If you’ve been paying attention to Lady Gaga’s vomit-centric performance art and industry-bashing interview technique lately, you might be wondering whether she much cares about having the universal appeal of a popstar any more. After a break from the spotlight to recover from over-exertion on her last tour – resulting in three screws in her hip and four months in a wheelchair – she seems to have had some time to reflect on what she wants out of this whole music business, and as a result, she’s acting even weirder than ever.
In her keynote interview at SXSW this month, Gaga explained the frustration that led to the “creative, rebellious” spirit of ARTPOP: “I never really liked having my skirt measured for me in school, or (being) told how to do things or the rules to play by. And you know, as you become more successful they start to push the rulebook closer and closer to you. ‘Now you’re here, so how are you going to maintain it?’ And really what ARTPOP is all about is how the truest way for us to maintain the music industry is to put all of the power back into the hands of the artists.” She also criticised new artists who use attention-grabbing gimmicks on social media to get ahead rather than putting themselves out there in live venues.
There’s plenty of room for cynicism in how we swallow this anti-industry diatribe from one of the world’s biggest popstars: wasn’t she paid a healthy sum by Doritos to go to SXSW and perform in the first place? Doesn’t she have one of the biggest Twitter followings in existence – and didn’t she use that following to develop the global fan community of Little Monsters she’s known for? With a chameleon like Gaga it might be easy to believe that her statements are yet another fad or excuse to act bizarrely for headlines – but “G.U.Y.”, the new video (or ARTPOP Film) released this weekend, reinforces her whole stance in a way that’s as nuanced as it is flamboyant, presenting the most opulent, popstar-like argument imaginable for not being one of the world’s most successful popstars and being pretty okay with that.
At SXSW, Gaga described the film as being about “freeing yourself from the expectations of the music industry, and the expectations of the status quo.” In the opening sequence, Gaga (dressed as a phoenix) has been trampled into the ground and shot with an arrow by literally money-grabbing men in suits. After staggering to the safety of her castle and being reborn in a pool to the tune of album track “Venus”, she proceeds to have an orgy of creative expression within her own palatial home while plotting revenge on the suits.
The weaker Gaga at the beginning of the film carries a bow, with an arrow through her chest, suggesting that something of her own has been used against her. That idea crops up again with the eerily funny resurrection of Michael Jackson, Jesus, Gandhi and John Lennon (all icons who were betrayed or killed in some way for/by what they loved most) and the way Gaga’s voice is transferred into other people’s mouths on a couple of occasions – particularly with the use of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, whose brand of reality is entirely scripted, leaving cynical audiences unable to take anything they say sincerely.
This self-directed film seems like a genuine attempt to undo this process of having your voice manipulated or used by others. As the felled ARTPOP phoenix at the opening, Gaga’s artistic integrity is whittled away to a fatal point by the need to keep money flowing. At the very least, "G.U.Y." comments on Gaga’s own image, voice and success being used by others in a way that also allows for humourous moments – like seeing the slick-haired head of a male deity (played by Bravo host and Real Housewives producer Andy Cohen) mouth Lady Gaga lyrics from the sky. It’s all about putting power in the hands of the artists, and if that wasn’t clear enough, there’s around five minutes of credits at the end to make sure you know the name of every single person involved in the creative process.
Central to the narrative of commercial and artistic success is Gaga’s body – her instrument – and, inescapably, feminine sexuality. One moment she plays on the theme of Venus (continued from her Botticelli moment in “Applause”), the next she’s writhing through a dance routine in which she wears only jeans, grinds on a male dancer and looks like she stepped out of an American Apparel ad. None of this feels like it weakens Gaga – she looks nothing less than fierce in every shot, and so much more fluid and alive than the Real Housewives who mime to her words in “Venus” with all the enthusiasm of oranges that have been used as practise for Botox injections. Plus, men are objectified everywhere you look: it’s like the central gimmick of J-Lo’s role reversal video for “I Luh Ya Papi” has been expanded here to be a part of the fabric of this world Gaga’s created. It’s more than a gimmick – feminine and masculine sexualities are equally, if differently, revered and glamourous.
But, more than anything else, there’s the central idea that Gaga isn’t just being looked at and objectified in this video: she’s letting – hell, making – you look. This idea of finding power in traditionally “vulnerable” positions has been soaring lately – check Nicki Minaj's and Beyoncé's weaponised wielding of their bodies under the male gaze as prime examples – and Gaga takes it one step further by not only placing her naked body at the centre of this visual feast, but by writing a whole song about wanting to be underneath a man. She explained to Stylist earlier this year: “Any kind of feminist has valid views for herself about what it means to be a feminist, but, as a new-age feminist, I would say I quite like the transference of strength I feel by submitting to a man – being under him. I actually wrote a song about it on my album, it’s called “G.U.Y.” and it stands for “Girl Under You”. So wearing make-up, smelling delicious and having suckable, kissable, edible things between your limbs is something I find strengthening because I know that when I pick the right guy, I can let him have it.”
Looking back at Gaga’s keynote speech at SXSW, the things she says about finding creative freedom in a money-hungry industry are directly linked to this sexual power play: in particular, she circles around the phrase “on top”, which has a cheeky duality that hints at scoring a number one in the charts and scoring in other ways. “I know it’s fun being on top and it’s fun having everybody wish that they were number one,” Gaga shared at SXSW, “but having people envy you really isn’t fun at all. Having people feel part of you, and feel one with you, that’s the greatest feeling that there is.” She says it with more catchiness in “G.U.Y.”: “I don’t need to be on top/ To know I’m worth it ‘cause/ I’m strong enough to know the truth/ I just want it to be hot,/ Because I’m best when I’m in love/ And I’m in love with you.”
It’s either an extremely smart way of dismissing poor album sales, or a manifesto that has burned through ARTPOP all along, but as it turns out: Lady Gaga just doesn’t give a shit how well her album performs commercially. If “G.U.Y.” and her recent talks are to be believed, she’s got more creative freedom right now than she’s ever had – “my ARTPOP could mean anything” she snarls in the song – and with that core message of creative liberation comes probably the strongest video of her career. Whether still interested in being a popstar or not, she’s proven herself worthy of being on top for a lot longer yet.
Follow Aimee Cliff on Twitter here @aimeecliff