It is hard to believe that in two short years, Lady Gaga has gone from being an underground artist in New York City, trying to find her way after graduating from a prestigious prep school, to an internationally known pop-culture icon. In China, "OMLG" (Oh my Lady Gaga!) has replaced "OMG."
Her popularity has less to do with the quality of her music (as fun and danceable as it is) and more to do with her audacious image and the fact that she considers herself a "performance artist." And boy, does she commit. There is never a time when we see her out of costume, not playing the part that she has so famously constructed. We imagine she even goes to bed in a bejeweled, crotch-exposing leotard and spiked antlers.
Gaga has been praised for her commitment to pushing boundaries of womanhood, beauty, and sexuality: for being unafraid of the ugly or the grotesque. Still this praise comes with its share of criticism, particularly from other established artists (who so happen to be of color) who have similar agendas, or have been noted for having comparable style.
In a recent interview with the British Guardian, Grace Jones expressed her distaste for Gaga, saying that she would "…prefer to work with someone more original and someone who is not copying me, actually." She continues, "Well, you know, I've seen some things she's worn that I've worn, and that does kind of piss me off."
Jones is not the only one who has noticed how similar Gaga's style is to hers. She has also been blasted by the likes of M.I.A, who is possibly one of the most innovative artists of our time. In an interview with British publication NME, she says: "People say we're similar, that we both mix all these things (influences) in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know?
"She's not progressive, but she's a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I f**king do! That's a talent and she's got a great team behind her, but she's the industry's last stab at making itself important - saying, 'You need our money behind you, the endorsements, the stadiums'. Respect to her, she's keeping a hundred thousand people in work, but my belief is: Do it yourself."
These comments might seem like a case of sour grapes; M.I.A. and Grace Jones certainly have not reached the level of superstardom as Gaga has, but our girl M.I.A. makes an interesting point. The question is: What is Gaga doing that other artists have not done before, or rather, what correlation does the image she puts out of herself as a "provocative, original performance artist" have to do with her actual image and music? There is little originality in Gaga's shtick - the only thing different about what she is doing, is that she is doing it as a white woman.
Gaga has been praised for not being afraid to be ugly, but we'd like to unpack this notion. For what it's worth, Lady Gaga's physical features (with the exception of her non-surgically altered schnoz) fit the western ideal of acceptable beauty to a T. She's a skinny, (bottle) blonde, reasonably attractive white girl. It is for this reason that when she puts on audacious outfits, or is seen hunched over in a music video with the bones in her spine creepily poking out, that America is not intimidated.
She can be ugly because she is white.
Yes, it is rather impressive to see a pop artist whose image is not all about perpetuating traditional notions of sexuality/ what is sexy, but her efforts are diminished by the fact that she is doing it from a safe place - through a filter of Eurocentric aesthetics.
Grace Jones could never reach the type of popularity Gaga has because her look is representative of what is considered unattractive and unfeminine in western society. Dark skin, broad nose, masculine features. This was part of her appeal to the fashion world. Her career was based on this, but she could not break out into the American mainstream. Her look will remain forever an expression of higher art, and will only be available to a limited group of people.
When Grace Jones did photo shoots roaring and rattling inside a cage, or photos with other men where she was almost indistinguishable as a woman, it was edgy and innovative, it carried a certain weight. Her style, her look, her aesthetic is more powerful because it in every way goes against the western ideal.
Musicians like M.I.A whose music is truly provocative, whose music is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, socially conscious expression have the right to be upset. Lady Gaga is being praised for being edgy, when in reality, there is little about her music that actually has substance. Lady Gaga tells us to "Just dance," or warns us that she's "out in the club, sippin' that bub" so she won't be able to receive our phone calls.
M.I.A's music, on the other hand, confronts socio-economic/racial/ cultural issues, urging us to "pull up the poor". M.I.A's music reflects the lives of those people of color who have been othered in western society, (perhaps even in their own societies), and openly discusses and challenges these implications. Her western-marked otherness is in your face: her music videos are an explosion of cultures, but she presents each in a way so that it is not exoticized. So, the use of pretty much every known dancehall dancer in Jamaica in her video for "Boyz" doesn't come across as "Look at these wacky Jamaicans dance! Isn't it totes curious?", but instead as an expression and appreciation of a flourishing culture and art from. Not as exotic, but as the norm.
As much as we love and appreciate Lady Gaga, the criticism she receives is justified, and we're glad that known artists and fashion icons are coming out and pointing out the fact that some of the praise she gets is wholly undeserved. Lady Gaga is in some ways a reincarnation of Elvis Presley: She takes cues from other truly forward-thinking and innovative artists of color, and repackages it so that white America can comfortably digest it.
Watch "Grace Jones vs Lady Gaga"
Story by Jihan Forbes
Starpulse contributing writer