Mar 10

Gaga Fug Yourself

FT13 comments • 3,644 views

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of years you will be aware that Rihanna and Lady Gaga are both popstars who employ stark visual imagery, far more adventurous and individually tailored than their music. On her latest album campaign Rihanna used barbed wire and harsh geometric lines to portray a tough, military image, showing her renewed strength and fortitude following a horrible physical attack by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga resets her image dozens of times over the course of a single song, attempting the impossible and the unexpected, her unpredictability expanding on her seemingly random approach to songwriting.

Both are also top seeds in their brackets for Fug Madness, the annual competition run by Go Fug Yourself to find the worst dressed person of the year. GFY is a light-hearted website that lovingly mocks the sartorially afflicted and celebrates the celebrities who successfully navigate the precarious world of fashion. It’s always an enjoyable read, not least because the two women behind it are witty, forgiving, and completely aware of how ridiculous the whole fashion business is. But the key to the site’s appeal that it’s always the subject’s choice of clothes under scrutiny, not women’s body shape or physical flaws. When Britney was undergoing a bout of mental illness a few years ago, they refused to post paparazzi shots of her looking overweight in pyjamas, preferring pictures of attention-hungry celebs on red carpets who were dressing to ‘impress’. The only time a woman’s body comes under fire from GFY is when she has obviously undertaken some hideous plastic surgery – a ‘choice’ of sorts.

Yet plenty of women feel that it plastic surgery is not a choice at all, but a necessity. According to statistics on analbleachingguide.com/anal-bleaching-for-confidence/, it is clear that, the hilariously-acronymed British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that 36,482 cosmetic surgical procedures were carried out in Britain in 2009 (97% of the patients were women). A drastic option indeed, but millions of women spend time, money and effort trying to attain an impossible perfect ideal every day, an ideal that saturates the media surrounding them, not least in the world of pop music.

I don’t want to delve *too* deeply into general women’s image issues, as this particular can of worms has been opened and stirred up by many others (including this excellent Penny Red article). However, a quick word to any men are reading this who are thinking ‘but I too am under pressure to look perfect! It’s even worse for gay/black/disabled/[insert minority group] people!‘: I’m sorry to hear that and I know that there are many inequality issues in the world. However today I am writing about image problems for female popstars in particular. Please think carefully before commenting about how equally dreadful it is that Peter André constantly has to touch up his six-pack with eyeliner pencil.

Rihanna is certainly a candidate who fits the perfect ideal woman, at least by the standards of the male-targeted media: in 2009 Maxim magazine rated her ‘the 8th sexiest woman on earth’. Underneath the Grace Jones hairdo and David Bowie makeup, she’s a smiling, 22-year-old Bajan girl with a clear complexion, a pearl-white smile and whose body weight falls just within in the healthy guidelines for her height (according to the NHS website).

Lady Gaga did not appear in Maxim’s Hot 100 list. Without her shield of sartorial insanity, she probably would not be able to get a job advertising bathroom cleaner let alone Estée Lauder makeup, due to her slightly crooked mouth and short stature. Apart from looking skinny enough to snap in two (likely due to her exhausting work schedule), Lady Gaga is really rather ordinary-looking, and has decided to distort her own image even further from the media ideal, to make herself look unconventional and memorable. Ace Terrier mentioned on his Tumblr: ‘I can’t think of many pop stars this side of Marilyn Manson that have worked harder to project their physical self as fundamentally unpleasant.‘ Brian Warner is also very ordinary-looking when he takes out his contacts and washes off the grease paint (if you overlook his lack of eyebrows, that is). Like any popstar trying to connect with their public, Manson and Gaga’s consistent message is vital: I am the Mad Person. If you don’t recognise them from the Kermit coat or wonky contacts, then the relentless output of razorblade sunglasses and showers of blood should make a lasting impression.

One criticism foisted upon the recent parade of British female soul singers was that they lacked any key distinguishing features (musically and visually). Faced with a judgemental media, Adele (or maybe her record label) understandably didn’t want to make her weight her defining feature – keeping all her videos and press shots from the shoulders up only, with neutral make-up. The consistent message here was that Adele wasn’t worth looking at, so you might as well shut your eyes and listen to her sing. From an artistic (and feminist) point of view this was all right and proper, but from a realistic marketing point of view Adele was not going to sell t-shirts, mobile phones or beauty products. Adele will never make it into the heats of Fug Madness because her image is not just boring, but non-existent. And so her ability to reach new fans and sell pop records is that much lower than Rihanna’s or Lady Gaga’s.

Or is it? Are visual images essential for pop success? It is certainly possible to detach the music from a physical image and still make interesting pop: The Knife wear masks in their publicity photos and only agree to play gigs if they can do so behind a screen. The members of Daft Punk may resemble Johnny Depp or John Merrick for all we know, and while Gorillaz may have finally made it into 3D they remain cartoon avatars. In these cases, a consistent message of ‘no message’ serves just as well as a horizontal white stripe painted across the face. Look for the stripe, not the face underneath. But for a success-hungry popstar, it must be extraordinarily tempting to take advantage of the publicity that getting your real face on magazines, music videos, chat shows and yoghurt adverts can provide. Amy Winehouse’s first album was just as full of her unique personality as Back To Black, but it was only after she lost 3 stone and permanently embraced her ragged beehive that she became an instantly recognisable international megastar and popular Halloween costume.

The main problem is that if you are a woman, taking the plunge into the sexist media circus immediately leaves you vulnerable to attack if you fail to constantly attain the perfect physical ideal – or at the other end of the scale, you become totally objectivised so that your primary purpose is that of wank material for Maxim readers. No matter how good your music is, if you’re a pretty girl then 90% of critical respect goes down the dumper. Bimbo! Clothes Horse! If you’re not so perfect-looking then you are accused of secretly possessing a penis. And what if you want to change your message? 25-year-old divorcee Avril Lavigne seems destined to be stuck as an emo teenager for the rest of her career, but perhaps that’s better than fading into the background like Adele. Suddenly hiding behind a robot suit sounds rather appealing! Even Madonna, the queen of image manipulation, isn’t immune from taunts about her appearance. She undoubtedly has a thick skin and doesn’t give a shit about what some dude from Loaded thinks about her forearms, but if a pop star relies on the media to promote/sell records, they must play by the rules.

Thankfully Gaga, Rihanna and Florence Welch are starting to bend those rules a little. One day I hope that the ideal image of a female pop star is one triumphantly wearing giant Mickey Mouse ears astride a pink Panzer.


  1. 1
    Bec on 20 Mar 2010 #

    Really good stuff Kat – well done!

  2. 2
    katstevens on 20 Mar 2010 #

    Ta! I think I will expand on this at some point.

  3. 3
    Tom on 20 Mar 2010 #

    Really interesting piece Kat! So if Gaga and Rihanna are bending these rules, what does it mean that even a sympathetic website is putting them in a “worst dressed” competition? (I have never read GFY so I dunno how snarky/mean they are actually being about this!)

  4. 4
    katstevens on 20 Mar 2010 #

    The Fug Madness competition is a mixture of ‘omg that is wonderfully batshit’ and ‘DERE GOD NO HOW AWFUL’. Tilda Swinton is seen as a superior goddess while eg Lindsey Lohan is constantly berated for always wearing the same pair of ratty leggings to v high profile posh events – who wins the ‘worst dressed’ vote often equates to ‘who do I want to see wearing more crazy outfits on the internet please’. Their Rihanna archive is quite representative.

  5. 5
    Tom on 20 Mar 2010 #

    Oh OK cool – thanks for clarifying, yeah it seems very celebratory!

  6. 6
    katstevens on 20 Mar 2010 #

    They’re big fans of Bjork as well – she is definitely the proto-Gaga in terms of batshit imagery, more so than Madonna maybe? Madge would never wear a swan to the Oscars…

  7. 7
    swanstep on 21 Mar 2010 #

    Count me as not especially impressed. After a lot of meandering you state the obvious:
    But for a success-hungry popstar, it must be extraordinarily tempting to take advantage of the publicity that getting your real face on magazines, music videos, chat shows and yoghurt adverts can provide.
    You then claim that there’s a spectrum of nasty possibilities for women who ‘take the plunge’ of having any visual media presence whatsoever: insofar as they aren’t (always) physically perfect they get attacked/ridiculed for that failure, and insofar as they approach physical perfection they are objectivized into wank material.

    In sum, according to you, women who don’t linger in non-visual, relative obscurity (i.e., be only marginally successful) get written off as mindless bimbos insofar as they are v. pretty, or mocked as dogs insofar as they aren’t. According to you, it’s as if there’s something like the following, sexist scoring mechanism: sucessful women in show biz get scored x (/10) for looks and y (/10) for talent but, ha ha, the game is rigged so that y≤(10-.9x) [go here for the simple graph].

    So, how are Gaga, Rihanna et al. bending those alleged rules according to you? Well, who knows really? Apparently it’s supposed to be something about the clothes they wear. But god help them if one day they cross over that crucial, crucial boundary between ‘wonderfully batshit’ and ‘DERE GOD NO HOW AWFUL’. And if they end up being as nonchalant about their clothes as, I dunno, Thom Yorke is? Well, that’s the Lindsay Lohan ‘same pair of ratty leggings’ contempt pile isn’t it? [A bit close to the pretty -> mindless bimbo sub-rule, no?]

    I spent about 30 minutes at the FUG website and, honestly, its whole focus is on the very beautiful who have clothes budgets greater than Haiti’s GNP, their triumphs, their follies and flops – talent is hardly in the picture. That’s a perfectly fine focus to have, I guess, but claiming its got anything to do with a significant political project, seems to me to be deluded.

    You close with:
    One day I hope that the ideal image of a female pop star is one triumphantly wearing giant Mickey Mouse ears astride a pink Panzer.
    It’s a fairly striking image, but I don’t see that it deserves to be permanently enshrined above everything else. Seriously, why this over Lesley Feist in the 1234 vid. (my nieces’ first big pop song – they know her as the ‘blue sparkle lady’) if there *has* to be one image to rule them all? (Siouxsie and Aimee might have something useful to say about the whole idea of one such image.)

  8. 8

    […] at Freaky Trigger, Kat Steven writes about female image in pop in Gag Fug Yourself. I partially add this here for my own future […]

  9. 9
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Mar 2010 #

    #7: To expand a little more, I would say Gaga and Rihanna are bending the rules by still relying heavily on visuals to successfully sell their product while making those visuals less ‘attractive’. Gaga in particular twists the normal titilation tropes of near-nudity/bondage gear to uncomfortable extremes (I’m thinking of that leotard that was rather anatomically revealing and the police tape outfit that distorts and squashes her face into a murder victim pose). Compare to eg Britney’s Toxic video where her near-nudity is presented as a smooth, glittery unthreatening doll, flattered by warm lighting and a come-hither expression. Gaga seems to be saying “if you want to have sex with me then fine, but you’ll have to be ok with me shouting the word ‘VULVA’ to all your friends first”.

    Lindsay: her leggings are cause for weary sighs exactly because she is NOT being nonchalant about her clothes (she has her own fashion line!) and it still looks like she’s just flung on whatever didn’t smell of socks in the laundry basket. I never said GFY was a political project, it’s more of an antidote to the barrage of abuse that famous women who diverge from the norm get from Heat magazine/Perez Hilton etc.

    Re: closing line – I mainly wanted to make the Pink Panzer joke!

  10. 10
    Mark on 21 Mar 2010 #

    Nice article, I would disagree about The Knife, Daft Punk and Gorillaz not having a visual image, they just have openly artificial, non-sexual images. I don’t think that detracts from the other points, if anything it probably fits slightly better.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 22 Mar 2010 #

    Kat, your point about Britney being “unthreatening” compared to GaGa is an interesting one. I don’t see GaGa threatening anybody per se, but she knows that anything she does right now is going to spark some kind of debate.

    It may be great copy now, but will GaGa be pulling the same kind of media attention she’s getting in say, one year from now? Going back to Britney, the “doll” image had a limited shelf-life once her private life and inevitable breakdown became media fodder du jour.

    Unless GaGa can avoid these traps once the press dig a litte deeper, then we could see another similar meltdown with Heat and Perez Hilton crassly cheering on. Having said that, Ms Germanotta’s diversionary tactic, however temporary it may be, is extremely compelling.

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 22 Mar 2010 #

    Just to add one thing to my post above, it’s about using public image (in this case, costume) as armour against personal attack. GaGa and Rihanna use confrontational armour, whereas Britney and Madonna use(d) alluring armour. Right now, the confrontational tactic has the upper hand.

  13. 13
    Kat but logged out innit on 26 Mar 2010 #

    Jude Rogers touches on Gaga’s and Rihanna’s image in today’s Grau:

    “Anger is also being expressed…brashly in pop with Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Those latter two artists push the boundaries of femininity, argues O’Brien, even though image is important to them. What’s different is that they play with its uglier sides. “Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball tour is all about being monstrous, and that angry side of being female. She may not be screaming it out, and her music isn’t punk, but those feelings are there.” Given how successful she’s been, adds O’Brien, she is setting a good precedent for angry women in the mainstream, at the same time as women are doing interesting things in the underground.”

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