Attempting to parody the mentally regressive side-effects of contemporary consumer culture, Sharon Needles – the inventive and outrageous winner of RuPauls Drag Race 2012 – has explained that her drag-alter ego is not only meant to be performatively “stupid,” but, more importantly, is meant to seem “dead.” Why has Needles been so widely championed as a comedic yet accurate reflection of the cultural zeitgeist?
If we widen our lens a bit further, locating this “living zombie” look in mass-cultural imagery doesn’t take much time at all. Recent musical newcomer “Lord” – with an “e” – so far congratulated for “speaking the truth” about the condition of popular culture, looks, on her promotional imagery, unlike the revolutionary spokesperson for angry youngsters she claims to be, more like a dead fish on a cold slab, her eyes rolled up as if in rigormortis. Other contemporary “musicians” seem to have adopted this lifeless character in both image and sound. The “artwork” accompanying Lana Del Ray’s album is a good example, with the global sensation staring blankly into space, her skin motionless and her posture stone-like. Unsurprisingly, Lana is a self-identified “victim” of capitalist culture, often calling herself a robot, and a lover of all things green, glamorous and soulless. No wonder her most “moving” song beckons the question “will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” to which the answer, as she herself recognises, is most probably NO. We’ll return to our precious Lana in due course.
This “dead behind the eyes” looks does, interestingly, have cultural and historical precedence. For Glenn Adamson – curator of the Postmodernism exhibition at the V & A museum in 2011 – the strongest visual example of postmodernism is a 1980’s hologram poster of Boy George, who, leaning onto his gloved hands, gazes hollowly and emptily into the distance, limply searching yet finding nothing in front of him – a cultural abyss.
Indeed, the sense of ‘defeatism’ that such a look entails has for decades been recognised as a key facet of “postmodernism” for cultural historians – the realisation that the fight against capitalism is over; that the dreams of the avant-garde are dead. For Andreas Huyssen, a cultural and art-historian who traced the dwindling efforts of modernism and the avant-garde, and the inevitable supremacy of postmodernism, ‘the reality was that ‘by the mid-1970’s, certain basic assumptions of the preceding decade had either vanished or been transformed. The sense of a “futurist revolt” was gone.” Although, this doesn’t quite paint the full picture (with the rise of feminist/queer theory and action through the 70’s and 80’s), it is true that since Warhol’s sublimation of a soup can into the status of high-art in the 1960s, mass-culture has increasingly chewed and spewed out avant-garde imagery and ideology, like a hungry blind-sighted Pac Man, munching everything in its wake. Capitalism began to replace God with its own omnipresent icons of advertisements and skyscrapers, perfect bodies and American Dreams. The avant-garde certainly did “feel” over.
Artwork of the time is clearly reflective of this. Whereas the modernist work of the 1950’s and early 1960’s was dedicated to critiquing the institution, desperately finding a way to democratize art outside the frames of the hierarchal art world/market, what began to appear with the rise of postmodern theory and its pessimistic realisation of capitalist triumph, was a form of art that willingly surrendered itself to the grasps of the institution. Installation artist Lygia Clark’s The House is a Body 1967, recently exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London, is a pretty good example of this. As the viewer, we are asked to retreat into what is clearly a uterine structure, crawling on all fours and entering a tactile corridor made of fleshy hues, coloured balls and various fabrics. As we trek through this passage – on our way into this sculpturally constructed “womb” – we temporarily feel a sense of safety, a momentary escape outside the repressive forms of patriarchy that the museum walls represent. When we finally arrive at the centre of the womb, however, we are unpleasantly surprised. Its walls are comprised of limp, almost pathetic pieces of clear plastic, and all we can inevitably do is unwillingly stare back at the oppressive white walls of the institution – the very place from which we hoped we might be offered passing relief.
The way that such a work rehearses the inescapable conditions of capitalist supremacy is, I think, if it isn’t too much of a stretch, being replayed again and again in contemporary pop culture. For some – like Britney Spears – the fight is well and truly over. Her latest release – “WORK BITCH” – boasts the lyrics, in a characterless voice that is genuinely dead (and in an INEXPLICABLE British accent): “You Want a Hot Body? You Want a Lambourghini? You want a Bvlgari? You better WORK BITCH.” The fight against capitalist ideals is, she argues, now a fight for them. Want to be happy? WORK for the institution, BITCH. Lana, dare I say it, is slightly more “complex”. Like the drag character of Sharon Needles, or the installation piece by Lygia Clark, she seems to act-out the deadening effect of living for the institution, singing morosely about going “Off to the Races,” and marrying men for cash. Is Lana the critical answer to the seemingly impossible dissolution of the capitalist system? No, not quite. What about Lorde? Her proposal against the mass-cultural celebration of “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash,” is, wait for it, herself: “I can be your ruler”, she alternatively suggests. “You can call me Queen Bee.” Well aren’t you selfless, sweetheart?
Of course a 16-year old pop singer with a lukewarm aggressive demeanor doesn’t quite hold the key to our freedom – I’m not that hideously optimistic – but I think it is interesting that there seem to be a variety of mass-cultural responses to the degenerating state of contemporary popular culture, whether it be passionless celebration (Britney), self-conscious parody (Sharon Needles, Lana), or light-hearted critique (Lorde). All of which seem to utilize a form of apathetic – even lifeless – imagery that stems from the 1970’s.
It is this “apathy” – whether genuine or parodic – that worryingly seems to be pervading the current cultural and social psyche, however. With the knowledge that the “fight” might really be over, trying too hard and being too passionate can seem almost naïve, and even “uncool”. Is it not this attitude that cloaks the rich-hipster figure, someone who appropriates the avant-garde “look” whilst paying a fortune for it, moping the streets of East London with an expression of apathetic indifference to the towering image of The Gherkin building behind him?
 Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern,” in New German Critique, No.33, Modernity and Postmodernity, (Autumn, 1984), p.25.