The internet is already aflutter with Lady Gaga's obvious appropriation of Madonna's "Express Yourself" for her new single, "Born This Way," which she performed tonight on the Grammys (in a style more or less like what you can see in the above video). In an interview with 60 Minutes before the show, she referred to herself as a sociologist of fame, "academic" in her research. This research doesn't seem to have taken her much further than Madonna, but her rediscovery of the latter's wheel of fortune contains a good deal of truth to it. After all, Madonna was a master at tweaking the mainstream, having it think that its boundaries were being transgressed while the status quo remained. Turning her concerts into self help seminars, Lady Gaga passes on the secrets of her success to her fans between songs: you can be anything you pretend to be as long as you wear a believable costume. Honesty here is a matter of being true to the mask one wears. There's no pretense that anything's underneath. When photographers want to shoot who she "really is," she replies that her appearance is who she really is. Her costumes mask the fact that there is nothing being hidden. So she's a good Lacanian:
In order to exemplify the structure of such redoubled deception, Lacan evoked the anecdote about the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two painters from the ancient Greece, about who will paint a more convincing illusion. First, Zeuxis produced such a realistic picture of grapes that birds were lured into picking at it to eat the grape. Next, Parrhasios won by painting on the wall of his room a curtain, so that Zeuxis, when Parrhasios showed him his painting, asked him: "OK, now please pull aside the veil and show me what you painted!" In Zeuxis's painting, the illusion was so convincing that image was taken for the real thing; in Parrhasios' painting, the illusion resided in the very notion that what we see in front of us is just a veil covering up the hidden truth. This is also how, for Lacan, feminine masquerade works: she wears a mask to make us react like Zeuxis in front of Parrhasios' painting - OK, put down the mask and show us what you really are!
Too bad she's not a better musician.
It's a bit like making notes from the underground when commenting on the Grammys, but I can't help thinking masks are about all that's left of popular music. I saw Usher's little white hope imitating Michael Jackson, a black Elton John singing with an emaciated Miss Piggy, and Muse ripping off Marilyn Manson. Then there were the tributes, which, to be kind, only served to remind me of the absence of those being celebrated: Norah Jones, John Mayer and Keith Urban trying to do Dolly Parton; Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and some gals I didn't recognize trying to do Aretha Franklin; Mick Jagger trying to do Solomon Burke; and Bob Dylan trying to do Bob Dylan. And "country" has come to simply mean fatter than pop stars (Lady Antebellum), while "indy rock," uglier (Arcade Fire). As popular music has increasingly crossed class, genre, race, age and region -- has become music for anyone (at least, according to the Grammys) -- it's done so by being homogeneous sludge. It's easier to hear actual distinctions in electronic dance music. I'm not disagreeing with Lacan, just saying no one's good at painting believable curtains these days.