Former Studio 54 icon Grace Jones told the press that Gaga had co-opted her signature style. M.I.A. called Gaga “a good mimic.” Bette Midler Tweeted that Gaga had copied her “mermaid in a wheelchair” bit, and Madonna’s brother complained that Gaga’s “Born This Way” was just a rip-off of his sister’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”
According to Kelly Osborne, Gaga’s drag performance at last weekend’s MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t exactly original either.
“I love lady gaga but I wish she would start giving credit where credit is due!” Osbourne wrote on Twitter, linking a YouTube video of Annie Lennox performing at the 1984 Grammy awards in drag.
But if Gaga’s potty-mouthed, chain-smoking male alter-ego “Jo Calderone” vaguely resembles Lennox’s drag persona (who vaguely resembles a lot of other male archetypes), then it seems that Lady Gaga is doing exactly what pop stars have have done since the beginning of popstardom–she’s borrowing from what’s hot and edgy. And right now, genderbending is even sexier than it was back in 1984.
This past June, NPR warned the world that “the end of gender” is near, citing everything from increasing number of gender-neutral prom courts to a controversial J. Crew ad to suggest that perhaps Americans aren’t so hung up on the male/female gender system anymore. Then, of course, there’s Marc Jacobs modeling kilts and womenswear, transgender model Andrej Pejic making FHM’s list of the 100 Sexiest Women, and the rise of androgynous hipster fashion.
Gaga seized the cultural shift and gobbled it down. But despite her widely-critiqued aptitude for appropriation, Gaga isn’t the only copycat. Let’s not forget that Madonna borrowed from Marilyn Monroe and May West. Madonna was also into adopting images from black and gay culture, and got some serious flack for her “Vogue” video.
But Gaga’s attempt to simultaneously steal from and market to a specific community is far more aggressive. Just look at the lyrics of “Born This Way:”
No matter gay, straight, or bi,
lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to survive.
“Typically, gay anthems have been chosen by gay people, not for gay people. The explicitly pro-gay sentiment is something relatively new to major-label pop,” explained Rich Juzwiak, author of the pop-culture FourFour blog. “I have mixed feelings about the conflation of activism and marketing inherent in a piece of commerce like ‘Born This Way,’ but ultimately, I think Gaga’s heart is in the right place. It’s pretty bold of her, while at the same time being utterly beneficial to her career and exposure.”
But while Gaga’s use of queer language and aesthetics has clearly benefited her rise to fame, what does that mean for folks whose lives/stories/iconography Gaga is appropriating?
Murray Hill, a popular drag-king and the host of “Mr. Transman, responded positively to Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs. “There is barely any visibility for FTM, drag kings and lesbians on television. There is a huge imbalance,” he said. “For Lady Gaga, the biggest pop star in the world, to go on TV with millions of people watching in drag as a man and then to actually say ‘lesbian and transgender’ live is undeniably powerful and creates change. She ups the visibility big time and gets the language into the mainstream.”
But why should Gaga, a woman who is not gay or transgender herself (or intersex, despite rumors about about what might be between her legs), have the privilege of getting that language into the mainstream? And should the queer community trust that she’ll get it right?
Honestly, I wouldn’t even trust the Queen of Pop with my BeDazzler.
To my queer ears, “Born This Way” sounds like an anthem promoting biological determinism, which totally denies that queer folks can (and do) choose their own identities. Her “Telephone” music video is full of images that glamorize the struggles of gender-variant people in prison. And the uproar that Gaga caused by using the men’s bathroom at the VMAs (as Jo Calderone) has little to do with the real violence that transgender people face in gender-specific spaces every day.
Lady Gaga is not a champion for the underdog. Lady Gaga isn’t even a real person. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta created Gaga as a brand built on whatever trends the world has to offer.