In 2009, Lady Gaga released what would become a smash hit of that summer; the danceable, mid-tempo track with an infectious melody and subtle latin groove--Alejandro. Released on her third EP, “The Fame Monster,” The lyrics, with only subtle references with any sort of specificity, are sufficiently vague to allow for multiple interpretations. Aside from two short verses, the lyrics use the pop trope of heavy repetition. Meaningful lines such as: “She’s got a halo around her finger; Around You”--which supposes a marriage (halo as wedding ring) interrupted by tragic death (also seen in the opening funeral scene in the video); and “But her boyfriend’s like her dad, Just like a dad”--which suggests a controlling patriarchal romance, are in limited company with the bulk of the writing staying much more superficial. Like the lyrics, the strong imagery, production design, and avant-garde visual spectacle in the song’s accompanying music video leave much room for interpretation. Directed by famous high-fashion photographer Steven Klein, the music video for Alejandro blends the spooky, edgy aesthetics of Gaga with the strong, often homoerotic visual style of the director. A close reading of the eight-minute long video yields layered representations of both masculine and feminine qualities inscribed on a homogenized set of beautiful, well-built male dancers. These layered codes create a bricolage of gender, rather than a display of blended androgyny. Taken outside of heteronormative ideals for depictions of sexuality, Gaga’s corps of male dancers could be seen as a model for a “new man”--an alternative example of a counter-hegemonic model.
Throughout the video, Gaga herself is styled to evoke images of Madonna (referencing the double-breasted suit of her 1989 video for Express Yourself), as well as referring to the spooky masculine femininity of Marlene Dietrich, and a steam-punk dominatrix. These references and visual compositions--utilizing elaborate makeup, costume and hair design--exhibit touches of masculinity dashed into Gaga’s look. None of these masculine elements--the business suit, the leather, the bowl-cut wig--succeed in erasing the sensual, sexy power of her womanly frame. The suit is offset with stiletto heels, the boyish bowl-cut worn with a nude lingerie set and black thigh-high sheers.
Like Lady Gaga, the company of male dancers are depicted with contradictory layers of masculinity and femininity that never quite align to create a true androgynous image. The very first camera shot is a close up on a gorgeous male, seemingly asleep, wearing only fishnets, high heels and a military hat. Perched on the table next to him is a large, black, machine gun. As the camera pans around the space, other men (in what appears to be SS military officer garb) are also asleep/frozen/suspended in time. Cut next to a backlit silhouette of a formation of dancers marching, punching and lunging to a heavy drumbeat. As the video progresses, we see these men are wearing short, tight, black, high-waisted shorts that pointedly frame the musculature of chests and abs, while exposing well-formed arms and legs. They wear heavy combat boots and identical black, bowl-cut wigs. These matching costumes and wigs have a homogenizing effect on the dancers--erasing any trace of identity and individuality. Although certainly a different aesthetic here, this homogenization recalls that of the military (with uniforms and buzz cuts) or sports teams. Later in the video, we see Gaga in her nude lingerie writhing on top of a muscular dancer (face-down) clad only in high-cut black silk panties and stilettos. Gripping a thick black rope, he lunges and snarls like a panther as she manipulates him in implied sexual domination. Although he is shown in such feminine sensual underwear and heels, his overt masculinity is never truly negated. The skimpy panties do nothing to offset a thoroughly masculine torso complete with the tell-tale “V”--contouring from small waist up to broad shoulders, and the stilettos simply accentuate the athleticism of his muscled legs.
It could be argued that the movement vocabulary in Alejandro is more feminine than is typical of male dancers, yet I would argue that layered juxtaposition is at play rather than blended masculine/feminine qualities. Interspersed between masculine, hard-hitting moves--reminiscent of sport, military and fitness activities--the men salsa with soft, willowy arms, and isolate their hips with serpentine sensuality. These movements, easily considered feminine to most, considered through the latin lens of the music negates such feminine readings. For latin dance forms--and the africanist aesthetic from which they come--the poly-centric action of isolated hips and shoulders--often in opposition of one another--is not solely reserved for feminine physical expression.
Alejandro’s fashion styling, photographic sensibility of the cinematography, art direction and stylized dance movement all spring from the lens of director Steven Klein’s signature style. Known for juxtaposition, gender-bending and homoerotic imagery in his high-fashion photography, Klein’s aesthetic, coupled with Gaga’s cutting edge, avant-garde approach to pop/dance music engenders a dark, yet playful image of a “new man.” If we can side step, for a moment, the heteronormative, binary view of gender and sexuality (however idillic a supposition that may be), we can potentially read Gaga’s men as sexy, sensual, idealized men. Men who are unafraid of experimental fashion and modes of expression previously reserved for feminine domains; men who are open to being sexually dominated and enjoy egalitarianism in the bedroom; men who are potentially more sexy, more fun, and more “real” in their connection to authentic animalistic desire. These dancers are perhaps an offering from Gaga and Klein of what could be considered a model for an ideal, counter-hegemonic man.