By Bob Hockett
(N.B. This post is cross-posted on ReligiousLeftLaw.com)
As someone whose law school was recently compared to this artist by the Wall Street Journal -- http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/02/03/the-cornell-law-mystery-continues-or-why-cls-is-like-lady-gaga/ -- I suppose I am under something akin to a fiduciary duty to learn more about Lady What's-Her-Name. But alas, I doubt I could pick her out of a lineup that included herself, Brittney Spears, Madonna, or even Debbie Harry in some of her past guises.
As it happens, I often am plagued by this problem, and in a much more general way, where celebrity is concerned. In the past, for example, I have wondered 'just what's the difference between Rob Lowe, Matthew Broderick, and Tom Cruise, anyway' or even among Lee Iacocca, Ed McMahon, and Helmut Kohl for that matter. Incessantly assaulted by their vaguely cross-reminiscent images as I've been, I have done what I suppose any creature with limited RAM would do: I have made them share memory space, so as to leave room for other, more interesting fare.
This tendency of mine, I admit, might be partly the product of a hermit's or nerd's or curmudgeon's sensibility. After all, is there really any doubt that Helmut Kohl and Ed McMahon were not the same person? They didn't even occupy similar roles, for heaven's sake! But at least where the celebrities in question are celebrated for little more than their 'fashion statements,' I think my lumping of some folk together might be pardonable. For it does seem that most who are known for these things tend to recycle earlier such 'statements' all of the time. They invite assimilation to others.
At last Sunday night's Video Music Awards (VMA), for example, a number of notables whom I've never happened to note or notice before evidently wore something called 'garbage bag dresses' -- outfits made to look like large black plastic refuse bags, as if the wearers had been dressed by the 'Man from Glad.' See, e.g., here: http://celebs.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474978515060 . And so, well, 'how delightfully nostalgic,' I thought upon hearing about this on Monday. For I recall reading, in a memoir of hip 1970s New York, that Debbie Harry used to wear something like this, fashioned in her case of real garbage bags, at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue during what was surely one of the hippest periods in recent history. (Here's a somewhat disppointingly glitzed version of the outfit as she wore it on a British television program later on, in the 1980s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYON9Uv9MBU .) And those were times that I sometimes wish that I could have been part of. (Incidentally, Sherry's, Mike's, and my colleague Kevin Clermont, I am told, used to attend some of Andy Warhol's factory events, at which the Velvets played and Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick danced like ecstatic lunatics. (Here's what it would have looked like to Kevin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNwp4nNTeJg&feature=related .) Yet another respect in which I can only envy, never equal, the man!)
Most talk of Sunday night's VMA fashion, however, has centered not around garbage bag apparel, but yet another fashion statement on the part of the aforementioned Lady What's-Her-Name -- in this case, a 'meat dress.' Here are two images: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/13/lady-gagas-meat-dress-photos_n_714117.html .
My first thought upon hearing this Monday was, 'hey, that's my idea!' The reason, you see, is that some bandmate/artist friends and I, during the brief period that we were sort of 'cool,' conceived a music video back in the '90s in which we would wear something we called (simulated) 'meat bikinis.' And, wouldn't you know, it turns out that Lady What's-Her-Name has worn one of those too, on the cover of some version of Vogue magazine: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/07/lady-gagas-meat-bikini-vogue-hommes_n_707357.html .
Apart from feeling a bit robbed, however, I didn't take any offense at this 'statement.' Yet others have. If you click on the link just prior to the last, for example, you will note that HuffPo polled readers on the matter, a majority of whom upon last viewing were deeming the outfit 'offensive' rather than 'awesome.' (I'd simply call it 'bloody,' and perhaps a bit more 'fatty' than I'd have thought a modern fashion-conscious celebrity to be comfortable with.)
What I can't quite figure out is, why is it that so many evidently find M. Gaga's outfit offensive? Do not scores of millions of Americans, day after day, wear meat jackets, meat shoes, meat watchbands, and the like? Don't others sit daily on meat seats when driving their expensive sportscars, read meat-bound Bibles and other holy books, and, of course, consume meat meals all of the time? If so, then don't most Americans do daily more or less the same thing that Ms. G did last night, only moreso and more regularly? Is there any more distinction between her and us than there is between Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis?
One possible distinction between Lady G and others was proposed by Mike in an email conversation with Sherry, moi, and a number of other conscientious objectors to animal exploitation: It is that the objectors might be objecting to the sheer waste involved in Ms. G-g's couture, which waste they do not perceive in their own consumption of animal products because we all must, after all, dine and protect ourselves from the elements.
I think Mike's conjecture quite as plausible as it is characteristically charitable. But I can't help but think there's another element at work here as well: Perhaps those who object to Ms. G-g's apparel are especially disturbed by the waste it involves precisely because it occasions their (at least subconsciously) noticing the waste involved in their own practices. For, as Mike also suggested in the mentioned conversation today, as well as in earlier weblog posts of his own, to kill our fellow creatures for clothing and nourishment is itself wasteful, not to mention unhealthy, inasmuch as we're able to nourish and clothe ourselves now without resort to such expedients.
Perhaps some such thought-provocation as this is what Lady G had in mind in her choice of apparel last night. Certainly it is what my bandmate/artist friends and I had in mind with the video I mentioned -- though in this case the point was to drive home not only the animal-exploitation 'message,' but also a more general woman- and even humanity-exploitation message that magazine cover and mass media life-culture had brought to our not very subtle young minds. (We were great fans, in those days, of Guy Debord's situationist manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, and convinced that mondern American life had become little more than a bad television program with lots of canned laugh-tracks, baddabooms, impossibly emaciated barely clad women, and comical 'tragedies' like tattered shag carpets and shattered lava lamps.)
As it happens, however, I doubt that any of this is what Ms. Gaga had in mind. But who cares? If the apparel gets people to thinking, or to confronting their own less-shocking-only-because-more-familiar practices, it will have served a useful purpose. And that is surely one function of art. Ms. G-g's is a lumpen, mass-marketed sort of art, to be sure, but a 'prole art threat' is no less potentially salutary for that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvG5fUDTaFc&feature=related .