With The recent release of her viral music video “Telephone”, why not have The Plant’s own pop-culture junkie Jamie Floyd report on the overt symbolism in the work of Lady Gaga?
by Jamie Floyd
It is fair to say that we live in a culture of pure excess, where the American dream has become the worldwide dream and where fame is easily accessible – if only for 15 minutes via reality television. Many people want to ascend the ladder of fame, yet only a few actually manage with none as quickly and as shockingly as Stefanie Germanotta, commonly known as Lady Gaga. The 23 year-old pop singer has made quite a mark on the music world, the fashion industry and countless young fans, whom she calls her “little monsters”. With her brand of “Performance Art”, a fearless attitude, addictive pop music, a penchant for not wearing pants as well as her shock value antics, she lives up to her name inspired by the song “Radio Ga Ga” by 70’s rock band Queen.
Her history is tame; she grew up in an Italian family, went to an all-girl’s Catholic school and developed a love for performing at a young age. She played at clubs and lived the rock star lifestyle. She was then discovered by Def Jam Recordings, and officially signed by Interscope Records. So, what made this seemingly normal person one of the most talked-about people of 2009? Her followers say it’s her “creativity, her uniqueness and weirdness.” However, on further examination, when it comes to Gaga it seems to have always been image over substance. Lady Gaga and her handlers, Haus of Gaga, have capitalized on our newfound visual culture, welcoming us to the age of symbolism and overt imagery.
When she first came out, I remember hearing her single “Just Dance”. I wondered what it was called and why I could not get it out of my head. Then, I saw the generic accompanying video, which only caught my attention because of that glowy-stick she had, and proceeded to use in her performances. Her album The Fame debuted at number 17 in the US and sold a moderate 24,000 copies. She was not a superstar just yet; it was her second single, “Poker Face” that launched her to superstardom. “I hated her first video. I thought she looked like every other girl,” said second semester Arts and Culture student Lea Toufexis. “And then her second video [Poker Face] came out and I was like this girl is crazy!” It was the asymmetric clothes, funny hair bow, digital shades and ridiculous poolside dance, which caught everyone’s attention, including mine. Ever since, Gaga has been unstoppable.
Like many of her contemporaries such as Madonna, Britney Spears and Cher, Gaga has made it her mission to be controversial and push the sex envelope. “I don’t feel like I look like the other perfect little pop singers, I think I’m changing what people think is sexy,” Gaga told Rolling Stone magazine. Madonna had the iconic-cone- shaped bra; – Gaga had her explosive brassiere. Britney caused an uproar by kissing Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, while Gaga caused a stir with photos of her performing with what appeared to be a penis. Say what you will about Gaga, but her image is that of a provocateur. Or, as Jessica Smith, a third semester Health Science student put it, “She’s stupid and her music is so generic, and she’s trying to be weird on purpose.”
But, what does her image mean? What is she trying to achieve? Moreover, is there a deeper meaning behind Lady Gaga? “We could sit here and talk, but you will never know who I am unless you see me live,” Gaga told CNN back in 2009. This is a bold statement coming from someone, whose live antics include performing semi nude, being murdered, lighting pianos on fire, singing with giant life size monsters and dancing in bathtubs. These are just a few of her genuinely shocking antics, which unusually continues to get more disturbing.
For example, take her most recent music video “Telephone” featuring Beyonce Knowles. The nearly 10 minute clip, which was viewed on YouTube six million times within 24 hours of its release, starts with Gaga being admitted to jail after killing her boyfriend (it is the continuation of her Paparazzi video). After a quick strip search, she proceeds to make out suggestively with two other inmates. She then witnesses a brutal girl fight and is finally released on bail by Beyonce. “You’ve been a bad girl; a very, very bad, bad girl Gaga,” Knowles asserts in a deadpan tone as they head to a diner where Gaga cooks up poisonous honey to kill Beyonce’s on-screen boyfriend. However, everyone in the diner eats the honey, and thus dies from it. The two pop stars then commence a big dance sequence followed by their escape from law enforcement. They are now on the run. “You promise we’ll never come back?” Knowles asks Gaga, to which she replies, “I promise,” as they drive off in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pussy wagon” vehicle from the Kill Bill movies.
Confused? Basically, the video features graphic violence, nudity, a lesbian kiss, mass murder and haute couture fashion. “I wanted to do the same thing [referring to her Paparazzi video] with this video [Telephone] – take a decidedly pop song, which on the surface has a quite shallow meaning, and turn it into something deeper,” Gaga told E! News. Are we in a culture where mass murder and killing ones boyfriend can be considered “cool” if it’s done in a stylistic way accompanied by an infectious pop song? How much is too much? Do artists push the envelope just for shock value or is there a deeper meaning behind it? Gaga says that there is always a deeper meaning behind her videos, somewhat of a commentary on pop culture and consumerism. Nonetheless, the video is embedded with a bevy of various product placements, making it hard to determine if this is her stance against consumerism or contrarily a cover-up for her to get away with shameless product placement. Through the video, it seems like she’s mocking our obsession with materialism, all the while benefiting from it, because without us she would not exist.
The pop star has induced us with her brand of “shock art”, meaning her goal is to shock and provoke. She has managed to do specifically that with her image. “She completely fabricated her image, but sometimes she goes too far,” Toufexis said.
“Popular culture and the mass media have a symbolic relationship: each depends on the other in an intimate collaboration,” said K.Turner in 1984 quoted by Roy Shuker in his book Understanding Popular Music. As has been constantly documented, our minds are easily influenced by images we see and especially how we see them. We can see something horrible, but accept it in a positive way since it’s presented in a harmless manner.
As a society, we see thousands of images on a daily basis; most of which flash by without our awareness. Overt marketing, symbolism and imagery have always been used to shape our minds and our desires. If a child were bombarded with Pepsi, McDonalds and Nike logos from infancy, it would be no surprise that as an adult they will feel a strong connection and devotion to those products. The same also works on adults and college students. Are we being subliminally controlled and made to feel and react certain ways?
“Even as he dances to the tune of the elite managers of human behavior, the modern man scoffs with a great derision at the idea of the existence and operation of a technology of mass mind control emanating from media and government.” Michael A. Hoffman II wrote in his book Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare. “Modern man is much too smart to believe anything as superstitious as that! Modern man is the ideal hypnotic subject: puffed up on the idea that he is the crown of creation, he vehemently denies the power of the hypnotist’s control over him as his head bobs up and down on a string.”
Like modern man, are we ignorant and oblivious to the influence of the media on us? Is Gaga’s image meant to do more than just shock? Is there a more menacing meaning behind it? Only time will tell. One thing is for certain; Gaga is not going away any time soon. She represents the epitome of our current society; she’s famous, rich, slightly obnoxious, loud and downright crazy and we love or hate her for it.
But, until we get over what is our most dangerous and prominent obsession that of materialism and actually open our eyes to the forces and goings on around us, we will always be susceptible to the dangers of pop culture and mass media. Who cares that there are wars and despair in the world, just dance right?
“I don’t wanna be one song. I wanna be the next 25 years of pop music,” Gaga told London’s Guardian paper. Depending on how you feel, you can thank God and the gays for that.