Lady Gaga and
the Subversive
A CultureMap®
by Marjorie Killingsworth
Published on 7/19/13

Lady Gaga may have emerged from an egg at the 2011 Grammy Awards, but she didn’t just hatch out of nowhere. The singer is part of an established tradition of stylish freaks who push the envelope of self-presentation. This CultureMap traces the relationships between Lady Gaga and her forebears, who include Madonna, David Bowie, Leigh Bowery and Andy Warhol.

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Lady Gaga  (b. 1986 | American pop star)
to  Madonna  (b. 1958 | American pop star)

Comparisons between Madonna and Lady Gaga are inevitable. Indeed, the younger artist invites them. Lady Gaga told Rolling Stone, “I’ve made it my goal to revolutionize pop music. The last revolution was launched by Madonna 25 years ago.” It’s no mistake that Gaga’s platinum hair and dark eyebrows recall Madonna circa 1987. The two have also shared a video director, Jonas Åkerlund (Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and Gaga’s “Telephone” and “Born This Way”), and commentators have noted similarities between the songs “Born This Way” (2011) and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (1989).

Yet not all the comparisons are positive, for either performer. In her New York magazine profile of Gaga, journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis remarks, “The two are very different: Madonna hasn’t had a sense of humor about herself since the nineties, where Gaga is all fun and play.” As for sex appeal, critic Camille Paglia explains in The Sunday Times, “Madonna’s incandescence is still on view in videos like ‘Open Your Heart,’ ‘Vogue’ and ‘Express Yourself.’ But for Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture.” Paglia sees Gaga’s image as a failure to be sexy, rather than a subtle critique of pop performance.

Lady Gaga  (b. 1986 | American pop star)
to  David Bowie  (b. 1947 | English rock star)

Lady Gaga is compared more to David Bowie than to any other performer except Madonna. Gaga paid tribute to Bowie when she was photographed with lightning-bolt makeup over one eye, à la the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane. She admits the impact he has had on her career, telling the Daily Mail, “I didn’t know what to do until I discovered Bowie and Queen. Their songs combined pop and theater—and that pointed a way forward.”

As critic Camille Paglia describes Bowie in The Sunday Times, “In his daring gender-bending, he was a warrior for sexual liberation and for a redefining of the psychic fluidity of sexual orientation.” Gaga, however, remains to Paglia a “plasticized android” who is “so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism” that she “does not belong in Bowie’s company.” Journalist Alex Needham counters Paglia in The Guardian, remarking that Bowie “wasn’t sexy either, by the way.”

Lady Gaga  (b. 1986 | American pop star)
to  Leigh Bowery  (1961–1994 | Australian performance artist)

Called “modern art on legs” by singer Boy George, the performance artist, fashion designer and club promoter Leigh Bowery was a major figure on the London scene in the 1980s and early 1990s. His outré style inspired fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, who decades later are favored by Lady Gaga. Seven feet tall, Bowery “often left the house dressed in platform shoes, a latex body stocking and a pig’s mask, the look topped off neatly by a police helmet,” according to journalist Caroline Frost.

Although it is easy to see the lineage from Bowery’s art-piece ensembles to assemblages like Gaga’s meat dress, some critics object to the comparison. Responding to Gaga’s name-checking of Bowery, journalist Mark Dery writes in True/Slant, “Gaga isn’t all that weird, despite her revisionist accounts of growing up feeling ‘like a freak,’ as she told Barbara Walters. Can we get some context, here?... Bowery giving himself an enema, onstage, and hosing the front rows at one of his performances with an anal geyser is weird.” Dery reflects the common complaint that Lady Gaga is a sanitized version of those she cites as influences.

Lady Gaga  (b. 1986 | American pop star)
to  Andy Warhol  (1928–1987 | American artist)

Pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol was a major influence on Lady Gaga as she transformed from former NYU undergraduate with a failed record deal to megawatt icon. “Andy’s books became her Bible,” her friend Darian Darling explains in New York magazine. “She would highlight them with a pen.” In her article on Gaga in The Sunday Times, critic Camille Paglia admits, “Warhol would certainly have endorsed Gaga’s relentless marketing of appropriated material, exactly as he transformed newspaper photos of stars and politicians into brightly colored silk-screens.” The point is one of few concessions Paglia makes about Gaga.

David Bowie, another Gaga influence, was just as besotted with the icon, even writing a song called “Andy Warhol.” After Bowie played the track for the awkward, uncommunicative artist, Warhol reportedly stared at Bowie for several moments before initiating a conversation about the latter’s shoes. The two moved in the same social circles in New York City, and Warhol mentions Bowie several times in The Andy Warhol Diaries (1989). On September 5, 1986, Warhol writes, “Went home (cab $6) and read the Tony Zanetta book that said David Bowie got his ideas from copying Andy Warhol in the beginning, about getting the media’s attention.”

Madonna  (b. 1958 | American pop star)
to  Andy Warhol  (1928–1987 | American artist)

When Madonna arrived in New York City, in 1977, she frequented famed avant-garde nightclubs like Max’s Kansas City and the Roxy, eventually befriending underground figures such as Andy Warhol. The Andy Warhol Diaries (1989) is littered with references to the singer and their friendship. Warhol describes how, on November 17, 1984, “I asked Madonna if she would be interested in doing a movie, and she was smart, she said that she wanted more specifics, that she just didn’t want to talk and have her ideas taken. She’s very sharp.” And though he compliments her performance in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), he says the movie was boring. As a wedding present for her nuptials with Sean Penn in the same year, Warhol and the artist Keith Haring collaborated on a print reproducing the New York Post cover that had reported nude pictures of the singer under the headline “Madonna: ‘I’m Not Ashamed.’”

Leigh Bowery  (1961–1994 | Australian performance artist)
to  Andy Warhol  (1928–1987 | American artist)

In 1980, after finishing high school in his native Australia, the performance artist, fashion designer and club promoter Leigh Bowery moved to England to become “the Andy Warhol of London.” From his status in the avant-garde nightlife scene, Bowery succeeded. In 1985 he began the club night Taboo, featuring a pansexual mix of outrageously styled social misfits. Reviewer Henry Raleigh notes in Art Times, “Leigh Bowery was to London’s club underworld of drugs and drag queens of the 1980s what Warhol was to Manhattan’s arty underworld of the 1960s. That’s as far as a comparison can go, for Warhol is a Mr. Rogers compared to Bowery and his singularly bizarre work.”

In a conversation with musician Boy George in Interview (a magazine Warhol founded in 1969), producer and DJ Mark Ronson echoes Raleigh. Ronson compares Taboo to Studio 54, Warhol’s hangout after the Factory heyday, remarking, “The hedonism was way more insane than anything in New York. Even a place-to-be around that time like Studio 54 had nothing on it.” Bowery’s event lent its name to the stage musical about his life, Taboo (2002), with lyrics by Boy George, who starred as Bowery in London’s West End and on Broadway.

Club Kids  (American nightlife figures | late 1980s–early 1990s)
to  Andy Warhol  (1928–1987 | American artist)

In New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Club Kids were a group of outlandishly dressed, often underage nightlife personalities led by party promoter Michael Alig. At his peak, Alig had 750 Club Kids on his payroll.

In Interview magazine (founded by Andy Warhol), journalist Christopher Bollen writes, “The Club Kids operated like an ersatz Warhol Factory,” referring to the art studio that doubled as a party space for the artist’s circle. They worked simultaneously “on Project X magazine, promotional development, a syndicate of club nights scattered around the country, shock appearances on both Geraldo and The Joan Rivers Show, Club USA commercials on MTV, films, music and more.”

As Alig describes them, the Club Kids were trying to fill the void left by Warhol’s death, in 1987. “I remember being at the Kohshin Satoh fashion show at [the club] Tunnel, which was Andy Warhol’s last public appearance. And then the next thing you know, Warhol died,” Alig tells Bollen. “We were all just floored. Warhol was going to be our ticket out of there. We were all going to become Warhol superstars and move into the Factory and re-create the whole thing.”

Leigh Bowery  (1961–1994 | Australian performance artist)
to  Club Kids  (American nightlife figures | late 1980s–early 1990s)

“The Club Kid aesthetic was very much Leigh Bowery meets the East Village Bowery,” journalist Chris Bollen explains in Interview magazine. Michael Alig, the leader of the Club Kids, admits, “I got a lot of flak for copying Leigh Bowery.” Though Bowery lived in London, an ocean away from Alig’s New York base, the artist appeared with Alig and several Club Kids on The Joan Rivers Show in 1990. Though she initially treats them with borderline derision, Rivers concludes by remarking, “You all are just the cutest things that have been on this show in a long time.”

Of these appearances, Bollen remarks in his interview with Alig, “Certain teenagers all around the country saw those spots and saw your group as some sort of escape portal and decided to follow you.” Alig replies, “Yes, they were quitting their jobs and moving to New York—all of these kids. I felt responsible for getting them all jobs, so we had to keep opening clubs to give them work.” Just as Bowery’s party night, Taboo, was a home for London misfits in the late 1980s, events thrown by the Club Kids attracted the young and disenfranchised from far and wide.

Lady Gaga  (b. 1986 | American pop star)
to  Club Kids  (American nightlife figures | late 1980s–early 1990s)

In a conversation with former Club Kid Michael Alig in Interview magazine, journalist Chris Bollen remarks, “The biggest phenomenon of the year is a pop singer called Lady Gaga. But, really, if you look at her style, it’s a page ripped straight out of the Club Kids handbook.” Alig replies, “I love Lady Gaga. She would have fit right in at [Alig’s party night] Disco 2000.”

The Club Kids and Lady Gaga also represent a two-step process in the democratization of “freak” culture. Bollen writes that Alig had a “democratic belief in youthful freaks turning into glamorous personalities, based purely on how shocking and inventive they could be.” According to critics, Gaga takes this process one step further, allowing her more conventional followers to feel like glamorous freaks simply by identifying with her. As journalist Kitty Empire writes in The Guardian, Gaga claims to be “at one with the freaks and outcasts,” which “is arrant nonsense, as the scads of people buying Gaga’s cunningly commercial music are not limited to the niche worlds of drag queens and hip nightcreatures from which she draws her inspiration.”