Imagine being a part of the generation that grew up listening to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in their teenage years. Oh the horror of pop music of early 2000: Watching Britney sing “Hit me, baby” in her skimpy school uniform; Christina mud-wrestling in the buff; the constant whining for love, sex, and the ideal boyfriend. These were the trials I was subjected to in my teens.
Once college started in 2006, like all good Delhi University brats, I switched to the music of the ’60s and ’70s. The holy phase of music began, loosely translated as a love for all things ‘retro’ and a disdain for pop. Britney and gang were soon forgotten.
Then came Mother Monster a.k.a Lady Gaga, singing ‘Poker face’ with a very odd dress sense, a blonde wig and makeup that was outlandish. When I first heard ‘Poker Face’ in 2008, I groaned inwardly. Here came yet another addition to the Britney, Lindsay gang of girls. Her music seemed yet another version of bubble-gum pop to my elitist mind, and I waited for her to loudly declare her ‘virginity’ a la Britney.
But as I would soon find out, Lady Gaga is no Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. She’s a star born in the age of social media, (she has over 10 million followers on Twitter alone). Her popularity isn’t a creation of marketing, but based on the genuine affection of her fans who love her— perhaps because of her daring streak of honesty, be it about her sexuality or drug use.
And unlike the exclusively American, white, straight sexuality peddled by likes of Britney, Gaga speaks to everybody: gays, lesbians, blacks and Asians alike. Just listen to “Born this way” — already dubbed a gay anthem — and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Her biggest fan following is within the gay community. And rightly so, for Gaga has not been afraid to speak with and sing for them – a reason why Lebanon has already banned the song.
In times where only a certain brand of ‘hotness’ or ‘beauty’ is in vogue, she’s broken all those maddening rules of beauty. This is a woman who doesn’t think twice about wearing a meat dress to an awards ceremony. Classy be damned, she’ll wear what she wants to.
Everyone is forced to take note of her: you can hardly ignore a woman making a grand entrance into The Grammys in a giant egg. It’s okay to be garish and slightly unhinged; to do your own thing, even if it appears to be eccentric, or just plain strange. In short she’s made it okay to be yourself. She is rightly considered the most important female pop icon since Madonna.
The fashion police have been grudgingly forced to admit that she’s pushing the boundaries of fashion. Academics are busy deconstructing her cultural meaning. And the music industry can’t get enough of Lady Gaga because her music sells. Her latest album Born this way has already sold 1.1 million copies in a less than a week. And this in an age of torrentz and downloads, with record labels complaining of plummeting sales.
For a 20-something Indian woman, I’m enthralled as I watch this woman being exactly who she wants to be. Raised in an India that’s undergoing sweeping social change, I’m caught in a world riddled with contradictions; pinned between television serials with sari-clad women in heavy gold jewellery and Bollywood beauties in John Paul Gautier bustiers. Both representing a rigid beauty code that is stifling.
If the traditional norms of beauty reflect age-old ideas of female modesty, the new liberal version slavishly imitates the West. Our Bollywood heroines are all tall, skinny, and boobalicious. They all have long hair (I can’t remember any of our leading ladies sporting short hair ever). And each one offers up the same coy, inviting smile for the cameras, sexily dressed in the latest must-have frock from Paris or Milan.
And yes, we girls must do our best to look like them. Else forever drown in the misery of being ‘plain,’ ‘gharelu,’ or ‘dark.’
I can’t help but ask: what about me? Who should I look up to? I’m short, have no desire/taste for designer clothes, and certainly no money to buy them. I don’t want to cover myself from head-to-toe in silk and diamonds or be a Bollywood beauty. Neither Deepika shaking her booty in the Nescafe advertisement nor Sonam Kapoor strutting around covered head to toe in Chanel makes me sigh with envy.
In her deliberate, in-your-face violation of standard norms of beauty— traditional, modern, or any other kind— Lady Gaga offers the prospect of a new kind of liberation that helps me preserve my bit of insanity. That ‘monster’ inside who wants to sing: I’m beautiful in my way/ ‘Cause God makes no mistakes/ I’m on the right track, baby/ I was born this way.