"Though she’s no less a purveyor of pure pop and a NOW That’s What I Call Music! poster girl, Lady Gaga is the anti-Katy Perry. Everything about Perry is slickly packaged to arouse the prurient interest of heterosexual men; she presents herself as a scrumptious sexual cupcake to be mindlessly, greedily devoured. The faux-bicuriousity of “I Kissed A Girl” is especially calculating: Perry leaves little doubt that she’s all about turning on men rather than women when she coos of her impromptu make-out session with a girl, “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” The implication, of course, is that Perry’s foray into faux-lipstick lesbianism is an insignificant—if sexy—sideshow to the main event: pleasing her man. She’s playing into a near-universal male sexual fantasy with a wink and a lascivious smile.
Where Perry’s candy-colored sexuality says, “I exist for your pleasure,” Gaga’s alternately earthy and cerebral approach to sexuality seems designed to confuse and alienate as much as seduce. Gaga adopts the trappings of conventional female pop sexuality—sexy vocals, infectious club songs with winking double entendres and suggestive lyrics, skimpy, outrageous outfits, dyed hair and underwear as outerwear, and flashy, attention-grabbing videos—but her endgame has more in common with Andy Warhol than Katy Perry.
When “Just Dance,” Gaga’s debut single and the upbeat leadoff track for the 30th installment of NOW!,rocketed up the charts, few could have imagined that the seemingly disposable pop newcomer singing it would become an instant international pop-culture phenomenon and a controversy magnet. I remember when I got my promo copy of Gaga’s debut album I looked at it for a second, thought, “Huh, that’s kind of a silly name,” saw Flo Rida was a guest on it, and promptly tossed it aside. I never thought the woman with the stupid name and outré fashion sense would become such a towering pop-cultural instant icon.
“Just Dance” is almost aggressively non-offensive, a goofy, featherweight exercise in dance-floor escapism that finds Gaga simultaneously drunk, desperate, confused, and exhilarated. Some dude named Colby O’Donnis is featured, but Gaga is such a singular entity that they don’t seem to be inhabiting the same universe, let alone the same song. Yet Gaga’s Kanye-style celebrity-as-art-form aesthetic is often more daring than the shimmering pop confections she churns out. It’s almost adorable that 56 years after Elvis Presley’s scandalously sensual gyrations horrified and titillated the world, folks are still capable of being shocked by a pop star dressing and acting weird.
Gaga’s sexuality-as-Dadaist provocation goes much further than Madonna’s. For all of Madonna’s boundary-pushing, she nevertheless molded herself into images heterosexual men find irresistible. You like Marilyn Monroe, eh? Then you’ll love Madonna-as-Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video! Fellini-style sexy Italian sacrilege more your style? Then check out Madonna making out with a black saint in the “Like A Prayer” video. Into seeing little boys ogle scantily-clad women at peep shows? Then feast on the ultra-creepy “Open Your Heart.” But Madonna couldn’t make enough music videos to satisfy the sexual appetites of everyone, so she called up photographer Steven Meisel and they made a lovely coffee table book devoted to exploring every legal fetish in existence. That may have been the biggest mistake of Madonna’s career. Madonna’s Sex book almost instantly negated her sense of mystery through over-saturation. Where do you go after releasing a dirty book of yourself indulging every possible legal sexual fantasy?
There’s something intriguingly unknowable, however, about Gaga. She’s cultivated and maintained an aura of mystery in a violently invasive media world that promises no secrets and sordid revelations on the hour. Where Perry and Madonna use sexuality as a foolproof marketing hook, Gaga’s sometimes-aggressive, sometimes-esoteric sexuality feels more like some strange sort of post modern performance-art piece only she understands. Gaga is so complicated and textually rich—as they used to say back in college—that the University Of South Carolina actually teaches a class in “Lady Gaga and the sociology of fame.”
The appeal of a hot girl singing about drunkenly making out with a friend is self-evident, but no one seems to know what exactly Gaga means (except perhaps for folks in that University Of South Carolina course). That’s terrifying to heterosexual men used to being catered to by pop culture and society as a whole. Gaga’s aggressive, I-don’t-need-anyone sexuality is more threatening than seductive to many men. I suspect the urban legend about Gaga having a penis has its roots in bewildered heterosexual men condescendingly reasoning that if someone is strong, independent, successful, weird, artsy, hard to understand, and willful, then she must have a penis. In an age when nothing’s shocking, Gaga still manages to shock. That’s an impressive achievement in itself.”
- Taken from the "Then That’s What They Called Music!" article over at The AV Club written by Nathan Rabin