Tea With Chris: Carl Goes Gaga

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: America’s vast atomic-weapons project didn’t just keep scientists and military men employed during WWII. There was also a “secret corps” of photographers and filmmakers who recorded each apocalyptic nuclear test, as described in this fascinating New York Times article. I enjoy the absurdity of exhaustively documenting a top-secret program, but what really sticks in the mind is that photo of a bomb’s destructive climax, its explosion filling the sky like an anti-sun.

From the Times again, and Roy Edroso, this obituary…well, just read the lede: “Michael Burn, a British journalist and author whose eventful life included an early flirtation with Nazism; a daring commando raid on the fortified port of St.-Nazaire, France; imprisonment in Colditz Castle; a love affair with the British spy Guy Burgess; and a timely intervention in the aftermath of World War II that saved Audrey Hepburn’s life, died Sept. 3 at his home in North Wales. He was 97.” Nicely done, captain.

Margaux: A recent THIS AMERICAN LIFE hour long audio episode about one police officer against many other police officers. Scary.

Carl: In The Times this week, Camille Paglia used Lady Gaga as a meat-covered club to beat the young with, in classic boomer fashion: “Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.” Oh, and these autistic automatons don’t like sex, either. (As a friend said, if young people actually were turning off of sex, that would be kind of interesting. Too bad Paglia made it up based on nothing but condescension.)

The mess wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that the wonderful Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times has gone on to seize the occasion to open up a much more inquiring, engaged conversation about the variety of ways women confront and cope with sexuality in today’s music.

In her 40s herself, Powers makes sure to incorporate a voice from the generation under Paglia’s fire, 24-year-old guitarist/violinist Amy Klein of punk band Titus Andronicus, who finds herself in a sense reinventing 1990s riot-grrrl feminism to reassert her right to rock. But Powers also finds much more to consider in Gaga’s eroti-cabaret enigmas: “The truth is, sexuality in pop can’t be pushed aside, or ever exhausted. It’s the main force and subject of the stuff. … The most exciting pop stars, male and female, negotiate this shifting ground and help us understand it better. In the 21st century, this means confronting limits that often seem invisible…

“Woody Guthrie famously wrote This Guitar Kills Fascists on his battered instrument. Gaga turns a bra into a machine gun; [Katy] Perry, always sweeter and more capitulating, spewed whipped cream out of hers. Could it be that the urge female pop stars feel to turn their revealing costumes into weapons is an attempt to instrumentalize sexuality, to foreground and even problematize the fact that it’s the force that moves these women forward?

“Lady Gaga is the most sensational player in a wide field of musicians still struggling to comprehend and express the connections between sexuality and power. Rather than being emotionally impoverished and sexually burnt out, they’re exploring how old feminine paradigms (and masculine ones, within the work of artists such as Eminem or Kanye West) empower and constrict in an age of technologically assisted identity flux.”

By the way, a few people have pointed out that Canadian artist, Jana Sterbak, came up with the whole “meat dress” idea 20 years ago, though of course a flank-steak gown does not read the same hanging from Gaga’s shoulders as Sterbak’s “Vanitas” did hanging in the National Gallery in 1991.

Still, it seems like no one quite recalls what a huge stink (sorry) it made at the time: Along with the outcry over the $1.8-million the Gallery paid for Barnett Newman’s ab-ex painting “Voice of Fire”, the “flesh dress” was almost Canada’s equivalent of the contemporaneous U.S. “culture war,” anti-National Endowment for the Arts furor, when the right wing went after Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Findley et al for unashamedly seeking new ways to mobilize and upturn sexual (and other) mores. Amid the dismissals and denunciations raining down on Gaga, that seems worth remembering.


Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson

3 responses to “Tea With Chris: Carl Goes Gaga

  1. Marion Lewis

    I have been interested in Lady Gaga’s continual plundering of the Canadian and American 60’s and 70’s art scene. In those days, there was a relationship between the two countries because conceptualism was not tied to nationalism.

    From Canda she likes the performance art and photo art of General Idea,Hummer Sisters Videocabaret, from the US, the Fluxus movement and including Charlotte Mooreman’s video bra. She must have had a Canadian art teacher at that expensive school she attended in Manhatten.

  2. A quibble about Woody Guthrie: the sign said, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” It was on his guitar; it didn’t say, “Guitar.” Am curious to know when he had that sign. Was it during WW2 only? It’s hard to imagine that he had the sign on afterward: In Guthrie’s day “Fascists” were specific historical actors whose time on the stage was done by the end of 1945; it didn’t become an all-purpose insult thrown by lefties for another 20 years.

    About Lady Gaga’s costumes: Don’t forget Else von Freitag-Loringhoven (1874-1927), the Dadaist poet and proto-performance artist who “dressed in rags picked up from here and there, decked out with impossible objects suspended from chains, . . . her head ornamented with sardine cans”; “went to costume balls naked, her head shaved and painted green, her body decorated with postage stamps . . . and with a girdle of kitchen utensils”; and, “painted her shaved head red[,] wore a tomato-can bra, a bustle with a taillight and a bird cage around her neck with live canaries inside,” according to, respectively, Jerome Rothenberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and the New York Times.

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