Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne,’ Edgar Oliver’s ‘Attorney Street,’ and Camp Self Portraiture

Or, the sad half-joke of earnestness and longing in New York City.

Camp, explained in depth as a cultural phenomenon by Susan Sontag, refers to art that is consumed with a sense of irony, seeing “everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.'” Sometimes the metaphorical quotation marks are applied deliberately, but sometimes it’s unintentional. In “Notes on ‘Camp,'” written in 1964, Sontag cherished pure, “naive” camp over “deliberate” camp. “Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful,” she wrote. But with the style’s broad popularization via queer culture later in the ’60s, and with Sontag’s own contribution to its definition as a phenomenon, deliberate camp — à la John Waters, the work of Andy Warhol and his peers, and drag culture more broadly — became a vastly influential mode of performance.

As the 20th century progressed, camp continued to infiltrate the mainstream. It characterized the work of filmmakers like Todd Solondz and David Lynch, major influencers like RuPaul, and polarizing, mainstream cultural phenomena like American Horror Story, Lana Del Rey, and the super-deliberate Nicki Minaj. Perhaps its most prominent avatar was mid-2010s Lady Gaga, who made a drastic shift from being perceived as cutting-edge to being perceived as undisputedly and proudly (?) campy:

While contributions to camp canon were being made all over the spectrum of culture, the influence of Stonewall Era queer culture was particularly widespread, and the historical significance of New York gay life — particularly emanatig from Downtown and Greenwich Village  — was huge. Coming out of the Beat era, the Village was a haven of cabarets, and host to the city’s most vibrant gay bars. (In the coming decades, queer culture in New York would expand further into the Meatpacking District, the East Village, and Chelsea.)

Interestingly, Gaga — a mega-gay-icon, whose tracks like “Born This Way,” somehow (naively? deliberately?) adopted the campiness of older gay icons like Madonna — herself came of age as a performer in Village cabarets. She was a student at adjacent NYU, in an area whose romanticism had eroded due to towering real estate prices, the expansion of the university, and the departure of artists who weren’t celebrities.

However, it wasn’t this almost goofy, anachronistic Village singer/songwriter image that’d make her an icon. Rather, it was her disposal of that image. It was replaced initially with high budget spectacles of the grotesque; then a camp reenactment of ’80s camp iconhood on Born This Way. Then there was Gaga’s career nadir, Artpop, wherein she worshipped (and claimed to be worshipped by — recall “One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me; Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me”) contemporary, capitalistic, materialistic, Koonsian elements of New York artistry and “eccentricity.” That didn’t work, commercially or artistically, and so she began to reinvent herself as an artist who was being exceedingly earnest. As a sample, there was the aging gay-catnip of her Tony Bennett jazz standard collaboration, Cheek to Cheek. Now there’s Joanne, about love and loss in both the real world and the “real world.” Joanne’s title is Gaga’s (real) middle name, and also that of her aunt, who died at only 19, as well as her parent’s Italian restaurant on the Upper West SideJoanne, the album, is a work of unfettered old school sentimentalism.

Now, on the album, and in performances, she’s returned to her oldest self — a dive bar singer — but she’s camping herself. Specifically, her old image is filtered back through the commerciality of mega-stardom. It’s an image that can perhaps only be financially sustainable once you’ve been a pop star. It’s an image that’s also its own performance, complete with a Bud Light-backed tour. This is meant to be the album that went straight from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s guts to your ears, and yet it is perhaps (not necessarily to its discredit) her campiest work to date.

Suddenly, Gaga is embodying the notion of the sort of New York “singer-songwriter” whose life only seems credible in nostalgic visions of the city. She’s begging a lover for one good reason to stay (after they’ve given her a million to leave!), or singing about teardrops falling from the eyes of “Pinot Grigio girls.” The album cover sees Gaga stripped down, sans body modification or elaborate costume. And on the first stop on her album tour, in Nashville, Gaga addressed the audience as follows (affecting a certain twang):

How you doin’ tonight, Nashville? My name is Lady Gaga. I’m a singer/songwriter from New York City, coming through Nashville, but if you could do me this favor. Tonight, if you could just call me Joanne.

The Joanne tour notably visited the Bitter End, the Greenwich Village nightclub where Gaga got her start, and which was in the 1960s a hub for the world’s biggest folk musicians (Dylan, Joni Mitchell, etc.). Today it feels mostly like a tourist relic. During Gaga’s performance, she perched on the balcony, lording over the neighborhood and quoting the old self that used to come to this place, the neighborhood itself a quotational reiteration:

***

Last Saturday, I went to the Axis Theater in the Village to see theatrical storyteller Edgar Oliver’s Attorney Street, which runs through November 19. The Axis is a space that was formerly a gay nightclub, The Haven, which was shut down by a police raid in the 1960s, and then became the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, an incubator for queer camp culture. Although the creator has never been a megastar, Attorney Street reminded me of Gaga’s Joanne in that performance was a form of self-portraiture, but one in which the self is rendered into a camp object, an anomaly in the midst of contemporary New York. Much like Joanne, it’s a curious confluence of deliberate and naive camp, where the performer is offering up some version of their rawest self, but also playing into the notion that audiences’ attraction to that rawness will come from its hyperbole and obsolescence.

Oliver’s works have long been something of an emotional map of New York, from his focus on Prospect Park in In the Park to his home for three decades in a rooming house in the East Village in East 10th Street: Self Portrait With Empty House, and a bit of everywhere (including Attorney Street, in the Lower East Side) in Attorney Street. Oliver got his start as a New York performer — he hails originally from Savannah, Georgia — in the East Village in the ’80s, at the drag-centric Pyramid Club. He gained a cult following of people amused by his theatricality and emotively odd voice, which critics love describing: “Think Family Guy’s Stewie doing a Boris Karloff impersonation,” for example, or “sounds as if he learned to speak in the crypt of a Hammer horror movie”.

Oliver’s work has attracted critics, in large part because of the difficulty in differentiating between self-consciousness and earnestness. In a great piece that ends up heaping praise on Oliver’s 2014 monologue In the Park, The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als wrote that he’d been dubious initially, tending “to dismiss [Oliver]’s earlier performances as affected and self-conscious, camp that built on camp.” Even if you connect to what Oliver’s doing, though, I think the notion of its campiness still holds. In Attorney Street, though, rather than creating camp through drag costumery and/or a general sense of excess, Oliver has created it with nothing but himself onstage. His work has drawn comparisons to iconic camp documentary Grey Gardens, although in Attorney Street, it’s Oliver himself who is both documentarian and subject, carefully rendering a camp portrait of himself from which audiences will feel an uncomfortable, chuckle-worthy sense of remove. His party trick, as a New York curiosity, is, simply performing selfhood.

In a moment where New York City has become a capital of industry, competition, and unaffordability, both Gaga and Oliver’s performances present a romanticism, and thereby a campy, (knowing) naiveté — both towards a place, and towards love and romance within that place. In 2016, both of these things feel scarce and removed from the present. Oliver’s is the kind of loneliness afforded a nonconformist with a florid (and even Blanche Dubois-like) take on life that feels far removed from the Darwinian pragmatism that defines 2010s Manhattan — the grid the artist still, puzzlingly, calls home.

And yet his poetic professions of loneliness — which could verge on trite if it weren’t for their singular delivery — summon New York audiences to watch him, agog and enthralled. It’s unclear, however, whether they’ve connected to the material or merely spent an hour gawking at the otherness of the person onstage, this camp performer with his moping and his musing. Such was the nature of the night I attended: people laughed knowingly at moments that weren’t expressly funny, as one laughs at Shakespeare to overemphasize a familiarity with old, foreign and encrypted language. The laughter seemed to say, “There’s good old Edgar again — that person whose vocabulary of bizarrerie I’m very familiar with.” Often, what Oliver was saying would have sounded dull if pronounced by someone else. As such, it becomes a matter of camping himself.

As Oliver acted out the odd tragedy and juxtaposition between his speech about the changes in his own body and the changes in New York City, the audience laughed uncomfortably until they could no longer laugh at all. Oliver, who’d just been in the midst of a childlike reverie, suddenly asserted a worry that he might never write and perform again. His physique — which looks almost intentionally meek — remained hunched, even old. But his voice was vital and resonant, even as he boomed the words: “But that boy is out there still. Someday he will write, ‘No one will ever see me as I see myself. How beautiful I am sometimes, like a vision there in the mirror – as lithe and handsome as any golden man.'”

Oliver’s status as an aging gay eccentric (someone who’s lived in rooming houses, who just wants to break free of perpetual loneliness, who claims he could make a home in the men’s bathroom at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, befriends beggars who blow puffs of freebase into his mouth as they speak to him, and finds father figures in Downtown statues) is one of a New Yorker, an artist, and a gay man who no longer fits the ways we envision these things, particularly together. He situates himself as a strange relic.

***

In a city that has become so deeply corporatized (and in an area that’s become so commercialized and expensive) as to be almost unrecognizable, notions of “bohemia” may still exist, but they’re pushed to the margins, where developers capitalize on and monetize their romanticism more quickly than ever. As I’ve written before, Bushwick hardly had any time to be a bohemia before it became a gentrifier’s haven, with both immigrants and artists being priced out and replaced with bars expensively designed to approximate bohemia. It’s not infrequent that you’ll see the New York Times wondering, “Can New York be affordable again?,” or someone like Patti Smith declaring that New York is no longer “welcoming to artists and dreamers.” Giving into sentimentalism in 2016 is so disjointed from the realities that those trying to live as artists — or as anything — in New York are aware of that it’s hard to read it as anything but camp.

And because of the competitive nature of both working and living in New York, romance itself — which Oliver and Gaga yearn for as though it were a “Paaaahfect Illusion” — has become depleted and commodified, particularly given the banal, person-cataloging excesses of online dating and hookup apps. This city no longer seems like it was made for people who, as a primary goal, seek affection, either.

It’s in this dark moment for the city and what it represents that two generations of New York artists — one a megastar, the other a man who appears alone in the small cubby of a Downtown theater every so often — are onstage, affecting a similar relationship to themselves. Both Gaga and Oliver have pared their performances down to the most essential, romantic, and longing parts of themselves — and then revealed those selves to be theatrical, removed from contemporary realities. In 2016 New York, the bohemian notions of a queer artist spending the day contemplating the beauty of urinals, or a “singer/songwriter” trying to make it in the big city by weaving country-tinged metaphors about worn out leather and love, seem intriguing but wholly out of place.

In his review of Attorney Street, Ben Brantley refers to Oliver as “above all, an elegist.” The most elegiac quality of Oliver’s performance comes from the dissonance between the performer and his audience: the disheveled, aging gay artist ruminating on his lonely past, and a group of people who, by virtue of being Greenwich Village theatergoers, are part of New York’s population of monolithic privilege and sheen. This is a man who is making sad, haunting, funny camp of his life — but perhaps it feels so much like the latter because it’s hard for something so fanciful, even in its darkness, to feel like anything but camp in a city where survival means being wholly unromantic.

You can laugh at the oddity — and the performance of oddity — until you realize that the very set-up of the thing you’re watching, the audience/performer relationship that renders Oliver such a curious relic, is at the heart of his work:

Where shall I go? What shall I do? Where are the weeds gone, the weeds of New York? Where are the vacant lots gone, with their beautiful weeds? They’re building high rises there now. Weeds of Delancey Street, the last spring is come. The alley cats will hunt elsewhere and the rats will run away and the cracks in the sidewalk will wail and the old dead curb will stand next to nowhere. And they’ll tear you down one day this summer. And it will all be gone.

You don’t need drag or elaborate costumes to be deliberately campy in today’s New York: maybe you just need to go onstage, dressed as yourself, and cry out for a person, a place, or a time to fall in love with.