In Review: A Ray of Hope for the Little Monsters
It’s funny the beacons of hope that can emerge in popular culture. Those of us who produce independent music tend to hold fast to do-it-yourself altruism and ideals, often at the expense of reach, but I for one have always had an unabashed love for pop. It is no easy thing to craft a hook. Mainstream popularity can also offer clues to the needs of a generation and new paths to reach them. My band mate has a tattoo on her arm-–“The Promise of Song”–-and it hits that nail right on the head. Music is for everybody. Music heals. Music nurtures, agitates, and awakens.
Lady Gaga is one such beacon, particularly for youth who identify as queer or who are questioning their sexual identity or orientation. Recently, she set the media abuzz when she appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards as her male alter ego Jo Calderone. She was being honored for her song “Born this Way,” and Jo accepted the award on her behalf. As Murray Hill (New York City queer artist and celebrity) noted, Jo’s presence was powerful and inspiring because there are so few mass media representations of FTM transgender people in mainstream culture. I posed the question to my friends on Facebook-–what do you think of the new Lady Gaga video “You and I” (which, incidentally, also features Jo Calderone, in this case making out in some scenes with the Mama Monster herself)—and the overwhelming feedback I got was centered on Jo’s hotness (even if Britney Spears did turn down the chance to lock lips with him). A number of my female friends commented about their attraction to me in private, too. Jo is sexy, powerful, and chaotic—and from what I gather, he appeals to both girls who like girls and girls who like guys.
Many popular musicians have attracted and engaged queer audiences over the years, but Gaga takes the work off the stage—and LGBTQ community leaders agree. Whether advocating for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, making the case for gay marriage, or reaching out to disenfranchised queer youth, Gaga walks the walk. She tried to reach out personally to some fans, and clearly felt the loss of Jamey Rodemeyer, a fourteen-year old fan who took his life after being bullied for being gay. Gaga told press immediately how unacceptable the current climate for gay teens is. She leverages her popularity to address LGBTQ issues and, while I first thought it might be strictly a marketing ploy, I have grown to believe she does it from her heart and soul.
Gaga hasn’t stopped pushing boundaries with her music videos and public presentation, either (though some hooks from “Born this Way” are very reminiscent of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” and comparisons between the two women abound). In “You and I,” along with the scenes of Gaga and Calderone making out in a Nebraskan cornfield, we see Gaga as a topless mermaid with no nipples. At one point she lures a man into a washbasin. The only thing going through my head during that entire scene was that the female representation (a genitalia-less mermaid) was a sex object incapable of reproduction. A final scene at the end shows an apparently human begowned Gaga tying the knot with the man from the mermaid scene. Another shot at the opening shows our heroine wandering a country road with a robotic arm.
The imagery incites the viewer to think about gender, self, attraction, identity, sex, location, memory, narcissism, illicit love, and seduction—and offers no real conclusions. The bride scene at the end stands in stark contrast to some of the rest of the video—but it made sense to me that Gaga would show so many kinds of sexual representations and pairings and then cut to a scene of a heterosexual (dare I say vanilla?) rural union. The main question I had was this: are we to believe that all of those characters reside in the same person? In the same spirit and psyche?
Pop culture icons do have the power to shape public thought—even those who are not explicit in their political stance. A recent blog post on the secret feminism of Nirvana talks about how many young women were able to be fans of that loud rock band and not feel the hyper-regular masculine overdrive rock music often engenders. Many girls found Nirvana, then went on to explore some of the band’s friends—L7, Bikini Kill, Hole-–and ultimately pick up instruments themselves. Interviews with Kurt Cobain and his subsequently published journals make it clear that he was a man who rejected the gender binary and strict notions of masculinity and femininity. In her multifaceted way, Lady Gaga is doing the same thing—and in a culture in which there’s still so much pressure to define ourselves in binaries, I feel more safety and joy on any dance floor where her music is blasting.
Katy Otto is a social justice activist, writer and musician who grew up in the DC area. She works in nonprofit management and development.