Special

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

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Fear unto Loathing

E_Gaga_pg4veryone loves Will Smith, so I’m not surprised that Hitch is probably the only romantic comedy I’ve ever seen stock straight men watch willingly (in the presence of other stock straight men)—that is, without the help of mothers, sisters, friend’s sisters, significant others, and women they’d like to have sex with. (Bridesmaids and Wedding Crashers are possibly the only exceptions, although they barely qualify—especially the latter, since it’s incredibly bro-ish). A standard romcom about a New York City “date doctor” as he helps an unlikely suitor woo a high profile heiress and socialite, Hitch came out while I was still in high school, back when I was inordinately conscious of—and even obsessed with—exactly what was “manly” and what was “gay” like the rest of my dude classmates; I just remember feeling like this “chick flick” was, at the time, the only film of its kind that I could like and admit to liking with little embarrassment. (I could always hide behind the fact that Eva Mendes was in it, who’s always been hot as hell.) Despite Smith’s charms as the title character, Mendes’s hotness, Kevin Smith’s dopiness, and Julie Ann Emery’s southern, token white-girl cuteness, Hitch probably won’t be inducted into the National Film Registry any time soon…but that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, or that it’s bereft of profound moments!—because that (in case you didn’t already know this) is where we American simpletons find our profound life lessons: seventy-million-dollar, Valentine’s Day weekend chick flicks. (For those of you who eschew all things mainstream, you’d be surprised by what a summer Hollywood blockbuster can say about the world.)

In a tender scene of their budding romance, Sara Melas (Mendes) opens up and tells Hitch (Smith) how she and her sister were once ice skating as children when the latter fell through the ice. Sara would have watched her sister die were it not for their father, who was nearby and revived her himself; and she hasn’t “gotten over it” since. As he points out how that moment “defines” her, Hitch somewhat unconsciously lets his own guard down and subtly admits to having been similarly stunned in his own past—not by something as serious as witnessing a loved-one’s brush with death, but rather the heartbreak of betrayal, which can be just as cold, traumatizing, disarming, and defining an experience. It should go without saying, really, that heartbreak (especially infidelity-induced heartbreak) can be as serious as anything; not only do people kill over it, but you can literally naturally die from it as well. (See Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.) Sara perceptively picks up on this, and (perhaps regrettably) facing the prospect of having found someone who might share and affirm the bleak outlook that’s kept her single and lonely for some time, she, being the tired cliché that she is,—a jaded, overly guarded entertainment reporter skeptical of relationships and men and fearful of love, uncertainty, and heartbreak,—suggests that “maybe it’s best just not to love at all.”

“Right?” she asks, prodding him for a response—to which Hitch replies, “Or skate.”

a_Gaga_pg4s fun and sexy a song as “Do What U Want” may be, it’s only fun and sexy down to a shallow point along the shore; past that, it falls into a sea of provocative pessimism. Lady Gaga is (at least in her music) a pessimist—like Sara Melas, or better yet Summer Finn, who dismisses “love” as fantasy and doesn’t feel comfortable being anybody’s girlfriend. Actually, Summer doesn’t “feel comfortable being anybody’s anything” to be exact, unlike Gaga who practically gives R. Kelly consent to impregnate her (again, at least in song). As I mentioned earlier, it’s too tempting and too easy to dismiss this as just another pop song about careless good times afforded by pure carnality, or this false notion of unattached “casual” sex—on which, by the way, I’d pass very little judgment if that truly were the case. You’re entitled to be a rake. My television (anti)hero, the brilliant Hank Moody of Californication, is a rake if there ever was one—a character apparently either modeled after or at least inspired by the writer Charles Bukowski, a real-life rake. (And if we’re talking about writers, I’m sure he wasn’t alone in that respect.) But speaking of television, Fox is attempting to glorify yet another such character (a TV-14 knockoff of David Duchovny’s aforementioned other iconic alter ego) in a new series entitled—you guessed it—Rake. Honestly, I’d even prepare to encourage rakery if, in the end, you’ll be better for it—that is, if it suits your personality and, most importantly, if it enables you to be honest about it to both yourself and your partner/s. I’d have defended “Blurred Lines” on those grounds if Pharrell Williams had simply grown a pair, and if Robin Thicke had just come out from hiding behind his exceedingly gorgeous then-wife and “all her girlfriends”—not to mention Miley Cyrus’s ass—so that the two of them could admit that sexploitation is profitable, that it’s their main business, and that they’ve consciously employed it to their advantage. (For anyone tired of people piling on these two gentlemen and their retarded lovechild of a song, I can say the same damn thing for Timbaland and Justin Timberlake’s equally uninspired, equally degenerate “Carry Out”, and practically every other similar throwaway effort of theirs.) As Professor Petrovsky says to Mike in Rounders, we can’t run from who we are. You can be the most promiscuous lecher—or, in the spirit of expressional egalitarianism and euphemism, a woman of ill-repute—on the face of the earth and you needn’t be ashamed of it so long as you don’t lie about it…which, by the way, is a pretty big reason why relationships fail in the first place; and I know of no better liars, or makers of liars,—and cynics,—than douchebags.

…But this isn’t actually the case. “Do What U Want” isn’t so much a theme song for the licentious—a “slut anthem” as the folks at Return of Kings would call it—as it is a confused and sorry surrender to one’s own objectification. The validity of the suggestion that it’s all about brainless and soulless whoredom falters at the song’s bridge, wherein Gaga is at her most emotionally vulnerable (you know—that filler part halfheartedly tacked onto every pop song after the second chorus and before the last chorus for the sake of adhering to formula):

Sometimes I’m scared I suppose,
If you ever let me go.
I would fall apart if you break my heart,
So just take my body—and don’t stop the party.

Therein we find the pessimism (not to mention a clearer view of why one shouldn’t rush to finish songs; that last line is atrocious songwriting). I don’t know what happened to Lady Gaga back when she was an NYU dropout, back when she went by Stefani Germanotta and was just another broke and obscure yet talented and hungry New York City girl, like Madonna (who, as a struggling dancer, had apparently been dragged into an alley and forced to perform fellatio at knifepoint), Chloe Sevigny, and Scarlett Johansson before her. (People don’t realize how real and down-to-earth she is—or at least was—deep down.) Only Stefani truly knows how she became Gaga (the songwriter), but I wouldn’t be surprised if her story were like those of countless other restless, dissatisfied, and disappointed young women. As with everything else in this world, pessimism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Where there’s restlessness, dissatisfaction, and disappointment all working at once—as they usually do—to push a woman away and wherever they must, there’s little else left for her to see upon looking back; and if she isn’t looking at a certain degree of resentment for having thence hailed (and feeling relief for having thence left), its otherwise a pressing notion that she hadn’t left for naught—that she’d be miserable if she’d elected to stay. In a word, she’s pessimistic—too pessimistic to stay, too pessimistic to wait, too pessimistic to hope, and too pessimistic to love.

Are you “man enough” to admit you’re part of the problem?

There may very well be an evolutionary basis for female choosiness or fickleness; in fact, a 2007 Columbia University study found that, while men generally don’t discriminate, women are more frequently racist when it came to dating, generally preferring men of their own race. Regardless, a very recent survey of scientists will tell you that “nurture” is every bit as important as “nature”; that said, an overtly sexist, listless, male-dominated culture doesn’t do much to inspire confidence, much less affection. Making matters worse is the frenetic pace of society. Ours is an age of instant gratification; needs are superseded by wants when wants themselves aren’t confused for needs. We like our pleasures immediately; now and in full, if not sooner and some rather than later and nil, if not to hell with this let’s go somewhere else to get what I “need”—though I truly meant we (…yet deep down I only give a damn about I). We prioritize and cater to our demand for speed at the expense of more important things, like our own safety. The Federal Railroad Administration, for instance, has recently found that the Metro-North Railroad—the second busiest commuter railroad system in the country—“has fallen prey to a ‘deficient safety culture’ that prizes on-time performance at the expense of protecting riders and workers.” In a rebuking review prompted by a fatal derailment last December, railroad operators were accused of pressuring workers “to rush when responding to signal failures,” and for not giving them enough track time for proper maintenance. (They’d established policies apparently so opaque and ambiguous that, “amid confusion about the rules, cellphone use is ‘commonplace and accepted’ among track workers on the job.”)

Worst of all, we obsess over control, and we see this obsession everywhere, in every facet of our lives. We see it in our spirituality, in how we attempt to explain every uncertainty or unanswerable question with incoherent myths, man-made Gods, ghosts in the dark, and the positions of stars and planets. We see this obsession in our addictive and constant connectivity;  we obsess over control to the point that the non-Jews among us have created an annual “National Day of Unplugging”, an absurdly conceived day of deviceless, webless observance during which we’re constrained to engaging in once-unremarkable activities now deemed remarkable. It was so good of The Daily Beast to come to our rescue this past “NDU” and prepare us with some…truly novel suggestions regarding how to get through this awful day—for instance, exercising (as in moving), reading a book (an actual book), and, oh goodness, going outside and being alone. How scandalous. The nerve of them to insist we reduce ourselves like this once a year, every first Friday of March.

This is what the developed world has come to and it’s nothing short of pathetic. None of this typically lends to establishing any sort of long-term, serious relationship. “Being a single person searching for love,” writes Sara Eckel, “teaches you that not everything is under your control.”

You can’t control whether the person you’ve fallen for will call. You can’t force yourself to have feelings for the nice guy your best friend fixed you up with. You have no way to know whether attending this or that event […] will lead to the chance encounter that will forever alter your life. You simply learn to do your best, and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, no one these days knows how to “leave it at that”, and maybe that’s the case because we’re discomforted by the prospect—the tedious, often slow-moving effort required to “leave it at that”. “Get over it,” they say. “MoveOn.org,” says Diablo Cody, a favorite expression of mine. (That’s actually a Jennifer’s Body reference, and I am not ashamed.) Usually this is significantly more difficult to do than say, and I’m not so dumb as to pretend otherwise…except difficult isn’t impossible. Nor is difficult necessarily unbearable. Better yet, difficult isn’t necessarily wrong, just as easy isn’t always right—not “right” in the moral or absolutist sense, but “right” in, for lack of a less unoriginal idiom, the grand scheme of things. As “wrong” as it may feel to embrace uncertainty and relinquish the notion of control, it’s a hell of a lot healthier than, say, stupidly pretending that you “own” your sexuality when in fact you’re degrading yourself (more on that in a bit). That said, as derisively and pointedly dismissive as I was about silly “NDU”, it wasn’t so much about its mission as it was its embarrassingly weak execution; everything has its own holiday nowadays, so giving something as simple as turning off your smartphone a day of observance only serves to reduce the act to gimmickry, stopping just short of asking for its own ridicule—which is a shame because, at the end of the day, NDU’s mission is valid. Our religious connectivity—our addiction to control—is a serious problem; it’s abraded our ability to communicate and cheapened our methods of exchange, which in turn has ruined the quality of our relations, altering them as such that bonds aren’t as pure or dare I say as true as they’d been before we all started IM’ing, texting, and tweeting. It doesn’t take long before the inability to build real relationships eats away at one’s faith in relationships, or rather the very thought of building them.

We discourage ourselves from even trying.

In her bridge, Gaga admits to a fear of abandonment, of being let go and left brokenhearted. As Eckel—or anyone who’s ever been part of a successful relationship—would have you know, relationships take work, but where exactly is the motivation for the labor when one is afraid of the very fruit of that labor? How exactly does someone brave an endeavor and shrink at the endeavor at the same time? It’s easy to be discouraged. It’s easy to resign oneself to cynicism. It’s easy to be excessively guarded, to succumb to emotional tepidity. It’s easy to sell oneself cheap, to never take risks, to grow content with the confines of some lowly, unfulfilling stasis. It’s easy to take clean comfort in going nowhere.

It’s even easier for women to emotionally seclude themselves in their castles when the average bastard prince makes like Humbert Humbert, aspiring after a “seductive cast of demeanor” so strong that he may “obtain” any woman he wants with the snap of his fingers—so strong that he may afford the habit “of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into [his] cold lap.” Difficult isn’t impossible but, by and large, men like to make it that way.

(By the way, it’s no accident that I’ve quoted the most famous literary hebephile in my description of chauvinists; below the belt that may seem, although you won’t find a more generous patron of schoolgirl fantasies than a man’s member. To deny that is to say nothing of the most recurrent pornographic themes and fetishes—e.g., fathers fucking babysitters, coworkers fucking daughters of coworkers, high school teachers fucking their students in their classrooms, etc. Simulated statutory rape by men practically in loco parentis has become a standard genre—literally an industry within an industry, with whole sites dedicated to bringing this hardcore scenario to life. Considering the brazen double standard, the way we condemn sex with under-aged girls in public yet wank to the staging of it in private, teen-themed pornography is almost subversive.)

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