Art-Pop before ‘Art Pop’

May 8, 2014 • Music

Lady Gaga has embarked on her fourth concert tour, the Artrave. The concert is yet another expansion of her Artpop project. As usual, in the tradition of other Lady Gaga events, the social media frenzy surrounding her creative endeavors has been stifling. The traditional Gaga fodder is in play: the impossible outfits, the fabulous spectacle, the enthralled fans. Though her show is certainly at the forefront of Internet culture, it’d be useful think about the notions behind Artpop. Specifically, what was art-pop before Lady Gaga claimed it for her own purposes?

I started thinking about this earlier this week, when Island Records re-released Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing. The album, as Pitchfork tells, was one of the early convergences of “fashion, art, and music.” Take a look at some of the artists Pitchfork traps under the scepter of Jones’ influence: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, FKA Twigs, Grimes, and, of course, Lady Gaga. I’d add to the list some more names: Roisin Murphy, Janelle Monae,  M.I.A., Azealia Banks, Adam Lambert.

Lady Gaga on Vogue’s Sept. issue & Grace Jones, lensed by Mapplethorpe

Her influence has certainly been felt across the pop world, though often not recognized. Her performances, which are arguably her career’s most important aspect, mixed a variety of iconographies with disco aesthetics, tied together by a knack for intellectual play.  She also developed performance skills at Syracuse University’s theatre department and while modeling for the greats of the 70s—Yves Saint Laurent and Helmut Newton, chief among them. Her performances were a source of rich critiques on race, gender, and blackness. The idea that a pop performance could be more than a music show was solidified by Jones’ performance in her Roseland show and her infamous One Man Show, both of which were choreographed in collaboration with artist Jean-Paul Goude. This puts in relief the concert extravaganzas we now know so well. Madonna’s Confessions tour, for example, attempted to make you “forget your life, problems, administration, bills, and loans” and to bring you closer to a religious experience “in the evidence of its brilliance.”  Lady Gaga’s dream that “pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me” is an offshoot of these more-than-the-music promises.

Art-pop, before Artpop, was home to wild performers. In her Roseland performance, Grace Jones danced in a tiger costume, shuffled towards a live Bengal tiger on stage, and opened the cage. The lights went black, and when they turned on, spectators saw none other than Jones herself in the tigers place. The performance is wild and risky, and I can only imagine that it was better in real life than video documentation suggests.  Wildness is certainly part of Gaga’s current allure, as well. To boot, one of her costumes is a crazy, knitted rave ensemble, meant to shock, revile, and inspire. Where Gaga is ostensibly just reviling and just inspiring, Jones performance takes on a deeper point. What’s most interesting about her performance is the equation between animal and human that is completed once Jones enter the cage, though it is hinted at by her costume. This plays on multiple traditions, of which urban European ethnographic zoos are most important. The zoos, which continued well into the interwar period in France and Germany, displayed cultivated exotic people; the Hottentot Venus, for example, was one of these spectacles. Rather than become the spectacle, Jones continues to perform, staring back at the audience, threatening the danger that the tiger originally embodied.

Gender, identity and race, at play. Images connected to Jones’ “One Man Show” from 1983.

I’d argue that Grace Jones was making art through pop music, in the Roseland performance and elsewhere in her oeuvre. In her wake, though, it seems as though Lady Gaga makes pop music through art. By that, I don’t mean that Gaga looks at a Picasso and develops a series of cubist lyrical experiments. I mean that Gaga uses high-art’s elite prestige to add gravitas to her work. Critic Jon Pareles of The New York Times observes, “Pop’s newer fine-art infatuation has more to do with stars meeting stars and luxury brands doing co-promotions.” Through the most cynical lens, then, Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic are Lady Gaga’s promotional tactics. Her current show deploys again her “reverse Warholian experiment” to expansive effect, and one of her costumes even recapitulates her iconic blue Koons ball for a bit of art-world glamour.

My cynicism towards Gaga’s project shouldn’t be used to reify the shady separation of art and commerce, to rephrase one of Sontag’s old meditations. The very intrigue of Grace Jones career was the way the two came together and enabled each other. This shouldn’t be washed away by a historical view that praises Jones’ work as only art. The problem with Gaga’s current work, however, is that the art does seem to be washed away; for all its talk, the project seems to be only music. There’s no evidence of an attempt to make her Warholian (or perhaps Jonesian) dreams a reality.


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