Lady Gaga & the Dead Planet Grotesque
Over the last year Lady Gaga has come to embody —for me and, I imagine, for her fans — a kind of posthuman life strategy. She presents a response to the horrors of the 21st century that reeks, strangely, of absolute sanity — the sanity of very archly embracing the most grotesque excesses of the materialist culture that is destroying the planet.
At once very human and also indistinguishable from the inhuman culture machine that promotes her, she is the perfect evolutionary advance, designed to outlive the cockroaches themselves. She is a successful gray alien hybrid, stripped of all human emotion or compassion, a thing made to flourish in this grim, mechanical age. She is the newest model android from the MTV fembot assembly line. She is the latest and greatest Terminator. She is Skynet. She is self-aware.
Artists hold a mirror to society — but in this bizarre new century, the mirror has been splintered into a million little pieces, scattered to the floor for us to sort out and build some kind of identity from. Artists make meaning out of meaninglessness. Lady Gaga has her work cut out for her.
(Beyoncé to Gaga in the “Telephone” video: “You know, Gaga? Trust is like a mirror. You can fix it if it’s broke…”
Gaga: “But you can still see the crack in that motherf**ker’s reflection.”)
If David Bowie’s chameleonic posturing prefigured the hypertext web, Gaga may be the first version of a human being we have seen capable of thriving in the era of the social web. She is shiny, clickable, and malleable in the face of endless attention fragmentation. She is an adaptive strategy. Without any solid or “real” self, her identity becomes whatever it needs to be, immune to the toxic shock of the incoming century, fully geared up to party in the ruins. Is it any wonder that she’s provoked the response she has, both adulation and hatred? She’s the first non-boring thing to happen in pop music for almost fifteen years.
Consider Lady Gaga in prison in the beginning of her new video. That’s all of us, “held captive” in the modern condition — but Gaga is the Magician, able to transform any situation to her will. Five minutes in and she’s reassembled her outfit from chains and cigarettes and is wrapping herself around the girls in the prison yard. The other people in prison are already listening to her songs on her branded Lady Gaga headphone… she set the context before she even arrived. Though she may be in prison, she already rules the world. This is what adaptation to the 21st century looks like. The brand “Gaga” can be reassembled from anything, even in a vacuum, even from trash, just as we must learn to do with our own masks of self.
The experience of coming to grips with the inherent lack of meaning in our lives or in the universe —and learning not only to survive in such a universe, but to thrive in it — is a crucial stage in many religious traditions. The moment when you finally, deeply understand that there really is no point… this is Buddhism’s stock in trade. The medieval mystic St. John of the Cross called this experience the “Dark Night of the Soul.” In the Hermetic and Qabalistic traditions, this experience is described as the invisible sephira Da’ath aka “Knowledge.”
While undergoing this experience—which usually comes when the mind has been pushed as far as it can go through meditation or other high-octane spiritual practice — consciousness is torn apart by its remaining attachment to ego, as if by a pack of wild dogs, as the false individuality shakes apart, unveiling the true self —primal, unconditioned awareness — that lies beneath. Here, meaning goes in drag as meaninglessness. Gender inverts as well, as consciousness loses its sexual conditioning.
“In the earliest spiritual traditions known to humankind,” Randy P. Connor writes in Blossom of Bone, his study of transgendered shamanism throughout history, “gender-variant, homoeroticly, or bisexualy inclined persons served as shamans and priests of goddesses, gods, spirits, and ancestors.”
Da’ath is traditionally symbolized as a prison cell—the place where Gaga finds herself in the “Telephone” video, as her shamanic gender inversion reaches its pinnacle, straight woman in drag as a gay man in drag as a gay woman, emerging as a weaponized new self. “I told you she didn’t have a dick,” one of her butch prison guards remarks as she is thrown into her cell. “Too bad,” the other replies. And so we embark on Gaga and Beyoncé’s version of a lesbianized world, as they murder everything in sight.
When both meaning and meaninglessness have been destroyed — when Gaga and Beyoncé have passed through the pillars of initiation, as symbolized by their black and white dresses at the end of the video — a new Star is born.
The Fame Monster
The 21st century is pure chaos. Reactionaries of every stripe tell us to turn around and go back. “We have lost all meaningful interaction,” they yammer on and on as they have for decades. They said it about MTV, they said it about the Web, and now they’re saying it about texting and Twitter and Lady Gaga. But just as our individual intelligence grows based on the number of connections our neurons make with each other, so does the intelligence of the mass mind grow based on the number of connections made between its individual neurons — us. We are the neurons. The more connections we make, the smarter we get as a whole.
This, then, is perhaps a better metaphor for the age of social media than the message that we are being “driven to distraction,” coming from concern groups and well-meaning psychologists.” Look at it this way. We’re learning to think as a group mind, instead of as individual minds. This, again, is the message of Da’ath — that ultimately our individual egos are illusions. That may seem chilly, but it also might be exactly the type of cognitive approach we’re going to need in order to successfully navigate the challenges of this century. Pop stars are charged with pointing a way forward through an increasingly chaotic, confusing, and fragmented world for us — perhaps here, then, is what Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and the rest are pointing to when they make Illuminati hand signs in their videos. Become illuminated. Evolve or die.
Lady Gaga is a success story, a victorious Magellan of sleaze. She is the anti-Tiger Woods, able to surf our culture’s sexual psychoses instead of drowning in them. Did they build her in an underground laboratory, like the one featured in the “Bad Romance” video? They must have, for what other perverse, mutated perfection of the human form could be better equipped to succeed in this most horrible of world climates?
While the rest of the world spirals into economic degradation, environmental pestilence and complete systems failure of all of the old world models, Lady Gaga reigns above the flames. Pay attention to the lesson. Lady Gaga is the only person prospering in this cultural climate. Therefore she has done something right. She is the necessary evolutionary adaptation to our times and this is why she disturbs people: This is what we must all become.