic mode of empowerment it is always problematic. However in ‘Paparazzi’, as in the ‘Bad Romance’ video, clearly the diegetic Gaga isn’t at all bothered, so murder as a legitimate queer political action within the text is acceptable, at least to Lady Gaga. The ‘Paparazzi’ video grapples with serious issues of performativity and its ability to conceal domestic violence, filtered through a gothic aesthetic. This works to lighten the grave issue of domestic violence for the spectator by heightening its unreality whilst simultaneously reinforcing the potentially violent monstrosity of gender roles through the horrific excess of gothic spectacle.

The lyrics for Paparazzi concern the obsessive pursuit of an unrequited love, and are littered with textual references, like the video, to celebrity, fans, mental illness, spectacle, the hyperreal “with that picture of you/it’s so magical/We’d be so fantastical,”, aggression “[I’ll] chase you down until you love me” and an overt focus on surfaces, performance and the unhealthy or corruptible “in between the sets/eyeliner and cigarettes.” However these dark textual references are contrasted playfully with the immature, shouted line, “We’re plastic but we’ll still have fun!” In terms of the grain of Gaga’s voice the studio version of ‘Paparazzi’ is largely sung in a deceptively sweet and relatively high pitched voice, again playfully detracting from the song’s gothic obsessions and political dimensions. This is however contrasted in Gaga’s live performances of the song, as she tends to sing the last chorus of “Papa-paparazzi” in a deep, guttural and much more menacing tone, ending the song on a foreboding minor chord, and often covering herself with blood.

Chronologically and thematically, ‘Bad Romance’ is the next important gothic Gaga text, similarly encompassing monstrous negotiations of murder, objectification and desire. ‘Bad Romance’, is perhaps the song that most overtly refers to monstrous desire and horror in its lyrics and intertextuality “I want your horror, I want your disease, I want your love…”; “I want your Psycho/ your Vertigo schtick/want you in my Rear Window, baby you’re sick/I want your love.” The video is set in the “Bath Haus of Gaga”, a place where Gaga emerges from a white bath, resembling a casket, her fingers bent into near permanent claws and her spine bowed and visible; her bony, monstrous body is contorted into near anorexic proportions.  The scariest part of her physicality is arguably her eyes, they’re distorted into huge round discs as if she were an anime character. This fetishising of her eyes, stretches the ‘normal’ eye widening and defining make up of fake eyelashes, mascara and eyeliner, into a grotesque parody of desirable femininity. The extremity of her huge eyes also work to emphasise her darting, hungry and all consuming gaze, as she looks quickly and intensely at her surroundings and into the camera. Gaga is then force fed drugs, stripped, and presented as a commodified object to on looking, seated men. However this is directly contradicted by subsequent intercut shots of Gaga writhing about, snarling and almost howling the lyrics of ‘Bad Romance’, like a werewolf; a song that repeatedly insists, “I want…I want…I want…I want…” throughout, constantly reinforcing and insisting on the importance of her all-consuming, monstrous desire. As she crawls towards her voyeuristic audience and dances aggressively, the video shifts into an almost manic gear, suggesting that perhaps the former pathetic images of Gaga were a performance of weakened femininity, or at the very least a much more complex, desirous Gaga, rather than a straight forwardly, victimised and oppressed one. Intense close ups of her wide eyes confirm a confident monstrous agency and gaze, as she sings “I’m a free bitch, baby”. As the song builds, with Gaga’s protestations that “I don’t wanna be friends!” becoming increasingly louder and more insistent, she approaches the objects of her affections, shades conceal her gaze and reflect his, giving both Gaga and the spectator a privileged view of her seated lover. Once again monstrous power is reversed. Gaga reveals her partially naked body, resulting in her lover being enveloped in flames. The video ends on a wonderfully still scene of Gaga smoking, looking decidedly dishevelled, make up heavily smudged, fireworks sparkling from her pyrotechnic bra, next to the charred, grotesque bones of her partner. The shot hints that she is the sole survivor of her monstrous, all consuming desire.

Watch ‘Bad Romance’:

For me, Gaga’s songs of obsessive, destructive love and the gothic aesthetic she uses to artistically illustrate them through film, are a horrifically sublime antidote to idealised romantic pop songs and music videos, which tend to function as concealing the problems of desire, abjection and queer politics, rather than exploring them. Instead through her music and film, Gaga seems to open up and probe these problematic and complex versions of love, simultaneously consolidating the queer/female voice of the song as always desiring and therefore as having agency. Avenues of queer desire is something that Gaga explicitly explores through lyrics, for example in ‘So Happy I Could Die’: “I love that lavender blonde/the way she moves, the way she walks/I touch myself, can’t get enough’. This is something also visually explored in her infamous video for ‘Telephone’ with Beyoncé, a filmic pastiche of sexploitation films and desirous, murderous lesbian solidarity.

Video links:

\’Paparazzi\’, Lady Gaga

\’Bad Romance\’, Lady Gaga

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