The first time I paid attention to Lady Gaga (really paid attention: watched her; mused on her; dissected her willingly) was when she killed herself. It was her breakthrough live performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where she performed “Paparazzi,” a song that equates the bloodthirsty hounding of her lover-to-be to the relentless lens of the paparazzi.
Ever the extremist, Gaga made sure the metaphor worked twice over, by famously ending the set with her own death, hanging bloodied, surrounded by dancers-turned-pariahs with theatrical bulbs flashing—a victim of the fame.
This was, of course, only shortly after her first album had been released, and its artistic statement was muddied by the fact that Lady Gaga had only recently achieved even a semblance of the fame she claimed to be falling victim to. Here, Gaga was giving us the dramatic finale to her entire mythology as a pop artist—all before we’d even gotten a chance to fully digest her.
Has there ever been a more postmodern performance in mainstream media than that of the Icon as Martyr, before even being established as either? It was clear that a performer with a true knack for zeitgeisty self-promotion had been born.
And just in time, too. With the official death of monoculture (Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Michael Jackson, most of the Beatles), the state of pop culture had been in a heady tailspin for the better part of a decade, making it almost impossible to imagine a time where a single person could dominate more than just momentary conversation. Multiple sources are to blame: declining revenue in a time where the culture is expected to be free; the speed of the Internet and the faster rate of overturn and backlash; Warhol’s retort that “everybody will be famous for 15 minutes” proving to be alarmingly prophetic.
So when Lady Gaga entered the scene in 2008, and when she commanded the scene in 2009, and when she became the scene in 2010, it felt like we had collectively found the icon that had eluded us for most of the aughts. Finally, someone understood the culture’s scope and could take the shift and embrace it wholly as part of her identity, both mockingly and self-serious.
Lady Gaga, who performs Jan. 17 at HP Pavilion, is the first pop superstar to be born during the decade of hysterical celebrity culture.
Madonna used the then-growing paparazzi syndicate to her advantage, creating a shock-and-awe campaign everywhere she went; Britney was a victim of the lens, proving once and for all that the act of observation will inevitably change that which is being observed. But it’s Gaga who is the true byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle, where celebrity news has become both personal and political; where tabloids are read as religious texts; where fame and infamy are no long mutually exclusive.
Her influence is undeniable. Lady Gaga has morphed the state of music and the state of pop culture as it exists now. She has, of course, been aided by this era’s refusal to build anything particularly new, rehashing a series of images with some semblance of history, recycling it until it can vaguely be recognized as both something familiar and something radical. Gaga has been aided by this, and has cleverly referred to her body of work as an extension of pop art, which is, by its very nature, about recycling the familiar until we find something new in it.
There Is No Center
Here’s the most important thing to realize as a citizen of contemporary culture: there is no longer a center. Think of the culture, as it exists now, as a dance circle. Various people take turns jumping in the middle, doing a combination of moves and riling up the crowd, only to then gradually fade back into the surroundings, waiting for another to jump in and test out their moves.
Gaga’s sheer theatricality is her move. And it is in fact the same thing that has kept her personal life at arm’s length, allowing her to maintain a private life that would make other stars of her stature salivate. Her persona as a pop artist who values presentation and the grandiose makes her life beyond the stage less and less interesting—an irony considering that her big picture mythology is that of a star forever in conflict with the notion of “fame.”
Her impact has been rather immediate, and her influence on pop—a genre which has already bled into a variety of others that were once impossible to infiltrate, including indie rock and hip-hop—is undeniable. Just as Kanye West’s emphasis on confessional and vulnerable lyricism served as the perfect breath of fresh air in the early 2000s, during a time when crunk and Southern rap had taken on a horrible life of their own, Gaga has similarly made theatricality an undeniable tenant of the modern pop star.
With bright colors and costumes fit for a drag show, she led the way for an undeniable camp factor that allows stars like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj to sing with their tongue planted firmly in cheek. These elements have entered the pop visual lexicon as if they’ve been lived in for decades.
She’s made an artist’s fan base part of their personal brand, with her Little Monsters giving way to such niches as Nicki Minaj’s Barbies or, less popularly, Rihanna’s NAVY (a title chosen conveniently close to the release of the singer’s first film appearance in last summer’s Battleship).
All of this is to say that much the same way that pop culture once existed in a post-Michael Jackson era, much of the 2000s’ second decade will be defined as entirely post-Gaga. The question is whether she herself will last.
Hard to say: Gaga herself doesn’t seem to be completely immune to a culture that expects more and expects it more often. Her ticket sales (largely considered to be the only way for a musical artist to make money anymore, aside from endorsement deals) have gone down tremendously, with some tickets selling for over 50 percent less than face value. Her last album had one of the biggest first-week sales in Soundscan history, only to then see an 84 percent sales drop the following week.
This is, for lack of a better term, bad news. But what makes Gaga such a product of her time is that her work and her evolution as an artist has become so self-referential so quickly, harking back to her own iconography and showing us the end path of a star still in her infancy. In that way, it doesn’t quite matter if Gaga the performer maintains her status—whether she is still kicking on stage or hanging bloodied off of it. It’s always been the idea of Gaga that’s persisted most. Why else would we have seen the end so close to the beginning?
Jan. 17 7:30pm
$52.50 and up