First, I’ll put my cards on the table (and some of you may already be quite familiar with these cards): I’m adamantly pro-pop, pro-feminist, and see the two stances as intimately intertwined (you will be able to see the theoretical workings-out of that stance in my forthcoming book, which should come out late this summer). Given these two commitments, I’m solidly Team Gaga.
Thus, I am DEEPLY worried about the gendered tenor of Mark Dery’s assessment of Gaga’s “not not dumb”-ness. He argues that there’s not only no depth behind Gaga’s beautiful surface, but that there’s no intellect driving her quasi-pomo superficiality. What bothers me about his argument is that he makes it in very overt—and misogynist—gendered terms. He does address charges of “homophobia or racism,” but he NEVER adequately addresses my charge, which is of misogyny. See for example his concluding remarks addressing identity-politics objections to his rant:
All of those points being readily granted, I still say it’s disco, and I say the hell with it. It’s an error of logic to argue that, simply because some male-menopausal rockists think Gaga is the unholy progeny of Kim Kardashian and Klaus Nomi (a record I’d buy in a heartbeat, by the way), they must be criminally clueless, if not homo-negro-Latino-Italo-phobic, and Gaga must be the best thing to happen to pop music since Bowie had his nipples rotated. She isn’t, at least not musically. Her songs manage the impossible feat of making craptastic New Romantic clotheshorses like Visage sound inspired. Yes, she’s more than modestly gifted as a singer and pianist, but until her music sheds its Madonna-isms and lives up to the mind-shriveling weirdness of her most demented video moments, I mean, who gives a disco stick, really?
First, notice how the “homo-negro-Latino-Italo-phobic” doesn’t include any gendered term; Dery rebuts criticisms of racism and homophobia, but NOT misogyny. He doesn’t say, “well, I’m not against femininity”. Note also the conclusion of the paragraph with a penis (“disco stick”) reference. “Who gives a penis, really?”. Dery interestingly tries to reduce pop stardom, which pop studies people have known for decades, is not *just* about the music, but about the whole package, to the music. That is an interesting logical move, especially because Dery doesn’t actually talk in detail about her music in the way he discusses lyrics, image, etc. And, Klaus Nomi’s music is—as music—actually kinda, well, not the most virtuosic, innovative, or “mind-shriveling” songwriting (Nomi has plenty of meaningless vocalizations on “Nomi Song,” and “Simple Man” is actually pretty formulaic…if there’s anyone whose image/politics is more interesting than his actual music, it’s Nomi…and I LOVE Nomi). So, when Dery does address criticisms, he skirts the gender issue; when he’s criticizing Gaga, the gendered language is EVERYWHERE.
The instances are so numerous, I’m just going to make a list.
1. Musicians Dery admires are described in masculine terms (fine art, intellect, lack of emotion, “predatory”), and contrasted with feminized (superficial, flighty) and female pop icons: “an avant-garde composer I once knew, a hyper-cerebral Vulcan whose veins ran with antifreeze. When I asked him, in an interview, about some diva on the downtown-music scene, he paused for effect, a predatory twinkle in his eye. Then came the headsman’s blow, delivered with undisguised relish: “Not overly burdened with intellect.”
2. Dery describes Gaga as a Medusa-like being whose power over men comes from her sexual organs: “Is she a rarified being who has more talent in her clitoral hood than you can even dream of, little man?”
3. He trivializes the popular, mainly by associating it with socially devalued femininity/females (old white women: Versace and Minelli) and other indexes of insufficiently masculinized mass culture (Perez Hilton, the later Human League): “Or is she something thuddingly dumber: Donatella Versace in the remake of Blow-Up? Liza Minelli in a Vegas revue inspired by The Reluctant Astronaut? Perez Hilton sings the Human League songbook? Is she pop, or Pop Art?” (For more on the feminization of Mass Culture, see Andreas Huyssen’s 1985 book “After The Great Divide”). Further, Derry’s start opposition of mass culture and fine art makes one wonder if he hasn’t considered that part of what Gaga does (like the very “Pop Art” he references) is undermine this binary?
4. Dery frames vacuity in feminized terms, thus equating femininity with idiocy, and suggesting “not not dumbness” is precisely femininity: (a) “the hair-pulling about the goggle-eyed vacuity of her music…”; (b) “the name, lifted from one of Queen’s ditziest tunes: ‘Radio Ga Ga.’”
5. Abelism: “Nor is Gaga’s mouth-breather gape, which combined with her slight overbite gives her a vaguely dumbfounded look. She looks permanently agog, like Paris Hilton after a ministroke.” Is he really saying she looks mentally handicapped?
6. I am going to “color [him] rockist,” if only to point out the symbiosis between rockism and heteromasculinity (see my previous post about Edelman and repetition for more on this; see also Susan Cook’s 2001 article “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular,” in the journal “Women and Music”). By admitting to his erstwhile rockism, Dery is admitting to his privileging of masculinity, and heteromasculinity at that. See also the opposition of “vogueing” to “thinking” (“an exuberant stupidity that wants to vogue its way into our hearts but makes our minds throw up a little”); I guess queers and chicks vogue, but real men think?
7. Related to rockism: Dery argues that her music lacks “sophistication” and “cultural literacy”. If you listen to Gaga’s music, it’s very intertextual: for example, “Alejandro” is all ABBA and Ace of Base, just as “Speechless” is all about the Sir Elton aesthetic (I think there’s even some Daft Punk in the end of “Telephone” –there’s a synth there that is highly reminiscent of “Da Funk”). I guess these just aren’t sufficiently masculine enough references. Apparently, the only references one can make to demonstrate “cultural literacy” are to DWEG (dead white European guys) members of the fine art canon (Scrlatti, Paganini, Dada, Shakespeare).
8. Related to rockism, point 2: why does music have to not be dumb? Why can’t it just be fun? Also, there’s a lot of BAD pop music, music that doesn’t even work as fun, pleasurable pop; Gaga’s actually works as such. That’s no easy task.
9. It seems that big words prove one’s “not dumbness”: Dery praises Queen for using “brain-stretchingly arcane vocabulary words,” and contrasts this to Gaga’s vocalizations (e.g., beginning of “Bad Romance”). To that, I respond with two passages from Nietzsche: (1) “Being profound and seeming profound.—Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water (Gay Science, section 173); (b) “With just a little more impertinence, Rossini would have had everybody sing nothing but la-la-la-la—and that would have made good, rational sense. Confronted with the characters in an opera, we are not supposed to take their word for it, but the sound!” (Gay Science, section 80).
10. Dance-pop is narcissistic, which, after hysteria, is a classic female/feminine malady: “how many dance-pop singers can tell a story about anything other than themselves?”
11. “The banal” = “the feminine” (this is also Huyssen’s point about the feminization of mass culture). Everything that is boring is associated with either/both stereotypical femininity or female sexuality: “Gaga is the poet laureate of the supremely banal: porntastic fantasies about riding your disco stick and bluffin’ with my muffin, “getting shit wrecked,” dry-humping under the disco ball, dreaming of fame, becoming famous, world-wearily lamenting the Faustian bargain of—yawn—fame, and popping a wide-on worthy of the Sex and the City crew over “Louis, Dolce Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, eh ou,” and of course Manolo.”
12. Dery assumes that all Gaga can do is parrot jargon, and obviously can’t know anything about the names/figures/ideas she cites: “Talk about defining deviancy down. What beige days we live in, when mentioning Rilke, Warhol, and David Bowie are proof positive of edgy intelligence”. What’s likely going on here is the misogynist tendency to assume that, until proven otherwise, women aren’t smart and lack depth. Why not just assume that she IS smart until proven otherwise? Oh, right, because she’s a woman.
13. In assessing what counts as truly “weird,” Dery does not account for gender differences. He mentions truly weird things that MALE artists have done (Bowery, Coleman, Bowie), but does not account the role that gender plays in what counts as “weird” (we have different expectations for men and women, so men being violent is not weird, but—as all the backlash against “Telephone” demonstrates—women being violent is so weird it’s dangerous. Perhaps we should reconsider Dery’s dismissal of Gaga’s onstage violence at the VMAs in this light). By comparing Gaga only to male artists, Derry doesn’t account for the fact that, as a woman, Gaga faces a different “gaze” and a different set of expectations/norms/interpellations/etc. While Dery “groans” at Gaga’s claim “I write about what I know: sex, pornography, art, fame obsession, drugs, and alcohol,” he forgets that in patriarchy, it still IS largely verboten for women to talk about these things—particularly white women (and still be seen as fully human, as properly gendered, as worthy of respect, etc.). Witness the recent canonization of Taylor Swift. If Dery is interested in groaning and yawning about “safe” music, why not turn his ire her way?
14. I wonder if Dery would cite the following as evidence of Jay-Z’s or Weezy’s lack of value as an artist: “markets deviance to Middle America, making true transgression safe for prime time (while simultaneously gene-splicing a little mutant culture into the mainstream) and, oh yeah, getting richer than God in the process.”
I guess I’m so troubled in part because I so admire Dery’s work on Afrofuturism. However, I should not be surprised that careful attention to one aspect of social identity doesn’t necessarily translate to careful attention to another aspect (e.g., anti-racism doesn’t automatically translate into feminism, and vice versa). I just wish the gendering of his remarks wasn’t so vehemently and, well, unreflectively misogynist.