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Critic's Notebook: Lady Gaga, sexuality and 21st century pop: Speaking truth to Camille Paglia

September 16, 2010 |  3:31 pm

Getprev Responding to a piece of pop-musical analysis by Camille Paglia carries risks not unlike those involved in publishing images of a burning Koran. She is a self-serving provocateur with a dogmatic world view, more interested in swatting down others' assertions than in advancing cultural discourse. Remember the bad old days of the early 1990s, when she first made a splash, trashing feminism in order to elevate her idol Madonna and blaming college girls for walking into the "Testosterone Flats" of fraternity row and getting themselves date-raped?

Well, now Paglia's back, saying absolutely nothing that advances our world view in her attack on Lady Gaga published in London's Sunday Times. She attacks Gaga as not just unsexy, but also "stripped of genuine eroticism"; she argues that Gaga's embrace of freaks is insincere because she herself has a privileged background. Downplaying Gaga's sincere advocacy of gay rights, she calls her a corporate shill; ignoring the new ways in which she's deployed familiar images and sounds, she simply says she's unoriginal. Decrying Gaga, Paglia also trashes her fans as emotionally impoverished, and (diehard baby boomer that she is) expresses longing for fleshy 1960s heroines such as Tina Turner and Janis Joplin.

Once again, Paglia's arguments have smart, progressive people up in arms. I hate to join the fray running around trying to swat this fly.

Like Pastor Terry Jones, Paglia was an isolated figure who gained influence because her provocations complemented anxieties that were reaching a fever pitch when she emerged. In Paglia's case, feminism, not Islam, was the looming threat; her writing has sought to return gender relations to what she sees as a natural order. Her prose style is bloody and lurid and sometimes effectively comical, like a Rob Zombie-directed horror movie; it's hard to turn away.

But her assertions -- some of the bigger ones back in the day were that men were dogs, that women ruled  them by firing up their libidos; that feminists were a bunch of "sob sisters" to suggest that heterosexual relationships might reflect the larger realities of patriarchal powers; oh, and that the great feminist journalist Susan Faludi looked like a puppy dog -- basically sounded like reheated bohemian machismo, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer on a beer binge.

OK, deep breath. For more thorough refutations of the latest tinny aria from Camille, please read these fine entries by the queer theorist Jack Halberstam at the blog Bully Pulpit and by columnist Alex Needham in the Guardian. But I'd like to quickly point out what's really unnerving about Gaga's sexual persona: not that it's unoriginal or overly cold, but that it reflects the uncertainties of a younger generation for whom sexual liberation is a reality, but a highly unstable one.

Paglia's provocations are hard to fully ignore, because like another loudmouth whom she admires, Sarah Palin, she does know how to hit those tender spots in the always evolving body politic. Twenty years ago, she tapped into the fears and often frustrated dreams of men and women working to redefine gender-bound power relations on college campuses and in the workplace. Now, she's touching on a different nerve -- not, as she says with her talent for catchphrases, "the exhausted end of the sexual revolution,"  but the creeping suspicion that that revolution is disappointingly incomplete.

Her Gaga screed calls out young people for putting up cellphone and iPod walls between each other, and it's definitely true that grappling with the impact of technology is a big part of what Our Lady of the Telephone does. Understanding technology is key to having a cogent conversation about pop and sexuality now. But on a more basic level, old issues are resurfacing.

L8o21enc The Paglia flap sent me back to another, less noticed, piece of writing on female artists' place in pop now. Amy Klein of the fiery punk band Titus Andronicus has been keeping a tour diary that's both fun to read for its little details ("Mysterious and awesome snacks have started accumulating in the van. Hello, home baked pumpkin pie? Where did you come from!") and daring in its reach toward larger issues. Recently, she's posted a couple of blog entries about how the media perceive female musicians that revealed just how much less than far we long-way babies have come.

On Day 4 of her tour diary, Klein looked at an issue of Rolling Stone magazine that featured a "naked" woman on the cover (I'll bet it was Katy Perry, half-clothed) and despaired. She noticed that the publication contained only one picture in which a female was very clearly holding an instrument, and that woman was Taylor Swift, who's nearly impossible to ignore right now.

Klein is 24; she's come of age in an indie scene where women labor on every level, from the booking agency office to the club door to the soundboard to the stage. Yet still, she notices, rock's larger definition excludes most women. She doesn't see herself represented much beyond her own subculture. Her essay on this subject is beautifully rendered, personal and clear; it's also not very far from what the women who've served as Klein's role models, like Liz Phair and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, were writing in songs or in zines when this emergent rocker was just a child.

"What we’re doing when we exclude women from rock and roll, and from the sense of rebellion that rock and roll promises, is disallowing women that independent perspective," Klein writes. "We’re never giving them the chance to think critically about the world, and about the systems that oppress them. When we take women out of the arts, and take them out of art’s ability to critique the way things are, we’re making sure that women keep swallowing the status quo, day after day, and it’s the status quo that keeps us down."

The status quo. Hasn't it shifted? On the surface, it seems that it has. Women dominate the pop charts. Lady Gaga rules the world. Yet young women now don't necessarily feel more liberated. They stand before a bigger wall full of doors, but to open those doors still takes enormous strength and purpose. And then the problem of sexuality. For women in pop music, sexuality is both the most powerful force and the biggest trap.

Klein, who dresses comfortably onstage so that she can play her guitar and violin for all she's worth, acknowledges that for a different kind of female music-maker, revealing costumes serve a purpose. Pressed by a reader a few days later to explain why she didn't talk about the leading women of the Top 40 in her blog entry, she wrote a nuanced response that included this comment:

"The other reason that I tend to overlook pop singers is that pop singers are primarily concerned with selling sexuality, and women are already associated with sexuality in our society -- often inescapably so, and to the exclusion of our other qualities and goals. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your sexuality and displaying it on stage, but it’s often hard for women who don’t want to advertise their sexuality to make it on other terms. I want to see more images of women showing audiences what’s in their hearts and minds; I want to see less of what’s on the outside. That’s why I tend to overlook the genre of pop, which emphasizes the female body as a fantasy, an object on consumption. I’ve seen enough booty shorts for my own good."

Klein's beautifully articulated thoughts join a chorus of young women currently bringing back to life some of the conversations that dominated rock, at least at its "alternative" edge, in the 1990s. Two new books, Sara Marcus' just-published "Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution" and Marisa Meltzer's older "Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music," feed a renewed interest in a period when rock music and feminism were explicitly linked, and women's sexuality, though hardly downplayed, was a subject to be openly discussed and radically reinterpreted. There seems to be a longing among an increasing number of music makers and music lovers -- women mostly, perhaps, but not exclusively -- to step back from the libertine mood of 21st-century pop and return to a more stringent confrontation with what it means to bring sexy to the fore.

The truth is, sexuality in pop can't be pushed aside, or ever exhausted. It's the main force and subject of the stuff. Popular music is an expression of many emotions and a container for many messages -- about race, class, spirituality and the best kind of fun for a Saturday night. But it's also overwhelmingly erotic. I'd go so far as to say that pop is where sex lives most openly in our culture, and that it's not just a matter of surfaces -- of the consumption of beauty, as Klein asserts -- but of the depth and breadth of desire,  frustration, satisfaction.

In a world where gender still creates powerful dividing lines -- between men and women, gay and straight, "normal" and "queer" -- sexuality is always a problem. Expressing one's sexual power can be a very freeing experience. It can also be a trap. The most exciting pop stars, male and female, negotiate this shifting ground and help us understand it better. In the 21st century, this means confronting limits that often seem invisible. Aren't we living in a "post-feminist" era, when women can do anything with their lives and with their bodies? Oh, wait. They still can't hold guitars in a bestselling music magazine.

Woody Guthrie famously wrote "This Guitar Kills Fascists" on his battered instrument. Gaga turns a bra into a machine gun; Perry, always sweeter and more capitulating, spewed whipped cream out of hers. Could it be that the urge female pop stars feel to turn their revealing costumes into weapons is an attempt to instrumentalize sexuality, to foreground and even problematize the fact that it's the force that moves these women forward?  

Lady Gaga is the most sensational player in a wide field of musicians still struggling to comprehend and express the connections between sexuality and power. Rather than being emotionally impoverished and sexually burnt out, they're exploring how old feminine paradigms (and masculine ones, within the work of artists such as Eminem or Kanye West) empower and constrict in an age of technologically assisted identity flux. What's happening in pop is so far beyond a simple need for liberation that we need a new language for it, beyond what worked in the age of classic rock and soul to which Paglia is so attached.

Pop stars openly and often opportunistically take on sexiness as a subject because that's what pop's history and our hunger requires of them. Musicians in other scenes, like Klein, must also confront this stuff, in different ways. It's not easy for anyone on the continuum. Will the subject, and those exploring it, ever be exhausted? That's just impossible.

-- Ann Powers

Top photo: Lady Gaga at the MTV Video Music Awards. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Lady Gaga in another outfit at the VMAs. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

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