‘GAGA: Five Foot Two’ and Authenticity In Pop

What does authenticity mean to Lady Gaga? “Integrity, intention,” she says. “I can say this to you all day: it’s not gonna reap anything.”

This was Gaga back in 2009. After just releasing The Fame Monster – the reissue of her wildly successful debut, The Fame – she was at the apex of her fame. Unknown to Stefani Germanotta, her messily curated image of high fashion, eccentricity, and sharply written pop bangers would never capture the public’s attention in the same way again.

At the end of the noughties, artifice was all the rage and Lady Gaga was the personification of this trend. Hailed as the new Madonna, she shocked the public time and time again and, rightfully, earned her place as pop’s most talked about star. Ever since, her status has declined: although successful, Born This Way never took the charts by storm and Artpop was a confused and muddled mess.

Contrary to her earlier outlook, the era in which we now find ourselves in has seen Gaga reclaim the term “authentic” and situate her brand entirely around this buzzword. Joanne is Lady Gaga stripped back, raw and real, her meat dress kept strictly behind closet doors. The artifice of her early years has been removed and what we are left with is the subject of Chris Moukarbel’s new documentary, GAGA: Five Foot Two, which was released on Netflix last Friday.

The documentary follows Gaga as she records her latest LP and anticipates her Super Bowl halftime performance. Most of the running time, however, is reserved for intimate moments with the star, as she learns to deal with anxiety and struggles to cope with her well-documented battle with Fribomyalgia, an intense form of chronic muscle pain. In essence, we get a peek behind the curtain (no, not the burqa) and into the dressing room of one of pop’s biggest female artists. It’s a sort-of-pastiche of the documentary profiles of rock stars in the 70s – only with more pain, heartbreak, and honesty.

Director Chris Moukarbel has responded to labels of “authenticity” that have been attached to the project. Speaking in OUT, he says: “The film is not trying to claim, this is the real Gaga. That was never my objective.” Maybe so, but GAGA: Five Foot Two clearly posits Stefani Germanotta as a woman striving to bring out the “girl in the studio.” She embodies every archetype of authenticity in the book. Of course, this is all tinted through the lens of nostalgia – not for Gaga’s early career, but an age when pop music was more about raw emotion than deception – and is quite clearly stylised in a manner that respects her new country aesthetic. However, her desire to shed off the layers of artifice she’s built up over the years is still strikingly clear.

Interestingly, the documentary highlights a larger trend in modern pop music: it’s the perfect example of a late noughties star clinging onto fame by authentically documenting their process of recovery, a theme that has recurred numerous times with different artists throughout 2017.

This year, several pop stars have dealt with themes of pain and healing, albeit to varying degrees of success. Most brilliantly, Kesha returned after a long hiatus with one of the year’s most stunning records, Rainbow. After a highly publicised court case involving Dr Luke – the producer who allegedly drugged and raped her – Kesha offered up a euphoric and uplifting track list that refused to paint her as a victim, all sung in raw vocals that were devoid of auto-tune. Perhaps less successfully, Katy Perry live streamed her therapy session prior to the release of Witness which, although admirable, felt terribly misjudged. Miley Cyrus also returned back to her country roots with Malibu, a Disney-esque single about finding enlightenment after heartbreak, which was a safe move following her provocative Wrecking Ball era. Clearly, we are seeing several pop stars that emerged at the end of the noughties recovering from past trauma, and doing so in a way that feels stripped back and raw – often uncomfortably so – in an attempt to remove the duplicity of their previous personas.

Ann Power, writing for the LA Times in 2009, hailed that the past decade had seen authenticity take a holiday. She writes: “In nearly every niche, millennial artists have shown a marked preference for artifice over raw expression, costume and theatrics over plain presentation and foregrounding the tools they use to make music over pretending that it all comes ‘naturally’.” She predicted that authenticity was bound to return – and, almost 10 years later, she was right. However, this may have happened in a way she didn’t predict: many artists do still create music in a hall of mirrors, and more ‘genuine’ stars such as Gaga do still see authenticity through a rose-tinted lens of nostalgia. Nor could Power anticipate the proliferation of social media and its role in breaking down the barriers between artist and audience.

Still, Power’s soothsaying does feel rather prescient in the context of Gaga’s previous claims that authenticity is meaningless. GAGA: Five Foot Two is a conscious effort by the star and her director to peel back her image and explore the artist beneath. She appears in little or no makeup, visibly distraught, or cooking with family and friends – a dull yet refreshing departure from her trademark eccentricity. Along with other noughties darlings (Kesha, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) Gaga has tapped into vulnerability and healing in order to sustain her cultural hegemony over the ever-complicating landscape of pop. Where she will go next is anyone’s guess.

You can view Gaga: Five Foot Two on Netflix now.

Author: Liam Taft
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