Last week, I had two distinct but intersecting opportunities: a chance to engage with Sara Johnson's brilliant work on cinquillo music as a means of sonic resistance and political community formation amongst Caribbean slaves, and an opportunity to deliver a guest lecture on politicized, future-oriented utopias in speculative fiction. The combination rekindled my interest in engaging with the idea of futurity and queer resistance in audiotopic musical spaces, so I wanted to take some time this weekend to think about Lady Gaga's work in relation to three of my favorite works on queer futurity: Judith Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place (particularly "Queer Temporalities and Postmodern Geographies"), Lee Edelman's The Future is Kid Stuff, and Tom Boellstorff's "When Marriage Falls: Queer Coincidences in Straight Time". What follows is an attempt to think about queer futurity, audiotopia and practices of subcultural resistance.
In “Queer Temporalities and Postmodern Geographies,” Judith Halberstam lays out a theoretical framework for reconfiguring critical formations of time and place to account for the particularities of queer experience. Although Halberstam’s conception of time primarily revolves around the socio-biological life cycle of queer adults and her conception of place largely focuses on geographical spaces inhabited by queers, I can’t help but wonder what transformations would take place if we mapped her queer cartography onto musical spaces. Music simultaneously enacts and creates a cultural space which is internally structured by the relationships between different instrumental layers and their interior rhythms, thereby enabling it to be spatially mapped out. Moreover, the very nature of rhythm necessarily constitutes it as an invocation of time; after all, what is rhythm but a measurement of time? In a hetero-normative society that positions anything “queer” in dialectical opposition to the organic and authentic, pop music produced by non-heterosexual artists represents a uniquely queer cultural space within which real and artificial sounds are layered over one another to produce a sonic space that transcends the temporal and spatial logics of the dominant culture as they (the logics) are mapped out by Halberstam.
In particular, I want to focus on the music of Lady Gaga not simply because she is openly bisexual, but also because she functions as a liminal figure whose music appeals to both heterosexual and non-heterosexual consumers. Despite the fact that her lyrics primarily address heterosexual relationships, her music is illegible in terms of the reproductive futurism that structures hetero-normative culture. For instance, if we take Cascada’s 2007 club hit “Every Time We Touch” as a representative model of straight club music, we can see that she only invokes the sensational pleasure of physically touching her lover in relation to her invocation of a future in which that pleasure is legitimized by a stable heterosexual relationship:
‘Cause everytime we touch, I get this feeling
And everytime we kiss I swear I could fly
Can’t you feel my heart beat fast
I want this to last
I need you by my side
In addition to the sentimental, submissive tone set by lyrics such as “Your arms are my castle, your heart is my sky,” Cascada’s insistence that “I need you by my side” renders her physical pleasure legible within the normative framework of a long-term heterosexual coupling that is ultimately imagined to result in marriage and reproduction—reproductive futurism in the sense that it establishes the conditions necessary for socially-acceptable reproduction. Sex for the sake of sex is unthinkable in the context of hetero-normative culture, which, as Judith Butler, Lee Edelmen, and Tom Boellstorff all imply in their writings, organize themselves around the conventions of marriage, reproduction and death. Thus, Cascadia’s pleasure is situated in opposition to the “non-generative sexual enjoyment” that books such as The Children of Men (as Edelmen reminds us) view “in the absence of futurity as empty, substitutive, pathological.” Here, the fetishistic potential for reproduction enables the articulation of heterosexual pleasure in the context of a future conception of the Child.
By contrast, Lady Gaga repeatedly invokes the pleasures of heterosexual sex in a manner that places it outside the organizing structure of reproductive futurism. In “Lovegame,” when Lady Gaga sings, “Let’s have some fun/ This beat is sick/ I wanna take a ride/ On your discostick,” she not only invokes sex as a recreational activity completely removed from its reproductive function, but she even localizes this “transgression” by invoking it as a function of the “sick” beats of the musical space. In the context of the “willfully eccentric modes of being” that Halberstam attributes to queerness, can Lady Gaga’s fixation on consumption, sexual pleasure, and fame—all constitutive elements of what, according to heteronormative, reproductive logics, would be considered immature, adolescent preoccupations—be considered a way to inhabit a present that actively resists the heteronormative imperative to produce stable, mature reproductive bodies that readily assimilate themselves into capitalist production practices. Can we understand this type of ostensibly “superficial” subject matter to be an element of Halberstam’s “‘epistemology of youth’ that disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood and maturity” or does its reproduction of values that reinforce capitalism complicate its subversive potential? (2) Do the thematic excesses of Lady Gaga’s music subvert the logics of capitalism and reproduction by creating a “rich, riotous future” that simultaneously destabilizes its originating logics? (3)
In a broader sense, I can’t help but wonder whether the queer temporalities that Halberstam is searching for can also be figured as queer rhythms, rhythms that mark out a non-normative space within which cultural participants are able to live out lives that refuse to conform to the reproductive metanarratives assumed to organize heterosexual lives. If this is true, then the sonic space of Lady Gaga’s music (and club music in general) provides a perfect pattern for the ways in which cultural texts might destabilize heteronormative teleologies by undermining the listener’s ability to locate the present in relation to the past and future. For instance, in “Just Dance,” Lady Gaga lyrically creates a self-referential present which refuses to explicitly acknowledge the presence of anything outside of the club, instead exhorting the listener to dance. Even as the lyrics refuse to contextualize the space of the club, the song’s rhythm further undermines the temporal geography of the song by generating a specific set of beats that recur cyclically, thereby marking out the overall rhythm of the song. Thus, the rhythmic structure of the music demarcates the cyclical, non-linear “coincidental time” that Boellstorf reads as a potentially queer form of temporality. Anthropologist Clifford Geetz (as quoted by Boellstorf) characterizes coincidental time thusly: “The cycles do not accumulate, they do not build, they are not consumed. They don’t tell you what time it is; they tell you what kind of time it is” (239). Because the rhythmic time marked out in Lady Gaga’s music is structured around cyclical beats that are experienced but never measured, the nature of time in Lady Gaga’s music destabilizes the listener’s ability to distinguish where in the song they are. By refusing to allow the listener to orient the present moment in relation to the past and future of the song, the song enacts a postmodernism that Halberstam characterizes as “a strange and even bewildering confusion of time and space where history has lost its (materialist) meaning, time has become a perpetual present, and space has flattened out in the face of creeping globalization” (11). The type of technologically-mediated, synthetic space created by artists such as Lady Gaga gestures towards the possibility of inhabiting a queer futurity that transcends the constraints of reproductive time. Yet I can’t help but be suspicious of the emancipatory potential of an audiotopia that can only be accessed though consumption. Can a commodity produced in mainstream capitalist production practices and consumed within a hetero-normative culture truly provide a queer alternative? Or, to put it simply, is Lady Gaga’s music truly queer or just weird? I haven’t quite figured out exactly where I stand on this particular issue, but the issues raised by queer theorists have generated a set of questions that I look forward to engaging with.