Bill O’Reilly, a man made tolerable only by the existence of Glenn Beck, interviewed Barbara Walters about her last collection of most fascinating people, which featured Lady Gaga. He called her because he sees Gaga, like most non-fans do, as another fad with a world-class promotions team. They don’t really get it. Like with any other 21st century post-Britney breakdown pop entertainer, they wait for the sweet, sweet schadenfreude of the product recall. However, Lady Gaga is so much more than good marketing.
Lady Gaga is about being big because there is no other choice. She is exactly who she is without apology or compromise. She is the perfect combination of heart, imagination and intelligence packaged in a sexy, youthful body. Every single time she is photographed or seen in public, she is Gaga. Gaga is the clothes, the music, the trends, the center of all attention. Every appearance and outfit, from interviews to running errands, is meticulously planned. This starts the big joke, the commentary, the irony, the point of the character.
Other celebrities have stylists. Other entertainers meticulously plan their outfits when they know they’re going to be photographed. Their people make sure they are in the latest and greatest designers, from shopping in sweatpants to schmoozing the red carpet. They are a trend-spawning machine and it is not by accident. But their trends are rarely outrageous. They are a growth of the same bloated consumer, different but not too different. The cyclical nature of fashion trends is comforting and the new is never too new. They reinforce our shared cultural history that remembers bell-bottoms more than firebombs and shoulder pads more than AIDS; fashion makes better memories. In general, the majority of a culture will agree about what’s pretty. Most of them won’t always agree about what’s right. In fact, in 21st century America, we don’t really agree about anything. We love shouting matches between our leaders. We want sound bite speeches and we don’t like compromise and we will not be told what to learn or who to tolerate.
History remembers most vividly those who act on their ideas of right. When their right is good they are heroes and when it’s bad they are evil. Either way, there’s an impact. Dial it back about fifteen notches and we’re back in the world of performance art. When it’s pretty and marketable it’s Cirque du Soleil. When it isn’t it’s the Sensation exhibit vs. Giuliani. When it works and makes a ton of money and attention even from the people who call it hideous, it’s Lady Gaga. Because, at best, her tunes are catchy, marketable, “decisively pop” and find their way into and out of every media outlet. Likewise, any backlash and opinion keeps the name out and adds to the fame.
You are not following a performer. You are following a performance. The performance is one of a pop star, and the duality of The Fame and The Fame Monster albums are a chronicle of the rise and the impossible quest to maintain a life in the stars. She’s been compared to Madonna in looks and style, but Madonna is an aging icon; Gaga will never get old. Madonna wrote songs that are still sung, covered, mixed, remixed, selling and popular. While a few of Gaga’s tracks may prove timeless, further listening maintains that there is an addictive quality to the music. It will become too big for its time, an obsession that eventually will become focused on someone new. The Fame isn’t about Gaga’s fame, it is about fame in general and its fleeting, bloodthirsty nature. It works, and works very well with four No. 1 hits from The Fame; every single from The Fame Monster flying just as high. It works because it taps into today’s tastes of inorganic beats and lyrics driven by what we love to watch: bad things. No happy endings, just glittered up gashes and enough glue to hold it all together. She is an icon that rises to entertain us and falls under the pressure of her own talent, which only entertains us further. The difference between fame like Gaga’s and fame like Britney Spears’ is that Gaga has purposely crafted a character outside herself to play when she wants to be famous. Britney is both a person and a performer who became an icon so large that even she herself could never live up to it. Stefani Germanotta is smart, building her character as much outside herself as possible. Lady Gaga can be an outfit instead of a life and therefore a success, keeping the artist and the art separated. The art may exist and be sold while the artist remains intact.
Like every other creative decision that has been made in her career the ending will have just as much thought as the beginning. The expiration date will be meticulously planned. The only way to maintain the legendary status Gaga has gained in the last few years will be to end the performance, to release the third studio album rumored to be in the works as a character post-mortem. The final performance will be the Death of Lady Gaga. Her art is a self-centered, globalized idolatry; she built herself up, and she is going to tear herself down. This is the only way it can end – as it lived.
Granted, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta cannot be completely separated from her character. In full Gaga gear she gives interviews about her music, her history and her art. She is one of the most eloquent young performers in the music industry and she interviews as herself. But when she isn’t speaking, when she is a photograph or vocal track or a body on stage, Stefani isn’t there. Stefani doesn’t jet off on planes; Gaga does. In full peroxided blonde, Coke-canned, ass-bearing, shoulder-spiked black vinyl, Gaga travels the world and invests all her money back into her Haus, her stage show and her little monsters. She is a non-profit glamour mission, a character, and cannot keep up this pace or go much further much longer.
Gaga is a fantastic spark of a creature that has lived for three years, through two albums and a ton of exclusive performances that will claw around the pop archives for years and years. And the last, final performance will be a spectacular spectacular greeted with awe, wonder, tears and confusion. It will be as grand as her three-year run. Then Ms. Germanotta will go back to her futon, lie down, look at her favorite pair of stiletto go-go boots tucked lovingly in the back of her closet and take a nice nap, planning out all she has to do tomorrow without the platinum wig.
However, it’s already been done. The “Paparazzi” performance at MTV’s video music awards ended in a literal bloodbath followed by a symbolically red veil-covered Gaga graciously accepting her award. Death and madness are becoming old news for Gaga. We’ve already gawked and talked about it, though not on the grand scale that would have rocked the industry in a deliciously monstrous macabre.
It became an advertisement for the next installment, and the entropy of madness comes to light in every aspect of The Fame Monster album. There is a theme of institutionalization and force in all of the Fame Monster videos so far: forced medication, forced confinement in insane asylums and jails, forced death. It goes on with exaggeration: the computer generated eyes and spine from the “Bad Romance” video with the obligatory glamour shots and group dances in the chorus. Fame is a force, multifaceted and, possibly, inescapable on your own terms.
Gaga’s final commentary on fame is that it just may be too alluring to walk away from, even for the sake of art. With the right team, it is too lucrative and too unpredictable to give up once it’s been got. Maybe Gaga is here to stay, to age and evolve into some gorgeously grotesque caricature of her original intent, to plateau at the top and be cited in countless liner notes and best-of anthology. Whatever her next move is it will be entirely different from the last two years and whatever it is, it will be grand.