Lady Gaga speaking against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in Portland, Maine. Photo by Curt Fletcher.
You may have already caught wind of the publicity standoff between New York Times fashion columnist Cathy Horyn and megapopstar Lady Gaga that erupted (if that’s what you want to call it) last week. If you haven’t, there’s no blaming you. The controversy didn’t score particularly high on the social media Richter scale of Twitter-age melodrama. In the long, dark shadows of both Charlie Sheen’s especially entertaining demise and Amy Winehouse’s untimely, truly tragic undoing earlier this year, the petty squabbles between celebrities and the press are righteously undeserving of 2011’s already exhausted pop attention span.
The story is neither flashy nor exactly new: pop star defends democratization of opinion by equating Horyn, who wrote a recent vicious critique of the star’s Versace outfit from her “Edge of Glory” video, to a 14-year-old girl with a tumblr account who knows what she likes. Naturally, droves of professional writers for both the page and screen came out in Horyn’s defense, if only because their would-be union contracts demanded so.
At one point I thought crucifying Kanye for stealing Taylor Swift’s microphone was making mounds out of molehills, but this muted fiasco takes the cake when it comes to reasonable celebrity reactions getting blown out of proportion. In fact, I’d attempt to use the word ‘catfight’ here, but that sort of exaggeration feels unfitting even for a conversation about fashion.
Ah, but the conversation isn’t exactly about fashion, it’s about opinions – and namely whose opinion is more important—the blogger or the columnist? Sound familiar?
Many months ago, I wrote an article for BreakThru about a recent book on the slow and painful death of professional criticism, Rowan McDonald’s Death of a Critic. While I focused primarily on contrasting the recent elevation of the professional music criticism to the downfall of literary criticism in recent years, neither the text nor my article really attempted to tackle the conundrum of fashion writing. In the wake of this very oddly quiet back-and-forth, one can’t help but find that the public calls into question the authority of fashion writers more than any other sort of published opinion.
The obvious reason for this highlights an issue I’ve had with Lady Gaga’s standing in pop as ‘high art…sort of’: that there’s no court in public opinion that would find Lady Gaga guilty of anything. Hence why she can dress in drag on the red carpet and be praised as intriguing and game-changing by The Fashion Police (Joan Rivers’ show on E!). In the pages of Rolling Stone, Lady Gaga holds a similar place of imperfect un-impeachability: she makes a better Madge than Britney ever did and she’s certainly no flash in the pan, but who ever said Biblical namedropping heralded substance?
Though, any support for Gaga’s art – either from the press or public – does not compute because what she does is original, because (more so than most copyright infringement fugitives) nothing she has done is original whatsoever. Whatever adoration she enjoys emanates from the fact she’s the only pop star in 2011 who dares to be remotely-maybe-sort-of-kind-of-in-the-ballpark-of-spicy-if-not-vaguely-dangerous. Thus Gaga’s popularity signals not the arrival of an off-beat generation’s cultural savior, as one would gather from her press, but the proliferating apathy towards alternative lifestyles in the wake of economic havoc. Paired with her political grandstanding beside the LGBT community, any critique of Gaga, like Horyn’s, mistakenly smells of a faint waft of conservative cultural intolerance that’s been long out of style since the rise of the socially-unconscious Tea Party.
In fact, if we were to hold Gaga to late-‘90s standards of pop star sex appeal, it wouldn’t be sexist to remark how her appearance is quite hideous (in comparison to Jessica Simpson in 1999, of course). So why wouldn’t her singles-chart domination resonate with the misfit, Glee-loving, pro-marriage-equality strains flowing through modern liberalism? After all, who would the culture snobs rather have the nation’s gays worshipping—her or Cher? Even the most obnoxious musical elitist has a hard time not being deterred by the innate Cinderella narrative embedded in Gaga’s atmospheric career climb. In a day and age where the Black Eyed Peas have had the same #1 single for most of the weeks out of the year, there’s never been a more urgent reason to root for a mediocre Eurotrash dance machine with a big nose who has three singles on Billboard.
Thus outside of Horyn’s dismissal of Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” garb, she enjoys nearly universal praise for almost anything she does. Why? For the very same reasons she tacitly highlights in her essay reaction to Horyn: in order for critics to connect with the public, they must accept pop ‘auteurs’ like Gaga for what they are simply because there’s no one else doing what they’re doing (i.e. making Alexander McQueen a household name). It doesn’t matter whether or not their broadly ambitious creative leaps stand in any remote sense of good taste; that anyone showing any level of heightened innovative consciousness in either music or fashion both post-Bush and post-Britney is somehow remarkable enough.
It’s the same reason democrats won’t nominate a challenger to President Obama for the 2012 nomination, no matter how many times Fox Business News moronically insists they will. Simply put, we just don’t have a better option. Obama may be deeply flawed and compromising as a progressive leader, but there’s just no other candidate remotely as electable as he is (err—was in 2008).
I’ll even go as far as to say it’s the same reason Green Day’s American Idiot could be considered a remotely brave or responsible gesture of pop protest. Since Bush-hatred in 2004 was so vast and hard-felt by the left, it had to at least show up in the aisles of Walmart somehow. The same goes for Gaga: her music may only sound derivative of her even more conformist peers, but there is just no freak-fashion pop icon with as much broad potential for appeal as she has.
But why not rain on that parade? Since the evolution of pop trends isn’t based on election cycles and we are evidently starving for dangerous schisms in our cable fashion shows, should we be settling for Gaga as the only remotely worthwhile port in this storm?
As her musical and fashion hero (as well as the originator for half her monicker) David Bowie once said in regards to the lack of dangerous public figures available to 70s audiences, “The masses are silly. Just look at the cultural leaders of today. Once they were Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Elvis Presley. Now it’s Robert Redford and John Denver… and these are supposed to be the degenerate Seventies. It doesn’t look good for America. They let people like me trample all over their country.”
Sigh. If only today we could be so lucky.