We are old friends, Lady Gaga, so let us not lie to each other.
You must know this as surely as I do: At best, “Shallow” from A Star is Born sounds like a transparent re-write of “Tears in Heaven.” At worst, it sounds like a bonus track Extreme would slap on a greatest hits album.
I challenge you to listen to your soppy washcloth of a song (so full of it’s own limp destiny that it makes “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” sound like all 17 hours of The Ring Cycle), and not visualize some artfully black and white video from the 1990s with Nuno — or maybe Richie Sambora — chiming in some tasteful runs on an acoustic guitar.
And this is true, too: When you are nominated for Best Actress, winning Best Song is a bit like getting the participation trophy in the 3rd grade track meet.
And I began the night despising Gaga, as usual.
This was not just because Gaga stands in front of sincerity like it was a green screen, or because she comes across like a Mad Magazine caricature of Barbra Streisand. It’s because I so very desperately wanted her to be Muhammad Ali, or Woody Guthrie, or Sally Timms or Steve Ignorant. I wanted her to use every ounce of her talent and every inch of her fame to change the world, to fight creeping fascism and the slow acceptance of a new normal that fogs the rights of man and woman to say what they want, print what they want, sing what they want, love who they want.
This is the only battle, and Gaga could fight it with such love and power, and not waste the world’s time with this grim, inevitable climb to the EGOT. “You must protest, it is your diamond duty…Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty” Phil Ochs once said.
And Gaga could have been our greatest protest singer.
But that’s what I wanted. And what I want does not matter.
We cannot will our stars to do what we wish, because it is enough that they have staged a protest against the ugliness in their lives, the grim, gray expectations of normalcy that they fought. They have fought their own fight, and a hard fight it was. Watching Gaga’s deeply predictable speech, I realized that there was no room for my cynicism, for my idea of what she should be. It must be dropped, because she is protest: She will give children, unnamed and trapped in suburbs, a reason to find a flashlight and find themselves.
That is the greatest act of protest, finding yourself!
She will be the Shivanoise that awakes some from the suburban slumber, and my own cynicism shouldn’t get in the way of that.
Lady Gaga is changing the world. She may never be Lady Ché or even Evita, but isn’t it enough that she is a hooded-lid Lady Liberty, lighting the way for immigrants to enter the Kingdom of Outsiders?
Somewhere out in America, boys and girls see Gaga and hear the Shivanoise. Do you remember your Shivanoise?
Since you, too, may be roughly my age, roughly old enough to have voted for Jimmy Carter, I shall make assumptions and note the following:
The Shivanoise had come into your world almost without warning. It snuck up on you while you were concerned with baseball cards and moon landings, it snuck up on you and shook you awake from your Rye Playland dreams, it snuck up on you when the only color in your tween sh*tstop was Randy Mantooth and Willie Mays and maybe Mary Tyler Moore. I know you: You had been slumbering so unhappily in the permanent suburban winter. I know you: They told you this was the best years of your life, but you didn’t believe that for a second.
Listening to Gaga — I find it hard to look at her in that moment, but I could hear her — I knew that this was the not-so-secret message she was sending out to people just like her, just like us, the nation of unsatisfied, the nation of children who knew this was not the best time of our life.
Once upon a time, so long ago but still yesterday, you and I were bullied and bored and wandering lost in Watergate’s haze and wintertime waits for the bus in zero degree mornings; we were baffled and bedazzled and ignored by the slim hippy blonde in the peasant blouse in science class who never returned our smiles. So we dreamt of a Glittering Prize in the form of The City, and we found a soundtrack to go along with our voyage out of the somewhere/anywhere where we lived, in a state of boredom and sadness.
For some, Gaga will be that soundtrack.
For you, it was something else? Was it Transformer, Kinks Kronikles, or The Queen is Dead? Do you remember the moment you realized that the Kingdom of Outsiders was waiting for you? Do you remember the instant an image of some perfectly imperfect boy or girl looked down on you from a poster, or up at you from a magazine or s bruised and bent gatefold sleeve, and enlisted you on the crusade to join that Kingdom of Outsiders?
We felt as if it had all been invented just for us, for us to discover at this exact moment! In one and one-eighth of a teenage minute our walls were papered with pictures that promised us a world full of Runaways and 100 Club renegades; we dreamed of tight pants, tube tops, and Jewish gypsies
with ringlet curls. Sitting Indian-style in our suburban homes, our bellies full of Chicken and Stars or Hamburger Helper, we stared at rockerotica in Circus Magazine and we dreamed of The City, the Glittering Prize. This is the place where we would be understood, maaaan, and where we would commit unimaginable sins that would be forgiven in the cool gold light of a coffee shop at dawn.
It seemed like an impossibly beautiful dream, to be in such a place of light and glamour, so far away from the mundane humilities of gym locker rooms and long waits for lifts home from Hebrew School.
But we dreamed.
And soon enough, every weekend we fled the place, this suburban horror, and sought our own reality. We crossed rivers, to find the Glittering Prize:
A great City Ship, bursting to the south and swollen in the middle and colored Radio City red and Battery bronze and Chrysler Building silver and Show World blue. And in between the rivers, we saw an unspoiled slice of steam that made the yellow cabs Million Dollar Movie perfect; and there were drops of moisture as big as our wide-open eyes on diner windows, and eighty thousand records to be thumbed in Broadway basements and narrow Bleecker Street temples. Even as we walked those shabby streets, bashed in the Beame-times, we knew — we knew for sure, we were absolutely positive, that the dream that had drawn us here, the dream promised us by The Odd Couple opening and the Hotel Seville commercial and the picture of the New York Dolls by the Gem Spa, was absolutely genuine.
We had seen the Kingdom of Outsiders in our dreams and in our magazines — and by dreaming of it, we had made it real.
And when that day came, do you remember that day? That day you left high school’s cinder-block horror behind with a mean oath that we would not become our parents, and then we were there, ready to occupy those streets, those dreams. No one could tell us we would grow old, because we never would! Every spike-haired beauty queen on Bleecker and Bowery made us that promise; every black-lipped girl on Park Avenue South wearing a long white shirt over ripped fishnets made that guarantee between Cleo eyes reddened by two dozen Winstons. They didn’t have to actually speak the words, it was implied, baby! We would never grow old, we would join them forever in a night under the clublights for rockabilly and farfisas and moaning British boys; and under the streetlight stars for a walk down Broadways East and West; and over formica table-tops in over-bright all night joints for egg creams and hot and sour soup.
And I know you, you were drawn to the Kingdom of Outsiders, wherever your Kings and Queens roamed, whether St. Marks Place or Melrose. Wherever it was, you were drawn there, inexorably and erotically charged with a handful of dollars and a copy of the NME. You were drawn to the place where you could be a prince in the Kingdom of Outsiders. Time, The Destroyer of Worlds who smote the smug girls in peasant blouses and turned them into smiling girls in fishnets and kilts, lived in a used record store up a short flight of stairs on the south side of St. Marks Place — wherever your St. Marks’ Place was.
And this is what I realized, watching Gaga at the Oscars:
She was one of the Queens in the Kingdom of Outsiders.
Like Madonna, like Bowie, like Lance Loud, like Kristian Hoffman, like Klaus Nomi, like Lux and Ivy and all the heroes of the Kingdom of Outsiders. Like all those impossible stars who made us aim higher and lower at the same time, all the ones who said, your employment shall be identity, she was one of us.
Gaga was one of us, only better, because she had turned the dreams real, she had found the market where she could sell herself. Because that is the highest employment we can seek, the apogee of our dreams: Who will pay us to be us?
And somewhere out there, eight dozen and eighty-eight more children, lost souls looking for a one-way ticket to the Kingdom of Outsiders, were going to see Gaga and be inspired, as I once was by Ray Davies or Paul Weller, Quentin Crisp or the Speedies.
And that transcends all.
So, Lady Gaga: I take away all the bad stuff I ever said about you, even though it stinks of truth, because my truth doesn’t matter, my truth stinks. The only truth that matters is this: You are going to help others find their truth.
Ah, but in such ugly times, the only true protest is finding your own beauty.
I said that.
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