LAST Friday, the former Lower East Side burlesque artist Lady Gaga unleashed her video Telephone. Oh my heavens. I felt like it was 1990 again. In 1990, Madonna’s career was already way past boiling point. But things hadn’t yet warmed up for academic pest Camille Paglia. Late that year, the Yale alum took the temperature of the culture and published her results in The New York Times.
When she declared Madonna the degree zero of pop, Paglia herself became white hot.
”Madonna is the true feminist,” wrote Paglia 20 years ago. In her panegyric to smut, the professor hailed the music video for Justify My Love as ”an eerie, sultry tableau of jaded androgynous creatures” and, in short, the future of a liberated art.
At the time, some of us agreed.
Here at last in Madonna’s faintly pornographic reworking of Cavani’s The Night Porter was a positive and empowering vision of female sexuality. We could do that, then. Back in 1990, it was not yet embarrassing to use words like ”positive” and ”empowering”. And, back in 1990, being a feminist was about as much fun as being a bank teller. When Paglia introduced the metrics of sex, we immediately added it to our feminist ledger.
Together, Paglia and Madonna launched a thousand term papers. Hungry for a bit of raunch, feminist art critics wrote essays praising Madonna with titles such as Justify My Ideology.
God. I think I turned something in to my tutor at Sydney about the song Borderline and how its lyric uttered ”Madonna’s transgressive sexuality”. I’m pretty sure I got an HD.
Whenever a woman artist took her clothes off and demonstrated that femininity was a performance, you could be sure an undergraduate would write an essay about it.
For the next little while in the worlds of pop, the avant-garde and academia, things proceeded in this vein. From the Queer performance of Holly Hughes, whose work was praised by The New York Times for scraping ”away decades of encrusted decorum”, to the girl power of the Spice Girls, the new camp feminism could be felt. This was fun for a spell. It seemed that we’d all finally caught up with the prophesies of Susan Sontag, who said, ”Camp sees everything in quotation marks”. It is never a woman but a ”woman”.
The woman on stage, or ”woman”, could not lose with her new weapon of irony. However, like Madonna, this ironic ”woman” business began to get a little old and patchy.
Anyone who has ever sat through a burlesque routine in Northcote, or seen the movie Spice World, may have seen the cracks. Literally as well as figuratively. At a certain point, an audience begins to wonder: am I seeing tits or ”tits”? And, really, is there a difference?
Often, there is no difference. Often, burlesque or striptease can be so blankly ironic that it has about as much theatricality and power as you might enjoy at the Spearmint Rhino.
But, every now and then, Paglia’s promise of ”woman” might be properly observed.
Ursula Martinez, a woman who shot herself to micro-stardom by sharing photographs of her naked parents, promises to be a ”woman” at the upcoming comedy festival.
The extraordinary Tessa Waters, whose show How To Be A Lady had its debut at last year’s fringe, demonstrates amply that one can upturn traditional notions of femininity by wearing frilly knickers.
But it is doubtful that anyone will demonstrate this more amply than Lady Gaga.
Gaga, performing in Melbourne next week, dialled up the promise presaged by Paglia and co. More than quotation marks, we see, amid a cast of trans-gendered, hyper camp enchantment, entire bound volumes shrieking ”woman”. Within the first 30 seconds of the video, or short film as its auteur would have it known, Gaga evokes the rumour that she has a penis.
Then we rollick through a world penned in equal parts by Tarantino, LaChapelle and Michael Jackson, where ”other” sexuality is normalised to the degree that even all-American Beyonce agrees to set off into the sunset with Gaga.
I searched to find what Paglia had to say about the ”woman” who actually wears real masks in public. There wasn’t much.
In Salon.com, Paglia advised Gaga: ”Give it a rest, and focus on the music.”
In the meantime, I’m turning my old volumes of Paglia into a dress to wear to the Gaga concert.