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.
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.