Monday, June 7, 2010

Glee Goes Gaga. (AKA, My Bowie-Warhol-Alig-splosion.)

Oh, Glee. My favorite Gay Fantasia on Adolescent Themes.

If you're a fan of the show, or were within 15 feet of one recently, you probably know that two weeks ago (yes, I'm behind, I apologize) was Gaga week—in the same vein as this season's previous Madonna week—which essentially entails actors spouting thinly-veiled hypercompliments about a single artist in exchange for the right to cover her songs. Since this Blogling began with a meditation on Gaga—& since that post was, of course, born of actual interest—I would feel remiss if I didn't say a word or two (thousand). More importantly, though, this gives me an excuse to talk about Glee—which is, in my opinion, one of the weirdest shows ever, ever, ever. (But, you know, in an incredibly pleasurable & addictive way.)

We'll begin with some quotes I lifted from the episode, entitled "Theatricality":

Tina: I refuse to dress like someone I'm not to be someone I'm not.

Kurt: Fine. You want to hit me? You want to beat me up? Go ahead. But I swear to you I will never change. I'm proud to be different. It's the best thing about me.

Rachel: I'm tired of everyone calling us freaks.
Mercedes: [laughing] Well, look at us: we are freaks.
Finn: But we're all freaks together. & we shouldn't have to hide it.
Mr. Schuester: ... But Mercedes is right. You do all look incredibly insane.

Puck: What's up with this Gaga dude? He just, like, dresses weird, right—like Bowie?

(Okay, the last one is just a personal bugaboo: Not only does the Gaga-Bowie linkage piss me off eternally—because she is incomparable to him, both technically & in talent, as I will endeavor to prove—but really, why would Puck of all people, who later in this episode gets choked up naming his daughter after a Kiss song, have any enduring knowledge of glam icons?)

As for the first three, though, I think they deserve a little background [Note: Of course, this is all entirely, 150% inconceivable as regards the realities of high school, but such is Glife.]:

This week began with a meeting between Tina, Mr. Schuester, & That Principal Who Is Exceedingly Less Comical Than They Seem To Think, who has singled out Tina because she dresses "Goth" (AKA, she has found the local Hot Topic); he is now forcing her to "change her look." This, along with a plot twist involving Vocal Adrenaline, our Glee Club's rivals, leads Mr. Schuester to announce Gaga as a "homework assignment"—which means a week of wild costumes & performances eons beyond a realistically possible production value, as well as a really oddly placed cover of "Poker Face."

Oh, & because boys can't like Lady Gaga (unless they're "an honorary girl," AKA gay like Kurt), we were also treated (...) to a few Kiss renditions. Because Kiss is Gaga's male antecedent. Clearly. Not, for instance, someone whose name you already mentioned in comparison to hers earlier this show, a mention that I oh-so recently complained about... (Yes, gentle Reader, my hopes were stoked far too high when I saw Finn wielding an eyeliner pencil—then dashed, spectacularly, when I witnessed his true intent. However, as a side note: it is entirely possible that Kiss is 800% gayer than David Bowie.)

The one truly wonderful aspect of this episode was the Kurt plotline; Kurt Hummel is, in fact, the only reason I watch this show anymore. (Well, Lord knows I love Jane Lynch, but they made her straight—& blamed her nastiness on lack of a man—so I'm far less into Sue than I should be.) Leaving aside for a moment the truly moving & so very right on speech in which Kurt's dad admonishes Finn for use of the word "faggy," Kurt's main angst in this episode revolves around two football players who harass him for wearing an outfit at which even Oscar Wilde would have whistled—complete with a stick-on bedazzle beauty mark.

Now that we've contextualized the quotes somewhat, you may begin to see my dilemma: the show presents a mildly schizophrenic message (just as, in my opinion, Gaga does herself). On the one hand, Tina opts to return to her cheesy faux-Gothitude by episode's close; on the other, Kurt defends his Little Lord Fauntleroy Tours the Galaxy ensemble to the death. Meanwhile, though Finn makes the home-run point that "we're all freaks," Mercedes & Mr. Schuester seem to knock it back by characterizing their outfits as "incredibly insane." So, which is it? Does Gagaification liberate its practitioners, à la Kurt & Finn, or does it trap them in a look that's fundamentally not their own, as Tina seems to imply?

Though I'm all about the "everyone is a freak" sentiment, I can't help feeling that both Glee characters & real-life Gaga fans are like the religious fanatics in Life of Brian: they are constantly told to think for themselves, but somehow take this to mean that they ought to ape the person saying so. "Yes, we're all individuals!" they yell in chorus. "Yes, we're all different!" [ Side note: Why are their sketches the perfect analogy for everything? ]

In case you're sick of Python, I'll share an example from my own life:

Recently, a friend & fellow Glee viewer—the one, in fact, who glared daggers into my soul when I told him I hadn't watched this episode by last Wednesday night—told me a story about a childhood friend of his. When this boy was 10 or so, he became obsessed with colonial Massachusetts, so much so that he would dress up every day, tricorner hat & all, & go to see local reenactments—so often, in fact, that he could copy the movements & was often mistaken for part of the show. My reaction to this was, of course, how fucking cool—because really, to have that much drive & passion, especially for something I consider dull as rocks, is impressive. & moreover, to follow through, despite how much flak he must have gotten, is just plain brave. & what a delightfully odd choice of fixation!

Now, here is the important part: while I recognize all of this, I have no intent to purchase a musket & britches. I think that what this boy did was great because it was his personal want. Hardcore Gaga fans, however, seem to equate dressing like Gaga with being an individual, being a prepackaged "freak" with having a personality—&, unfortunately, that's just not the case.

"But Anneliese," you clamor, "what about Bowie Boys & Girls? Isn't that essentially the same thing?" To which I will sagely shake my head—having spent way too much time thinking (& writing) on the subject—& postulate that Bowie's persona, especially in the case of Ziggy, was essentially a template set out for his fans to reenact. To put it in previously-scribed academese:
[Bowie] was, in every sense, the self-created star—a phenomenon he sings about on the album: “I could make a transformation as a rock ‘n’ roll star … So enticing to play the part." By epitomizing, in word and deed, the success of self-creation, Bowie expanded upon the existent glam tradition of theatricality in rock, giving his fans “the implicit invitation … to reinvent themselves as he had done” (Hoskyns). In the image of their idol, “Bowie-ites” donned red mullets and shiny jumpsuits as a key to “an alternative identity … an Otherness,” (Thomson and Gutman) and were thus, in the words of essayist David Buckley, “linked by an acute sense of their own individuality and a potent sense of themselves as stars."
Though I think you would be right to argue that keying into an "Otherness" is exactly what Gaga fans are going for—what Kurt means when he makes his tearful speech about being different—I would still assert that dressing up as Gaga is very different than dressing up as Bowie. In the first place: Glam derives its name from its followers' desire to achieve glamour—an Otherness that was above the unenlightened, with strong ties to Oscar Wilde & dandyismas opposed to the more (post)modern desire to treat grotesqueness like it's glamourous for irony's sake. (Which is not to say that's not fantastic in most instances—just that they're two fundamentally different reasons for dressing up.)

Furthermore: Through imitating Bowie, fans were able to achieve sexual/gender liberation (for which they likely had few previous models), as well as experience their own potential for fame & fabulousness—in the very Warholian sense that, though glamour is an equal-opportunity game, there is a set way to be glamourous; though stardom is eminently attainable, there are set ways to attain it. By imitating Bowie, fans were playing out the necessary game, at an individual level, to realize themselves as stars.

Meanwhile, Gaga is a product of post-Club Kid New York. If you've never heard of the Club Kids (or even if you have; I reread this book monthly), I highly suggest picking up a copy of James St. James's Disco Bloodbath—now published under the name Party Monster, to correspond with the documentary & narrative films of the same name. (Those, too, are worth a look or five.) Essentially, though, for those unaware, the Club Kid takeover of Downtown nightlife—spurred on by the death of Andy Warhol (& Michael Musto's subsequent proclamation of the Death of Downtown)—created a new wave of Fabulousness, in which the wild, the defunct & obscene, became celebrated, so long as they were clever & original. As Michael Alig, former King of the Club Kids turned convict, describes in this past April's Interview (Warhol's brainchild, ironically enough):
What we were doing was very similar [to the Factory]. It was really the massification of the Warhol thing, because we were celebrating and mocking the notion of celebrity at the same time. We knew how ridiculous it was, but we wanted our share as well. ... We would rehearse before going on the talk shows to try to come across as really bored and also pretend to be these superficial celebrities. Again, we were pretending to be these caricatures of celebrities, but most people didn’t get it. Most people thought we were the superficial celebrities we were satirizing, and they hated us for it.
The agenda of the Club Kids was to topple/replace the old school, primarily by parodying it. But, as Alig recognizes—& as I previously referenced, with a nod to St. James, et. al.—there is only so long before a parody goes too far & crosses into reality, before what you mock becomes what you do:

At first we weren’t using drugs at all. We were making fun of people who used drugs, and we’d go out pretending to be high, pretending to fall down stairs—we were caricatures of drug-addicted celebrities, like the Edie Sedgwicks and Courtney Loves. We were making fun of them . . . until we became them.
Sounding familiar? Then, just to make my day, Alig does the rest of my work for me:

I love Lady Gaga. She would have fit right in at Disco 2000. A lot of people don’t understand what she’s doing, but she is a satire of a pop star. She is making fun of it, and at the same time, she’s going to go out and get everything she can by doing it.
Though I tentatively came to this conclusion before, having eschewed it as too depressing, I'm now ready to solidify it; I trust Alig in his analysis—on this matter, at least.

So: if Gaga is a caricature—at least in presentation—then those who mimic her are either duped into her unrelenting vortex of irony, or they get that she's a hyperexaggeration & have chosen to hyperexaggerate themselves in a show of ironic solidarity. Like the Bowie fans, Gaga fans have a map for recreating themselves—but in imitating Gaga, they become a neverending Pong game of stereotypes & intentionally botched convention, a symbol proudly declaring that they don't declare anything at all. I find a passage of the Alig interview particularly evocative:
At the time, we called [Club Kid style] “aesthetic sampling.” There was nothing new going on, so we were basically stealing bits and pieces from Leigh Bowery and Andy Warhol and a lot of the Pyramid people and East 
Village punks. I get a lot of flak for copying Leigh Bowery, but it wasn’t a direct ripoff. I never copied anything without putting the Club Kid spin on it. [Which is] to make it a joke. And once you say it’s a joke, you can get away with anything because it’s a joke.
Though I may be alone, let me borrow a page from Morrissey in declaring: I wish I could laugh, but that joke isn't funny anymore.

Must I lay out the ways in which a postmodern superstar is depressing? Especially a secret postmodern superstar, who is essentially mocking a vast majority of her own fans by her very existence?

& this is why Gaga is different—in fact, is opposite—from Bowie. Though Bowie was taking a self-referential look at stardom—the album's protagonist is, after all, killed by his own fans' rabid love—there is still a sense, in his portrayal, that stardom is something to be desired, to be had—is possible, at all, & he's grasping for it with both hands. Moreover, he's doing so with an (essentially) original concept—a metaphor, a gelling with the zeitgeist. Gaga, however, seems to be mocking the very fact of stardom, à la Alig, & she's standing on the collapsed shoulders of former artists to do it.

Ultimately—ultimately—what's frustrating to me about Gaga is the fact that she is so wildly popular to people who don't know Leigh Bowery (or, more accurately, Isabella Blow)—those who aren't so educated as Puck in the ways of Glam, & who therefore fail to attribute the "revolutionary" nature of this intentionally referential amalgam to her far more talented predecessors. Really, it makes my blood boil—almost as much as when people started to like the Smiths again by accident when they heard She & Him, Talk Talk because of No Doubt. (I am, of course, a rabid fiend for covers, but I'm also a firm believer in dual recognition of new & original versions; the mass-appreciation of the copy with no mention of its referent is something I find endlessly frustrating.)

But back to Glee, because this is where I think the bizarre tension comes from: that Gaga isn't even dressing like "herself"—or, rather, that her style is informed heavily by others. When you dress up as Gaga, you're really dressing up as a filtered version of 70s-90s avant garde; you're dressing like a fan of a fan of something greater, once removed from the real innovation. You're creating yourself in the image of an idol, but that idol is herself a idol-informed creation. So, though the clothes may be liberating—because, hey, Cory Monteith in that tomato-red medieval latex was quite a sight—they are also, by definition, "incredibly insane."

So, yes, there is an Otherness in the Gaga look—&, seriously, I'm all for sartorial liberation, imitated or otherwise, but I think it's hard to play this game on Gaga's terms without feeling like a copy of a copy of a copy—like being "different" requires such intentionally wild acts of wardrobe wackiness, or, perhaps, that it isn't even so different as you once thought.

The fact that it works for Kurt is perhaps fitting: though he is by far the most compelling character on the show, he is still a flaming stereotype—as are his classmates, teachers, etc. The Glee universe is made up of distilled assumptions about high school life, parodies of media representation of real teens—so, naturally, it's a place where Gaga fits right in. Even when Tina stops "dressing like someone she's not," she's still dressing like Fox's idea of what "the Goth" girl ought to wear, tiny tophat & all.

& maybe this is the positive side of the Gaga paradox: that it brings to light how all of us have self-constructed, to some degree, from those we idolize. Yes, I say, brava—with Bowie-guitar-blue on my fingernails & clunky Doc Martens on my feet—but let's please follow through with this logic & recognize those idols, not just their messenger. It's the same way I feel about Julie Taymor's Beatles homage, Across the Universe: I'm all for liking the movie, as long as, when you're done watching, you're provoked to reexamine the artists that inspired it all.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Since I've blustered so extensively on the Imitation of Bowie, I thought it might be nice to end on an instance of Bowie imitating someone else: one of his (& my) very favorite bands, the Pixies. (So, so good on so many levels...)

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