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Are You SURE I Can ‘Do What I Want’…?: The Lapsed Feminist Anthem of Lady Gaga

Author’s Note: This essay mostly applies to straight men and straight women. Not that I don’t care about the rest of you, but…put it this way: in a recent study looking at 258 cases of sexual aggression in bars, ninety percent of the instances consisted of women on the receiving end of the aggression with men being the aggressors; female on male, male on male, and female on female aggression account for the rest. Not to say straight issues are the only issues, or the biggest, but this piece is eleven thousand words. That’s about 10,500 more words than most people are willing to read on the internet—and it’s barely enough to tackle one issue…

I dedicate this to Matthew Troy—living proof that not all men are douchebags.

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I_Gaga_pg1started writing this in February, which was quite a productive month for Lady Gaga. She appeared on the newly helmed Tonight Show two nights in a row, capping off only the storied talk show’s second night under Jimmy Fallon’s tenure with a performance of her most recent album’s title track. Earlier that night, ARTPOP was released on vinyl; two weeks before that, she made the cover of the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar. She’d even endorsed Obamacare, lending her high profile hand to a concerted push for more young people to procure health insurance (a push that should have culminated on the 15th, a Saturday branded the National Youth Enrollment Day, except the government had announced only five days prior that not everyone would be able to complete their enrollment until the following Tuesday due to Social Security system maintenance—yet another frustrating setback in the Obamacare rollout saga).

This endorsement was part of a series of colorful yet ill-conceived (amateurish, if I may say so) posters featuring the likes of Amy Poehler, Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, and Kerry Washington to name a few, each with self-referencing, pop culture-laden copy (complete with hashtags of course) informing people to get covered. (A comedian or two was bound to poke fun at these ads, and sure enough, Bill Maher delivers.) Gaga’s ad in particular says, “I do what I want with my body…because I’m covered. Get covered, too.”—a cute nod to “Do What U Want”, one of her more popular, more accessible, more listenable singles off ARTPOP and admittedly my favorite of the album. I enjoy it for many reasons, not the least of which is its perfectly straightforward and effective composition. But more than its arresting melody, more than the energy of Gaga’s performance, and more than its well-produced buildup from the first notes to the heights of its refrain, is the message in its lyrics; it’s the lyrics (sans R. Kelly’s pedestrian contribution) that deliver the songs’ true character, its most intriguing goods.

I make it a point to focus on the lyrics more so than the average listener as a matter of compensation; I have to compensate for how little everyone else seems to care about what they’re hearing. The average female fan of mainstream hip-hop, for instance, doesn’t even pay attention to how many times she’s referred to as “bitch” or a “ho” in their favorite twerk vessels; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve inquired about this and heard more or less the same response each time: “I don’t even listen to the lyrics,” or “I’m just listening to the beat,” or “I didn’t even notice that.” This must be the case with most female hip-hop fans; otherwise there wouldn’t be so many (either that or most of them are perfectly aware of being objectified and demeaned—they’ve simply learned to either enjoy it or otherwise listen through it). If you scroll the YouTube comments on the music videos of turn-of-the-century pop hits like Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You” or soulDecision’s “Faded” (one of the greatest songs ever; and by the way, folks, apparently its token rapper says “compensated”—not “conversated”, as I’ve thought for the past fourteen years), you’re bound to see some remark here and there on how surprisingly “dirty” its lyrics are—having finally paid attention to them a decade or so later. When the beat or the overall vibe of the song is so enticing, or so intoxicating, or otherwise distracting, whatever the hell is being sung or rapped is reduced to little more than a subliminal message. We come away with a gist of the song and that gist becomes that song’s identity.

The “Do What U Want” reference on Gaga’s Obamacare ad is somewhat disingenuous, and subliminal, because it’s soft; nowhere in the song does she sing “I do what I want with my body” (even though for most people, that’s probably the gist).

You can’t have my heart, and
You won’t use my mind, but
Do what you want with my body.
Do what you want with my body.
You won’t stop my voice, ‘cus
You don’t own my life, but
Do what you want with my body.
Do what you want with my body.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed this track, from my very first listen that chorus has always left me slowly asking, “…Are you sure?”—as in, are you sure you’re willing to concede that much control to someone? Are you sure you’re willing to give someone that kind of vague, open-ended permission? Are you sure this kind of carnal concession is consistent with “owning” your sexuality? Are you sure your “heart”, your “mind”, your voice, or your life can so easily be detached from your body, if at all? (Feminist Naomi Wolf might have something to say about that.) One might say I’m taking this pop song too seriously, that she’s simply singing about “going hard”, if you will; that it’s about letting loose, getting lucky, not giving a fuck as her needless collaborator more or less belts out, etc. Perhaps everything that comes out of Gaga’s mouth on this track was intended to be as trivial as everything that comes out of R. Kelly’s (for a while I thought he was saying “cream in your butt” as opposed to “green in your blunt”; to my credit, this is R. Kelly we’re talking about). And if that is the case, why bother with all the inherently feministic declarations of ownership? Why bother including everything else in the chorus beyond “Do what you want with my body” if this was meant to be brainless party song?

d_Gaga_pg2avid Foster Wallace once argued that “casual sex” is an oxymoron; sex is never casual, nor has it ever been (for long) because human sexuality has always been a “deadly serious business”. If this weren’t the case, or hasn’t been, we wouldn’t have been so “ingenious at erecting impediments that give the choice of passion its price and value,” impediments like “religious proscriptions; penalties for adultery and divorce; chivalric chastity and courtly decorum; the stigma of illegitimate birth; chaperonage; madonna/whore complexes; syphilis; back-alley abortions; a set of ‘moral’ codes that put sensuality on a taboo-level with defecation and apostasy;” etc. He mentioned how the sex revolution of the 60s and 70s temporarily did away with these impediments—and temporarily is right; almost four decades later, we’re by and large as dumb and (dumbly) uptight about sex as we were before the sex revolution, as in the times presented so richly in Masters of Sex. The movement not only exacerbated the AIDS epidemic, a natural sexual impediment (and another of Wallace’s reminders of the inherent and obvious seriousness of sex), but gave birth oddly enough to the reactionary conservatism that hampers our culture almost four decades later. That is to say our “Do What U Want” counterculture brought about its own demise, dying in the 80s of a lethal concoction of (tel)evangelism, corporatism, consumerism, libertarian greed, “American exceptionalism”—right-wing bullshit that cripples us to this day, especially in the past five years and especially in the discussion of sex. Debates about sex in the media are constant and qualitatively annoying; “teabaggers” look upon the recent slew of gay marriage legislative victories and actually bring up bestiality in their fight to “preserve the sanctity of marriage.” Roe v. Wade is still somehow relevant; it’s argued with vitriol, and irrationality, and pro-lifers are as eager as ever to overturn it. Bloated talk radio personalities, washed-up politicians, and politicians looking to wash up are still antagonizing women who advocate birth control. We’re still an overwhelmingly Christian nation and probably the only nation among our peers that preaches the gospel of “abstinence only” almost exclusively. (How deliciously ironic is it that we’ve been guilty of having the highest teen birth rates in the developed world?)

Clearly we’re still “doing it”, but we’re nevertheless remarkably uptight about it.

Now that would be a paradox, except not only does our uptightness naturally underscore the importance—the power—of our sexuality, but it hasn’t so much to do with constraining sex as it does with fearing, policing, and dampening our passion for it—perhaps even distracting us from it. We’re uptight because we’re too conservative for our own good—too conservative to learn and go about sex properly. For instance, we over-sexualize our children; we force them into beauty pageants and watch them move and dance around suggestively in extraordinarily skimpy outfits (on top of glorifying this pastime in “Reality” TV); we allow the likes of Abercrombie and Victoria Secret to sell push-up bras to seven-year-olds and Pink underwear with shit like “I Get Around”, “Let’s Get a Room”, and “Bite Me” on the back to tweens—yet we get mad when, in wake of all this indecency, experts urge that we compensate by teaching comprehensive sex education to kids. That said, maybe I’ve got it the other way around; maybe we’re dumb about sex yet contradictorily careless about sexual passion. Or maybe it’s too much of both. Who knows and who cares—the point is we’re generally not uptight where and when it counts. With all our inconsistent stifling, in the end, the one thing we seem to stifle the most happens to be the only thing that counts: the patience to step back and think about what we know and don’t know.

What we do know, more or less, is this: “Any animal can fuck,” says Wallace (I almost wish he said will instead of can), “but only humans can experience sexual passion, something wholly different from the biological urge to mate.” It’s that aspect of sex—of humanity—we, for the most part, ought to celebrate and preserve since it’s essentially preserved us (“for the most part” because sexual passion isn’t always requited—as in a rape). But celebrating and preserving sexual passion doesn’t require turning a blind eye to sex; nor does it demand stifling sexual activity, or at least the discussion of sex. It requires the complete opposite, rather: being as responsible about sex as possible—which entails having as complete an understanding of sex as possible. Those who continue to misunderstand sex run the risk of going about it very, very badly—from attempting to ban masturbation and pornography to say…letting a guy do what he wants with your body (e.g., doing you without a condom because he insists he can pull out in time; giving you a surprise “facial”; making you “swallow”; etc.). It’s too easy to confuse relieving ourselves of unhealthy sexual ignorance and repression with intentionally trivializing sex, or downplaying its significance—casualizing it, if you will, which is equally unhealthy. (Personally, given the invasive nature of sex, I don’t see why any woman should want to trivialize it at all; but alas, many do—or think they do. I’ll get to why in a bit.)

This is especially a concern when feminists like Lady Gaga are using “casual sex” and sex appeal to, in her words, “sexually empower women”; even if the sex is as emotionally detached as it can possibly be, sex as an expression of empowerment is no longer casual. It’s taken on meaning. If they’re under this impression—and, worse yet, pushing it—that a woman can just sleep with whomever she wants in a simultaneously liberating yet apparently meaningless act, then they’re unwary of the glaring contradiction. Gaga can sing all she wants about her “heart” and her “mind” being apart from her “body”, but no matter what happens to her body from then on, her “heart” and her “mind” have made it symbolic.

Sex always means something.

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