Lady Gaga has been described as “a voice for our generation.” She is a woman on the verge of releasing Born This Way, a potentially world-changing record which one person has called “the greatest album of this decade.” The lead single of the same name has been dubbed the “anthem for our generation.” Her concerts have been deemed “youth churches,” and, as someone once put it: “the bitch can sing.”
The Truth About Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s favorite subject is Lady Gaga. She envisions herself as an enigmatic riddle wrapped inside a mysterious paradox. For my inability to understand this infinitely complex figure, I’m constantly being bashed over the head by her Monster Cult: I simply “don’t ‘get’ her,” they say. Browse YouTube comments or Twitter flame wars: her detractors are told that they fail to understand Gaga’s deeper points about celebrity, fame, and art. If we understood what she was aiming at, we’re told, we’d stop aiming our bayonets at her and proclaim ourselves Little Monsters, too.
In this essay — which will be ever-growing — I intend to chronicle, in fairly comprehensive fashion, why I totally do “get” Lady Gaga — and why to understand her is not to embrace her.
2010 was a watershed year for her — but for all the wrong reasons. Having achieved fame, she has shed the arty, self-knowing persona of her early period and has come to embody all of the pop life’s worst attributes: egomania, pretension, and self-importance, topped off with a big, steaming pile of histrionics.
Let’s begin by examining what exactly a ‘Little Monster’ is.
The Sociology of the Monster Cult
The first notable point about the term ‘Little Monster’ is that it did not evolve organically, as was the case with, say, Justin Bieber’s equivalent, the ‘Beliebers.’ Lady Gaga herself decreed that her followers were her ‘Little Monsters,’ and they obediently followed suit in adopting the terminology. It was not a creation of the fans: ‘Mother Monster’ simply started calling them that during her concerts (or ‘youth churches,’ as she has called them) and they adopted the moniker without protest.
No big deal. But why ‘monsters’? Let’s allow Gaga to explain herself. Here, in her own words: the full text of the ‘Manifesto of Little Monsters.’
There’s something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras. So precisely and intricately, so proudly, and so methodically. Like Kings writing the history of their people. It’s their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as the “kingdom.” So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, while I am something of a devoted Jester.
It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. Or, the lie, I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become, in the future.
The first thing that’s notable about this startlingly incoherent manifesto is that it’s actually not a manifesto. A manifesto is a body of work outlining the intentions and core components of an ideology or movement. Gaga’s two-paragraph brain-droppings can be described as many things, but ‘manifesto’ is not a term that comes to mind.
Second, if the manifesto is of Little Monsters, then it ought properly to be written by Little Monsters, not Lady Gaga. (And the word ‘prolific’? I don’t think it means what she thinks it means.) A proper fan community should be allowed to grow organically. But from the naming of the community to the expression of its ideas, the Monster Cult seems to be a strictly top-down operation: Lady Gaga issues the decrees, and the Monsters follow suit.
Gaga’s inscrutable ramblings aside, the common explanation seems to be that ‘monster’ is a tongue-in-cheek reference to what is allegedly the nature of the typical Lady Gaga fan: eccentric, a bit freakish, maybe a bit of a misfit. Mother Monster thus styles herself as the Queen of the Misfits; a public representation of the positive, artistic role of the outcast. She diligently thanks her Monsters in all of her public speeches and appearances, declaring them her reason for living and even the true writers of Born This Way. In October 2010, Lady Gaga even took to her Twitter to announce that, for Halloween, she was going to dress up as a Little Monster.
It takes a special kind of egomania to dress up as a fan of yourself for Halloween. But then, Lady Gaga’s arrogance — already thoroughly documented in the first paragraph — is pretty extraordinary.
“The funny thing is that some people have reduced freedom to a brand. They think that it’s trendy now to be free. They think it’s trendy to be excited about your identity. When in truth, there is nothing trendy about Born This Way.”
Gaga spoke those words as November 2010 drew to a close; the statement was a seeming allusion to a recent duo of #1 pop hits: Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework,” both of which emphasize self-expression and individuality.
Gaga’s statement is perplexing on a couple of levels. Somewhere along the line, this woman seems to have convinced herself that her music is about personal liberation, individuality, and self-expression. A cursory glance at Gaga’s small catalog of music reveals that she has written a grand total of zero songs emphasizing this theme. And her most visible songs undercut the message on a grand scale: her major hits have been about getting wasted at a party (“Just Dance”), having sex (“Poker Face”), and ignoring your boyfriend while you’re clubbing (“Telephone”). Who exactly, then, is Lady Gaga to be lecturing anyone else about lyrical themes?
The point I’m making here is not that there is something wrong with singing about booze, boys, and parties, but rather that if Lady Gaga is going to parade herself around as an exemplar of personal liberation, she really ought to write a song about something other than, well — booze, boys, and parties. There’s nothing wrong with the topic, really: but can we please try not to pass it off as high art?
Worse, still: if Lady Gaga is serious about encouraging young people to embrace their identities, why on Earth would she be spitting upon others’ efforts in furthering this message? Ke$ha and Katy Perry are high-profile pop singers, after all. One would think that Gaga would want to thank them for embracing a positive message. One would think that she would view them as allies in helping others. But alas, this is not the way that Lady Gaga operates: the disgusting truth seems to be that she simply wants the stage to herself. (Perhaps, one might venture, she’d recognized that the music she’d released to that point had absolutely nothing to do with individual expression — and was thus angry that other artists beat her to the punch.)
The obvious retort here by the Monster Cult is that Lady Gaga has been hard at work on an album full of songs about individual expression, self-acceptance, and personal liberation. This is, at least, what I’ve been breathlessly informed of by the Monsters: she’s using mindless pop to get her foot in the door, or so goes the line — and then she’ll unleash her high art.
Fine. Maybe so. (Although, given the asinine inanity of the lyrics of “Born This Way,” I highly doubt it.) But right now, we’ve heard nothing but talk. It would be bad enough if she’d released a song or two about individuality and then hit the road as a one-woman hype machine for her own brilliance. That’s color-by-numbers, par-for-the-course industry arrogance, and it’s never becoming. But Gaga’s arrogance is virtually unprecedented: it takes a special kind of audacity to take cheap shots at others for putting out allegedly inferior versions of art that you have yet to even produce!
MTV reported that Lady Gaga made this strange remark during one of her London shows:
“Now, I don’t know if you know this, but for those of you who don’t know, I write all my own music. Every single lyric, melody and note was created by me. I am not manufactured. I’m a bad cat and coming for you ’cause I believe in you and I. It’s not that I don’t like to be humble, it’s just that pop music has a pretty bad rap…
Jacques of The Prophet Blog says all that needs to be said:
I wonder what RedOne, Darkchild, Fernando Garibay, Rob Fusari, Akon, Martin Kierszenbaum, and about fifty other engineers, backing vocalists, producers, writers, musicians, marketing assistants and A&R reps would have to say about that?
In summary: Gaga’s statement is objectively, provably false. This is not an opinion.
Some fans, mentally rejecting any negative information about Mother Monster that arrives at their desks, have rationalized this bizarre statement by claiming that Gaga comes up with all of the lyrics and melodies to her songs, and that the producers just add the instrumentals.
It’s easy to understand why this explanation is appealing to the Monster Cult: since nobody has specifically claimed credit for individual sections of each song, the melodies and lyrics can be chalked up to Gaga and her integrity, statement and all, remains roughly in tact. (To the Little Monster, the alternative — to admit that she’s such an egomaniac that she feels that she can openly take credit for others’ work in front of the world — is unthinkable.)
Alas, the contention is too far-fetched to hold water. First of all, unless we are to dismiss the production as unimportant, irrelevant, or otherwise not notable, this still doesn’t explain why Gaga would claim credit for “every note” on the album. (The album kicks off with “Just Dance,” for instance, which begins with a synthesized “E.” That qualifies as a note, yes? That’s part of the production, yes? Which is credited to — why, I believe it’s…RedOne.) But furthermore, there is a marked quality difference between her work with marquee-name producers and the B-listers she chose to play around with. “Summerboy” is a passable pop song, but it’s no “Boys Boys Boys.” Left to her own devices, Gaga seems to prefer to write rock ballads, such as “You and I” or “Speechless.” The intense, driving dance-pop sound that has become Gaga’s signature is virtually all RedOne’s doing.
Manufactured This Way
It’s easy to forget it, but there are several videos that exist of a young woman named Stefani Germanotta performing soulful, smooth-jazz ballads for eager New York audiences. Germanotta — the woman lurking underneath the layers of “Lady Gaga” that have been applied to her — never felt the need to adorn herself in bras made out of meat, collect gay men as fashion accessories, or declare her concerts “youth churches” for politically active students.
Rob Fusari, the man behind “Paparazzi,” has felt compelled to dish on Gaga’s manufactured personality. Explaining that she’d initially been discovered in a New York nightclub as a promising prospect for a Strokes-style rock record, Fusari recounts his work with Gaga throughout 2006 on just such a project, but says that he felt like a fish out of water working on anything but R&B. After showing Stefani an article about how Nelly Furtado was launched back to superstardom after ditching folk-pop for pulsating dance music, he convinced her that club beats and performance art might actually be the way to go to achieve stardom — despite her preference for a more stripped-down sound. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” was the first dance song they recorded together, and the song caught the attention of Interscope. Sometime in 2007, she was introduced to RedOne, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What to make of this? The Monster Cult dismisses Fusari out of hand as a bitter ex-boyfriend trying to steal Gaga’s money in a frivolous lawsuit. He may very well be bitter, and his exorbitant lawsuit strikes me as a bit quixotic. But the kind of scenario Fusari describes is par-for-the-course in the business, and it’s not as if Gaga’s recent actions don’t confirm his version of events: as noted, when Gaga is set loose, she prefers to pen songs like “Speechless” — songs that are fairly close to the kind of sound she’d originally been going for.
There is certainly nothing shameful about adopting a new persona. But the hypocrisy reeks to high heavens: Lady Gaga has cast herself as the champion of misfits, eccentrics, and weirdos, telling them to embrace their identity, no matter what the costs; no matter what others might say to them. But she is particularly ill-equipped for such a role, given that she herself compromised her identity to win stardom! Stars like Ke$ha and Britney Spears happily admit that they wear masks on stage for the sake of performance. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, defiantly insists that nothing about her is an act; that her stage persona is a pristine representation of who she really is:
Alexander Fury: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
Lady Gaga: That I’m a character. Or that Gaga is separate from Stefani. We are one and the same, there is no difference…
Puh-leez. Go watch Stefani Germanotta perform. She’s fantastic at what she does, and she loves doing it. “Lady Gaga” is nothing but a character played by that woman.
The Thinnest Skin In the Business
Given that she’s not who she claims to be, it should probably not come as a surprise that she’s got such a massive chip on her shoulder. Indeed, I have never seen a pop star as concerned as Lady Gaga about what her critics are saying about her. Never have I seen someone with such thin skin; who felt so strongly that they had something to prove. In addition to the above-documented statements where she (falsely) claims to write all of her own music and whines that there’s actually nothing trendy about her music, consider this obnoxious video, where, in a grating tone, she yells “Surprise! A pop show — and the bitch can sing!” And when her mic cut out one night, she felt the need to intone: “I told you I don’t lip-sync! My fucking mic just went out!”
Yeah, and? Virtually nobody in the industry except Britney Spears blatantly lip-syncs their way through entire concerts. Even the weaker singers — Katy Perry and Rihanna, for instance — give it their all, even when it comes up a little bit short. That Gaga feels the need to announce the fact that her vocals are live on such a repeated basis seems evidence to me that she’s — oh, let’s just put it politely: very insecure. It’s absolutely baffling: she’s on top of the world — what does she care whether some anonymous critic is accusing her of lip-syncing?
In this sense, Gaga’s public outbursts remind me of Sarah Palin. Both women are attractive divas; both of them think they’re far more important than they actually are; both of them let their critics get to them; both of them wrongly believe themselves to be voices for their generation — and while both of them are beloved by a base of hardcore fans, it’s hard to overlook the fact that they’re both just a lil’ bit nuts.
A Horrid Role Model
The following episode was a defining moment in the evolution of my thoughts about Lady Gaga. If we are to believe her that her Monsters are comprised primarily of misfits and lonely hearts — she notes that she has received plenty of letters from gay kids who had been kicked out of their homes, for instance — then what can we call her except foolish, irresponsible, and destructive — when she admits to dabbling in cocaine?
She did “bags and bags” of cocaine when she was younger, she confessed, and implores her fans to not go down that road. But, well, that being said, she still admits to “occasionally” dabbling in cocaine since achieving superstardom! (Please try to imagine what people’s reaction would be if Britney Spears told the world that she dabbled in cocaine.)
Cocaine isn’t like marijuana. It is not a falsely-stigmatized drug that does little more than send a person into a small high for a while. Cocaine is very dangerous, and Gaga, as a self-appointed spokeswoman for vulnerable young people, has a responsibility to transmit the right message. (And for the record: “Do as I say, not as I do” ain’t that message.)
She might be playing with fire, here: her fans absolutely worship her. At the very best, what we’re now dealing with are thousands of people who are, at the very least, apologizing for or excusing her cocaine use. This is totally unacceptable. We cannot just excuse this as “Gaga being Gaga.” Despite her claims to the contrary, she is a human being — one with immense influence over a lot of young people. Her breathtaking irresponsibility here is shameful. At the very least, she could have kept her damn mouth shut.
Queen of the Gays
For some reason, Gaga’s Monster Cult always seems to think it has me trapped, here. “You love Britney Spears so much,” Little Monsters say to me. “But when’s the last time Britney Spears did anything for the gay community?”
First of all, I completely reject the notion that celebrities are somehow morally required to “speak out” on political and cultural issues. That singers are public figures is a byproduct of the widespread appeal of their craft, not their political aptitude. If Britney Spears just wants to perform, let her perform in peace. We don’t demand that carpenters, teachers, or even lawyers become public advocates for political positions. Why should we expect the same of performers?
Moreover, even if they’re inclined to speak out, I believe that they should always weigh their options prudently: celebrity activism always serves as a double-edged sword. The headlines surrounding Gaga’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell activism were never, for instance, “Lady Gaga speaks out for gay rights,” but rather “LADY GAGA!!!!! speaks out for gay rights.” The celebrity always ends up overtaking the issue, rendering their efforts, intentionally or not, somewhat self-indulgent.
Second, how utterly patronizing is it to ask me such a question in the first place? Do Lady Gaga fans look at me and see nothing but a homosexual? Might it have occurred to the Monster Cult that I have other considerations in mind than my sexual orientation; that my life doesn’t revolve around the fact that I’m gay? When Lady Gaga thanks “the gays” in her speeches, I wonder: would anyone thank “the blacks” for their support? Would any other minority group ever be lumped into such an undifferentiated, stereotypical mass? I have always maintained that Lady Gaga’s affection for gay men is little more than glorified fag-haggery. She simply strikes me as someone whose first reaction to a gay friend’s coming-out would be “Oh my gosh! I love gays! Can we go shopping?” Gay people, to Lady Gaga, are bunch of pink, glittery, fashion-obsessed queens. There’s not a lot of difference between Christian conservatives’ stereotypical views of gays and Lady Gaga’s: the key distinction seems only to be that she likes that stereotype. It’s incredibly condescending — and it’s really a shame, given that she could be using her platform to empower young gay people to be truly individualistic, trailblazing, and self-empowered. Instead, she sends them down the path of the same-old same-old political nonsense, with a liberal dosage of trite cliches about “loving yourself.”
The truth is that being gay doesn’t have to be “about” anything. I think I speak for most gay people when I say that our sexual orientation is not a central part of our identity. Lady Gaga is positively obsessed with our homosexuality — and it’s condescending, not liberating.
Gaga is well-known for her living her act, but it’s no accident that her meat dress is the top suggested search result on Google when one types in “Lady Gaga.” Somewhat intriguingly, though, she appears strangely self-conscious about her sensationalist tactics. In a rambling, incoherent attempt to justify the artistic merits of her meat dress, she fumbled around awkwardly to Ellen DeGeneres, jumping from one piece of nonsense to another, none of them connected to the other in any discernible way:
“However, it has many interpretations, but for me this evening … If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones.”
“And I am not a piece of meat,” she added.
…Yeah, that too!
We Arrive at the Real Problem
I don’t want to dislike Lady Gaga. The heart of the problem is not what has truly made her a star: her music is intense and driving, her fashion sense is interesting, and much of her showboating is entertaining and part of a long tradition of pop divas, inherited from the likes of Cher, Madonna, and Britney Spears. And it’s mostly those aspects that are appealing to the public.
The key problem is the utter disconnect — even discord — between perception and reality amongst her and her fans. I can always enjoy Ke$ha’s music, for instance, mindless and carefree as it is, because she never pretends to be anything other than what she is: a pop artist who makes fun party music. There’s little substantive difference between the topical themes of Ke$ha and Lady Gaga’s music, but Ke$ha isn’t out there pushing her work as high art. Gaga and her fans present her as an avant-garde, politically-conscious revolutionary, single-handedly bringing art, style, and sensibility back to the pop arena. She is not doing that. Since the release of The Fame Monster, she has been a cancer on the pop arena, epitomizing everything that people loathe about showbiz. She is a narcissistic egomaniac running amok on the world stage, unleashing havoc on the pop world, and talking down to anyone who gets in her way.
I wonder what the Lady Gaga of 2008 would have to say about the Lady Gaga of 2010. That was the Lady Gaga I once loved: the self-knowing, humble, fun-loving Lady Gaga who I requested at the clubs, rooted for at awards shows, introduced to my friends, inspired me to take fashion risks, and saw in concert. Wherever she is, I want her back. The pop music fans who once rooted for her but just couldn’t swallow the Monster Cult bullshit are still out there. And we are eagerly awaiting her return.