With a mix of journalistic curiosity and slight bewilderment, various American and international news sites have reported that a course called “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” will be taught next spring at the University of South Carolina. Taught by Mathieu Deflem, a tenured sociologist, the course will use discussions of the pop star’s music and sartorial flare to build his students’ “empirical knowledge of some of the most important social dimensions of fame as exemplified by the case of Lady Gaga”. According to the course website, students will read academic studies that include fundamental works in the sociology of pop music by Simon Frith and others, Elizabeth Currid’s The Warhol Economy, and my forthcoming article in the Journal of Popular Culture, “Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga”. Although a University of Virginia writing course called “Gaga for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity” also garnered substantial media attention, Deflem will likely offer a unique perspective. He also manages the gagafrontrow.net website and even owns the studded cane and wheelchair used by Gaga during her blood-soaked 2009 MTV Video Music Awards performance.
It is perhaps not surprising that the desire to better comprehend Gaga’s bid for lasting fame would be brought into undergraduate lecture halls. The creation of these courses and others likely to be in the works are but the newest cases of intense academic interest in the pop artist, her Haus of Gaga creative team, and her hordes of loyal “Little Monsters”. Gaga Stigmata, for example, is an online journal co-edited by Meghan Vicks, a Comparative Literature doctoral student at the University of Colorado, and Kate Durbin, a writer and performance artist. The journal includes a mix of Gaga-inspired works of art as well as essays that examine the core meanings and larger influence of Gaga’s music and aesthetic, including incisive essays by Judith Jack Halberstam of the University of Southern California and Davide Panagia of Trent University. A new piece by Ayah Rifai offers a thorough and carefully elaborated musicological analysis of the “Paparazzi” single and music video.
Although other performers like Madonna, U2, and the late Michael Jackson have projected the pop imagination onto social frustrations, Gaga’s music and message, perhaps most elaborately articulated in her “Monster Ball” tour, explicitly wrestle with the allures and anxieties of American culture. While the lyrics of “Telephone” toy with the mismatch of constant connectivity and nightclub carousing, “Dance in the Dark” and “So Happy I Could Die” offer darker comments on one’s physical insecurities and the dangers of escapist revelry. Fans respond to Gaga’s hypermodern spectacle by regularly professing their devotion on Twitter or launching their own websites, as in the massive online archive of photographs called the Fame Gallery. Recently, a wave of envy spread throughout this fan community when Gaga tweeted a picture of herself next to a “Superfan” named Ryan Lee Johnson. The ecstatic young fan, also webmaster of gaganews.com, was allowed to listen to tracks from her next album (to be released in early 2011) and later wrote “it’s almost like a new genre of music”.
Of course, despite widespread popularity, the heir apparent to Madonna’s pop throne has also attracted the scorn of certain journalists and some of her competitors. Most of these criticisms can be sorted into at least three sets of claims: (1) that her music is “low-brow” despite wanting to be seen as avant-garde, (2) that she is merely attention-seeking and not authentically a “freak”, and (3) that she is thoroughly derivative and not an artist in her own right. Some of these criticisms are messily presented in the recently published Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga, a poorly-written book best characterized by its embittered tone and embarrassing errors.
If she is tied to avant-garde circles, it is because she has steadily built collaborative relationships with respected innovators like the late Alexander McQueen, Nick Knight, Terence Koh, Terry Richardson, Hedi Slimane, Noritaka Tatehana, and Philip Treacy. Second, given the absence of great causes to mobilize and sustain the energies of youth, it is not hard to see why fans use her image to channel their creative interests or hopes for an enduring, meaningful icon. Gaga, in turn, willfully accepts her role as “Mother Monster” to “the nerds, the disenfranchised, + the insecure”, as she described them in a recent tweet. Lastly, as if it needed to be said yet again, all cultural production is to some extent derivative. To invoke the economist Joseph Schumpeter, innovation is recombination. Artists, performers, writers, and even academics engage in a constant process of creative bricolage whereby they use their talents and skills to react and give new shape to extant tropes and timeless motifs.
The arguments about Gaga’s alleged appropriations of past imagery are perhaps the sloppiest when related to Madonna, who clearly pursued and performed a very different model of stardom. If the Material Girl—postmodernity’s paramount pop icon—dealt in the display or confession of truth, Gaga’s hypermodern gospel of liberation hints at the irrelevance of truth or, rather, the creation of one’s own truth, a performance that is relentlessly enacted until some version of it becomes true. Like Andy Warhol, Gaga’s work is part of a conscious project of building fame and a truly memorable persona, “the lie which we kill to make true” throughout the long process of achieving the future we imagine for ourselves. Just as Warhol’s Factory collaborators called themselves “Superstars” even as they struggled to break out of underground art circles, Gaga’s first album was at once her desired end and the means to that end: The Fame.