Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gaga For Gays

About a month ago, I went away on a week-long family vacation (Cabo!!!...or not).  One night, a few of us were sitting around talking, and my cousin wondered what I thought of Lady Gaga. I already had an opinion on her (which I briefly discussed on this site), being that I originally (and incorrectly) thought she was a typical pop artist that had risen on the wave of a couple hit songs and would be largely irrelevant in a few years.

As it turns out, I hadn’t realized (or even really considered) the degree to which a kitschy, contrived pop singer with catchy dance tunes would be able to both amass and activate such a devoted audience. Yeah, she knows how to write singles that people will like and will get air time, but that is only part of what has propelled her to stardom. What has kept her there is a combination of her (self-actualized) weirdness and the mobilization of her audience, especially among those in the teen/young-adult homosexual community. Lady Gaga is a global icon because she knows how to write pop songs, wear weird outfits, and most importantly, appeal to her “Little Monsters.” But it is the inherent dissidence of these “Little Monsters” that make Gaga’s mainstream success so intriguing.

Ever since Lady Gaga established just how powerful an entity she is (and presumably will be) in the realm of popular culture, her reverence in the gay community has been her strongest and most obvious support system. The manner in which she has embraced individuality and self-expression endeared her to that faction of people immediately, and it has yet to ebb. However, what makes Gaga’s popularity so remarkable (and what I just recently realized) is that the voice and support of this counterculture is what largely vaulted and sustained Lady Gaga’s fame in popular culture. The top catalyst for Gaga-palooza has been the voice of a subculture mired in decades of stifled distinctiveness and notable subjugation, and for the longest time, I didn’t even realize how shocking this truly is. And I suspect that probably says a lot more about the current state of society than it does about the singer of “Alejandro.”

Please understand, the purpose of this piece is not to examine the morality or treatment of homosexuals. It is simply to recognize how implausible it is that a community representative of gays  and gay culture has had such a sizeable mainstream impact, and what that means for Lady Gaga and pop music, both historically and moving  forward. In terms of Gaga, part of the sensation surrounding her and the strength of her audience is due to some great timing. She has risen to fame (to a significant extent) on the back of her homosexual fan base and the support she has continually shown to it, all during a time when the counterculture gay community has become much more vocal and accepted within pop culture. Things like Glee, the “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, those commercials with Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes that warn against using the word “gay” in a pejorative manner – all of these and more have either contributed to or are a byproduct of the changing tide of how homosexuality is viewed in the mainstream media, and Lady Gaga is certainly in that mix. Yes, it is without a doubt still a counter-and-sub-culture, but the general reaction to alternative lifestyles has become more receptive, with Gaga enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. She is both an initiator and beneficiary of that new direction.

(Side note: Since the program’s inception, I always assumed “Rizzoli & Isles” was a show about lesbians. I’ve never seen a single episode, but I just figured that the two girls were lesbian detectives that had to balance their work of solving crimes with their personal lives. Needless to say, I was shocked to recently discover this was in no way even close to being true.)

In a historical sense, Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” share similarities with the Grateful Dead’s “Deadheads.” The timing factor for the “Deadheads” is evocative of Gaga’s fan base, with the explosion of hippie culture and free love deeming the Dead both initiators and beneficiaries in their era of popular society. Furthermore, the dedication and (extreme) loyalty that Gaga’s “Little Monsters” have exhibited in recent years is in many ways comparable to that of the “Deadheads,” other than the hardcore Dead fans being more mellowed out, what with the LSD and all. Despite how popular or well-known a musical act or artist becomes, very few ever accrue an audience as intense as the “Little Monsters” or “Deadheads,” which is as much a testament to the fans as it is to the artist(s).

One thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity different from that of the Grateful Dead, though, is the gap between the so-called “diehard” fans and the so-called “casual” fans. Lady Gaga has a lot of casual, mainstream fans, many of which can name and sing-along with her hit songs. The divide between those conventional fans and the “Little Monsters” is much smaller than the one between mainstream Dead fans and the “Deadheads.”

For instance, Rolling Stone ranked the Grateful Dead as #57 on its list of Top 100 Artists of All Time back in ’04-’05. When you look at some of the list’s comparable artists of similar ranking (Aerosmith at #59, Clapton at #55, Queen at #52), it is obvious that those bands/musicians have a much bigger presence and following among mainstream music listeners than the Dead do, and yet I don’t think any of those bands/artists have a faction of their audience as loyal or passionate as the “Deadheads.” And in turn, this is yet another thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity so impressive. She has managed to gain a casual following on par with a band like Aerosmith or an artist like Clapton, and yet the zeal of her “Little Monsters” is analogous to that of the legendary “Deadheads.” The burgeoning gay culture has somehow managed to make Gaga both a cult hero and popular superstar, all at the same time.

(Another side note: If you in any way think that I am equating the musical accomplishments and significance of Lady Gaga to Clapton, or even Queen and Aerosmith for that matter, then you obviously don’t know a damn thing about me.)

But as much as I am shocked at how popular and prominent Gaga has become – thanks in large part to her “Little Monsters” and the mainstream heights to which they have lifted her – I can’t help wondering if this is actually the best thing for Gaga and her music. At this early stage in her career, Gaga has only released two full-length studio albums (The Fame and Born This Way) as well as one highly successful EP (The Fame Monster). Her popularity, success, and branding as a voice for the young, alternative-lifestyle community manifested with The Fame and was well established by the time of The Fame Monster. This all became clearly obvious with the release of Born This Way, which Gaga has admitted as having the subject of sexuality as a key theme. Just listening through the album, it's apparent how much of an impact the topic of personal lifestyle and homosexuality had on many of the different songs, most notably the title track. The whole record kind of plays like the soundtrack for a drag show or something, and while it is certainly not a terrible album, it isn’t as cohesive or impressive as the other two I’ve mentioned. It all leads me to contemplate if Gaga’s music is suffering at the hands of her attempt to be this representative and spokesperson for the gay society that has so strongly supported her.

There are countless examples of artists making albums entirely based around a specific message or cause. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Born This Way, it’s not that I necessarily think it doesn’t work at all, but just that it isn’t on the level of Gaga’s previous efforts. Her music suffered a bit on this most recent album, seemingly as a result of her trying too hard to represent this enormous gay voice that has been so steadfast in making her what she is today. And I can’t help but ponder whether this will continue for the rest of her career, or whether it’s simply a phase, a one-time venture to (in some way) repay her gay and alternative sexuality fans for all they have done for her.

Will Lady Gaga be pigeon-holed as this gay rights activist that can only write songs with a specific message – the Yusuf Islam of homosexuality? And if it isn’t just a one-time thing, will it really be that bad for Gaga? The album received good reviews, spawned a couple hit songs, has already had three or four singles get radio play, and has sold 5 million copies in only a couple months’ time. Plus, the release was lauded in circles for the awareness it brought to the gay community and how favorably it represented that faction of people, a great deal of which make up Gaga’s most boisterous fans.  So if she’s still going to sell a bunch of records, continue to receive critical acclaim (even if it’s less than before), have a few hit songs, remain incredibly relevant and popular, and further endear herself to her most loyal fans – a collection of people who have long felt oppressed and discriminated against  – why would she change anything? Why should she?

The lore of Lady Gaga is very intriguing. Her pop culture status was achieved thanks to a counterculture voice; her mainstream popularity is indebted to her subculture deification. One would think that she now has to appease both sides, remaining an ambassador for the “Little Monsters” while also maintaining her mainstream clout. But maybe not. Maybe the two sides are no longer as separated and divided as they once were. Maybe the homosexual counterculture that helped propel Gaga to stardom was simultaneously propelling itself into conventional acceptance.

That future path remains to be seen, as does hers. In the meantime, we should recognize what has taken place, and how incredibly rare it is on a societal level. Musical preferences and personal convictions aside, the popularity and sensation that is Lady Gaga is impressive, shocking, confusing, remarkable, groundbreaking, and historical. It’s also pretty gay.


Thanks for reading

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