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The Counterculture Industry

Queering the Totalitarian Male Physique in the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West and Lady Gaga’s Alejandro
  • Gilad PadvaEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften book series (SRS)

Abstract

Whereas Neo Marxist thinkers regularly focus on the hegemonic heterosexual Culture Industry, the idea that a counterculture can constitute and maintain its own profitable Culture Industry is generally unrecognized. This essay problematizes two popular countercultural music videos: the Pet Shop Boysʼ “Go West” which ironizes the Soviet fetishization of muscular male physique, and Lady Gagaʼs “Alejandro” which erotically objectifies the athletic bodies of fascist soldiers and their quasi-Nazi regalia. This essay suggests that the totalitarian male bodies in these music videos, however, are not only commercialized and objectified but are also inverted and subverted.

Keywords

Culture Industry Queer theory Male body Pet Shop Boys Lady Gaga 

1 Introduction

“Culture has always contributed to the subduing of revolutionary as well as of barbaric instincts,” Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1997 [1944]) note in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (p. 123). The intricate relationship between culture, dissidence, destruction and deconstruction of social orders is particularly embodied in modern gay male culture and its commercialized eroticization of the male physique. The prevalent homoerotic cult of male beauty, often criticized as “body fascism”, glorifies controversial masculine subcultures, including authoritarian machismo. Notably, subcultural admiration of stylized leather uniforms, martial accoutrements and belligerent parades of muscular bannermen does not mean an immediate adoption of destructive ideologies which are connoted with totalitarian, barbaric and homophobic forces. Still, an explicit gay appropriation of such controversial imageries provokes a communal debate about the ethical and political responsibilities of contemporary gay culture as an increasingly profitable counterculture industry.

In her critical commentary “A Queer Eye for Nazi Guys,” published in the British newspaper The Guardian, the influential queer scholar B. Rubi Rich (who coined the term New Queer Cinema in 1992) problematizes the 2004 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (LLGFF) decision to include Leni Riefenstahlʼs Nazi film Olympia in its program. Rich totally condemns the inclusion of this notorious film, a spectacular celebration of the (Aryan) male physique, in this queer film festivalʼs schedule. Apparently, this film be reinterpreted in a playful, campy, ironic and countercultural manner (a homoerotic black-and-white Arcadian celebration of athletic torsos, muscular thighs and swaying penises), in contrast to its original fascist, dystopian meaning. Yet, Rich insists that Olympia remains “a Nazi glorification of a physical ideal attained by editing out the unfit (Rich 2004).” She explains that “the athleticism attained through euthanasia and extermination of queer and Jewish and Catholic and Gypsy bodies, among so many others. Put that way,” she adds, “I wager, the spectacle is not so sexy (ibid.).” Notably, a campy reading of Olympia primarily means an ironic, theatrical and dissident perspective on this film and subverting, rather than confirming Riefenstahlʼs corporeal justification of the atrocious Nazi regime and its dreadful ideology.

In response, however, the LLGFF programmers at BFI (the British Film Institute) claim that what Rich interprets as camp appropriation, they regard as “an important opportunity for audiences to explore the issues these works raise (BFI’s LLGFF programmers, 244).” The festival programmers clarify in a letter to the Guardian that they do not wish to endorse Riefenstahlʼs project. “Rather,” they ambiguously add, “to situate ideas about body image within a political and aesthetic history (ibid.).” Whether the programmersʼ somewhat enigmatic labor of “situating ideas” should be appreciated or not, I believe that this public debate within the queer community demonstrates the intricate relationship between the mainstream Culture Industry, dissident reading of its cultural products, and the emergence of a Countercultural Industry (subaltern communitiesʼ cinemas, festivals, media and arts which are often highly profitable) – a multi-layered, often contradicted phenomenon which is initially theorized in this essay in a queer perspective.

The idea that a counterculture can constitute and maintain its own (counter)culture industry is generally unrecognized by cultural scholars. Neo Marxist thinkers regularly focus on the hegemonic, mainstream culture industry (Kulturindustrie, according to the Frankfurt school) and its commercializing and cooptative, voracious mechanisms. The Frankfurt School were one of the first neo-Marxist groups to examine the effects of mass culture and the rise of the consumer society on the working classes which were to be the instrument of revolution. According to Douglas Kellner (2002), they also analyzed the ways that the culture industries and consumer society were stabilizing contemporary capitalism “and accordingly,” he notes, “sought new strategies for political change, agencies of social transformation, and models for political emancipation that could serve as norms of social critique and goals for political struggle” (p. 17). Controlled by giant corporations, the culture industries were organized according to the limits of mass production, manufacturing products that generated “a highly commercial system of culture which in turn sold the values, lifestyles and institutions of American capitalism” (Kellner 2002, p. 18).

According to the Frankfurt Schoolʼs members Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adornorʼs Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997 [1944]), culture industrialists attempt to distribute their products to the broadest audiences in order to increase their profits. To accomplish their task, they must appeal to the lowest common denominator and adhere to the simplest and most vulgar formulas. Any appearance of spontaneity, originality or innovation diverging from the mainstream immediately confronts resistance from the economy. Any attempt to digress from the accepted signification is confronted with problems of financing, marketing and distribution. This is the sphere of business rather than of transcendence; of industrialization rather than inspiration; and of consumption rather than art. Horkheimer and Adorno (1997 [1944]) maintain that reproduction mechanisms flood the culture consumer with multiple variations of the same themes according to the same standard that the industry submits to the vote which it has itself generated. Furthermore, “By craftily sanctioning the demand for rubbish it inaugurates total harmony” (p. 134).

The homogenizing regime of capitalism primarily yearns to produce uniform desires, tastes and behavior in what might be seen as the end of the individual. As Adorno (1990 [1975]) notes in his critique of the capitalist ideology, “in a supposedly chaotic world, [ideology] provides human beings with something like standards for orientation” (p. 279). Democratic pluralism, in this context, is revealed as camouflage for the particular interests of the dominant group. The ruling class imposes a consensus manufactured according to its own needs. Individuals and groups who are marginalized by the consensus, politically and culturally, find it difficult, often impossible, to bear the contradiction between the dominant representation and their own representation and identification (Padva 2000). Consequently, alienation increases and counter- sub cultures and counter-praxis are constituted. Antonio Gramsci (1990 [1971]) maintains that “creating a new culture does not only mean oneʼs own individual ‘originalʼ discoveries. It also, and not particularly,” he claims, “means the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered and their ‘socializationʼ as it were” (p. 49).

Horkheimer and Adorno (1997 [1944]) regard television as particularly hybridized medium of the culture industry, a medium that aims at a synthesis of radio and film, “and is held up only because the interested parties have not yet reached agreement, but its consequences will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of aesthetic matter so drastically, that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open, derisively fulfilling the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of all the arts in one work. The alliance of word, image, and music,” they add in The Dialectic of Enlightemnment, “is all the more perfect than in Tristan because the sensuous elements which all approvingly reflect the surface of social reality are in principle embodied in the same technical process, the unity of which becomes its distinctive content” (cited by Kellner 2002, p. 18).

In particular, the Frankfurt School criticizes stereotyping in television, ‘pseudo-realism’, and its highly conventional forms and meaning. Herbert Marcuse, in his seminal work One-Dimensional Man (1964), claims that the silliness of commercial radio and television confirm his analysis of the individual and the demise of authentic culture and oppositional thought, portraying television as part of an apparatus producing the thought and behavior needed for the social and cultural reproduction of contemporary capitalist societies.

2 Problematizing the Capitalism’s Oppositional Moments

John DʼEmilio (1983) notes that capitalism and the institution of wage labor have created the material conditions for homosexual desire and identity. Yet, capitalist enterprise creates a tension: materially it “weakens the bonds that once kept families together,” but ideologically it “drives people into heterosexual families.” Hence, “while capitalism has knocked the material foundations away from family life,” D’Emilio contends, “lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the system” (p. 109). In her analysis of “Commodity Lesbianism,” inspired by DʼEmilioʼs critique, Danae Clark (1993 [1991]) notes that the result of this tension is that “capitalists welcome homosexuals as consuming subjects but not as social subjects” (p. 195, emphasis added).

The ambivalent attitude of the heteronormative American society and its capitalist Culture Industry towards sexual minorities is problematized by Sherry Wolf, in her introduction to Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation (2009). Wolf exposes a significant contradiction that pervades the politics and culture of U.S. society regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the 2000s. On the one hand, top-rated TV shows and Academy Award-winning movies, such as Will and Grace, The L Word, and Milk, portray gays and lesbians in a favorable light. On the other hand, federal and most state legislation in America denies equal marriage, workplace, and civil rights protections for sexual minorities. “Rates of violence against LGBT people remain alarmingly high, including incidents of murder,” Wolf claims. “This contradiction is a product of both the emergence in modern capitalism of greater sexual freedom to form sexual identities outside the traditional family,” she explains, “and capitalismʼs continued need to reinforce gender norms that bolster the ‘nuclearʼ family” (p. 9).

Renate Lorenz (2012) suggests that a radical queer politics requires us not only to propose images and living strategies for alternative sexualities and genders, “but also to promote all kinds of economic, political, epistemological, and cultural experiments that see to produce difference and equality at the same time” (p. 17). Lorenzʼs criticism echoes Larry Gross (2001) who notes that we are all colonized to some degree by the majority culture. “Those of us who belong to one minority group or another will inevitably have absorbed many mainstream values,” he suggests, “even when they serve only to demean us” (p. 17). Gross remarks that in the case of sexual minorities, however, there have been responses to the mediaʼs hostile treatment of sexual minorities that represent degrees of subversion and resistance. “Ultimately,” he explains, “the most effective form of resistance to the hegemony of the mainstream is to speak for oneself, to create narratives and images that counter the accepted, oppressive, or inaccurate ones” (Lorenz 2012, p. 19).

3 Commercialized Queers and Profitable Countercultures

Kevin Floyd, in his book The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009), understands Marxism and queer theory as forms of critical knowledge, as critical perspectives on social relations that operate from a subordinated situation within those relations (p. 3). In a highly hostile world that demands sexual conformity and does not tolerate erotic transgressions, persecuted minorities create a counterculture with its own values, symbols, and beliefs, reflecting their membersʼ quest for a countercultural haven in an alienated, unsafe, and homophobic world, traumatized by the AIDS crisis, for example, as much as violent attacks and hate crimes (see Padva 2014).

Alan Sears (2005) stresses, however, that open lesbian and gay life has thrived primarily in commodified forms: bars, restaurants, stores, coffee shops, commercial publications, certain styles of dress and personal grooming, commercialized Pride Day celebrations with corporate sponsorship. “The early period of the Post-Stonewall movement saw a variety of non-commercial spaces opened up,” he notes, “such as community centers, non-profit publications (e.g., Body Politics and Gay Community News), community dances or movement gatherings. But these,” he adds, “have tended to wither with the development of gay and lesbian commercial sector” (p. 104).

John DʼEmilio, in his influential essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1992) stresses that on the one hand, capitalism continually weakens the material foundation of family life, making it possible for individuals to live outside the family, and for a lesbian and gay male identity to develop. “On the other hand,” however, “It needs to push men and women into families, at least long enough to reproduce the next generation of workers. The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia. In the most profound sense,” he insists, “capitalism is the problem” (p. 13).

Sears (2005) stresses that commodification of public lesbian and gay life has distorted our communities. “Not everyone has the money, or the class-based taste, to outfit themselves with the right clothes, haircuts and accessories or to pay the price of socializing at the ‘inʼ place,” he notes. “Queers with limited incomes are invisible because they cannot enter the commodified realm of lesbian/gay visibility” (p. 105). Sears criticizes the LGBT businesses (bars, shops, restaurants, fashion and beauty industries) as primarily class-organized workplaces which are often “sustained by the labor of relatively low-wage service workers who may […] be willing to accept a lower wage than they would be paid elsewhere in exchange for the relative comfort of working in a queer environment” (p. 106).

Such critique of the commodification of queer subcultures demonstrates the emergence of what I initially define here as Countercultural Industry. By adopting capitalist economy and the logics of profitability, modern queer subcultures are rapidly transformed into industries themselves. Unlike the mainstream Culture Industry, they do not attempt to attract members of the straight majority and they do not reproduce heterosexuality and its notorious patriarchal power relations (although gay porn, for example, is unnecessarily emancipatory but rather can be regarded as oppressive objectification and even as humiliating subordination of human bodies and souls, whether the objectified human beings are involved in straight or in men-only power relations).

Like the mainstream culture industries, however, the countercultural industries are business-oriented too, deeply concerned with cost-effectiveness, commerciality, marketability, money-making, thus reproducing the class division between privileged and unprivileged members of the community, as much as ethnic and social subdivisions. Under the capitalist regime, human bodies, just like cars, underwear, beer and pop stars, become sexy “only insofar as they can take on the allure of commodities,” as Sears (2005) points out, “through fashion (clothes, haircuts, piercings, tattoos), through photography and filming (so that images of bodies are hotter than the real thing), or through the fitness industry by which we seek to remodel our bodies along the lines of these images” (p. 108).

As Bharain Mac and Bhreithiún (2011) suggests in his analysis of the representation of gay masculinities in the commercialized French gay lifestyle magazine Têtu, a hierarchical power structure exists within the commercizlized gay media and entertainment sectors, reflecting and duplicating the dynamics and prejudices of the heteronormative world at large. Têtuʼs participation in this system draws attention to the commercial aspects of continuing to present gay masculinity in idealised and perhaps defensive visual codes. This countercultural product is interpreted by Mac an Bhreithiún as a representative system that harks back to the era of Bob Mizerʼs Physique Pictorial magazines which served gay men as pornography from the end of World War II which presented homoerotic images of muscular youths in a rather heterosexual discourse that masked their intent as homoerotic publications intended for a gay audience, presenting themselves as devoted to the pursuit of health and fitness (see Waugh 1996).

Interestingly, the glossy magazine Têtu with its fine young, white, muscular and smooth semi-nude male models, is perceived by Mac an Bhreithiún as a sort of mainstream product within the domain of gay countercultural industry, whereas the French art-and-porno gay magazine Kaiserin and the Dutch gay magazine Butt are presented as subversive countercultural products off the “straight-and-narrow” mainstream gay media or marginal products within a marginalized media industry. The existence of counter-counterculture and even counter-counter-counterculture industries, however, unnecessarily undermines the notion of Counterculture Industry but rather highlights the counterculture industryʼs inner variety of images and identifications and it recognizes and problematizes the intricate relationship between (“advanced” or not) capitalism and countercultural niche-markets-within-niche-markets, countercultural entrepreneurs, and their countercultural clienteles. Significantly, the trivial and the exotic, the conventional and the unconventional, the usual and the unusual, the banal and the eccentric, are never fixed or steady but rather dynamic evaluations and characterizations that not only reflect the tension between hegemonic cultures and dissident countercultures but also indicate pluralities and complexities inside countercultural industries.

4 The Totalitarian Male Physique Going West

One of most popular music videos among gay men – a very popular countercultural product – is the Pet Shop Boysʼ 1993 version of “Go West” (originally performed by the Village People in 1979). The openly-gay duo Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) remade “Go West” for their album “Very” in 1993 and completed the song with the help of an all-male chorus. This song aligns the masculinist “Wild West” motif (with connotations of American expansionism) with the migration of East Coast gay men to San Francisco, a mecca for queers of every sex and gender, particularly in the early days of Gay Liberation (Smith 2001, p. 329). In its disco style, this song yearns for a Californian, San Francisco lifestyle of sunny beaches, sand, and (all-male) sex.

Patricia Juliana Smith (2001) notes that at first thought, “Go West” would seem an unlikely song for their 1993 album “Very.” She explains that the Pet Shop Boys (British, defiantly anti-macho, intellectual, complex) would seem the polar opposites of the Village People (American, macho, blatantly physical, simplistic), with nothing in common except homosexuality. “This incongruity, however, is part of the recordingʼs compellingness,” Smith suggests, “and it ultimately destabilizes any ixed meaning one might associate with the song” (Smith 2001, p. 330). Moreover, Smith notes that in the wake of AIDS, the song undergoes a transformation from anthem to elegy. “And yet,” she adds, “its anthem-like quality is not lost so much as it is transmogrified into something well beyond the original intent, from gay utopian manifest destiny to postimperial irony” (Smith 2001, p. 330).

Notably, this music video, directed by Howard Greenhalgh only four years after the fall of the Berlin war, ironizes the Soviet fetishization of perfectly muscular male physique that originally symbolized the working-classʼ strength and excellence and admiration of communal physical labor. In the Pet Shop Boysʼ eyes, however, the shaped muscular bodies are not produced by physical labor at large factories, however, but achieved by recreational daily labor at the gym.

Although the very lyrics of “Go West” (e.g., “There where the air is free / Weʼll be what we want to be / Now if we make a stand / Weʼll find our promised land”) never refer to a specific Western destiny but rather regards the West as a west of whatever or wherever is deemed “East” –an illusionary albeit powerful utopian site or state of mind – the video clearly identifies the East with the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, in which this video was made, much of the population of the Soviet Union had eagerly embraced the West, whether by adopting a wildly unregulated form of capitalism that created new distinctions between affluent and unprivileged groups, or by actually immigrating to the West. Russian citizens were at last able to cross national boundaries with an unprecedented freedom of movement, and many Russians began to identify themselves as “European.” “Russia had, like most Western European nations, become postimperial,” Smith (2001) notes, “and, as a symbolic gesture signifying the failure of the Communist utopia,” she adds, “Leningrad, the locus of Leninʼs triumphal return to the Finland Station, took back its pre-Soviet name, St. Petersburg” (p. 331).

The Pet Shop Boysʼ visual interpretation of the East in the video “Go West,” however, is ironic, campy, theatrical and ambivalent. Whereas the Soviet Unionʼs revolutionary art idealized and idolized these muscles as the working classʼ victory, “Go West” decontextualizes the male physique by queering the solidarity and brotherhood of gay men of different colors marching together in an explicitly homoerotic display of male beauty and pride. In this respect, both Soviet images of semi-naked male workers (e.g., Dmitrii Moorʼs 1920s posters, Vera Muchinaʼs 1930s sculptures, and Sergei Eisensteinʼs significant filming of well-built semi-naked male revolutionists in October and The Battleship Potemkin, etc.) and the Pet Shop boyʼs exposure of eroticized male bodies are ideological: the male physique was celebrated by the Soviets as socialist objects, whereas the invested bodies in “Go West” symbolize gay emancipation.

In its countercultural reading of Soviet iconography, “Go West” not only the melody resembles that of the socialist movementʼs anthem, the “Internationale,” but it also considers red flags, red stars, statues of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, Monument to the Conquerors of Space and Yuri Gagarin Monument as nothing but nostalgic albeit archaic and ridiculed decoration for a different struggle in different time and place. In Go Westʼs pastiche, the Soviet memorabilia is fused with the American Statue of Liberty, albeit the latter is represented in this music video as a black diva holding a torch (played by the singer Sylvia Mason-James). The surrealist spectacle of male models with giant flags going upstairs into the clouds on their way to a Western haven, is scattered by scenes of the Pet Shop Boysʼ members Tennant and Lowʼs visiting the Red Square and the Kremlin in their theatrical yellow-and-blue outfits and mushroom-like hats. This explicitly gay portrayal of gay athletes in white tights and undershirts and theatrical red hats was not only embraced by countercultural gay communities, however, but also by the cooptative mainstream Culture Industry: this music video was nominated for the prestigious American Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1995 (eventually losing to the explicitly heterosexual video “Love Is Strong” by The Rolling Stones).

Ken McLeod (2006) notes that this video portrays “an ironic comment on the defeat of Soviet communism and the increasing ‘westernizationʼ of Russia” (p. 542). The eroticized buff, athletic bodies of young men, according to McLeod, resemble Soviet-era gymnasts, set against the odd spectacle of the Pet Shop Boys in futuristic suits on flying surfboards, “symbolic of the California lifestyle of the original tune but also resembling cold war era inter-continental ballistic missiles” (McLeod 2006). McLeod emphasizes that the athletic male chorus butchly, deep-voiced intoning of the words “Go West” is contrasted by Tennantʼs effete lead vocal and both are supplemented by the presence of the Statue of Liberty come to life in the form of a black Rhythm and Blues diva. In his analysis of this countercultural product, McLeod identifies several “thematic inversions,” including the presence of a black female liberty, representing the West, which contrasts the white male bodies of the East “while the Pet Shop Boysʼ futuristic outfits enigmatically resist location” (McLeod 2006, p. 542).

However, some gay critiques object the videoʼs association of East and the Soviet Union, and its apparent ignoring of the struggle for gay emancipation in the tragic era of AIDS. Alan Sinfield (1998), for example, criticizes this music video for setting “going west” as synonymous with the incorporation of the Eastern Bloc into capitalism. In his comparison between the original Village Peopleʼs performance of this song that was primarily committed to promoting gay rights, and the historical contextualization of “Go West” as part of the fight against AIDS, Sinfield confesses: “What I had appreciated as a specifically gay intervention, is abruptly redirected” (p. 4). Sinfield explicitly accuses the Pet Shop Boys for commodification and mainstreaming of gay culture, explaining that “naturally, the Pet Shop Boys want their records to chart and relatively few potential buyer are interested in gay men and AIDS” (p. 4).

One can argue, however, that in its theatrical, disruptive manner, this video apparently politicizes and emancipates the male physique, redeeming it from the totalitarian Soviet regime and relocates, recontextualizes, reframes and recharges it with totally different meanings. This celebration of worked-out bodies, muscular torsos and beauty faces, surrounded by phallic objects, including the hammer and sickle and several monumental sculptures, all in red, of rockets and erected figures of soldiers which are presented as campy objects, subverts or, rather, inverts totalitarianism as much as heterosexuality, as these men seem to enjoy this male-only comradeship. The only women is the back vocalist who plays as an alternative Statue of Liberty and is positioned as an admired diva rather than a sex object. The video also fights racism with its spectacular display of white and black athletes marching up together.

Michael Bronski (1998) suggests that mainstream culture finds most threatening the attempts to create more gender and sexual freedom, questioning of the current definition of patriotism, challenges to the current status of ethnic and race inequities, and efforts to expand existing limits of artistic expression. Yet, Bronski notes that sexual frankness has always been valued on the stage and in popular entertainments (p. 29). Bronski explains that possibility of a visible social identity gave men and women attracted to their own gender a clearer sense of themselves and their relationship to the world around them. “The theatre and other forms of popular entertainment,” he explains, “became places where sexual outsiders could feel safer” (Bronski 1998, p. 30). Bronski emphasizes that the dialectic between popular entertainment and alternative sexual subcultures was doubly reinforced:

As women and men who were denied self-expression in mainstream culture gravitated toward the entertainment professions. These professions fostered experimentation with ideas about sexuality and gender. And the more the entertainment venues tolerated nontraditional lives, the more they became sites of increased sexual freedom. More important, they became places where mainstream culture, particularly ideas about sexuality, might be challenged (p. 31).

Apparently, in “Go West” the totalitarianism is exchanged by communality, collectivism is replaced by solidarity, and militarism is substituted by liberation. In this “sociopolitical commentary one can dance to” (Smith 2001, p. 334), dictatorship is supplanted by multisexual diversity and democracy. Notably, homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, the year in which the song Go West was released, about two decades before Vladimir Putinʼs anti-gay policy. Although homoeroticism is unnecessarily contrasted to the nature of many of the Soviet images of male (semi)nude sculptures, posters and films – exposing a sort of emotional and physical intimacy between young and well-shaped male workers, comrades and revolutionists – “Go West” deliberately glorifies the male gaze and its same-sex attraction in an unapologetic manner, erotically objectifying the athletic bodies in form-fitting gymnastʼs pants, a consumerist spectacle of desired corporeality and passionate musculature.

5 Commercialized Desire for Commodified Nude Soldiers

Another countercultural product which queers the totalitarian male physique is the music video “Alejandro” (2010), one of most provocative videos of the acclaimed popstar Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), a globally popular diva in the 2010s. Her video “Alejandro” eroticizes the relationship between Gaga, performing as an admired woman in a nun outfit made of red-and-white leather, and a group of muscular soldiers. The music video was directed by the fashion photographer Steven Klein. It focuses on Lady Gagaʼs performance with male dancers who wear leather trench-coats with wide lapels, spiky military-style hats, boots, trousers and rifles. The military look, however, is queered by the explicit homoerotic photography, stylized choreography, the revealing outfits, the semi-fascist soldiersʼ exposed muscles, and their sensual interactions. Further, the setting is a cabaret inspired by anti-fascist, promiscuous gay Berlin of the 1920s, rather than sinister barracks, training camps or battlefields (see Padva 2014).

In the first half of this video, Lady Gagaʼs singing and yearning for her beloved Alejandro is distinctly separated from the group of young men, who are viewed through her eyes as a unified group of male-only dancers who play, wrestle and stimulate each other. The second half of this video shows Lady Gaga dancing with the male dancers, who imitate the singerʼs effeminate moves, rather than controlling or subduing her. In several shots, a male dancer/soldier is disciplined by Gaga the dominatrix, who simulates her penetration to his body from behind. These dancers are noticeably marked, signified and “stigmatized” by their erotic interactions, outfits, movements and intimate physical dialog. In Gagaʼs imagination, these are not bloodthirsty German fighters or trained killers of the Nazi era, but rather, young men who celebrate their overt sexual brotherhood and (choreo)graphically challenge the hegemonic heteromasculinity and machismo.

Lady Gaga herself, outfitted as a sinful nun in a leather white-and-red gown, is embraced and even sexually pleased by her male dancers in a spectacular bacchanalia of rubber, leather, muscles and pansexual desires. This orgiastic spectacle challenges the eroticization of gender inequality and its hierarchal power relations, which is the main imperative of heterosexuality. The notorious heteronormative power relations are undermined and traversed. Lady Gaga becomes the penetrator rather than the penetrated, the top rather than the bottom, the initiator rather than the initiated.

In this way, Lady Gaga practically fucks, or rather genderfucks the stigmaphobe world and demonstrates an alternative, utopian and optimistic vision of a stigmaphile, rather than stigmaphobic world in which creativity and innovativeness that reach out of the straight and narrow are necessitated and eroticized. Erwin Goffman (1986 [1963]) refers to a “stigmaphile” space of the stigmatized among themselves, and the “stigmaphobe” world of the normals. He contends that the stigmaphile space is where we find a commonality with those who suffer from stigma, and in this alternative realm learn to value the very things the rest of the world despises – not just because the world despises them, but because the worldʼs pseudo-morality is a phobic and inauthentic way of life. The stigmaphobe world, in contrast, is the dominant culture, where conformity is ensured through fear of stigma. Political organizations and public institutions like magazines find it necessary to speak in both directions, in ways that can be understood by both audiences at once (Warner 1999, p. 43).

The video “Aljandro” celebrates a stigmaphilic, explicitly gay-friendly agenda. As Lady Gaga told the Times of London, the “Alejandro” video is about the “purity of my friendships with my gay friends. And how I’ve been unable to find that with a straight man in my life. Itʼs a celebration and an admiration of gay love,” she added, “it confesses my envy of the courage and bravery they require to be together. In the video I’m pining for the love of my gay friends – but they just don’t want me” (Lady Gaga, cited by McCaffray and Vicks 2010).

In her love to handsome Alejandro, Lady Gaga deliberately perverts conventional sex roles and erotic fantasies. “Alejandro” features a countercultural, mythical (sub)version of Snow White, in which the seven dwarfs are replaced by seven shaped and muscular young men, and the naïve Snow White is substituted by a sinful and sinister nun in a leather outfit, who joyfully performs sadomasochistic practices, including domination, bonding and simulated anal intercourse (as a female penetrator) with her handsome male peers. Every myth manifests its own values and beliefs, and this lustful alternative myth considers free sex as continuous delight, rather than promiscuity, and celebrates bacchanalian fantasies as empowering visualization of sexual exuberance and uninhibited erotic emancipation.

Whereas the queered male physique in the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” is the Soviet Athletesʼ body, Lady Gagaʼs “Alejandro” is queering some Second World Warʼs good looking soldiers in leather outfits and accoutrements that connote the infamous Nazi regalia and iconography. Such male objectification is immediately suspected as glorification and (homo)eroticization of fascism. Such aesthetics is associated with the German atrocities during the war, including their “industrialized” death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, where not only millions of Jews were brutally jailed, tortured, raped, starved and murdered, but also tens of thousands of homosexual men who were forced to wear pink triangles.

Problematically, eroticization of male powerfulness, brutality and violence – usually detached from fascist and nationalist ideologies – is deeply rooted in certain queer subcultures. This cultural phenomenon includes not only the controversial gay fandom of the aforementioned Riefenstahlʼs film Olympia and its fully-exposed Arian male athletes, portrayed as sculptured Greek Gods, but also the gay male BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) subculture and its controversial eroticization and fetishization of consensual brutality and painful sessions. Such semi-fascistic subculture is inspired by Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), one of the most popular gay icons in the twentieth and twenty-first Century is, a Finnish artist notable for his 3,500 drawings of moustached, hairy, tattooed and muscular men in tight leather outfits, mostly focusing on motorcyclists, soldiers, sportsmen, farmers, lumberjacks, construction workers, policemen, wardens and sailors with oversized genitals and muscles, who are involved in romantic encounters or violent sexual acts with each other. Some gay scholars advocate Tom of Finland, contending that “such images may have provided a fantasy space, a mental training ground, for those young men in Americaʼs heartland who, in the 1960s and 1970s, would shape the gay rights movement” (Gonzales-Day 2004, p. 331).

Tom of Finland, however, never denied his attraction to Nazi Wehrmacht soldiers that he met during the German occupation of Finland, although he insisted, after the Second World War, that he was merely fascinated by their “sexy uniforms,” not by their hateful ideology (see van Hooven 1993). “Naturally, the designer of the Nazisʼ uniforms was gay!” The artist proudly explained, “The Germans were always very conscious of appearance. Right through to the very end […] their uniforms looked great!”(cited by Ramakers 2001, p. 162).

Significantly, most gay critics adore Tom of Finlandʼs work. Richard D. Mohr (1992) notes that Tom of Finlandʼs work “offers a positive alternative for the establishment of comradeship” (p. 185). Burkhard Riemschneider (1994) claims that Tom of Finlandʼs art “played its part in promoting the self-confidence and positive upheat openness that has evolved in the gay community over the past 20 years” (p. 1). Lynda Hart and Joshua Dale (1997) embrace Tom of Finlandʼs drawings that “helped to build a homoeroticism that was proudly gay in its depictions of desire” (p. 342). Christopher Reed, in his book Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas (2011), glorifies Tom of Finlandʼs influences which “extended to the look of pop-music stars such as Freddie Mercury and the Village People” (p. 168). John Mercer (2003) praises Tom of Finland for his contribution to “a coherent sexualized identity that has an enduring potency” (p. 287).

Only a few scholars challenge the unashamed presence of Nazi iconography in Tom of Finlandʼs “countercultural” art and its exaltation of square jawed, blond, slim-hipped muscle men wearing Luftwaffe hats, skin tight black pants, black leather straps going from the shoulder diagonally across a smooth, light-skinned Aryan chest and wearing high black polished boots often accompanied by a whip. In her critique of “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag (1974) attacks the fetishization of fascism reflected by far-out or ‘kinkyʼ sex (albeit she does not directly refer to Tom of Finland) that has been placed under the sign of Nazism. “Boots, leather, chains and swastikas,” she criticizes this trend, “have become the most secret and lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism” (p. 102).

In defend of Tom of Finlandʼs controversial drawings, however, Micha Ramakers (2001) contends that this artistʼs work cannot be compared with Nazi iconographer Arno Brekerʼs. The latterʼs neoclassical sculptures cast muscular, naked men as national symbols of Nazi Germanyʼs valor and supremacy. Like in Rienfenstahlʼs film Olympia, Brekerʼs muscular nudes evoke comparisons between Germany and ancient Greece, aimed to signify the virile but highly civilized German male: “strong yet restrained, brutal yet pure, nude yet decent. At the same time,” As Jason Goldman (2004) notes, “these Aryan musclemen serve as ready foils to the weak and corrupt Jew and homosexual, holding out the German male as racially and culturally superior” (p. 59). Ramakers, however, argues that Tomʼs work is dedicated to the glorification of the male body in all its vulnerability: “his bodies are constantly being penetrated in every possible way and through every orifice,” Ramakers (2001) explains, “In that sense they form the antithesis of the Nazi body, which was in every way a closed, impenetrable body” (p. 165).

Whether the reproduction of quasi-Nazi iconography, accoutrements and regalia in Tom of Finlandʼs drawings and in Lady Gagaʼs music video “Alejandro” is oppressive or transgressive, this problematic iconography is primarily cooptated and aestheticized by commodified gay countercultures. These alternative media products – provocative, naughty, controversial (or even trashy) as they wish to be perceived – are all manufactured by highly profitable counterculture industries. The imperative “sex sells” is interwoven with the imperative “quasi-Nazi sex sells even better.” Although Nazi soldiers in Tom of Finlandʼs scenes, as much as the semi-nude soldiers in Lady Gagaʼs spectacle, are been penetrated, queered, subverted and parodied, often in a fascinating show of stimulating transgressions, their beautiful bodies (outfitted by leather accoutrements) are unquestionably worshiped.

6 Conclusion: Towards a Theatricalized Totalitarianism

Although the leather soldiers in Gagaʼs “Alejandro” wear effeminate or androgynous outfits, in certain scenes, they are choreographically penetrated by each other (or even by the female icon herself), these leather soldiers are de-historicized. Although a racist ideology is certainly not embraced by Lady Gaga, it is not undermined in this video either. All the dancers in the video are uniformly muscular and their fascist marching, their stomping and even their holding of a metal Star of David, instead of a swastika, are shown as sexy maneuvers.

Theatricalized fascism (scattered with some homoerotic, all-male images of comradeship and brotherhood) becomes an industrialized stimulus, commercialized erotica, mass-consumed spectacle of entertainment, kinetic and kinky delights to arouse the clients of Lady Gaga. In this way, the totalitarian body is popularized, reimagined and reproduced, mocked and idolized at the same time. Machismo, brutality, passion and perversion are fused together. The totalitarian body in “Alejandro,” like the totalitarian body in “Go West,” does not embody evil and dictatorship but rather signifies an admirably powerful virility.

Lady Gagaʼs music video “Alejandro,” just like the Pet Shop Boysʼ music video “Go West,” have both been created by profitable, highly popular counterculture industries which are obliged to capitalism. Totalitarian regimes and bodies are often aestheticized by popular music enterprises, celebrating the apparent powerfulness and sexiness of totality, uniformity, collectivism and mass control that contradict democracy and diversity.

Campiness, theatricality, irony and queering of the relationships and intimacies between men unnecessarily undermine these videoʼs problematic worship of totalitarian beauty and its perilous pleasures. Shaped physique and erected musculatures are hedonistically consumed by the viewersʼ phallic eyes. The new goddesses, the Afro-American Statue of Liberty (“Go West”) and Lady Gagaʼs performance as a black widow holding a trace with a bleeding, barbed-wired and nailed heart (“Alejandro”) manipulate the dancers and the athletesʼ totalitarian bodies and the viewers in a commodified celebration of eroticized totalitarianism and commercialized human bodies for sale.

The Counterculture Industry is often revealed as manifestation of industrially commercialized subcultures. Although subcultures are different from mainstream culture in their size, agenda, cultural codes, aesthetics and ethics and, consequently, in their profitability, they are still valuable for entrepreneurs and producers of countercultural arts, media, iconographies, performances, festivals, venues and fandoms. Countercultural moguls, who make a fortune of their subaltern communities, offering them means of recreation, fantasies and diverse countercultural praxis (fashion, clubs, independent cinemas, maverick television and, of course, alternative Internet websites), are primarily committed to capitalist imperatives, primarily profitability.

As (show) businesses, they typically manufacture formulaic products which are based on their clientelesʼ expectations, desires and aspirations. Totalitarian bodies, as represented by countercultural entrepreneurs like the Pet Shop Boys’ and Lady Gaga are queered, eroticized, objectified and modified. Their music videos are not only created for artistic reasons, but mainly in order to promote the Pet Shop Boysʼ album “Very” and Lady Gagaʼs album “The Fame Monster” and these artistsʼ pop concerts. Conspicuously, these countercultural music videos counter the (hetero)sexual order but they do not counter capitalism.

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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Beit Berl CollegeBeit BerlIsrael

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