*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, February 7, 2017.*
Because I’m someone who has quietly advocated for the use of monsters and horror as means of healing and social commentary since the mid-’90s, when Lady Gaga hit the scene with her outsider monster narrative in 2008, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. As a half-white, half Sri-Lankan Third Culture Kid who is consistently othered, I embraced my alignment with monsters and found comfort there long ago. Monsters live in the liminal spaces; the borderlands. Monsters are feminized and demonized, embodying the abject — a site where a socio-cultural rupture has occurred from the white male gaze. Monsters are vilified on account of physical and psychological differences and are regularly scapegoated.
With just a handful of songs, music videos, and live performance art pieces, through The Fame, The Fame Monster and Born This Way, Lady Gaga brought us monsters into the mainstream. And it was glorious.
For perpetual outsiders like me and so many others — because of our ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and/or disability — Gaga’s gospel was a homecoming. Sanctuary from the daily persecution of microaggressions and violence. We’d all been bullied for being different, and Gaga’s sermons gave us an umbrella we could share while being ourselves for once. In public. Lady Gaga taught us to stop apologizing for being different. To stop being afraid of taking up space. To stop being embarrassed and ashamed that we exist at all. Many of us had been rejected by our own families. Gaga gave us a new one.
It was more than just music and performance art: Gaga and us monsters were a social justice movement, one that relied on inclusiveness and positivity.
During The Monster Ball Tour, Gaga used to scream: “I’ve locked the doors and the freaks are all outside!” A beautiful reversal that when we were with her, under her roof; for once, we were not the freaks. She was one of us. And we were home.
Gaga’s initial output was nuanced and carefully crafted from existing film, television and music history, but was also well-rooted in academic theory on monsters, freakishness, feminism, religious studies, media and outsider scholarship. The layers were so deep and involved that Kate Durbin & Meghan Vicks founded an online academic journal, Gaga Stigmata, and — along with their brilliant team — produced essay after enlightening essay on the meaning of Lady Gaga’s living art project.
I even tossed my own horned, sparkly hat in the ring, writing a handful of pseudo-academic analyses. And when my first novel was picked up, I included a thank you to Gaga for bringing monsters out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
While she was Mother Monster to many of her fans, those of us who’ve been monstering decades longer than her called her Sister Monster. Through her, I connected with kindred souls who are now members of my extended chosen family.
To us, she was no mere pop star. She was an artist, transgressive and subversive. She brought the concept of performance art to the masses while producing catchy dance tunes. And to those of us who really knew her art, we knew that her raw talent was boundless. We couldn’t wait to see where it would take her, especially after the concept-heavy The Fame Monster and Born This Way records — whole anthems dedicated to all us monsters who didn’t fit in anywhere until she carved us out a weird and wonderful space.
Then something started to go awry with the release of ARTPOP. It wasn’t just that Gaga angered us monsters by partnering with actual child sexual predator R. Kelly — she’s been open about being a survivor and has encouraged her fans to do the same. It was an uncomfortable creative choice. The video for “Do What You Want” reportedly featured Kelly anesthetizing Gaga to the words, “When you wake up, you’ll be pregnant.” Our outrage forced her to pull the video.
ARTPOP also wasn’t good music. As Gaga was before quite “naturally” and intentionally melding art and pop in her music, performances and videos without having to be explicit, ARTPOP was forced, and it strayed far from the monster-oriented art she’d built an audience making. We feared that Gaga was growing out of her monster britches.
The next phase of Gaga’s shedding of the monster identity was her Cheek to Cheek tour with Tony Bennett. Jazz Gaga was a banal and antiquated crooner like her partner, and her look shifted from avant-garde to vintage glam. A throwback to those good old days when black people weren’t allowed to patronize the clubs they played in while white people stole and commercialized their music.
I wasn’t the only Little Monster who felt alienated by our Sister-Monster’s choices. Gaga wanted to prove that she could sing, but in doing so she alienated fans like me who came for the monsters and community.
And then came Joanne, her newest album, which is stripped of everything that made Lady Gaga interesting. An album that is so irredeemably bland I began to wonder: Who did she make this album for? It wasn’t for me, an almost 10-year supporter who hung around for the teratology and artful social commentary.
Lady Gaga told The Sunday Times about the Joanne listener she imagined:
“[She’s] in Middle America with hair pulled back and no makeup and jewelry heirlooms from her family, a sweatshirt you’d buy at the drugstore, a kid in one hand, pinot grigio in the other, you don’t know if she’s married…But she’s at my show crying her eyes out because she feels I’m speaking to her.”
Gaga Version 20.17 is peak whiteness. No wonder the album didn’t resonate; she didn’t write it with monsters like me in mind. And her song “Angel Down” is so painfully tone-deaf with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, I need a whole separate essay to tackle its various problematics.
Had she learned how exhausting it can be to be different and ultimately opted out?
Here’s the thing: Many of us monsters who were drawn into Gaga’s narrative have no other choice than be freaks. Based on our ethnicity, race, immigration status, religion, sexuality, disability and gender, we will always be labeled Other. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.
Performing and then discarding freakishness and otherness is another notch in Lady Gaga’s white privilege, one that us real freaks and monsters will never be afforded.
Back into the shadows we go.
Lady Gaga has followed in the footsteps of so many white artists who coopt a marginalized position for their own personal gain, and then discard it when it no longer serves them. She even said herself that Joanne is what clinched her multi-million dollar Super Bowl deal.
With all the capitalism in mind, that Gaga has the gall to talk about her Joanne album being “her most authentic self” is highly problematic: What does an Upper West Side millionaire Manhattan socialite with a horse and house in the Hamptons have in common with a working or middle-class woman in the Midwest other than white skin? That “blue collar billionaire” schtick worked really well for Donald Trump, too.
Which raises another question: Did she ever really have anything in common with us freaks and monsters at all, other than socio-cultural appropriation? Who are we to her now but reminders of a performative self she so easily adopted and discarded?
From free bitch to basic, eh?
While I will always give her credit for her rape survivor advocacy work and her anti-bullying foundation — and the bonds I’ve made because of her monstering — I am furious at how completely she has sold out an entire creative vision and community for this current persona.
I’m disgusted that someone who presents herself as such an empathetic person would use people in this way. And not just any people, her Little Monsters.
Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI performance was the straw that broke this monster’s back, made it so I couldn’t not call her out. Yes, she performed a Communist protest song and “Born This Way,” but her politics — just like her old monster self — are now toothless.
Gaga scholar Kate Durbin tells me:
“I saw tons of Trump supporters praising her performance on her Facebook wall for its patriotism and lack of politics. Her politics didn’t rub anyone the wrong way, but the truth isn’t supposed to make the complacent comfortable. Lady Gaga performed (technically very well) the equivalent of a nostalgia act, and guess who else uses nostalgia to gain power? Trump, in his campaign platform to ‘Make America Great Again.’
“I could not be more disappointed in her missed opportunity and lack of courage. She could still make an inclusive statement and even a positive one by taking artistic and political risks. But it sure as hell would have rubbed some people wrong who needed to be rubbed wrong. That’s art!”
It’s sickening that Gaga would invoke the nostalgia of her monster days while simultaneously pandering to the very people who would see us silenced, deported, tortured or dead. When Trump supporters are praising your lack of politicking, as an artist you’ve gone wrong. Being apolitical is not inclusive, it is betrayal.
And lucrative betrayal indeed: Gaga’s music sales are up 1,000 percent, just since Sunday.
Once upon a time, Lady Gaga offered us Others a sanctuary from a world that fears and hates us, and it was a grand dream. Being jolted from it is heartbreaking.
Gaga wants people to call her Joanne now, and we should. When she declined to take a stand at the Super Bowl, the Lady Gaga whose art meant something was officially over. I hereby strip her of the title Mother Monster. She is no longer one of us.
Keep performing whiteness, Joanne. You’re fitting right in with Trump’s nationalistic American order. I will always love Lady Gaga and be grateful for how much she’s helped me. But Joanne and I haven’t a thing in common.