Without pop, punk is disempowered.
But without a coherent opposition to oppose, punk’s loud iconographic refusals recede into the white noise of cultural relativism. Without pop, punk is disempowered. Andy Warhol attracted early innovators of American punk to his ‘60s pad (dubbed “The Factory”) with the irreverent spirit of his silk-screened art, budget films, and in-house band, the Velvet Underground—but before all this had to come Campbell Soup and Marilyn Monroe.
If DIY, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian anarchy is punk’s defining principle, then its triumph is self-cannibalizing. We’ve so thoroughly mashed-up, deconstructed and destroyed shared culture that we’re starved for more. We demand the equal and opposite of punk: pop with a vengeance. We’ve created a Fame Monster.
Perhaps someone, somewhere, was a fan of Gaga’s when she was a struggling musician on New York’s Lower East Side, and followed her along the path to her present fame. Perhaps there are many such people. But the great majority of us see no narrative behind Gaga’s success. We may know that her real name is Stefani Germanotta and that she must have thoughts, feelings, insecurities, and a personality, but as a culture we do not absorb this information. She is as we would have her: pure persona.
From the start Gaga was the stuff of myth, emerging fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ skull: a pop star that always was and always will be, whether or not we’re there to witness her. Her rise has an inexorable feel, her persona the aura of transcendence.
Lady Gaga’s rise is driven less by aesthetics than ideology. Though Gagaism assumes the forms of mass culture—best-selling albums, music videos, brand affiliations—Gaga is not mass culture in the 20th century sense. The old mass culture, wholly dependent on the ubiquity of broadcast media, is over. The means of Gaga’s ascent was and is new media, a fact betrayed by her moniker: Gaga, a disyllabic nonsense word in the vein of Google, Bebo, Guba and Badoo.
Gaga has succeeded in enforcing an implicit but drastic star-audience apartheid, reestablishing the hierarchy that punk capitalism and Web 2.0’s celeb-egalitarianism condemn. This separation is in part maintained by money. The accoutrements of pop music have always required an enormous amount of capital, and the Gaga phenomenon is no exception. Between elaborate live shows, cinematic music videos, and sculptural couture, the spending behind her fame is constantly in evidence. Of these distancing mechanisms, Gaga fashion in particular has generated the most press. Her outré style resists mass appropriation, denying fans what has always been a primary basis for fan-star identification. Gaga wants her fans to relate to her as fans, and to each other as fans of her.
Gaga’s resistance to appropriation in this age of pseudo-fame feels strangely punitive. Wonderfully so. She is not like us and therefore is a proper locus of worship, otherworldly compared with the banal familiarity of our lives.
Though the magnitude of Gaga’s appeal astounds, the anomic mood behind it does not. Much of human history is marked by despair in the face of the vastness and multiplicity of existence and the yearning for an impossible authority to reveal its greater meaning. In its absence, meaning-making has been the work of culture—but it is becoming harder to know what exactly that word signifies.
Web 2.0 has dissipated any paranoia that the sales-driven music industry might exert total control over mass culture—and although market forces retain their power in cyberspace, we have gained greater independence and flexibility in consumption than we have ever known. The radical increase in consumer agency licenses even the most skeptical highbrows among us to take pleasure in Gaga’s audiovisual spectacle. She has not been chosen for us; rather, we have chosen her. If ever an artist could lay claim to the title, Gaga might be the first democratically elected pop star.
Here lies the key distinction between the pop star of the 20th century and the 21st. Madonna may not have been universally loved, and those who did love her may have faltered—but whatever our tastes, we could not escape her cultural presence. Back then, we could be advertised to. Broadcast media was a vehicle for the expression of Madonna’s will to fame.
But now we can cloister ourselves in self-designed informational, social, and cultural compartments. Corporate-media muscle has atrophied, leaving Gaga’s popularity the tenuous sum of millions of small parts. She’s a Frankenstein of Tumblr fantasies and Twitter dreams.
Are we approaching a new era of stardom, one unstructured by the logic (such as it was) of post-industrial capitalism? Mass media is not dead, per se, but the blows it has been dealt in the past few years have left it bruised and battered. Perhaps we can date the media tipping point to April 2008, when Facebook became the world’s No. 1 social network, or to the Twitter-driven protesting in Iran in 2009. Or perhaps the moment came in the months in between, when another figure rose with startling speed to the stature of unifying symbol.
Obama’s abstracted portrait on the iconic “Hope” posters from the 2008 campaign epitomizes his facility for serving as a universal object of projection for democratic hopes. (One might say we interpret his distant stare at will precisely because we can’t read his poker face.) Virtually out of nowhere, Obamamania stormed through social media in the months before and after his election, making him a political superstar in a democratic spectacle of unprecedented grandeur. The haste and enormousness of his celebrity finds its best analogue in Gaga’s ascendance.
But when the task of media-making falls to the anomic masses despairing in the face of fractured cultural identity, how can the launch of idols be anything but hasty and overblown? Out of collective desperation we conjure these Gaga-ian figures with all the familiar trappings of utopian saviors. They are certain to disappoint.
That is the trouble with The Fame Monster. It’s a perfect ode to fame. Every song is a single, every single a hit. The momentum behind Gagaism grows with every release, and Gaga impresses merely by appearing. But after this, what next? Stefani Germanotta may not be up to the challenge The Fame Monster has set for her. She represents a widely held hope for the return of the all-inclusive metaphor. But though we might hasten to crown her our star, we can’t shake the sense that she has promised too much.