The forthcoming Kanye West and Lady Gaga tour/collaboration/alliance/bizarro-pop-Voltron makes sense for so many reasons. Primarily: Kanye and Gaga are both famous because they do weird things in public. Do you like their music? Do you not like their music? It doesn’t matter! What did you think of the weird thing? Did you think it was weird? Because, if so, they have succeeded! And even I, an earnest unpacker of Meanings for lo these many blog posts now, have to admit that I enjoy Kanye and Gaga primarily because they make Meaning effectively useless. The Meaning of anything Gaga does is that she wants you to look for Meaning in it. And the Meaning of anything Kanye does is that he is a bizarre young man.
So, the promo for the upcoming West/Gaga “Fame Kills” tour - not universally embeddable, but available on West’s blog, and coincidentally fairly NSFW - is pretty blatantly, and pretty predictably, an attempt to push some buttons. Still, I think, it’s worth noting what buttons it is trying to push.
1) TOPLESSNESS: Yes, there’s a naked lady in it. A naked Lady Gaga, no less! Gaga has posed more or less naked in the past, and on more than one occasion; still, this image, with the Marilyn Monroe hair and makeup, and the lack of bubbles or plastic skeletons or polar bears or life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Sherman Alexie or whatever else Gaga usually poses with naked because she is a magical wizard from the Dream Kingdom and/or a David Lynch character that just up and walked out of the screen and is real now and we all have to deal with it, seems more purposefully and unambiguously titillating than her other images. She’s signifying “sexy lady nakedness” in a way that is far less complicated than her usual routine.
2) WHITE LADY TOPLESSNESS IN THE COMPANY OF A BLACK MAN: As the video continues, we see that Gaga is prone and being held in the arms of a black man. We don’t see enough of him to know who he is (is he West, for example? NO IDEA), or whether he has clothes on, or what the context for this moment might be - we only see enough to infer his race and gender. And, obviously, given the way interracial sex has been shamed, demonized, and feared, the image is meant to play on that. Still: other people have played on this taboo before, and this image has its own take. It’s not Madonna making out with a sexy black Jesus, for example. There’s other stuff going on, which is where it gets really kind of weird.
3) HELPLESS WHITE LADY TOPLESSNESS IN THE COMPANY OF A VAGUELY OMINOUS BLACK MAN: Yeah, here’s where it crosses the line into “subversive” or “exploitative” or all of the above. The horror-movie buzzes and drones on the soundtrack, the creepy slow motion, Gaga’s prone position and exposure, the facelessness and relatively powerful position of the man holding her, the juxtaposition of this image with the word “kills.” Her face, at different moments, looks either out-of-it or ecstatic. Even the retro styling seems to be keying into some image bubbling just under the surface of the collective consciousness - something like this, or this. (Gaga has said that she’s taking inspiration from old monster movies, lately, so it doesn’t seem like much of a reach.) Or, as I thought when I first saw it, this poster for “Mandingo.” I said that interracial relationships have been shamed, demonized, and feared. Maybe I should have been more specific. Black men, specifically, have been viewed as sexual predators, out to assault or otherwise corrupt white women. White women, in turn, have fetishized black men - and so have white men, specifically by finding the idea of a white woman willingly having sex with a black man taboo and therefore exciting. And black women, in this equation, are marginalized - not viewed as specially delicate and endangered and in need of protection the way white women are, but also not viewed as desirable or desiring subjects. Oh, yeah, and white dudes benefit the most, from getting to cast black dudes as rapists whilst enjoying the privilege of participating in sexism, rape culture, and racism as Kings of their respective Mountains. The clip is short - just 33 seconds - but the imagery, in there, seems to speak specifically to this history. And what I CAN’T make up my mind on is whether it’s a knowing piss-take (which seems likely, given that West and Gaga are both all about subversion and generally seem unlikely to cash in on a racist trope that demeans West - the more established star - by casting him as a threat to Lady Gaga’s delicate virtue) or an unthinking or cynical recapitulation (which seems likely, given that professional photographers and directors just go ahead and recapitulate this business all the time).
I turn, therefore, to you, the readers of Bitch! Because I, basically, have no idea what to think about this one. Cynical? Subversive? Meaningful? 30 seconds of film into which I have read too many imaginary messages? Tell me! Let me know! I have been sucked into the Gaga/West Meaning Vortex. I may be lost to you now.