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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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Some Ways Of Reading Gaga, Part II: Love and the Empire

Following the chaos and unrest of the early 21st century, following the redrawing of national borders, a number of small but strong military states rise. One such state--a totalitarian nation under the control of an army which was, in turn under the control of one powerful and charismatic woman--stands above the rest in infamy.

It's characteristics are:
  • A dynamic cult of masculinity that appears to have developed out of the late 20th century bondage subculture.
  • Force, power, virility, and sexual prowess valued above all
  • Religious devotion to the androgynous queen/general figure that heads the state
  • A hypersexualized combat training augmented by a set of ritualistic signs and ceremonies, not unlike Masonic or Rosecrucian orders of the past

The lack of records outside of the state's officially sanctioned datafiles makes any reconstruction of the character of the queen difficult, at best, but a few facts stand out:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that she begins her career as a singer in a bar frequented by soldiers, whether mercenary or otherwise (the oddly mismatched uniforms suggest that they were not a part of any official military force). She rises to power with a number of highly trusted individuals, including the other central figure in this narrative--Alejandro, chief among her lovers and supporters; a disillusioned and dour young soldier that pledges his loyalty to a woman that was to become a subject of devotion.

At some point, the violence and authoritarianism of her new regime becomes too much for the now even more disillusioned soldier, and he attempts to make contact with the resistance. In order to prevent this high-level defection from disrupting her power, the queen orders Alejandro's death. In the middle of a riot, the soldier is assassinated by rebel agents--actually unwitting sleepers under the command of the queen's secret service. Alejandro's death and lavish state funeral is used to galvanize the state's armies and the resistance is crushed. The queen coldly pays her last farewells to her former love, and relinquishes the last scraps of her humanity.

Wait... What?

If you hadn't guessed from the title, it's time for the second of my three part series, Some Ways Of Reading Gaga. Last time, if you recall, I discussed the concept of a Close Reading, and how it can be applied to something like, say, a Lady Gaga video in order to make the work both more understandable, and more enjoyable.

Tonight, I will be doing the same general thing with the video for "Alejandro", and I will be, to some extent, talking about close reading. But this time I want to talk a bit more specifically about decoding a work of staggering strangeness. Surely you've come across something like that before--a story or a poem or a movie that's just so damn odd that you really can't even grasp at a plotline, let alone any sort of deeper meaning. Some works (I'm looking at you, The Waste Land. And don't think I don't see you rolling up a spitball in the back corner, Andalusian Dog!) just seem to thumb their nose at any attempt to draw a coherent order out of the fractured images. It's quite probable that the authors never intended there to be a coherent narrative, and looking for one is like jousting with windmills.

However, that state of confusion gives us an incredible freedom. It is the freedom to construct narratives that are useful to us, rather than trying to piece together every single scrap of information. And, sure, these stories might be a bit of a stretch, and I can already hear the swirling beer and muttering in response to this article, but the end result of this sort of critique is that we have a bit of a better sense of some of the stuff going on in the work. The wonderful thing about this is that once we have the narrative, we can start to talk about what that implies about the work, and then later on we can just ditch the narrative while keeping the different insights we've gained.

Besides, this sort of thing is fun.

Care to delve a little deeper?

Alright, Where Is This Story Coming From?

A lot of this comes from my decision to just see where a leap of intuition took me. I've found that such leaps are one of the most valuable ways of generating ideas in the liberal arts--by training yourself to explore and argue for crazy ideas you end up training yourself to think outside of the box. With that in mind, I'm going to try to go through the video scene by scene and point out where my story maps onto the video.

We begin with a number of fractured images with no real sense of order or narrative. We have the shot of the marching soldiers from the beginning, with their bizarre, large, alchemical-looking symbols; we have the shot of Gaga sitting regally beside some general, both their eyes hidden from view, and we get the shots of the funeral procession and the... heart? maybe? sitting on a pillow and stuck with pins. This is strange stuff. It's even weirder than Bad Romance was. But we can already begin to see some of what's coming.

We know, for example, that there's a funeral of some sort. And, if we put that together with the shot of Gaga in a place of authority, we can surmise that this is a rather important funeral--important enough that someone as powerful as Gaga appears to be here would end up walking in front of the coffin. Interesting. We also can get a sense of the type of military that we're dealing with here. It's a cultlike organization, full of strange rituals and stranger dance routines. We're going to have to piece together what's going on, but for now that's a pretty decent start.

Oh, and, of course, there's that opening shot of the bar, with soldiers in drag. Beyond the fetish fuel here, it's worth noting that the one really awake, aware figure is the guy that will reappear in a few more closeups later. This immediately, albeit subtly and perhaps unconsciously, sets him up for a Main Character slot.

Alejandro: The Unknown Sadsack
Let's go on, shall we?

We get a lot of shots here in this first verse of the actual training exercises of Gaga's loyal troops, giving us a sense of the extreme emphasis on masculinity. This is, of course, a characteristic of quite a few fascist movements--I'll expand on this idea more next week. It's interesting that we only see Gaga fully remove the goggles of her queen outfit around the 3 minute mark. In this context, I think the odd eyewear is clearly used to put a barrier between her and the audience. If the eyes are the window of the soul, she's drawing the curtains shut.

Frankly, the whole video could have just been scenes like this.

The second verse and chorus is much the same--with a more overt bondage subtheme woven in. Fanservice or artistic idea? Hm, I leave that up to the viewer to decide. After the second verse things get quite interesting, though, as Gaga really shows off her bizarre nun habit. Remember last time when I talked about the red cross on a white ground? Well, she's doing it again here. Granted, the cross is covering her crotch this time, but it's still there. A rather interesting development. Also note that the black and white footage of combat has shifted to color--perhaps an indication that the footage is getting closer to the present day. Here we get a sense again of the cultlike nature of this army, and their apparent absolute devotion to Gaga.

We then get a brief glimpse of Gaga at her most human. I find this scene particularly interesting because of the way it juxtaposes the more normal looking Gaga with the oncoming line of martial, threatening soldiers. I think this could be read as the transformation of Gaga from a fairly normal individual into the cold, ruthless general we see elsewhere in the video. This sense is enhanced by the fact that the very next scene takes place in the same location but now Gaga is completely surrounded by her soldiers--decked out in black, with red arm bands, conjuring images of the SS and various comic-book fascist enemies--and she has been transformed into a... a...

I don't know, what would you call someone that wears machine guns on her boobs? Honestly, I can't really think of a suitable word.

And now we get into the meat of the video, where the greatest density of information is shown. There are a few things that indicate to me that this is a flashback: the difference in style (note the collage effects over our Main Character, and the fact that Gaga is, again, relatively sensibly dressed); the fact that Gaga here is shown just as a lowly singer, not a person who commands devoted cult soldiers; the use of footage similar to what we saw playing in the background earlier. I'm reconstructing the narrative like this: Gaga began her career as a singer. That seems to line up with the symbolic transformation I talked about earlier. We also get a few shots of Gaga training her troops more directly--apparently this training involves a disturbing amount of physical abuse.

Our boy, Alejandro, I've dubbed him, is shown with a thousand-mile stare, clearly contemplating something rather weighty. We know that he is already a part of Gaga's armies at this point, because he's wearing the uniforms seen in other shots. He seems to look on during the training and, slowly, coming to a decision, he removes his cap--a symbolic gesture that is pretty easy to read as an act of defiance and defection from decadence.

Alejandro Goes To London

The rest--the assassination, the staged funeral, the crackdown on the rebels, and so on--is pure conjecture on my part, but boy, it sure does explain a lot of what we saw in the first few minutes of the video, doesn't it? This act of defiance from Alejandro is what dooms him, and the state funeral is, of course, the ultimate irony--in death, he supports the totalitarian regime that in life he attempted to escape.

Before I go, I'll leave you with one last story-related thought. At the beginning of the actual song, the first words are "I know that we are young, and I know that you may love me... but I just can't be with you like this anymore, Alejandro!" Note that this is pronounced as Gaga stands in front of the coffin of the man that, in my narrative, she has sentenced to death for the glory of the state. Let those lines roll around in your head a bit.

They certainly do take on a bit of a different meaning, don't they? The song, with this interpretation, becomes a bitterly ironic echo of the humanity that Gaga once had, but discarded in her quest for power. It is the narrative of a person that existed long before the events of the video, and now can never be resurrected. In the last moments of the film, Gaga's face ignites from the inside in a symbolic burning away of the last shreds of her humanity.


There's a bit more to do with this video, but I'm going to leave that till next time, when I'll also be discussing Judas and the concept of symbolism as it appears in the two videos. That should round things off, but you never know, this might spread out into a four part series. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations. And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

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