If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gaga's Mistake: You and I Can Write a Bad Romance

“You and me could write a bad romance,” sings Lady Gaga in her hit "Bad Romance." We could indulge in love kitschy, sadomasochistic, sloppy, cheap--and above all, fun. You and I could write a bad romance.

You and I. But Gaga sings, over and over in our collective memory, “you and me.” Fudging lyrics to fit meter is no high crime in pop or poesy--any number of masters have deployed apostrophes to drop syllables or accents to conjure them. But Gaga could just as easily have sung, “you and I could write a bad romance” in the allotted space, incurring only the small artistic cost of appearing literate.

There are other possible explanations, but they don’t seem worth running down. More likely, given Gaga’s dedication to and training in her craft, it is an intentional mistake, and one that mirrors perfectly one of the more famous solecisms in English literature.

“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky,” begins T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Whereas “we” is correctly replaced by “you and I,” “us” would correctly be replaced by “you and me.” Eliot’s phrasing is probably chosen to create the rhyme with “sky.” In a poem about a frumpy anti-hero’s meditations on his myriad failures and perceived incompetence, the mistake also serves an important artistic function.

Gaga’s mistake resembles Eliot’s more than superficially. Eliot’s “love song” about the protagonist’s failure to enter even the atrium of love is a kind of “bad romance.” But Eliot’s bad romance is almost diametrically opposite that of Gaga. Eliot exposes and dismantles the illusions of genre whereas Gaga reanimates them (what one might call the difference between modernism and postmodernism).

Eliot re-imagines the scenes of Victorian comfort with an eye to their potential for surreality and ambivalence. The speaker experiences himself at an ironic distance from his world, unworthy to touch its offerings. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendent lord [...] Almost, at times, the Fool.” “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (45-6). When he plays the part of Lazarus, “come from the dead,” he would be emotionally destroyed “If one, settling a pillow by her head, / Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all’” (95-9).

When Prufrock imagines pleasures, they escape him. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” Prufrock should have been shrunk by synecdoche to “a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (73-4). But his imagination does not lack for the stuff of Gothic entertainment--mermaids, the undead, claws, costumes. His very distance from the world makes it loom larger and more fantastic. He is constantly thinking of his appearance and how it might be, and has been, shuffled to produce difference effects, different arrangements of pleasure.

Lady Gaga; a pair of fabulous claws.

Prufrock is not far from Gaga. Like their divergence around the mistake concerning us/we--whether one is to play the part of subject or object--their imaginaries are complementary. Prufrock’s “do I dare?” is answered constantly by Gaga’s will-to-daring, a bravado that aspires to present itself as testing nothing less than the universe, as Prufrock likewise sees his every move. Prufrock’s imagined costume-drama is played out in each of Gaga’s public appearances. If the mermaids would not sing to Prufrock, Gaga is now the hybrid monster who sings to everyone constantly.

Prufrock puts forth a question that could easily fit into the theme of “The Fame Monster” (or “Ziggy” or “The Wall,” etc.):
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? 
And how should I presume? (57-61).

How to dare the universe given the omnipresent pin of reflective contemplation, a pin that both destroys and magnifies? Gaga’s performance does not refute Prufrock’s premise but embraces it, “wriggling on the wall” of the specular society. To be pinned is to be exposed, for better and worse.

Whereas Prufrock’s governing affect is sexless malaise, that of “Bad Romance” is sexy defiance. The lyrics are half snarled, and even the idea that the romance she desires is “bad” both accepts and defies an attribution about what is good/bad romance made by an antagonistic critical community. Thus she and her followers become criminals, monsters, psychos, and their attacks the "revenge" of the suppressed classes.

But the pleasure Gaga announces is not dependent on the success of the vengeful attack; this is not a territorial counter-attack. In that way it is a defiance different from the punk rallying cries to take to the streets and burn this motherfucker down. She wants your revenge itself, not a tactical outcome from it. Just dancing--for fun, defiantly--is the goal, rather than some upheaval caused by or following the party.

The wagers Prufrock and Gaga make in this game are different, but they agree on much of the terrain. While both break the artistic rules of their day in flashier ways elsewhere, the solecism is the wink that gives depth to their commentaries on an obsessively self-reflective culture. The evident error provides the foothold for deviation to blossom as intentional performance, rather than deterministic reaction.

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