Alistair Newton on Gaga

“In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face”
[color]- Susan Sontag, On Style[/color]

In epochs less self-aware than ours, fans projected their hopes, fears, and insecurities onto their pop-idols as a proxy.  In this relationship, the star remained aloof, self-absorbed, and unattainable, the fan vulnerable, devoted, and available.  In our current age, where social media rules human interaction and where we over-share our stories on increasingly shrinking, increasingly intimate, electronic screens, Lady Gaga has rewritten this fan/star relationship by actively offering herself-up, both as a kind of savior, and an empathetic friend.  To me, Gaga’s artistic project is really an attempt to illicit intimacy through artifice; something I have been striving to do in my own work…though, at this point, Gaga is twenty million or so twitter followers ahead.

Lady Gaga’s most recent concert tour played out like an Evangelical revival meeting, complete with empowerment narrative and mega-church speechifying.  While the religious tone will always be off-putting to me — you’re unlikely to find a more strident atheist — I would never make the mistake of claiming that religion isn’t as powerful, or that god isn’t “real”.  It’s just that I don’t happen to believe god exists.  The invented personas of celebrity culture work in a similar way.  At the end of day, who is more “real”: Reginald Dwight, or Elton John?  Brian Warner or Marlilyn Manson?  Stefani Germanotta or Lady Gaga?  If human perception creates the world as we perceive it, then Sontag is right: the mask is indeed the face…and Gaga’s wearing McQueen.

But if there is a real Lady Gaga, who — or rather what — is she?  A fame obsessed publicity hound?  A trail blazing queer liberationist?  A self fulfilling prophesy of her own creation?  A pretentious Warholian fraud concocted in the name of greed?  Cynical con job or empowering pop messiah? Legitimate artist or calculating business women? Or, has she always just been Stefani Germanotta, the upper middle class girl with the Catholic School upbringing?  Intriguing questions (all-round) and not easily answered.

Empowerment narratives can be problematic at best, and actively damaging at worst, but criticism of the likes of Gaga fall pretty flat in the face of stories about fans choosing not to commit suicide because of what they perceive to be Lady Gaga’s message.  On the other hand, as bell hooks warns in her essay Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?: “Sometimes it is difficult to find words to make a critique when we find ourselves attracted by some aspect of a performer’s act and disturbed by others, or when a performer shows more interest in promoting progressive social causes than is customary. We may see that performer as above critique. Or we may feel our critique will in no way intervene on the worship of them as a cultural icon. To say nothing, however, is to be complicit…”

I, for one, will keep my faith in the dialectical process.  I’m thrilled you’ve decided to join me…


a handshake of thought,









Alistair Newton
Artistic Director, Ecce Homo Theatre
(and medium-sized monster)

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