From The Fame to Born This Way: Lady Gaga and the Monstrous Evolution of Identity
by Kate Durbin and Meghan Vicks
When Lady Gaga hit the pop culture-scape with “Just Dance” in 2008, her performance was accompanied by the slogan “Pop Music Will Never Be Low Brow,” which was appropriately projected in her video-screen glasses, the first of many props that would celebrate the power of the image in culture. Since then, Lady Gaga has remained steadfast in her declaration that her performance – her lies – are her truths to be taken seriously, even while blatantly marketing, branding, and “selling” herself out. The power of performance was explored in depth throughout the era of her debut album The Fame, during which Gaga literalized and embodied the spectacle, perpetually drew attention to the power of the image in our everyday and humdrum lives, and exhibited how fictions, lies, performances, costumes, and poses make up our existence, personalities, and identities. In short, during The Fame era, Lady Gaga became synonymous with performative and creative identity – an identity that rejects essentialism, determinism, and foundationalism.
These notions are echoed in “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” which is a video shown during an interlude during the Monster Ball; in this video, Lady Gaga discusses “the lie” as the “real truth.” “It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill,” she says. “We are nothing without our image, without our projection, without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.” During these two years of The Fame and its dark twin The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga repeatedly illustrated – in her daily outrageous outfits, in her music videos, in her stage performances – how life is art. There was no difference between the street and the stage: Gaga never took off her costumes, in fact, they were not costumes in the classical sense just as “Lady Gaga,” she repeatedly told us, is not a persona or a stage name – there is no fixed identity behind the mask. If art is synonymous with life, then life itself is but a performance – and we are all a part of the (freak) show. This was the idea of The Fame/Monster.
However, with her sophomore album Born This Way, Lady Gaga problematizes the notion of performative identity by moving toward the flesh, the meat(dress), the immanent muck and essential ether of being. Her most recent fashion (especially the prosthetic shoulder and cheek bones), her 2011 Grammy performance, and the video for “Born This Way” further complicate her earlier explorations with performative identity: in the Born This Way era, Lady Gaga explores a new type of identity – both natural (essential) and constructed (performative) simultaneously.
In a recent Billboard interview, Lady Gaga discusses these notions of birth in relation to a constructed identity: “[Birth] is a process of living and it’s also not ultimately a goal. It’s something ever-changing. My bones have changed in my face and in my shoulders because I am now able to reveal to the universe that when I was wearing shoulder pads or when I was wearing jackets that looked like I was wearing shoulder pads, it was really just my bones underneath. My fashion is part of who I am, and though I was not born with these clothes on, I was born this way.” Lady Gaga views fashion and the human body as cut from the same cloth: fashion is essential – become part of the essence of the human body. And fashion, like life, is something that takes intentionality and, most importantly, choice. Gaga’s goal is to empower her fans to choose to consciously become, or to choose to become conscious of the seemingly limitless potentials of who they can be. Fashion is one important way to harness this evolving identity. As Gaga also said in that same Billboard interview: “[Fashion] is part of who I am. My creativity is in my blood and in my bones as I said, and it takes time to become myself every morning.” In a very real sense, Gaga has become her clothes, just as her clothes become her. It is in this play that one’s fluctuating identity is birthed and re-born, over and over. But it takes will and consciousness: one cannot be blind and born, at least not into Gaga’s new race.
Lady Gaga’s new looks have influences that are both alien/unnatural (her new bone structure, her sharply whittled fingernails, the latex) and organic (the amniotic hair-coloring at the Grammys). Though Gaga is dealing heavily with the theme of evolution with this new album, there is no survival of the fittest here, but rather the survival of the freak. The freaks, Gaga says, will become “a new race of beings within the race of humanity…one with no prejudice.” The song “Born This Way” proclaims: “I was born to survive.” Gaga (and it may be relevant to note that gaga is often one of the first things that a baby says upon speaking) sees birth – something usually viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience – as something that is an “ever-changing process.”
So Lady Gaga performs an identity that is quite paradoxical. On the one hand, her identity is performance, costume, acting, poses, and lies – all these non-essentialist, non-foundationalist, non-immanent modes of identity. On the other hand, her identity is fated, true, “born this way,” and real – that is, essential, foundational, and immanent identity. She is the lie that was “born this way.” Gaga puts performative identity in the space of essential identity; she embodies an autonomous identity that is at once created through her own desires and wants, and always already born this way, preexisting those desires in a sense. Her creation of her identity becomes how she was born.
All these notions come to a beautiful crescendo in the recently released video for “Born This Way.” The video opens with a new manifesto – “Manifesto of Mother Monster” – which Lady Gaga reads while a song from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo plays in the backtrack:
On G.O.A.T, a Government-Owned Alien Territory in space, a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. But the birth was not finite. It was infinite. As the wombs numbered and the mitosis of the future began, it was perceived that this infamous moment in life is not temporal, it is eternal. And thus began the beginning of the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bares no prejudice, no judgment but boundless freedom. But on that same day, as the eternal mother hovered in the multi-verse, another more terrifying birth took place, the birth of evil. And as she herself split into two, rotating in agony between two ultimate forces, the pendulum of choice began its dance. It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good. But she wondered, “How can I protect something so perfect without evil?”
In this manifesto, Lady Gaga re-envisions and problematizes the notion of birth – as an infinite process of becoming, not as a singular moment of having become. As with the “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” which redefines the lie as truth and the image as reality, “Manifesto of Mother Monster” redefines birth as eternal, infinite, monstrous, and free – that is, one can choose to be born into whatever being one wishes. One is put in control of his or her own birth. The video features split-screen images of Lady Gaga giving birth to multiple versions of herself: both good and evil, alive and dead, nearly naked and fully dressed, Michael Jackson and Madonna. This hybridity is monstrous – it defies borders. In typical Gaga fashion, the video pays homage to much from the aesthetic arsenals of high and pop cultures: the expressionist paintings of Francis Bacon, the work of Salvador Dali and other surrealists, James Cameron’s Aliens, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the choreography of Alvin Ailey, and Madonna’s video for “Express Yourself,” to name a few. Given the theme of the video – Born This Way – Gaga’s use of these visual cultural quotations implies that she is unequivocally the offspring of these cultural giants, born in their images, created from their influences. This reflects what she said in a recent interview for Vogue:
It’s not a secret that I have been inspired by tons of people. David Bowie and Prince being the most paramount in terms of live performance. I could go on and on about all of the people I have been compared to – from Madonna to Grace Jones to Debbie Harry to Elton John to Marilyn Manson to Yoko Ono – but at a certain point you have to realize that what they are saying is that I am cut from the cloth of performer, that I am like all of those people in spirit. I was born this way.
She was born this way – organically fashioned from the cloth of the performer. These are the new identity politics of Born This Way: not just performative identity, but performative, infinite, and above all free birth.
Watch the video for Born This Way:
About the Authors:
Kate Durbin is a writer and performance artist. She is the author of The Ravenous Audience , Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot, FASHIONWHORE, and Kept Women, forthcoming from Insert Press. She holds an MFA from the University of California in Riverside.
Meghan Vicks is a doctoral student of Comparative Literature, currently working on her dissertation, “Narratives of Zero: Writing Upon Nothing in Modern and Postmodern Literature.” She teaches Humanities courses at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Kate and Meghan are the editors of Gaga Stigmata