Lady Gaga's 'Judas' & The Betrayal Of Netocracy
, April 27th, 2011 10:49
Emily Bick looks at the similarities between Lady Gaga's 'Judas' shtick, subversive Swedish pop group Army Of Lovers and the affiliated Alexander Bard's Netocracy to argue that the star's glamourous facade is a "prophylactic barrier to two-way engagement"
Lady Gaga's 'Judas' isn't much of a song, but that doesn't matter, because Gaga's songs are never about the music. It's her 'Oops I did it Again', riffing on 'Bad Romance' with its "Ju-das! Jud-a-a!" breaks. You could sub the last line of the "I'm just a holy fool / baby he's so cruel" bit with "caught in a bad romance" and it would totally scan. For variety Gaga's got an 'ew' and a little dancehall verse added for flavour, maybe because Britney's collaborating with Rihanna (and Nicki Minaj), but that's about it.
It's out on single now, for Easter weekend, to cash in on maximum outrage and symbiotic publicity from the usual Christian suspects, followed with the 'Born This Way' episode of Glee. But whither 'Judas'? 'Born This Way' sounds like a rehash of 'Express Yourself'. The accompanying video, meanwhile, smashes together the intro to David Lynch's Dune, Superman's crystal fortress of solitude and that two-dimensional prison Terence Stamp and co were cast into by Marlo Brando and Planet Krypton's finest, and the good/evil Mystics/Skeksis personality splitting scene at the beginning of The Dark Crystal. This is followed by zombie skull makeup from 'Thriller' and Madonna-style crotchgrabs that are about as sexy as a Canesten advert. Casting herself as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cal-El, some freaky muppets and the heir to the house of Atreides is going to be hard to top.
Whatever she comes up with, the 'Judas' video will undoubtedly pile on more ridiculous takes on Christian imagery than the combined output of Mel Gibson, photographer David LaChappelle, or that pareidolia-happy dude who found the image of Jesus on a dog's butt.
One source of inspiration might come from Swedish disco sex fiends Army of Lovers. They had a huge international dance hit with 'Crucified' in May 1991. The video featured the Lovers' Alexander Bard, Jean-Pierre Barda and La Camilla all dressed as day-glo disco-kitsch French Aristocrats, pre-Revolution. They flashed boobs and flower-covered crotches and old-school Karl Lagerfield fans while singing lyrics like:
Crucified like my Saviour
A lifetime I prayed
For the holy dimension
I've seen the deepest darkness
And wrestled with gods
Ride the noble harness
Raining cats and dogs
I stand before my Maker
Like Moses on the hill
My Guinness record breaker
I abide your will
Contrast with Gaga's lyrics, from 'Judas':
When he comes to me, I am ready
I'll wash his feet with my hair if he needs
Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain
Even after three times, he betrays me
I'll bring him down, bring him down, down
A king with no crown, king with no crown
I'm just a Holy fool, oh baby he's so cruel
But I'm still in love with Judas, baby
I'm just a Holy fool, oh baby he's so cruel
But I'm still in love with Judas, baby
Hmmm. Army of Lovers had a lot of fun with camped up crucifixion themes: besides 'Crucified', there's 'Judgment Day', which is almost a note-for-note 'Alejandro' (at least the parts of 'Alejandro' that aren't ripped from Ace of Base's 'All That She Wants'.) The video quality is pixelated to shreds, but it features staples of the 'Alejandro' video: a gothic abbey setting, most of the group dressed like pregnant nuns, Alexander Bard and Jean-Pierre Barda chasing each other until Bard gives birth to a dog (God backwards, yeah?).
In other Army of Lovers videos, Jean-Pierre Barda runs around with a three-foot gold strap-on, La Camilla struts in police/dominatrix gear, beating up guys in the men's room with a riding crop, then dancing in a cage. No echoes of a certain women-in-prison-themed video there then. And if you want offence, Army of Lovers were equal opportunity religious pisstakers; their 1993 hit 'Israelism' was banned in Germany for antisemitism, even though singer and co-lyricist Barda is of Algerian Jewish descent, and the lyrics were more bratty than hateful. Anyone can piss off the pope, but that takes some doing.
Then there's the incestuous production family tree: Army of Lovers' later songs were produced by Max Martin, the Scandipop wizard responsible for too many pop hits of the last decade to mention, including Britney's 'Oops...'. RedOne, the producer behind almost every other pop hit of the last decade Max Martin didn't touch, is Lady Gaga's co-writer (for 'Poker Face', and many other hits, including 'Alejandro'). He's also a good friend of Alexander Bard.
But this is all part of the game, surely? Everything with Gaga is designed to keep discussion going until the next release, the next event, and she's got the slickest marketing touch strategy going. This is why it doesn't matter if she does anything new or not. It's not about content, just linking, just surface. A comparison between Gaga and Army of Lovers would be more of this kind of play, except that Bard is also an internet theorist, writer on sociology, and political activist in Sweden (as well as a judge on Swedish Idol). He's a philosophy obsessive who studied social theory and economics, and started writing pop songs to make money on the side. 'Army of Lovers' itself refers to a 1970s gay-themed film that takes its name from a reference to a platoon of soldiers made up of same-sex couples in Plato's Symposium, that existed in ancient Thebes. A later Bard group, 'Bodies Without Organs', takes its name from an idea of philosopher Gilles Deleuze: a virtual dimension of the body, interestingly described by Deleuze as a Gaga-like egg.
Bard's book, Netocracy, written with Jan Soderqvist, was first published in Sweden in 2000, where it became notorious for predicting an Al-Qaeda-style terrorist spectacular before September 11. It was later translated into 14 languages and launched Bard on the tech culture lecture circuit. Netocracy's more important contribution may have been its definitions of a 'netocracy' and a 'consumtariat'.
At the time - before social networking and comment culture - this was a distinction that wasn't yet taken for granted; the internet was still - just - discussed as a flat, interconnected utopian space where everyone could participate equally with everyone else. But what the internet actually did was create a structure of superconnected nodes of powerful people - communities of netizens, interacting like gated communities - and people outside, unable to contact them, but able to receive their output.
Bard explains all this in a long lecture at the University of Lund, from 2010, 'The Final Demise of Hierarchies' Bard and Soderqvist's model isn't without its critics, either. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek discussess Netocracy and the consumtariat in his essay, 'The Ideology of the Empire and its Traps'. He writes:
"Netocracy presents the local groups of the new informational elite almost as islands of non-alienated utopian communities: a description of the life of the new "symbolic class" for which life style, access to exclusive informations and social circles, matters more than money - top academics, journalists, designers, programmers, etc., effectively live in that way. However, are the authors of Netocracy fully aware of the ultimate irony of their notion of "nomadic" subjects and thought as opposed to the traditional hierarchic thought? What they are effectively claiming is that the netocrats, today's elite, realizes the dream of yesterday's marginal philosophers and outcast artists (from Spinoza to Nietzsche and Deleuze) - in short, even more pointedly, that the thought of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, the ultimate philosophers of resistance, of the marginal positions crushed by the hegemonic power network, is effectively the ideology of the newly emerging ruling class."
So the strategies of repurposing culture, creating subcultures and communities and so on are now no longer oppositional to capitalism, but the means for information, power - and, indirectly, capital - to flow through networks online. Bard takes capitalism as a given and Zizek is annoyed at Bard and Soderqvist's description of Netocracy because of this.
In practice, Zizek operates under capitalist conditions too, as the kind of cultural node described by Bard and Soderqvist - which is probably why he's so annoyed. Zizek's essay was written way back in 2003, and that same year, he also wrote the copy for the Abercrombie and Fitch back to school catalogue. Since then Zizek has become a bit of a rock star himself, spawning snide jokes about how he's the only modern philosopher read by the hipster staff at American Apparel.
Nothing wrong with that either. Zizek, Bard, and Gaga are all high-powered nodes in the netocracy model, and that's how their influence works. But it can be subverted, too. Maybe this is why the Deterritorial Support Group's hoax blazed through Twitter earlier this year. The hoax was a blogpost which claimed to be written by Zizek, announcing that Gaga and Zizek would host a joint concert outside Birkbeck on 22 April, in support of the London anti-cuts protests the following weekend. Did anyone believe it? Did it matter? People talked, people RT'd, and the DSG sneakily scooped up hits. It was node-hijacking on a masterful scale.
I'd almost argue that a real test of whether someone is a high-ranking node in Bard's netocracy model - powerful enough to speak without needing to respond - is whether they have fan-created content designed around them. Somebody has made a video of their ZIzek photo file and set it to Stevie Wonder's 'Part Time Lover'.
Very, very few fans who make fannish tribute content, whether it's slash fiction, song parodies, mash-ups or videos like the film above, ever get to participate in popular culture at large, in a way that means they can become stars themselves - with the possible exception of a Weird Al Yankovic. The story about Gaga's hesitance to approve Al's parody of 'Born This Way' is telling here. By dithering over granting permission to Weird Al, Gaga asserts that she is star, he is fan, end of.
Fan-producers, fan-reappropriators of culture, they're stuck in the consumtariat mire - unless they are Lady Gaga. (Did Madonna make Gaga beg for permission before 'Born This Way' became a hit?) The interesting thing about the early Gaga videos, when she's playing piano underneath curtains of dark hair, wearing the kind of t-shirt and shorts you'd see on anyone walking down the street, is how good her voice is, how well-structured her early songs like 'Wonderful' feature=related are, in the Elton John vein.
Yet performing in this traditional singer-songwriter sense is too close to the craft of your average Idol-wannabe: ie, fan, not star. But then anyone who parodies or remixes is just a fan on the sidelines too. It's supersaturated with imagery and references, but what's the real difference between fannish pastiche/tribute and what Gaga does besides access to a platoon of collaborators--producers, songwriters, choreographers, stylists--and huge budgets? Or is the access the key, because, in Bard's view, that is the defining feature of a netocratic supernode?
The other thing Gaga goes on about in interview after interview is how much she loves all her fans, lives on their energy and would do anything for them. But this love is vampiric, and only works as long as fans are kept at a distance: little monsters to the mother monster, paws up on command. Gaga presents a facade of all glamour, all the time, and that's a prophylactic barrier to two-way engagement (even more so than the 'ear condom' she suggests to haters in the lyrics for 'Judas'). Gaga has her photograph taken at yoga class, in full wigs and makeup. Gaga appears on American Idol, but Gaga could never exist as she does now if she had ever competed on that show. What traces of pre-stardom Gaga exist online were presented only after the fact of her stardom had been well-established as inevitable, and she herself does not discuss them. While there's a comment function on her YouTube Gagavision series, she doesn't respond to comments either.
There's also a Facebook and Twitter campaign running by a fan asking Gaga to be his prom date. Will she go to his prom? I'd love to see it happen, but really: will Bill Gates send a personal response to your email?
'Born This Way' is kind of offensive, not for Gaga's birthing a machine gun or any camera tricks or fun with corpsepaint, not even for her presumptions to a place in pop's Olympus. It's offensive because she uses all the new technologies that break down barriers between star and public, that expose the fragile human behind the glamour, to reinforce those barriers. No one is born with silicone polygons stuck to their cheeks except for Kryten out of Red Dwarf, and he's an android that wasn't even born anyway but came off some intergalactic assembly line. As for loving her gay fans or being bi herself, fine - but 'Born This Way' marginalises all fans because they are not stars. Sexuality's a red herring: everyone is born naked and vulnerable and unaware of symbols or hierarchies or who they will eventually want to fuck. Stefani Germanotta included.
Bard explains this in his lecture, when he explains how each new technological stage of human development also creates reactionaries, who use the new technological structures to reinforce ways of thinking that have been supplanted by those technologies. Bard talks about jihadists who use globally networked systems to promote tribalist codes of ethics. Gaga is reactionary in the same way as she uses-and dismisses others' use of-online DIY comment and remix culture to remold herself as a 20th century popstar.
Bard is a deliberately provocative, obnoxious speaker. He's sharp and entertaining, but if you're inclined to sit through all six parts of his lecture, be prepared for him to say at least one thing that will annoy you. He talks about nomadic, pre-written language tribes not caring so much if their children died, because the children didn't have access to as much survival information as an old woman of the tribe would have stored up. He mocks Swedish bourgeois nationalists who want to stop immigration, but then, speaking in their voice, uses the n-word. He tells one questioner to shut up in the Q&A in part six, before responding to his question. Still, It's worth watching if you can handle all that, if you have a spare couple of hours, and it makes Gaga make more sense. Or you could just watch some Army Of Lovers videos instead.