[22 August 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Last week, Lady Gaga made news with not one, but two—yes, two!—short letters she posted on littlemonsters.com. The first note pseudo-addressed her waning popularity in the past year and how much adversity she has been forced to overcome as a result of said waning popularity, all while plugging a commercial for her new fragrance. It went a little like this (typos included):
A letter to my sweet fans..
Today is a really happy day for me. The past year was a challenge, and I’m so happy to have my spirit back. I felt in chains at times. Whether is be the record label disagreeing with me on single choices, or directors who could only create an idea of “gaga” or what i’ve “done before” and not able to move forward, and there was also of course the incessant dragging of the most important single of my career in dead-beaten-horse-mud. Then there were all the personal moments. Betrayed by lifelong friends, mentors I’ve had for years suddenly taking advantage of me, and a massive struggles with my body image. I’ve grown and left most of these things behind, the monsters of fame are very real. But I wanted to thank you for baring with me a little bit. Today’s film is what happens when there is love and respect amongst creatives, teams, management. This project was run solely by the HAUS OF GAGA, ATOM FACTORY, AND STEVEN KLEIN’S fantastic team. I am feeling blessed to have removed those from my life driven by money and luxury, its all about the art of it. I feel free today. Thank you for always being there for me monsters. I love you. LG (“A Letter To My Sweet Fans”, by Lady Gaga, 14 August 2012)
The second letter, somewhat humorously titled “Furgate Part 1”, was posted on Wednesday and addressed the controversy surrounding her decision to wear fur in public recently. This was a horrendously appalling tactic ,because as it goes, once upon a time, she went on Ellen and told the talk show host, “I hate fur and I don’t wear fur”. This, in turn, led Dan Matthews, Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (or, as most like to refer to it as, PETA), to issue a public letter to the star, calling her out on the presumed hypocrisy she so effortlessly displayed by sporting a dead animal as a coat. His letter went a little like this:
Many of your gay fans, I among them, have long admired what you told Ellen: “I hate fur and I don’t wear fur.” I included a link because these recent photos of you in fox and rabbit and with a wolf carcass make it appear that you have amnesia. I’m also including this brief video hosted by Tim Gunn showing the violent cruelty that you promote when you wear fur. What happened? Are your stylists telling you that it’s fake, or are you a turncoat? Many gays are animal advocates because we recognize that the same arrogance and indifference that some have toward animal suffering has at times been directed toward us personally because of our orientation. PETA has long participated in Pride events around the country, and just last week, we helped lead protests against Chick-fil-A. But by wearing those dumb furs in a heat wave, you’re making yourself a target just like the mindless Kim Kardashian. As we plan our fall campaigns, please tell us whether what you gracefully told Ellen was heartfelt or just a pose. (“Will ‘Turncoat’ Gaga Be PETA’s Next Target?”, by Jeff Mackey, 13 August 2012)
And then finally, Lady Gaga responded with a letter (last one, I promise) that went a little like this (bad punctuation included):
FURGATE PART 1
To the fans. i want you to know that I care deeply about your feelings and views, and I will always support your philosophies about life. We’ve been having over-arching conversations about society, equality, and politics for the past five years, and we should continue. I do not however support violent, abusive, and childish campaigns for ANY CAUSE. Particularly one that I respect. “Animal Rights.” I am choosing not to comment on whether or not the furs I purchase are faux fur-pile or real because I would think it hypercritical not to acknowledge the python, ostrich, cow hide, leather, lamb, alligator, “kermit” and not to mention meat, that I have already worn. This should already put me in a category as one who appreciates and adores the beauty of animals in fashion, but am not a strict vegan. I have truly always stayed away from skinned fur, especially i have never been able to afford a nice one, but this does not mean my morals are rigid and that I won’t bend at the sight of an absolute art piece of a coat. I have no chains about this. You see a carcass, I see a museum pièce de résistance. But I am truly sorry to fans who are upset by this, its a fair and applaudable feeling about the health and safety of animals. I respect your views, please respect mine. And to campaigners, Save your flour to make bread for the children who are hungry. And Kim Kardashian is fabulous. (“Furgate, Part 1”, by Lady Gaga, 15 August 2012)
And … scene.
So, why cite all this? It’s simple, really: Despite what many die-hard fans (and Elton John) may tell you, Lady Gaga’s rein at the top of Popular Culture Mountain is coming to an end. If her sluggish-selling (comparatively speaking, of course) latest record didn’t prove as much before last week, then the past seven days most certainly have shed some light on one of the most compelling story lines popular music has seen in recent memory. The artist once so beloved and lauded has finally been forced to succumb to the sad realities of being a true pop star that center around the “nothing lasts forever” notion. Don’t believe me? How about some of the comments left on her Furgate letter from longtime followers …
“‘You see a carcass, I see a museum pièce de résistance.’ - Gaga i love you, i really do. You’ve changed my life like no one else. But i can’t believe these words came out of your mouth. I really think it is too much”, someone named Marianne wrote in reply.
“I am sad that you stand up so tall for people who are bullied yet you fall for fashion regardless of the abuse or pain that an animal will feel all to make something as frivolous as a fur coat. You say “save the flour to make bread for the children who are hungry.” How many meals could the money you spend on a fur coat buy for a needy child? I have always loved you but I must say, your failure to respect the lives of animals for fashion has really disappointed me”, something named “none” added.
This is interesting only because of its inevitability. Lest we be reminded of how the criticisms of Michael Jackson’s personal life eventually drowned out the sweet sounds of everything from “I Want You Back” to “You Are Note Alone”, or how the ridicule for Madonna began to cool her star that once radiated so hotly for so long the minute she got just a little bit older and her provocative antics seemed just a little bit forced. It’s true—even the most successful of stars have all had to face the less fortunate side of fame eventually. The sold out concert tours or weeks at No. 1 on Billbaord‘s charts all become meaningless when you live long enough to become the villain, consequently shedding your hero status by refusing to go away.
The latter example is the most poignant when it comes to Gaga, of course. She was—and for that matter, probably still is—the Heir apparent to Madonna’s throne. Her obsession with individuality, focus on sexuality and knack for the outrageous has deemed her the most likely contender to pick up where Ms. Ciccone will eventually leave off, whenever she decides to stop pissing off foreign leaders and officials while on European tours. But even with all that conceded and considered, it’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga remaining relevant for as long as her predecessors had, considering how fickle the common music fan is today. These days, it’s hard enough to hold a prominent place in the zeitgeist for anything longer than a few months, let alone a few years, which Gaga has managed to do despite this recent pseudo-decline.
Actually, her letters last week were the first few dents in an armor that had previously been almost spotless. The initial public admission that her career hadn’t been nearly as fluid or acclaimed as she would have liked in the past year was unequivocally more important than the PETA response (though there is admittedly something about the whole Furgate situation that makes it feel like it won’t go away soon). Why is that? Well, people of her stature aren’t supposed to ever either a) admit defeat or b) be transparent. She broke both of those rules with that short note, and when combined with the events that occurred later in the week regarding PETA, it’s impossible not to wonder about how much her once-tight grip on fame has loosened as of late.
Part of what has made Lady Gaga Lady Gaga is the well-crafted mystique that has accompanied her everywhere from awards show red carpets to those pretentious, hard-to-watch sit-down interviews she conducts with hard-hitting television personalities. The latest mini controversies she now finds herself confronting are the exact types of mini controversies that can have a profound effect on the future of her image, which is an image, it’s worth noting, that is the single most important reason she has been able to maintain her enormous level of popularity over the past few years. Let’s not fool ourselves, friends—Lady Gaga hasn’t sat at the top of Popular Culture Mountain because “Poker Face” is a timeless piece of art; she’s held that position because of the unwaveringly esoteric persona that she has created to go along with the Lady Gaga character.
And that’s why, for instance, Matthews’s letter is so striking. By suggesting that she is a “turncoat”, he’s all but forcing her to showcase something she has never wanted to reveal: humanity. Up until recently, Lady Gaga has wanted us all to believe nothing more than the fact that she is the most popular misfit in the world, helping trillions of other misfits navigate their mis-fitted lives as they unfold before us. But in part because of the most recent revelations in her public persona, those misfits are beginning to wonder exactly how real the head misfit is.
It’s the same type of appeal Madonna had when she was on top of the world. Her antics and persona overshadowed her actual artistic output, thus making her a lightning rod for people who wanted to feel subversive or edgy. She was like a night light for a bunch of passively angry moths. But now more than ever, we are beginning to see how much that approach will always have an expiration date. Case in point: Madonna’s constant insistence on making headlines throughout the last month by showing off more of her body than she should is now more creepy than sexy. The same is now applied to Gaga and the backlash she is receiving from even her most loyal of followers. If nothing else, this all exposes how easy it can be to achieve pop star icon status. Aim for shock value. Write catchy hooks. Wear outlandish outfits. Learn how to dance a little. Say things that you know go against the grain of common thinking. Fearlessly pick fights with organizations and establishments. And promote the idea of making yourself something from nothing.
Being a pop star: It’s good work, if you can get it.
Actually, getting it is only half the battle. Keeping it is another monster in and of itself. And with Lady Gaga and her fans wondering about the artist’s validity out loud for the first time in her short but very productive career to date, it’s going to be a fascinating case study to see if she can rebound from this quickly and put her doubters behind her.
“If this is the new era Gaga, I don’t like it”, someone posted in response to one of her tweets addressing Furgate last week. A new era, yes. But the bigger question remains: Will it be her last?