The Gaga Generation
Lady Gaga has navigated the path to stardom as deftly as anybody could in this day and age. She has exploited her own fame effectively to promote causes she believes in. She has confronted the innate, unavoidable hypocrisy that comes with being a superstar pretty well, and she has done it by avoiding the trap of spending her career responding to accusations of indecency, blasphemy, and general outrageous-ness.
I'm not her biggest fan, but the more I learn about her, the more impressed I am. Her engagement with her own success and her own craft is an anomaly. Other pop stars with Gaga's stature cultivate personas that go hand-in-hand with playing it safe. By comparison, Gaga's bolder persona grants her permission to take things further than her peers can. Many artists grow apathetic after the first few Grammys, and grow disconnected with what got them there in the first place. Gaga may get there at some point, but she continues to actively seek validation as part of her ongoing public relationship with youth culture.
To be Gaga is to always be re-inventing oneself. To a greater degree, youth culture is in a constant state of reinvention, and that flux has reached a fever pitch with the current generation of teens and twenty-somethings who are more ardent about self-expression than ever. The youth of Occupy Wall Street took much pride in their bold, unapologetic expressions and their lack of a set of goals or aims. They came up with hand signals in defiance of mainstream conventions. Lady Gaga, who repeatedly asks her fans to 'put [their] paws up' during her shows, may as well be talking to the protesters.
Lady Gaga, in one way, is the Madonna for kids born in the late 80s and 90s. Understanding Gaga's persona and her cultural relevance, especially as it pertains to the generation that most adores her, requires an deeper understanding of what the youngest generation values most.
Part of Gaga's routine is rallying her 'little monsters:' her term for ostracized teens and young adults banding together under her banner to cultivate a sense of belonging. Some may find that routine a bit hypocritical, given her private school and NYU education, but consider this: we don't truly know her, putting us outside a position to judge her on personal hypocrisy. She has had an uncommonly fruitful and blessed career at her young age, but it has not been without speedbumps and obstacles. Gaga may play up her early struggles to forge a bond with fans, but she has a right to the pride she expresses about her accomplishments. Her association with society's marginalized and ostracized, as far as I can tell, is not an act.
Sure, the Gaga Haus meat dress made headlines, but she owns her visual style with the force of her talent. She writes songs, she plays multiple instruments, dances, and her singing is acrobatic, quirky, expressive, and, when it has to be, shockingly classical. Her music may be banal, but it's got that 'certain something.'
The Fame and The Fame Monster left an impression on a lot of people. She was a dependable hit factory that the label needed during a tumultuous time for the music industry, but more than that, she is a refreshingly bold performer. Her songs have a fearless and addictive quality. Through these first albums, Gaga and her producers want to get people moving on the dance floor, but along the way, her wry, nuanced, spirited and chameleon-like vocal performances really leave a mark. Born This Way, on the other hand, is a dive into the deep end of the same pool, but it represents a vital thematic progression for Gaga, one that has slightly sharpened the clarity of her career path rather than obfuscating it.
The song Born This Way is a milestone for Gaga because it not only makes a clearer, deeper statement than anything else in her oeuvre, but it serves as an anthem for the generation she represents, a generation that values the journey over the destination.
Our youngest generation is smart but proudly aimless, self aggrandizing but deeply sensitive. It's a generation that has grown numb to the notion of fame as a cultural concept. For kids born less than two decades ago, Fame is a ubiquitous and yet wholly desirable goal. The kids are smarter than us and full of wry, self-referential humor, highly attuned awareness of pop culture and tech savvy know-how. Most importantly, this youngest generation doesn't frown as much on using celebrity to promote causes. Gaga does this unabashedly. From her work on disaster relief & Lupus / AIDS-related causes to her ardent support of the LGBT community, she doesn't consider fame an unsteady platform for social awareness, but rather the only fitting one.
A pop star, after all, especially one as brazen and outspoken and expressive as Lady Gaga, isn't constrained by her fans the way a publicly elected representative is constrained by competing biases of constituents. A pop star can simultaneously please her corporate masters while running interference with a progressive message. Politicians don't have that luxury, not with the current state of Corporate influence on public policy and campaign finance.
Gaga has a platform to reach out to fans about the world she wants, and transform those views into sensational pop art. Some is popularly embraced and some is branded as unseemly, but it's all press. It is her commercial mandate, in fact, to make political statements. Gaga, like her generational peers, fights the oft-iterated notion that all stars who support causes are lame hypocrites who have no business opening their mouths. I've always found that position a bit odd. Sure, there are celebrities who make constant, public outspoken-ness a real liability for themselves, but Gaga's celebrity practically mandates her free expression. She is in a unique position, therefore, to not only support the causes she believes in, most among them Gay rights, but to be a potent force in doing so. She has. I admire her for it.