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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Some Ways Of Reading Gaga, Part I

What's that you say? My first post was about as clear as mud, you say? You still have no idea why you're here, you say?

Get out of your damn chair, you say?

Let me explain.

There are two things I really love in this life. I am absolutely, disgustingly in love with Academia--basically, the act of examining, researching, and expounding upon things, often while eating tasty, expensive cheese that someone else paid for--and what I'm going to call Junk Culture--stuff like comics, music videos, odd movies, games, sci fi and fantasy, basically all of the stuff that generally gets you laughed out of an academic setting.

You may already have noticed a bit of a conflict between Thing One and Thing Two.

You see, there's this popular image of the Ivory Tower Elite being totally out of touch. And this kinda true because, among other things, academia has traditionally ignored a lot of quite deservedly popular things. Some other time I'll delve into why that might be, but, whatever the reason, academics just haven't traditionally given Junk Culture the respect it actually deserves.

On the other hand, layfolk tend to bash academics. They're egged on by those who most benefit from a populace that is skeptical of people that use big words (I could mention Mr Beck; I could mention Mr O'Reilly). This carries over into art in the form of the stereotype of the flaky critic who analyzes things to death. And yes, part of this is the fault of scholars who aren't explaining themselves well. The Sciences have this problem, too, although they're trying to reach out a bit more.

Neither side seems broadly willing to cross over to one another on equal terms.

The goal here is to move towards that kind of cross over. I want to show what awesome things happen when you bring junk culture and academia together in one beautiful, monstrous whole.

With that in mind, let's move on to the main show of this creature feature, so that you can get a taste of what you're in for.

Some Ways Of Reading Gaga

One of the key ideas in both Art History and Literary Criticism is the idea of closely reading a poem or a novel, or closely viewing a painting, sculpture or drawing. The idea is that you're observing all the different parts of a work, then taking the analysis as a whole, and hopefully arriving at some conclusions about what a work is saying and how it conveys that idea to the audience. It can be an incredibly fun experience that allows you to really sink your teeth into a work.

Or, it can be a tedious process that makes you want to strangle your professor and sucks all the life out of whatever you're studying.

But, I want to try to show that it doesn't HAVE to be tedious.

So, to start things off, I'm going to be digging into the video for Lady Gaga's song Bad Romance. Eventually this will round out to a three parter, with a post on Allejandro and a post on Judas. While I go through this, I'm going to be giving a running commentary not just on what I'm doing but why I'm doing it, and how my approach differs from what you might have learned in highschool or college.

So, we start out with an opening shot of a rather large crowd of oddly dressed fashionable people. It looks pretty straightforward at this point, I think. It's outlandish for real life, but not all that outlandish for a pop video. But, then we zoom in on Gaga, who is wearing these sunglasses made of razor blades, presumably stuck together with a hot glue gun by some bored student in a home ec class.

Now, what I could do here is put on my Pretentious Monocle, harrumph loudly, reach for the cheese platter, and begin talking about the symbolism of razor blade sunglasses.

But I won't.

Because that would be boring as hell for me, and for you, and for Gaga, and for everyone else involved in this venture.

What I'm going to do instead is take a moment note that she's already introducing the weird and uncomfortable into a type of scene that we're used to, and that, plus the odd harpsichord intro, and the sudden way in which Gaga and company try to block themselves off from a bright light, tells us that we're in unfamiliar territory. That's all I'm going to care about for now. And this is the first way this kind of close reading differs from the way we're taught in school--I'm not getting too hung up, yet, on details, because I want to experience the whole video.

Alright. Next, we lead into the opening sequence, natural light shining through thin windows, everything looking quite nice and... Bath Haus? Huh. Again, we've got something that seems pretty normal, but it's been given a name that conjures images of bondage, severity, austerity, and power. I'll talk more about that when we get to Allejandro, some other time. So, we're panning this room, and...

...The cybergagas awaken.

I want to note a few interesting things about this scene. One is that the warm, natural light from the beginning of this segment is gone. I can think of at least two audience members (you know who you are!) that have dealt with some rather light-obsessed professors. I'm not pointing this out because it's symbolic, though. I'm pointing it out because we really do feel that lack of warm light in the rest of the video. It's an interesting way of setting the mood. Another interesting aspect of this scene is that the kind of smooth sensuality common to this kind of video is absent, replaced by jerky twitching, convulsing, spasms, clawing and grasping motions, and generally very robotic action. It's cold, robotic, and unnerving--a constant theme in the video. Not symbolic, per se, but another thing that contributes to the experience.

Furthermore, Gaga goes out of her way here to make the sexuality displayed in the video a creepy experience. Note how the word MONSTER is stenciled on the front of her spa... bed... coffin... box thing. Whether it's the blind, white twitching creature rising from its metal bed, or the clearly coerced, drugged, and alarmingly wide-eyed bathing girl, Gaga is taking everything sensuous and turning it into something unsettling, something in the uncanny valley where we get just close enough to human form that we get creeped out. (This uncannyness is the reason why zombies and cyborgs tend to unnerve us--they're too close to humanity while not being close enough.)

It's a discomfort that mirrors the lyrics:

     I'm from the year 3000
     I've come to eat your penis

Oh, uh, no, that's wrong...

     I want your ugly
     I want your disease
     I want your everything
     As long as it’s free

Gaga is playing with opposites here. On the one hand, love, on the other hand, uglyness and disease, two things not normally associated with wonderful sexual experiences. And she's also playing with the idea of commodification of sex, and sex with no strings attached--two ways of reading the last two lines there. (Here's where the title comes in: these are ways of reading Gaga--not definitive statements about the One True Meaning of the song. It's less an attempt to arrive at one conclusion and more an exploration of possible meanings.)

The last thing I want to point out in the opening Bath Haus sequence is the red cross on a white background. It's a recurring image Gaga uses. We'll get back to that again in Allejandro and Judas, but Gaga is already playing around with religious imagery in this video, albeit in a minor way.

And now we come to what is probably the major scene of the video. Now, I'm going to do a very, very risky thing. I'm going to link you to a TV Tropes article on Deconstruction.


Well, it's been four hours, so I'm going to assume you're back by now. Anyway, if you're still coming away from that article confused, let me try and clear it up a bit. Basically, what they're talking about is taking the normal conventions of a genre, or a story type, or a poem or painting or whatever... and then pushing those conventions to their horrible, logical conclusion. Now, this is a bit different from deconstruction as it's used in critical theory, but it's a good, expressive word that really drives home what Gaga is doing here--she's taking your typical, comfortable music video world and tearing it down.

Because at this point you find out that the dancing performers in this music video are not just dancing for some abstract MTV audience. (They can't be, because MTV no longer plays music videos! Ahem.) No, instead of just dancing and letting our willing suspension of disbelief carry us along, blissfully assuming that sexy women just periodically start dancing in well choreographed ways, Gaga shows that this performance is taking place as part of a human auction.

Now we know what all the unnerving imagery from earlier was about. She's taking the setup of a typical pop video--sexy women dance for an unseen audience--and she theorizes what the audience would actually be like. And, as it turns out, the audience is a rich cyborg, purchasing humans as, presumably, some sort of cyberpunk sex trafficking operation. It's not a pleasant revelation, but I don't think you can deny that it makes a lot of sense.

To make matters even more bizarre, she rocks out this little set of lines:

     I want your psycho
     Your vertical stick
     Want you in my rear window
     'Cause baby you're sick

Now, that second line there I've also seen as "your Vertigo stick", which is potentially rather important. Here's another thing we do in Lit Crit and other forms of critical theory--we look for references that artists make to the work of OTHER artists. This is known as "allusion" or "lame reference humor" or "blatant theft" depending on how talented you are. Usually we call it allusion, though. The idea is that artists give depth of meaning to their work by conjuring images and connotations from other, related works. (I'll be trotting out a whole article on the subject later on.)

In this case, Gaga is alluding to Alfred Hitchcock films--Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window. Except she's turned the titles into sex jokes.

Now, we've figured out what the hell Gaga is referencing, but we're not done just yet. Remember when I said that close reading involves figuring out why an artist is referencing certain things? Well, let's go back to what I said earlier about putting corruption and disease next to sexual desire. This is something that Hitchcock (ahem) understands. Think of the warped sexuality of Psycho--it's a juxtaposition of erotic imagery with horrible, bloody murder. So, Gaga's referencing that in order to play up her own toying with opposite sensations--it's the titular Bad Romance.

This is another way we figure out what's going on in a work--we look at what we've observed so far and use it to clarify the stuff we're finding later on. So, rather than a disjointed string of symbols that all have One True Interpretation, we're reading through the work and beginning to get a better sense of the whole. And what's great about this is that you can come to a totally different conclusion by reading things differently at the start, and although your interpretation has to be reasonable and arguable (this is a big deal!) it can still be personal and individual.

Speaking of things being personal...

If you're following along with the video, Gaga's about to murder the hell out of the dude with the golden jaw.

By lighting their bed on fire.

[clears throat]

Anyway, the visual pun there aside, this is the conclusion to what she's been building up to. I don't think there's any need to dwell on the ending, beyond noting that here the deconstructive elements she introduced earlier have been murderously brought full circle with a destruction of the man who symbolically acts in our stead as audience. (Phew, that was a mouthful... so much for not being pretentious.) Again, it's about taking something to its logical conclusion in an effort to shake up your audience.

Now, having gone through everything, I want to toss around a rather interesting possibility. Gaga, in this video, might not be playing Human!Gaga.1 There are a bunch of pretty blatant clues that suggest that she is actually a cyborg, or android, or robot, or something along those lines. There's the metal bed things, for one. And her crazy googley eyes in the bath scene. And the twitchy motions. And the sparks coming out of her breasts in the final scene. And her bizarre halo of metal. And the fact that her john has a cyborg jaw. And so on.

I think this interpretation adds some more interesting dimension to the video. If we assume, on top of the creepy sex trafficking imagery, that Gaga isn't even really human here, and probably has no human rights to speak of (a recurring theme in a lot of science fiction), the whole thing becomes much more of a sci fi story--another thing you're frankly not likely to see in most pop videos.

There's other things going on here--some great images (the shot of the hairless, wrinkly cat juxtaposed with Gaga's naked, skeletal body, for example), some interesting ideas about power and dominance, and so on, but I'm boring even myself to tears now, so I'm sure the rest of you have fallen asleep (if you aren't still lost in TV Tropes, I mean). I'm going to cut things off here and return to the ideas in the next article in the series.

I hope I've shown clearly that this sort of explication and close reading is a whole lot more enjoyable than it was in your high school English class.

Please feel free to continue explicating in the comments. Swirl your beer! Mutter "Bullshit!" Tell me I'm a crackpot!

Oh, and let me know if the tone I'm hitting here is right. I want to be clear, and easy for newcomers to understand, but I don't want to come off as patronizing.

1 A note on the exclamation point there--this is syntax that's floated around the fanfiction community for a while now. It basically indicates a certain version of a character. So, you can have Human!Gaga, Avatar-of-Gay-Rights!Gaga, MeatDress!Gaga, and so on. Or, you can have Canon!Tom Sawyer if you're talking about the main Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and you can have Mecha!Sawyer for your story that has the character as a cyborg in the year 40,000.


  1. *swirls beer* ...bullshit...

    But seriously, enlightening, and an effective introduction to the method in which you will be, titularly, Storming the Ivory Tower.

    Bravo, sir! Bravissimo!

  2. Excellent, my dear sir! Your articles are certainly very interesting.

    But seriously. Out of my comfy chair.


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