I recently read Camille Paglia's fascinating deconstruction of Lady Gaga from The London Times in September. The piece is utterly surprising and amusingly scathing—surprising because Paglia, a prominent American intellectual and social critic, once called Madonna "the future of feminism"; scathing because, well, Paglia describes Gaga as a "plasticized android" and "laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture" who "represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution."
But the really fascinating part of Paglia's critique was, for me, where she tied in Gaga's over-the-top one dimensionality with the current generation's inability to understand nuance, connected dots, and nonverbal communication in the age of disembodied Twitter culture.
Paglia argues that the Internet has "fragmented and dispersed personal expression, draining energy from the performing arts, with their dynamic physicality," which she ties in to Lady's Gaga's woefully inexpressive human physical presence, characterized by "blank, lugubrious face" and a "limited range of facial expressions.
Paglia suggests that:
"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. They don’t notice her awkwardness because they’ve abandoned body language in daily interactions. They’re not repelled by the choppy cutting of her videos (in febrile one-second bursts) because that’s how they process reality — as a cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits... Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media."
This observation is disturbing to me, because I think it's true. Are younger generations beginning to lose the ability to notice the nuances of facial expression, body language, and physical communication as they live more and more of their relational lives via keypads and computer screens?
I recently interviewed psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee, who specializes on the neurological, relational and intrapersonal impact of technology usage on young people. In our conversation, one of the things Dodgen-Magee said she observed was that young people today are increasingly awkward in physical, face-to-face conversation, because their natural environment of communication is textual: e-mail, Facebook, text, etc.
Have you noticed this with the Gen Y digital natives that you know? What do you think about the idea that our highly mediated, short-burst, status update tech culture will render us less and less capable of picking up on the complicated dynamics of in-person, physical communication?
I'm not sure Lady Gaga is quite the harbinger of doom Paglia makes her out to be, but I do think there's something to the idea that Gaga—what with her perpetual trunk show of freakish Kermit/raw meat costumes signifying nothing other than fetishized pop-kitch fabulousness—is a symbol of the culture's eroding ability to decipher semiotic meaning.
What does Lady Gaga mean? What does she stand for? Very little, argues Camille Paglia. But that's precisely the sort of cultural icon this generation relates to. Gaga=flashy lights, bright colors, pleasing sounds, funky beats, shocking vaudeville clips, "what is she wearing?" hyperlink viral fodder, and bits and pieces of politics thrown in for good measure. In short, Gaga is a million little pieces of random amusements that clutter our feeds, walls, channels, apps and inboxes in this gleefully Google-Gaga world.