The colossal success of Lady Gaga’s latest single “Telephone” has made her the only artist in history to have six consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts. Within a year of the release of her album The Fame Monster, “Let’s Dance”, “Poker Face”, “LoveGame”, “Paparazzi”, and “Bad Romance” all reached the pop music summit. In the wake of these successes, the popularity of “Telephone” comes as no surprise. Gaga’s ascendancy is manifest.
The song’s sheer cultural ubiquity (instigated by, of all things, that relic of the MTV era—its music video) is remarkable. Since the “Telephone” video was released, the song and Gaga herself have ranked extraordinarily high in every reliable marker of cultural attention: posts on Tumblr and other blogging platforms, statuses on Facebook, listening statistics on last.fm and MySpace, and as a trending topic on Twitter.
The pop appeal of Gaga’s music, though undeniable, cannot on its own explain the magnitude of her fame. The “Telephone” phenomenon has the look and feel of mass culture—and if this article were being written in March 2003, we might be tempted to dismiss it as just that, part of a strategic master plan devised by BlackBerry-toting heirs to Dick Clark. But it’s 2010, and new technologies are making the establishment media of yesteryear irrelevant.
Social media’s decentralization and relativism run amok have brought us to a breaking point. Succeeding the modernist age of alienation, ours is the postmodern age of anomie. With the rest of would-be mass culture riding the greased slide of Web 2.0’s “long tail” into relative obscurity, Lady Gaga’s massive popularity suggests that the disappearance of the mainstream has been a deeply felt loss for culture at large. Gagaism has all the intensity of backlash, because that is precisely what it is: pop culture’s response to the disorientation of normlessness, the outburst of a complaint simmering in our collective unconscious.
As Wired editor Chris Anderson noted in his influential article The Long Tail, “we live in the physical world and, until recently, most of our entertainment media did, too.” Because of the limits and costs of making physical objects, consumers’ entertainment options were necessarily limited. To justify the costs of touring and manufacturing, a set of songs has to guarantee that bodies will gather in concert halls and CDs will fly off the shelves. After all, someone’s got to pay the rent, and since venues can only book one gig a night and record stores have only so much shelf space to stock, the inflexibility of space and time is, culturally speaking, extremely limiting. Similarly, as radio and TV can have only so many stations, and because their signals only transmit so far, they must ensure large audiences in small geographic areas, which means that even slightly obscure programming gets tossed. Materiality is inimical to variety. In the physical world, we are the unwitting subjects of the cruel tyranny of the hit. But those days are behind us. Online, there’s no “there” there.
“What do we really want?” asks Anderson. “We’re only just discovering, but it clearly starts with more.” The advent of Web 2.0 is indeed a revolution of choice (as much as the disorientation brought on by market segmentation can be deemed “choice”), but it has yielded a deficit of consumer attention—limited, it turns out, by the pesky inflexibility of space and time. Mainstream media no longer pulls in the audiences it used to, and advertisers are looking elsewhere to corral whatever scattered attention they can. Experimental and idiosyncratic works, once condemned to obscurity, are now MySpace-Friending and Amazon Recommends-ing their way into newly individualized media spheres—without the normalizing influence of mass culture.
As a result, we’ve lost a sense of shared meanings. Popular music’s most effective tool for creating shared symbolism—its organizing principle—is the celebrity, which is not a debased distraction from life’s more important things but rather a social tool to help us conceive coherent identities amid the miasma of postmodern culture. In late 20th century America, celebrity may have been the closest we came to objective meaning in culture.
Greil Marcus drives the point in “Blue Hawaii”, , his 1977 eulogy for Elvis Presley:
I didn’t write about “a real person”; I wrote about the persona I heard speaking in Elvis’ music. I wrote about the personalization of an idea, lots of ideas—freedom, limits, risk, authority, sex, repression, youth, age, tradition, novelty, guilt and the escape from guilt—because they were all there to hear. Reading my responses back onto their source, I understood Elvis not as a human being…but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.
The continued resonance of Marcus’s words reminds us that the social-media age has not stripped celebrities of their iconic power. Celebrities are still capable of making a disparate and fragmented public cohere around mass-cultural symbolism. But by what metaphors are we united today? The conspicuous absence of popular culture’s myth-makers has made us turn to one another to fill the void.
Broadcast media (one-to-all) once defined a common, if limited, cultural vernacular, structured by the personae and symbolism that made modern identity intelligible. Social media (all-to-all), however, is slowly robbing us of commonality. Instead, we are offered platforms on which we create our own personae and announce ourselves to others. Now that niche culture is the principal output of culture in general, celebrity has become highly relative.
Jon and Kate Gosselin, lonelygirl15, and your extended family’s blogs and Facebook pages aren’t exactly the stuff of American mythos. You wouldn’t put Kelly Clarkson on a par with Elvis, although she too has been America’s idol. Easy access to stardom has demystified fame as a category. The explosion of reality television, flash-in-the-pan internet memes, and the proliferation of previously unpublishable celebrity trash leaves us in our present abject condition: obliged to wade through the disillusioning images of “Stars: They’re Just Like Us”, while every exhibitionistic social-media outlet reinforces the growing sense of “Us: We’re Just Like Stars”. Slumped in isolation before a computer screen, working to maintain our enviable followers-to-following ratio on Twitter, we realize that fame, as such, is not tantamount to glamour.
Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma, sees social media’s DIY fame culture as part and parcel of what he calls punk capitalism. “Fifty years ago the world operated like a conventional rock concert,” Mason writes. “The producers, bosses, and owners are the rock stars above, generating the goods, services, salaries, and content we the fans consume below the inaccessible stage, singing along obediently with our lighters in the air.”
Mason compares this with punk ethics: the anarchy of egalitarianism, the destruction of hierarchy, the, er, participatory nature of the audience hurling beer bottles and spit at the band (a precursor to comment threads?). Mason beams, “Our world today is starting to look a lot more like a punk gig ... The barriers to entry are being kicked down, and this new breed of fans-turned-performers, including you, is rushing the world stage.”
The analogy is colorful and well-taken, but its logic crumbles over what is precisely punk’s most culturally significant aspect: its symbolic content. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, his book on youth subcultures, Dick Hebdige writes, “the punk subculture signified chaos at every level, but this was possible only because the style itself was so thoroughly ordered. The chaos cohered as a meaningful whole.” The unity of punk iconography in fashion, music, attitudes, and slang have made it one of the few subcultures that remains well-structured decades after its cultural peak. Punk’s continued intelligibility is due to its oppositional stance. Whatever it is, punk’s against it, warring against popular culture by remixing its symbols to imbue them with new and often shocking significations. The Sex Pistols used the iconic image of Queen Elizabeth II, her eye and mouth areas torn off, on the cover of their counter-anthem, “God Save the Queen”. The Ramones subverted the meaning of America’s own iconographic royalty by donning Mickey Mouse T-shirts with ripped jeans and long hair.