(FEATURING INTERVIEW WITH “TELEPHONE” DIRECTOR JONAS AKERLUND!!!)
Image Mashup by J. Darling
Well then my little monsters, let me be your surrogate monster daddy for a moment as I add more sociological woolgathering to the already teetering tower of Gaga nonsense. Because it isn’t so much that you should give a shit about Lady Gaga any longer, it’s more that you have to – Gaga is like violence, we are existing with this excretion of humanity whether you like it or not.
So, immersed in the creepster psyche of an internet meme, studded leather underpants bursting with lust, you are a little monster, and debates about whether the world’s most popular celebrity is artistically talented or intelligent mean nothing here. When David Byrne posted a quote from MoMa director Klaus Biesenbach on his blog about how Gaga is not an “artist”, it seemed to be done with jealousy that represents the sentiments of many Byrne fans – the type of music lovers who like to bridge the gap between fantasies of new-wave punk and art school. Byrne was later forced to publish a mea culpa after Biesenbach wrote Byrne and retracted his statement. Biesenbach’s motive here is clear: if MoMa rejects Gaga, then MoMa rejects a possible future. MoMa no longer has the option of exhibiting the future of art, which apparently caused Biesenbach some confusion. MoMa is dead, like a museum should be, and new art needs to navigate a new economic system and reinvent the way humans use power, like Gaga is trying to do. MoMa wants Gaga on their side. Jealousy and antiestablishment discontent aside, whether Gaga is art is not the question, more so the question is how do we identify, utilize and improve upon the excretion of humanity that is Gaga.
As an artist and as someone who thinks a post-capitalist world is desperately necessary, I seemingly may be obligated to despise Gaga. She in some ways represents a system of American consumerism and imperialism; she misappropriates rebel culture that once inspired me; she is way more successful than I have ever dreamed of becoming, but in reality these dislikes can only be justified when a sincere hardline is drawn between liberal American culture and radical political movement – a line that will always be artificial until in the midst of a riot.
In reality, Gaga is a New York rebel artist whose growth was stunted before radical change became a real option. This happens to be the state of nearly every young rebel artist who functions in America today – that is to say even those train hopping crusty-kids who laud bands like Ghost Mice, barbarous noise musicians, or the activist-y Swoon. These acts are not radical, but traversing avenues already paved by previous radicals. Furthermore, she is clearly far more badass than the timid indie rock that has been dominating the last decade. For instance, in the videos directed by Jonas Åkerlund, Telephone and Paparazzi, Gaga attacks patriarchy with a viciousness that by some readings is on par with Valerie Solanas. Both videos play out a fantasy of gendercide as Gaga poisons her boyfriend (Paparazzi) then slaughters a diner full of normies with allusions to lesbian separatism (Telephone).
A shot in Telephone where Gaga appears wearing a crust-punk studded leather jacket is an image of appropriated radical culture that many, including myself, fixated upon. This is a D.I.Y. leather jacket with the patches of violent dissenter anarchist punk bands, G.I.S.M., Doom and Dystopia sewed on among metal biker studs. G.I.S.M. and Doom are both known for their political dissidence and violence (G.I.S.M is an acronym for Guerilla Incendiary Sabotage Mutineer.) This sort of appropriation of punk culture will generally offer two readings: some will pejoratively accuse Gaga of being a fashion punk; the majority of the globe, however, gets a reassuring sense of rebellion as they watch the superstar strut across the crustpunk cat walk.
The knee jerk agitative punk reaction to the jacket is simple and pretty much stupid, because punk was selling-out long before Kurt Cobain bought a Lexus, or Chumbawumba recorded Tumbthumper. Although I support the punk sentiments of anti-capitalism, violence, and find punk irreverence inspiring, I don’t think there’s any reason to cry over its commercialization – for me this is less a battle lost and more a battle realized. The second reaction, where the radical punk jacket is recognized as something progressive by adoring, if ignorant, fans (“I find the anarchy symbols on her punkzzz jacket so HARDCORE and EDGY. She is probably the punk that hacked Britney's twitter that one time, remember?” as one blogger commented), is more useful to those who desire radical change. I will return to this argument later.
Many may wish to judge the value of Gaga’s art by her intention – such as: is this brand of pop sincerely advocating gendercide? and so on. To offer some light on the matter of intent, I got in touch with the director of Telephone and Papparzi, Jonas Åkerlund. Most of us understand that Gaga’s art is not the mere creation of the lone Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, but that there is an entire Hause dedicated to the Gaga spectacle. Åkerlund is instrumental in the aesthetic of her two most popular videos, which also happen to be the two videos that best represent a desire for social upheaval, Paparazzi and Telephone.
One thing we should understand about Jonas Åkerlund, is that he was the original drummer for Swedish black metal band, Bathroy. Aggressively anti-christian, Nietzschean and violent, Bathory was a key factor to the construction of Norwegian black metal – a scene notorious for murders, cat sacrifices and church burnings. In the context of 1980’s Protestant Scandinavia, Bathory and the black metal scene that came after were extremely revolutionary, and the politics of anti-Christianity are inherent in many detractors of patriarchy and capitalism that are active today. In a post-interview email I asked Jonas how his days in the metal scene with Bathory affect his work today. He responded:
“I guess my musical background have shaped me into who I am today [sic]. Especially how I approach film editing. To me editing, sound and music is the most creative part of what I do. The time in Bathory was special in many ways but creatively it wasn’t exactly a highlight. The concept and the image was stronger than the music at the time. Later quarton [sic]took it to a much higher creative level. My metal background on the other side still gives me inspiration… I’m metal to the bones and will always be…”
To offer some further backstory to Åkerlund’s rebel pop, he directed the first mainstream porno music video, Rammstien’s Pussy (2009), which depicts all out full penetration. He also directed the controversial feature length Spun, a liberal drug movie about crystal meth addiction, which captured brilliant performances by Micky Rourke and the late Britney Murphy. Although Åkerlund has stated the movie is anti drug, it nonetheless depicts a working class, weird America that is not often seen with such lawlessness or realism. (I unabashedly complemented him on Spun as we begun our conversation, both to sweeten him up to my politics, and because at the age of 17 I loved drug movies, and this one holds up better than most from that era.) Another notable feat for Åkerlund as a director is Madonna’s American Life (2002) video. American Life was nearly as subversive as Madonna ever was, depicting her and dancers modeling military garb on a catwalk while video footage of modern warfare explodes in the background. The scene becomes extremely bloody and violent – she even throws a grenade at George W. Bush. It is most likely the closest a mainstream music video will ever get to a Dead Kennedy's stage show. Unfortunately, what was meant to be a protest against the U.S. War in Iraq was never released, due to the fact that the war pretty much began on the video’s release date. When word got around to the press that Madonna and Åkerlund were being “anti-american”, Madonna put a halt to the onslaught coming from an idiotic nationalistic media frenzy by canning the video. A heavily edited version was later released, but it doesn’t hold a candle (let alone a grenade) to the original.
So as I prepared to interview Åkerlund over the phone from my humble railroad apartment in Brooklyn, I thought about the Madonna video, and the crustpunk Jacket from Telephone and I devised a series of questions with the intention of getting Jonas to let slip some insight into his political position or perhaps Gaga’s or just some general pop-culture political position. He didn’t seem to appreciate the direct questions about politics, but there are some worthy points nonetheless. After our initial introduction and some brown nosing on the topic of Spun, this is how our conversation went:
J.P. Bullman: Can you offer any anecdotal information about that jacket? Do you know the history of the jacket? Do you know how it got in the video?
Jonas Åkerlund:Ah, I think I’m going to disappoint you because I don’t really know. You’re going to have to talk to the stylist about it, because I don’t know anything about it. All I know is that when I saw I liked it and I said I want to have that in a video.
Ok cool, but maybe you can comment on the intended affect from the image of this jacket in the video?
Well, it’s not just the jacket, we go through all details and wardrobe is a big part of music videos, especially for Gaga. It’s a huge part of everything she does, there are so many great options in her wardrobe. But to be honest I don’t remember that jacket as sticking out as something extraordinary. But now that mention, that jacket is something that I’ve been wearing all my life, but that’s another story. (laughter)
Are you a fan of G.I.S.M., DOOM, or DYSTOPIA???
Not really. You know, to be honest, I’m more of an 80’s British heavy metal kind of guy.
So you’re not really familiar with history of G.I.S.M. then and the extremely violent political messages that carry.
I feel there is a strong anti-consumerism message later on in the video, as you used product placement ironically. Do you agree?
I guess both yes and no: yes because we wanted to have a strong American culture kind of look in the video, and there’s products all around us. So, we were planting a few for more of part of the production, the look of it. And no, because we had to take it seriously, because we had some real product placement in there, which you have to take seriously, you know. People pay us to be part of what we do, and the minute they do that they become partners, so you have to take it seriously. Luckily the product placement works within our idea, and kinda added to the whole video and what the video’s about. And it didn’t bother and the people who actually decided to be in the video were very respectful with what we were trying to do.
I see what you mean, so you took the product placement and put your own spin on it. Do you think your message, or, you know, your intentions got across by doing it in this way?
Um, not really. i don’t have that much experience with product placement in music videos – it only happened to me a few times – and I see in videos when it looks kind of silly, like you know, here you go the same sort of insert of the product. But I would hope that I could always turn it around to make it part of what we’re doing, or have the power to say no to it, because otherwise I think it would fall flat. But in our case, with Telephone, it didn’t hurt the video, and as I said, it was kind of working with the idea of the video.
(I mentioned Madonna’s American Life video, here, and Jonas Interrupted enthusiastically.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. I’m happy you’re mentioning it, because to me that was always such a strong video with horrible timing. The video always had such a great intention, and it was such a hard work and such a great effort from Madonna and the timing was just not good.
Yeah, I agree it was strong video, and I enjoyed watching it on Youtube, but I haven’t seen it on the television.
Well we actually decided to can the video…but lately it’s been kind of appearing on Youtube and online. There’s a timeless message in the video, obviously, and if you look at anytime in history, except during those six months, especially in America, the video just didn’t work. It was wrong to release that sort of images at the time, basically when the whole country was afraid and worried. The message didn’t fill its purpose at the time. The message actually turned around and became the opposite, so it was a wise decision not release it and ultimately it was Madonna’s decision. We discussed it a lot and i think it was the correct decision, but if the video would have been done six month’s earlier or six months later, that wouldn’t have been the case and the video would have come out.
So you feel that now the message is important, and people should be watching that video after, maybe, some healing has occurred?
Yeah, definitely. As I said music videos are never really meant to last forever. There always just sort of meant to hype a project or a song or sell a moment at that specific moment. But some videos are just a little bit more timeless. I think American Life will always be relevant, you know, it’s an antiwar video. In my point of view that will always and forever be an important message.
Trying to get a sense of Akerlund’s view on violence and radical politics, I returned to the jacket: “Are you familiar with the Anti-Capitalist rallies/protests/riots that also utilize images like the ones found on Gaga’s Jacket – such the images you may have seen with the news coverage of the G20 riots in Toronto last July?” He seemed annoyed by either my continuing questioning about the jacket, or my attempt to bait him in to talking about radical politics. In either case he again said I would have to ask the stylist about the details of the jacket. I emailed the stylist, Nicola Formichetti and he unfortunately didn’t reply.
As for the G.I.S.M. jacket representing consumer culture’s devouring of rebel culture, I believe Åkerlund’s insight offers something. First we must consider that Åkerlund states he is “metal to the bones and always will be,” and here, radical social upheaval is implied to some extent, even if now it seems a bit cartoony or ironic. Also, we must believe him when he says, “that jacket is something that I’ve been wearing all my life.” Åkerlund, as the drummer to Bathory, has some right to authentic punk culture. After all, the culture that spawned Bathory is deeply connected to the culture that spawned G.I.S.M and Doom, who all were active in the international hardcore scene after Bathory began to make a serious impact in Scandinavia. However, he is either unwillingly or ignorant in matters of the politics that surround this symbolism. After he didn’t respond to a later question about violence, I began to suspect it was unwillingness that caused his avoidance, which leads me to believe he feels he must hide something about his true political convictions.
After some research on the internet I found that the jacket was bought by the Gaga crew from a punk-fashion boutique in the Lower East Side of Manhattan called Search & Destroy. The boutique is located on St. Marks Place about two blocks from Tompkins square park. This area of Manhattan is known for being a home to crust punk culture – G.G. Allin lived around the corner from the boutique in the St. Marks Hotel at the time of his death, for instance. And the name of the place, Search & Destroy is taken from the Stooges song that may have been the first punk thing ever. The store is ridicules – jackets similar to Gaga’s are priced around 580$ (although her’s is rumored to have cost $2,500). The boutique is a beaming emblem of punk’s gentrification.
Initially upon my investigation into the store, I was angered by the brainless, lifeless culture that exists there. My distaste is not so much that it is “fashion-punk”, but more so because it is dumb and bad art sold at bougie prices, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Having removed myself from the store – presumably forever lest for a spontaneous urge to sabotage – I in turn felt the Search & Destroy fashion boutique represents some hope for radical change in our culture. This is why:
In a book by Joseph Heath, a moron who teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto, titled Nation of Rebels: Why Counnterculture became Consumer Culture, there is an argument presented that rebel culture equals social capital. Whoever has the most social capital appears hipper than the person next to them and has climbed to the social rung above. This social capital is easily transferred into business capital, which is most easily recognized in the gentrification of places like the Lower East Side or Brooklyn or crustie jackets. The jacket is social capital because hipsters and other bougie fashionistas find value in dissent.
To explain why I call Joseph Heath a moron, in his book he doesn’t see value in radical economic and political change because he is a capitalist reformist liberal democrat. There is no reason to rebel if all you are trying to do is reform. He puts forth the argument that all counter-culture in America is merely deviant culture, and misses the fact that there is a culture of dissent currently spreading. We should hope that Mr. Heath got some clue when his city was bashed by violent protesters during the Toronto G20 meetings last spring.
My point here is that Gaga and company found social capital in the jacket, and that capital is valuable for this reason: there is a swelling undercurrent of rebellion in American culture. Gaga and Åkerlund know this: Jonas stated his anti-war stance, Gaga is always making allusions to some desire for social change in interviews. While Gaga’s allusions are unfortunately relatively simpleminded, with Åkerlund at the helm we get much more – a display of violent upheaval, something he would have been familiar with from his days in the Scandinavian metal scene.
Much of Gaga’s desire for rebel chic should be taken in to account with the her upbringing in the Upper West Side , and her year living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan – a venture that was funded by her father as she took a year off from NYU to become a rock star. As gentrified as the Lower East Side was by the time Gaga got there, a crust punk stench remained embedded in the fabric of the community. Popular open mic venues like the Sidewalk Cafe continue to carry a tiny whiff of rebel punk. We must imagine as the Stefani Germanotta Band failed to impress at these open mics, she listened carefully to the applause for more subversive acts. This is where Gaga would have learned to tell journalists things like, “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen,” about her experience living in one of the most desired locations in New York on her daddy’s buck.
What is meaningful here is that this rebel chic executed in subtle and somewhat ignorant allusions to culture change is the backbeat of American consciousness. For example, hoards of pop-culture gawkers became confused and completely fascinated when Gaga twittered about receiving a “communist red” coffee cup for a birthday gift. We have no reason to think Gaga knows anything about economics, let alone has anything interesting to say, but what she does understand is that the global collective consciousness is desperately searching for alternatives to free-market capitalism, and that merely mentioning “communism” out of any relevant context is going to set half a million computers on fire for thirty seconds as crowds storm to the page to see what the fuss is about. My reasoning is similar in the case of Gaga’s violent feminism, queerness and the machine guns augmenting her breasts during her latest video, Alejandro.
Here the case of counter culture vs radical culture should be made clear. Counter culture alone is socially deviant, something that opts not to participate. This is something like the culture influenced by beat writers, where you dropout because you don’t feel you fit. This alone is not radical culture. Radical culture is dissent for the purpose of introducing a change that is absolutely necessary. Dissent not deviance. Dissent is inherent in the violent energy represented by Gaga and Akerlund, and it is quickly becoming popular in the mainstream.
So when people see the jacket, they should also think of the G20 riots and the riots in Greece and France, because that is where the G.I.S.M. vein of anarchism has led. In Gaga’s cultural ragbag, she has found that these images are still worthy, that people will still watch the spectacle, that they still have social capital. She is not a Illuminati puppet, as many mystified radicals put-forth, she is merely trying to be cool.
I need to emphasize the “trying” of Gaga’s coolness, because when it comes down to it her art is not that interesting, and it is certainly not radical. In the style already executed and invented by pop-artists, she simply touches upon some basic allusions without offering anything new. Unlike a more timeless artist such as Warhol, her lips let loose some telling information about her ephemeral hollywood liberal politics – for example she makes a spectacle about supporting Prop. 8 and opposing Arizona’s immigration laws. This sort of liberal drivel implies a lack of willingness or ability to look in to the deeper issues that are plaguing a liberal American democracy – a society quickly headed towards a state of complete crises and ultimately, disintegration. Lucky for Gaga, the final act of American art will be to demoralize the Nation. Although, thus far this doesn’t appear to make for great art, it is the necessary art. If Gaga can achieve that, she can fulfill the role of the artist.
What Gaga does capture is an infuriated rebellious and increasingly violent culture. This is a culture that exists both on the left and the right, as anarchist protests turn to violence, and militias in rural Wisconsin practice weapon training using the effigies of liberal democrats. And she is certainly not subduing the masses, but further agitating in a blazing menagerie of pop-cultural. The ugly fact is the potential for there to be violence during the fall of the United States is rising. An extremely unsavory forecast if you consider the problems we already have with identity politics here, where divergent ethnic, religious and gender groups often feel at odds. If you want to imagine how this sort of Gaga fueled energy manifests, I would suggest looking at some North American riot or militia footage.