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Film Theory, Tangents

How Postmodernism Went Mainstream: A Lady Gaga Tangent

I’m a 27-year-old heterosexual male. And I love Lady Gaga.

Okay, “love” might be pushing it, but I listen to her music way more than is socially acceptable for someone in my demographic group. But it wasn’t her voice (which is massively underrated) or the pulse of her characteristic dance beats that first turned me on to the cult of Gaga. It was her flare for the visually dramatic, and it sparked the same kind of fascination that I have about the very best films and television shows.

Before I really understood what she was all about, I saw the wigs and crazy costumes and assumed she was just another pop music princess – a Britney Spears for the new generation. There was one key moment that changed my mind about Gaga, however: her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. It ends with Gaga being hanged. Like hanged with a rope and a noose. Seriously. Check it out:

While this song and performance serve as an interesting, shocking, and (dare I say) profound commentary about the nature of the tabloid press and the role it plays in modern celebrity (which is a topic worthy of further elaboration), what really piqued my interest was its blatantly over-the-top nature. Seriously… who hangs themselves at an awards show? Well, Lady Gaga does, and it shows a hyper-awareness of the audience’s expectations and the ways she can subvert them.

What I’m really talking about is postmodernism. In my experience, postmodernism is one of the most nebulously defined concepts in the humanities, perhaps surpassed only by Realism in the number of varying definitions. In short, though, postmodernism has to do with the artificiality of reality; the fact that much of what we accept as objective truth is actually a social construct. By extension, postmodernism dictates that there’s little point in trying to present something as life-like if much of life itself is artificial. Movies have mined this subject matter for decades, with films as dissimilar as Pulp Fiction (which eschews a traditional narrative structure) and Federico Fellini’s 1987 film Intervista (which, instead of having a traditional happy ending, concludes with Fellini himself announcing that the movie’s over and that the best he can do is light up an arc lamp as an artificial ray of sunshine) having been described as postmodern (apologies for the lack of subtitles):

At the risk of making a comparison that would probably get ME hanged in most film circles, Gaga’s approach isn’t so different from Fellini’s. She knows what people expect, and she gives them something entirely different, because to do otherwise would mean taking part in the meaningless modernist game. So Gaga hangs herself, everybody is shocked, any semblance of realism is dispensed with, and she scores a point for the Theater of the Absurd.

(Funny side note: did you know that the word ‘paparazzi’ actually comes from the character Paparazzo, an annoying young photographer in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita?)

Gaga’s postmodernist tendencies don’t end there. Witness the vocal and piano embellishments in her equally hyper-aware and patently ridiculous acoustic version of “Poker Face”:

Or her recent adventures as the sexually nebulous Jo Calderone, an alter-ego that straddles the line between male and female – thus rejecting the gender binaries that are another major object of postmodernism’s scorn:

And don’t even get me started about the intertextuality of Gaga’s “Telephone” video (intertextuality referring to references, either explicit or implied, that a particular text makes to other works of art, thus situating it within a particular cultural continuum):

In her heart of hearts, I think that Lady Gaga is a director. (And she has, in fact, played a role in the direction of some of her music videos and TV specials, and serves as the ultimate creative authority for all of them.) She has an artistic vision that far surpasses most of her peers, and has somehow brought postmodernism into the cultural mainstream. All in all, not bad for a pop princess.


About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.


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