Camille Paglia’s attack on Lady Gaga in the Sunday Times begins with an attempted burnishing of her own rusted credentials: “Camille Paglia, America’s foremost cultural critic, demolishes an icon.” Who on earth-or at least who in America-would describe Paglia that way? Nobody! The introduction only underscores the irrelevance it was meant to forestall.
The full article, behind the paywall, only underwrites the reader’s initial doubts. There is a tired potted history of Hollywood vamps-Theda Bara (daughter of a Cincinnati tailor, Paglia reports!) and Clara Bow, “a madcap flapper”! Louise Brooks, Paglia tells us, “made landmark films of decadent eroticism”! Gosh thanks, Camille! Who knew? Also, Marilyn Monroe’s “influence endures around the globe.” It truly says this; it’s written like a high-school essay, and delivered in a tone of weary condescension.
Paglia’s Sexual Personae was first published twenty years ago, and since then the author does not appear to have offered us much beyond the news that she thought Madonna was very sexy. In 1990, the wild acclaim for Sexual Personae led people to suppose that Paglia would become a public intellectual of the rock-star stature of Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag or Bernard-Henri Lévy. That did not happen because Paglia is a nutcase who, among many other instances of self-promoting perversity, attacked Anita Hill, expressed contempt for Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi and many, many others, and went bonkers over Sarah Palin, commenting breathlessly, “We may be seeing the first woman president.” She also had something or other to say about some poems! Whatever. Paglia’s denunciation of Lady Gaga is about as perspicacious as her oeuvre since Sexual Personae might have led anyone to expect (plus, she still thinks Madonna was very sexy, “on fire”, “the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir”, etc.)
Lady Gaga is “in over her head with her avant-garde pretensions,” Paglia announces, going on to demonstrate her own total cluelessness as to what might constitute an avant-garde at this point. Like many another superannuated commenter on the modern scene, she has no problem deploring the Youth she makes no attempt to understand, despite that she lives “in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia and have never moved to New York or Washington” because “as a cultural analyst, I want to remain in touch with the mainstream of American life.”
“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.” This nonsense calls to mind the time Paglia decided that all us poor rubes are worried about global warming because we “don’t realize that polar bears can swim!” and therefore, apparently, can’t drown. (True fact! Because the point is whether or not you can swim, as opposed to whether or not you can swim to, say, Hawaii. My question was, and still is: can Camille Paglia swim?)
Because Paglia cannot understand the new voices, she claims they “have atrophied.” Because she doesn’t understand the subtleties of communicating via text message, she claims the youngs are “communicating mutely,” which, what? Was communicating by letter in the 18th century also “mute”, “atrophied”? What does that even mean? Because she must not know any, I guess, she supposes the kids have “abandoned body language in daily interactions.”
Then there is Paglia’s complaint that Gaga is not sexy, that drag queens are far sexier than Gaga. Does it not occur to her that our whole world is already awash in “sexy” young women, singers, dancers, models, actresses, who are trying and trying and trying to “be sexy”, and/or that the public is maybe really so sick of that? Or that Lady Gaga’s appeal relies, in part, on precisely the fact that she inflates and distorts that “sexy” iconography in order to force the viewer to question his assumptions about sexuality, performance, gender?
As David Bowie was to Elvis, you might say, so Lady Gaga is to Madonna. Not so obvious, a little freaky, weird, a little ambiguous, not so much trying to arouse. Which is a very refreshing thing in the case of Lady Gaga, particularly when you consider all the billboards for Gentlemen’s Clubs around here, all featuring “sexy” girls with facial expressions so vapid and open-mouthed you can’t help thinking they must have been smacked over the head with a two-by-four before having been photographed. Please. It’s a good thing, to derail that, to provide alternatives to that.
The weirdest thing is that Paglia appears to suppose that Lady Gaga is even vaguely attempting to be “sexy” in the conventional way, as in, trying and failing. No. The force of Gaga’s appeal is in its very challenge to the old standards of “bombshell”, “chanteuse”, “star”, “diva” and so on. You’d have thought that an expert on sexual personae would have been able to figure that out.