By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor
Minutes after Lady Gaga revealed promo shots of her new drag king alter ego Jo Calderone, 'net wags were already projecting their gender anxieties via lame joke memes. “The only guy Lady Gaga can love is Lady Gaga!” was a favorite panic reaction to the debuting star of Gaga’s “Yoü And I” video.
Unfortunately, Gaga didn't take the phallus and run with the video the way she did just a couple of week’s later at the MTV Video Music Awards. Before, during and post-show, Gaga never broke character as Jo Calderone cruised into the pop landscape wearing a black suit and dirty tee, a hunched over, cursing, chain-smoking, beer-chugging, pompadoured '50s J.D.-movie refugee. His sheer existence seemed to hurl poor wee Justin Bieber into a glazed-eyed fugue state.
Jo loudly complained about Gaga (“She’s fuckin’ crazy!”), her hair (“At first it was sexy but now I’m just confused!”) and about being just another one of her loser boyfriends (“I am not,” he screamed, “like the last one!”).
In an incredibly discomfiting confessional moment, he said that when he fucks Gaga and she comes, she can’t stand to look him in the face because she can’t stand to share an honest moment. Then he and a dance troupe in Calderone chic high-kicked into a jazzed up version of “Yoü And I,” complete with West Side Story-style choreography and a shredding Brian May cameo. When the Queen guitarist ended the song by leaning affectionately against his front man, I couldn’t help but flash back to May’s time with Mr. Freddie Mercury, and sense that a baton was being handed down, as May once sang, “from father to son.”
Great stuff. But the official video for “Yoü And I” from whence Calderone came?
Let’s put it this way: if Gaga decides to include Jo in her Monster Ball repertoire — and why wouldn’t she? — then the “Yoü and I” video, with it’s coy umlaut, will have done it’s job. Otherwise, it finds the artist not yet a master of a very arcane and trying sub-genre — the semi-abstract narrative confessional — and too confident in even her most devoted fans’ abilities to parse a flurry of romantic, inverted gender and just plain odd imagery.
Understanding the flaws in Gaga’s confessional auto-erotica becomes easier when you A-B it with P!nk’s flawless journey into queered doppelgänger territory in her video for "Sober". Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who’d provided the same services to Gaga on the "Paparazzi" and "Telephone" videos, "Sober" was written by P!nk during a time of great personal tumult and is drenched with architectural and human corruption. Against the song’s plangent chamber pop we watch P!nk forcing herself to enjoy a Eurotrash party. She’s hurting, but we don’t know why. A guardian angel version of P!nk — who looks straight out of the Wim Wenders school of “if only!” — caresses our heroine as she pukes the evening festivities down the porcelain god. The love of angel-P!nk establishes hope in a fallen world so that we can see P!nk give up on it. After interlacing shock-cuts of superior chaos cinema, our heroine ends up at the bottom of an all-white madhouse singing sardonic tragedy; her lyrics, I’m safe/Up high/Nothing can touch me, function as blackest humor as well as a promise of the curse to come. In case we’re not clear how destroyed her inner soul is, Åkerlund imports the spinning-head effect from Jacob’s Ladder to visualize it.
As the party itself becomes increasingly all-female, the style becomes akin to one of Maria Beatty’s lesbian S&M porn shorts. What follows is eroticized self-assassination with P!nk falling from frame-right onto the body of another P!nk. The sex is a cruel, ravenous interlacing of grinding torsos and biting mouths. The lyrics neuter hotness with sick nostalgia: When it's good, then it's good, it's so good, 'till it goes bad/'Till you're trying to find the you that you once had. P!nk is hijacking hetero male girl-on-girl fantasy and turning it into a crime scene. It’s partial self-awareness as bête noire. By the last minor chord, P!nk fucks and abandons her vulnerable self in the darkness, leaving her to fetal-curl on sullied sheets. Here's the full video:
“Sober” is the result of an artist, song and director all in absolute synergistic sync. "Yoü And I," Lady Gaga’s third co-direction effort with creative director Laurieann Gibson, starts with the artist alone, and essentially stays that way. It opens with Gaga in a crooked scarecrow pose at the crossroads of a Midwest cornfield, ankles bleeding from the straps of killer high heels. Crossroads? Cornfields? Gaga? Yep — there’s power in them there juxtapositions. For a while. Like P!nk, Gaga can’t resist splitting into multiples. She becomes a dolled down Sissy Spacek pounding an upright while dirty Jo Calderone mounts the piano, smoking and crossing himself. Unlike the parade of P!nks in "Sober," Jo and Gaga show scant awareness of the other. In no order I can decode, we also get a bound Victorian Gaga, a dead and pickled Gaga in a steampunk aquarium, another as a happy mermaid in a steel tub, and so on. By the time she and her dancers show up to dance up a storm in the barn where most of this takes place, whatever Gaga is saying is already lost in the image parade. The eventual money shot of Jo-on-Gaga action is tame, quickly cut away from and begs the question of why it’s there in the first place. Here's her video:
“Yoü And I” screams for a strong-willed collaborator to edit and/or contextualize the billions of cool things that fill Gaga’s amazing mind. It shows she is ill-at-ease with something P!nk does like falling off a log, and that's turning first-person confessional songwriting into third-person narrative video. Written about the real life off-and-on love affair that’s been haunting Gaga for years, "Yoü And I" the song is a promise of romantic fealty and a masochistic love letter to romantic distance.
And so I wonder if the reason for the video’s flaws, such as its uncharacteristically twitchy editing and the sense that Gaga is constantly trying to cut away from things, might be less of a creative crisis and more the manifesting humanity of the artist. It might be that this slip into confessional caused a very sudden, frightening sense of nakedness that almost required the birth of Mr. Calderone. This isn’t Gaga creating abstractions about poker faces, paparazzi or teeth. For the first time, this is about her showing her soft places to millions in something approximating traditional singer-songwriter mode. But this being Gaga, standard definitions always blur and mutate. The video, as dysfunctional to the rest of us as much as it is an art piece, can’t help but work to protect her from real pain, doing so with a wild storm of imagery and other beautiful things. It’s what anyone with a bohemian broken heart does except, when you’re Gaga, you get to do it with a full film, couture, makeup, lighting and CG crew. You get to invent Jo Calderone, who may bust your balls about your intimacy problems, but clearly has your back.
Even if his birth found mother monster flailing a bit, Jo Calderone exposes drag to younger viewers for what it’s worth: self-support, protection and expression. I can’t wait to see him live.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play.