The first time I saw her was on American Idol, doing a hit song that I had never heard, “Poker Face.” I Tweeted to FaceBook, “Who *is* this Gaga person?” One of my cultural studies colleagues from the South, whose partner wrote the music for the biggest trans off-Broadway hit since Rocky Horror, shot back, “She is a *genius* — that’s who she is.”
Suddenly a song that had just been blending in on my car radio made itself obvious, and I began to follow Gaga’s rise to super-stardom. Like many campy performers, she is particularly popular among gay men. However, unlike some of the more famous disco queens (here I would cite Donna Summer’s long reluctance to connect to gay fans and the ever-ungrateful Gloria Gaynor, who said in 2007 that she viewed her popularity among gays as an opportunity to “lead [them] towards Christ,”) Lady Gaga celebrates her gay and lesbian fans. She also acknowledges the importance of queer popular culture and the artistry of drag to her creative development and has taken on the cause of gay civil rights aggressively.
Last summer, as I found myself shaking booty to “Born This Way” at the famous triennial women’s history conference, I realized that Gaga had finally joined the elite corps of gay male icons that lesbians love too. So imagine my delight when one of my cultural studies students from last year (nice catch, Jeremy!) sent me this link from the International Business Times, reviewing a performance as drag king Jo Calderone at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Staying in character from beginning to end, Gaga seems to be announcing that she is taking dyke subcultural forms to the mainstream too.
And boy-o-boy, it’s going to be a struggle: rarely have I seen a major music star reviewed on a continuum from lukewarm to uber-nasty, or tagged as sexually inappropriate in a video industry where there are more hands on crotches than there are on guitars. It is fine for girlie-girls to engage in public lesbian smooching, as Britney and Madonnna did back in 2007. However it appears, as the IBT sneered, that Gaga “just made people uncomfortable” at the ceremony with what I thought was pretty good kinging. ”Lady Gaga should take it as a compliment that she can’t sell herself as a man,” (Why? Because being feminine is such a terrific advantage in a sexist society?) “But it was disappointing to see the wrongheaded effort put into transforming her into a dude.”
We’re not saying Lady Gaga should have gotten testosterone injections [probably not for just one show, no] — just maybe a better wig.
Still, it was less the costume than the acting that made us cringe. We’re not sure what she was going for with the sneering macho swagger, or the way she was looking at Britney Spears: Less like she was undressing Britney with her eyes, more like she was skinning her alive with her stare.
I get it! The entertainment industry is against sexism! Holy cow — has anyone told Eminem? Or the producers of Hung, Californication, Entourage, Jersey Shore, and (add your show here _______________.)
Other reviewers were also squirming in their seats and running for the closet. ABC’s Sheila Marikar said that Gaga’s behavior towards Britney Spears would have caused a man to be “slapped with a restraining order” (SRSLY??? In which well-behaved popular culture venue?) and asked, “was it … brilliant? Creepy? Or something else entirely?”
The Hollywood Reporter also gave the performance thumbs down, but without owning it. Instead they featured comedian Kevin Hart’s comment that the performance was “a little weird” in the sub head. Further down, the article noted that “The audience appeared that it didn’t know what to make of the Jo Calderone routine: Britney Spears watched with mouth agape, Katie Holmes stared with amused confusion, and Justin Bieber, wearing glasses, had a blank expression on his face as Gaga/Calderon carried on.”
Perhaps the audience didn’t know what to make of it because the entertainment industry is so freaking homophobic? We all know that Britney loves to kiss the girls, which is the only thing that makes her interesting (itself a sad commentary on Hollywood homophobia, since lesbianism seems to be who is being marketed as a Christian icon (and has a tumblr page devoted to “Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber”) are shocked by? I would be shocked if they weren’t shocked by Lady Gaga, regardless of what and who she was performing.
In true drag king style, Jo was lewd, crude and unsubdued, something that seems to go over as good fun for cis-men performing either as themselves or as female alter egos, but has the opposite effect when it comes to cis-women who want to play the gender game too. What seems to have really freaked people out is that Gaga refused to calm everyone’s trans panic by not only turning in a performance as her own boyfriend but also refusing to return to the female (drag queen) persona that seems to set everyone at ease by putting her out there in leather bikinis and other costumes that require breast tape and a Brazilian wax.
And an update from the Twitter feed: Annie Lennox kings “Sweet Dreams” at the 1984 Grammy Awards: