Lady Gaga, the intensely artificial, popular, silly, and self-aware post-Madonna sexpot singer made for yet another great New York Post headline last week: “Gaga Goes Batty.” Now she’s the subject of Tufts University feminist philosophy professor Nancy Bauer’s blog in the “Opinionator” section of The New York Times. What’s not to love about our culture? Here we are, in for another round of high/low: the “paper of record,” the tabloid of trash, or the professor of philosophy, the vulgar pop singer sensation. Vulgarity has always played a critical role in Western culture, of course (think Aristophanes, Socrates, and dung). The only difference nowadays is that smart intellectuals, especially in universities, treat it as profound stuff, philosophizing about such pop-cult phenomena as Lady Gaga as if these things are no different from philosophizing about the nature of the soul.
But you have to love the New York Post for perennially coming up with brilliant, flippant, spot-on summaries of the way things really are. Seriously, who needs Bauer’s long, learned rumination on Lady Gaga when you can get the meaning of the pop singer in a 3-word headline? Still, out of the professional obligation of an academic who sometimes ventures into popular culture to stay abreast of others who do the same thing, I read Bauer’s piece. And I learned a thing or two. Or at least I feel like I did—that’s the effect the mere mentions of Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Beauvoir’s The Second Sex will have on a mere painter like me. Yet for all Bauer’s deep philosophizing about Lady Gaga, and what latest, whatever-generation feminism means (it seems to mean girls behaving like whores not actually being whores because they know they’ve got the power not to be whores—or something like that), Bauer missed the most important, in-your-face, easy to see without glasses, truth about Lady Gaga—something that you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to see. Lady Gaga is truly homely.
Bauer says, “[Lady Gaga is] pretty, she’s thin, she’s well-proportioned.” Thin and well-proportioned, O.K., but pretty? I don’t know about you, but to me pretty is a step up from average on the way to being beautiful. If Lady Gaga represents a step, it’s down. (For those of you who’d like to beat me with that handy relativist stick, a) think Elizabeth Taylor or Halle Berry, b) google some images of Lady Gaga, and c) remember, Bauer called her, with no relativist qualification, “pretty.”)
Being homely is at the heart of the Lady Gaga phenomenon. She’s simply doing what many homely girls desperate for attention have done for centuries: played the raunchy sex card. As Hedwig, in the great movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch put it concerning her less-than-adequate sex organ, “It’s what I’ve got to work with.” Lady Gaga’s appeal to new-new-new-new (did I get right the number of “news”?) young feminist women can only be properly understood by recognizing the hope she brings to all girls who worry they aren’t beautiful enough—and more sorrowfully, and particularly, to all girls who are as truly homely as she is. Her message is simple: All they need for happiness is some outrageous faux-slutty behavior.