In the beginning was pop culture. I owe it all to my mother. Once upon a time, my mother had her finger on the pulse of American pop music. Born in the ‘60s but raised in the ‘70s, she loved the pop music of flamboyant Elton John, cool Carly Simon, country-cum-pop princess Olivia Newton-John, dance queen Donna Summer, and disco super-groups the Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine Band. I was raised on the “greatest hits” of every single one of these artists. It probably made sense, then, that, when I struck out to find music I liked on the radio in the late 1990s, I found myself drawn to Top 40.
My mother also shows cultish loyalty to cinematic trash, something I used to abjure but now appreciate. My mother thinks critically panned films like Christine (dir. John Carpenter, 1983) and Maximum Overdrive (dir. Stephen King—yes, the author—1986), clearly bad movies, are fabulous. She enjoys 1978’s commercial “Cinderella,” Grease (dir. Randal Kleiser, 1978), as much as—maybe even less than!—1980’s critical and commercial travesty, Xanadu (dir. Robert Greenwald). She expressed pious devotion to 1997’s critical and commercial blockbuster, Titanic (dir. James Cameron), exercising repeated viewings on two quickly moribund VHS tapes. My mother is an icon for popular tastes.
I have never escaped them. I got my start in college journalism as an entertainment writer in “celebrity gossip,” à la Perez Hilton, who I now find deplorable. I also penned a number of online pieces praising old and new pop music that ran counter to the increasingly “indie” tastes of the newspaper’s editors. Looking back on this more modest time in my life, I recognize I did not yet possess the critical facility for talking about these things other than “informatively.” Then came what, at one time, I privileged more than anything else in my life: my film criticism. What started out in the pages of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture, via The Vanderbilt Hustler, caught the attention of Jerry Jones, publisher of Out & About Newspaper, “Tennessee’s GLBT News Leader.” I began a successful year-tenure at O&AN that I formally ended to attend graduate school. Graduate school has been a time of enormous personal, political, emotional, and spiritual upheaval whose effects I will not be able to characterize for years. I made a weak attempt at returning to my film blog, “We Have the Stars ★★★★,” late last year, but ultimately abandoned it (again). I have come to find out through graduate studies that, though I will forever be a cinéphile, my love for the movies is no longer what impels me (though it continues to, in large part). The tremendous discovery I have made in graduate school has been my intellectual engagement with the politics of identity. What does it mean to be “gay?” How does one assert political efficacy through “gayness?” Basically, it boils down to: how can I make life better for people by expanding the categories and helping bring acceptance to a number of fellow marginals?
In graduate school, I have found a number of thinkers productive for their public prosody and personae: African-American feminists bell hooks and Ebony A. Utley, gay radical-activist Larry Kramer, and gay cultural critics Richard Dyer and Michael Warner. But none of them have animated me in a way that one contumacious public intellectual has of late.
I have since lain myself at the altar of Camille Paglia:
Before a mere two weeks ago, I had tiptoed around Dr. Paglia—sniffed, prodded, shied away. Paglia is a scapegoat for a number of feminists against whom she launches her own vitriolic ad hominem assaults. My reticence in studying the work of Camille Paglia has been, to date, my own loyalty to academic feminists who loathe her. Two weeks ago, I (finally) saw The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), a film for which Paglia composed the British Film Institute (BFI) “reader,” and decided morbid curiosity for her work had gotten the better of me. The local library lacked the dainty book, and so I inquisitively made off with her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), and a copy of Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (1994). I consumed her ideas as breaths of fresh air. I have always admired dissident diva figures in film and cultural criticism, as far back as my introduction to Pauline Kael in undergrad. As Jack Nicholson puts it in As Good As It Gets (dir. James L. Brooks, 1997), they “make me wanna be a better,” well, “man.”
My awakening to Paglia has been the key I have needed for years—the nucleus for the various, seemingly unrelated particles that comprise my interests in the cinema, history, pop culture, sex, sexuality, and politics. Paglia’s self-proclaimed “libertarian” stance on homosexuality and sexual “deviancy,” informed by her coming-of-age in the ‘60s sexual revolution, I see as a foil for my fascination with the same. We both adore Madonna, my all-time favorite musician and her all-time favorite feminist icon. I admire Paglia’s dedication to exploding the false dichotomy between high and low culture, a distinction that produces crusty, bourgeois types that affirm their sublimity through condescending appeals to esotericism. And, really, her idiosyncratic theories sound like nothing else out there, a testament to her imaginative thinking (something I fear I often lack, as American academia has taught me to depend on the theories of others).
To that end, I was previously a disciple of feminist philosopher Judith Butler, whose radical theories of gender provoked my far-left stance toward sex, gender, and sexuality. But, for me, Butler’s work has a fundamental hole. Try as I might, her superficial theories have not helped me understand my sexual urges. Critics of the supernova-hot Gender Trouble (1990) took her to task for failing to account for “bodies,” a reproach she “rectifies” in Bodies That Matter (1993). But, for me, it still does not speak to what I think is the real oversight: impulses, drives. For example, in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Judith Butler infamously “deconstructs” Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Butler critiques, “When Aretha Franklin sings, ‘you make me feel like a natural woman,’ she seems at first to suggest that some natural potential of her biological sex is actualized by her participation in the cultural position of ‘woman’ as object of heterosexual recognition. […] Aretha appears to be all too glad to have her naturalness confirmed….” But what Judith Butler misses, frustratingly, is the pleasure in, the veneration of precisely what is being studied—the type of pleasure for which Paglia accounts. Sure, what the heck is a “natural woman,” but, diva that I am, I love belting this song in falsetto. (Perhaps Butler prefers “battle-of-the-brains” with Slavoj Žižek to the therapy of music.) In contrast, Paglia’s “Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen,” her paean to the fabulous excesses of cinema’s Cleopatra, gets it right, toggling between evaluation and admiration. Butler’s tactic speaks to the academic imperative that you must not disturb your logic by divulging your inexplicable enjoyment. Thankfully, the stranglehold of programmatic reasoning is slackening across the board.
But there is something sadly “marooned in the past” about Paglia’s recent cultural criticism, as Alex Needham puts it in his critique of her Sunday Times Magazine piece, “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” As fellow Italian Catholics hypnotized by the indefatigable flare-ups of pagan sexuality through the ages of Judeo-Christianized social convention, Paglia ought to be enraptured by Lady Gaga. “Teeth,” a Fame Monster album track enjoyed in cult circles, especially those of gay men, is particularly imbued with marvelous sexual carnality. “Heavy Metal Lover,” from Born This Way, also admired by gay men, is a throbbing ode to “the nasty,” with liberal reference to cunnilingus and “water sports.” In “Judas,” the latter album’s second single, which failed precisely because of its scandalous title, Gaga imagines herself in a love triangle, animated by religious tropes, amongst the guy who is good for you (“Jesus”), the guy who is bad for you (“Judas”), and herself. Really, it is too bad the single failed due to puritanism. Bombastic in sound and grandiloquent in scope (unlike critical consensus, I loved the video, one-part Kenneth Anger, three-parts Baz Luhrmann), “Judas” is, perhaps, the strongest case for Paglia’s admiration…
…that will never come. So here I am, “little mons†er” incarnate, reinvigorated by Paglia’s criticism and finally cognizant of how to hone my varying interests into the productive cultural criticism I have wanted for a year to start. In “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” Paglia disowns her icon Susan Sontag, and she says, “I’m your successor, dammit, and you don’t have the wit to realize it!” I, as you will no doubt see, am not quite so cold, but, in the words of Showgirls (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1995), “I just hope that I can be as good as the show.”
“You are, dear. You are the show.”