What you saw, what Gaga says
Lady Gaga generates controversy like she does music. Wearing a chada – the classical Thai dance headpiece – while singing her song “Hair” at the big Bangkok show last Friday created a firestorm online.
It took a mighty effort for cooler heads to prevail. They had to point out that Gaga didn’t plan in advance to wear the glittering helmet. When she’d arrived in Thailand at Don Muang Airport she spotted a fan wearing the full traditional khon costume, and the same woman was up front at the concert, so Gaga asked to borrow the chada. She even asked first how it was supposed to be worn.
I don’t think Lady Gaga is like the many foreign visitors who simply fall for the charms of Thai culture and buy decorative pieces. I strongly believe she intentionally asked for the chada while performing “Hair”. It’s a song about the right to be yourself.
The song is about bickering with your parents because you love dyeing and highlighting your hair and dressing in wild outfits. Their pleas to you to stop make you worry about losing your identity, or at least losing the chance to find out who you really are.
If you’re blocked from discovering who you are, how can you ever decide what to do in your life to be happy? Yet here we have someone who can only make her parents happy by being sad herself.
While performing “Hair”, Gaga spoke about visiting the Calypso drag revue in Bangkok and being quite impressed by the stars’ freedom to express their identities. She loved Bangkok’s open LGBT community, with ladyboys and everyone else able to dress as they wish, far more freely than in other countries.
So wearing the chada – symbolising Thai culture – while singing such a meaningful song was more than simple theatrics. It was her way of praising Bangkok for its acceptance of diversity, for giving space to LGBT people, for letting folks be the way they want to be.
Activists here would point out that what Gaga had witnessed was tolerance, not acceptance, and certainly not equality. But it has to be said that tolerance at least affords freedom to be different, albeit with limitations.
And no one had to appeal for equality on Friday night because “Hair” had spoken loudly enough. It’s an appeal for genuine equality and a condemnation of laws that cast aside people and punish those who don’t adhere to social norms.
“Freak gays” and polygamous gays must also have the freedom to live as they wish, just like the character in the song lamenting the limitations imposed on her hairstyle.
Tears filled the eyes of a gay writer sitting in the grandstand that night. Thank you, Lady Gaga, for truly understanding the difference.