The time has come to follow up Thursday’s foray into post-postmodernism, this time with actual reference to Lady Gaga’s central place within my own thought on the matter. She is central to it because she is the biggest figure in global mainstream culture at the moment, and not just in music. Her impact reaches far beyond the charts, out into the mass consumer culture that epitomises the age.
Young women now go on themed “Lady Gaga” fancy dress nights, her style is that iconic, and tabloid gossip pages can’t get enough snaps of her stumbling around parties in outlandish garb. But despite all this, I still can’t decide if she represents the industry’s control of ordinary people (ie she is an iconic puppet), or whether she has become too big for the industry to control (ie she is a ‘fame monster’ that has broken loose).
If she is the former, then she represents the pinnacle of postmodernism, in a line of descent that reaches back through Madonna to Marilyn Monroe, but with a twist. Monroe will inevitably be seen as a victim of fame, whether or not this is true. Madonna, for her part, has always been in bed with the labels, etc. even when she was being ‘edgy’ or ‘controversial’.
I’m reminded at this point of Michael Ignatieff’s quote on Madonna:
“I don’t mind that I see her face on every magazine cover; I certainly don’t mind that she is obscene; I don’t even mind that she can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t act and is nonetheless the most famous person on the planet. What I can’t stand about Madonna is that she thinks she’s an artist.”
Now, has Madonna’s career proven Ignatieff wrong? Some would say so, I’m sure. For myself, I don’t know, and I don’t care – the important distinction I would like to make is that I don’t believe Gaga herself has any such delusions about being an ‘artist’ in the classic sense. She is undoubtedly very creative, and her personality is frighteningly powerful, but even she acknowledges that the music she makes is not pushing boundaries or forging a new paradigm within pop. Indeed, good pop is not supposed to do any of these things. It is supposed to sound good on the radio. She’s called it “soulless electronic pop” herself. Gaga echoes Madonna with her use of imagery and the way she courts controversial topics, but has to some extent desexualised affairs – Madonna had to maintain her sex appeal, but Gaga’s main selling points are her personality, style and shock factor.
I’ve read this post this morning and it seems to echo some of the things I’ve been looking at – its discussion of Altermodernism in particular – and while I haven’t reached exactly the same conclusions as the author of that blog, it makes plenty of sense. I don’t even agree that Gaga can claim to represent an ‘Altermodern messiah’, but I do agree that she has taken mainstream norms, which want their popstars “sexy” (cf. Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, etc) and smashed them apart. Madonna was an edgy popstar, while Gaga exists outside pop’s bosom, but nevertheless feeds on the industry.
Even if Gaga herself represents the death of postmodernism, society’s reaction to her has not caught up. She is not a reaction against standardisation or commercialisation, because people’s reaction to her has been to copy her style, and to shove fistfuls of money into the pockets of record labels. She cannot kill the industry from the inside, because her actions keep it in business. I would definitely not go so far as to compare her lyrics to Hemingway. She has subverted the media machine, and used it to her advantage, but she has not revolutionised anything.
But the reaction does fit in with Kirby’s pseudo-modernism. The interaction becomes participatory – girls going out “dressed as Gaga” sums it up, really. They feel the need to be part of the phenomenon, as it’s not enough simply to keep tabs on what Gaga herself is wearing. This cultural trend certainly seems distinct from post-modernism, and Gaga may represent a bridge between the two. On the one hand, she uses the same old tactics to gain publicity, but the reaction from fans is subtly different. She has managed to carve out an individual niche within pop, which is almost unprecedented, and that deserves credit if nothing else does.
So where does that leave me on this meander of mine? Back where I started, I suppose. It’s very difficult to draw long-term conclusions from what are currently short-term phenomena, but these posts may provide a platform for me to expand this sort of thinking in the future.