Lady Gaga gets real?

31 05 2011

I was pretty obsessed with Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, when it was released in the summer of 2009. The combination of dance beats and commentary on the nature of stardom provided me a perfect escape that somehow still counted as work during my dissertation writing. (“I’m not dancing! I’m working!”) What drew me to Gaga, in terms of her image, was that in a celebrity culture dominated by the revelation of the ‘private’ and ‘real’ self behind the public persona, epitomized by celebrity reality shows and the nonstop paparazzi surveillance the crash and burn stardom of people like Britney and Lindsay, Gaga was nothing but image. I honestly did not even want to know anything about her private life, as that would somehow ruin the fun.

We only see what Gaga wants us to see


The private self wasn’t completely absent, but it was consciously constructed and a part of the overall “Gaganess” of her image. Though we learned there was a ‘real’ person named Stefani Germonatta, she was never anything other than Gaga (even her mom calls her Gaga, after all). Unlike other stars always tied to the idea that they are ‘themselves,’ I’m thinking here of reality stars like Kim Kardashian, Gaga’s image was rooted in her pop star self. Kim is always tied to her private self, but Gaga is always her public and constructed self. She consciously satirizes fame by both embodying and refusing the contradictions between the private and authentic self and the public and constructed persona that are at the root of stardom. By always being Gaga, it was never clear when the façade ended and the real person began. Or, more accurately, it never did.

This is partly because she never wanted to reveal that real person, and always wanted to be a star. In her memorable 60 Minutes interview, she said:

“As part of my mastering of the art of fame, part of it is getting people to pay attention to what you want them to, and not pay attention to the things you don’t want them to pay attention to.

My philosophy is that if I am open with [my fans] about everything and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way,” she continues. “I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give.”

Take a look at the video for “Paparazzi.: The song and the video play with the notion that being famous means that one’s self is always up for public scrutiny, always being watched, always being built up and then knocked down by the celebrity media. But the ‘real’ self revealed in the video, the ‘behind the scenes’ Gaga is just as constructed as the stage persona. She never takes off the makeup and fashion because that’s who she really is and, more crucially, that self (like all selves) is always already self-consciously constructed. At this moment, I think, we were meant to think of it as a private self, but not necessarily the ‘real’ self. It was still a part of the act.

So in the early days of Gaga’s stardom, she wasn’t really on the blogs or in the magazines (except to mock/adore her fashion, another key part of her persona). You didn’t hear about who she dated, see pictures of her grabbing a latte at Starbucks, or walking her dog in the park. Her image simply could not fit into those established public/private splits the magazines cling to for other stars. They tried though. There was the ‘media scandal’ when she caused a ruckus at a New York Mets game by she showing up in her black bra and studded leather jacket, had to be moved to Jerry Seinfeld’s private box to avoid “distracting” the fans, and flipped the bird to photographers. My reaction was first to just plug my ears and say “lalalala I don’t want to know anything about her ‘real’ self lalalala” and then to laugh at the fact that she was still ‘doing’ Gaga even in this more unguarded moment.

In the lead up to the release of her new album Born This Way, her image has taken an interesting turn in its inflection of private/public . She’s definitely public, as she’s been everywhere lately. And I do mean everywhere. Guest mentor on American Idol. Google Chrome commercial (see it below). The crazy egg thing at the Grammys. Appearances on daytime talk shows from Today to Ellen to Oprah. For the love of overexposure…she was the guest editor of the free newspaper they give you on the subway, The Metro.. What?

I have to admit that even I was getting a little tired of seeing her every time I turned around. Plus, I’ll also admit that I was not immediately sold on her new singles. Since listening to the entire album, I’ve come around and am remembering why I loved her in the first place. Though I still don’t really like the single “Born This Way.” I like the impulse behind it, just don’t really like the song itself. But it does fit in with this new turn where what we once thought was constructed and part of the act of ‘being’ Gaga is actually who she really is. Or at least we are now meant to see it as less constructed (though certainly still conscious) and more ‘real.’

I am in no way surprised that she would shake up her image, as she’s been doing some sort of shape shifting throughout her brief time in the public eye. But what does surprise me is the way her new image hails a ‘real’ self at its core. She’s still the ‘real’ self that is always constructed in her appearance (the fashion, the makeup, the horns), but is now being pulled back to a more ‘authentic’ private self. But it is still one she is actively controlling, rather than a self constructed by the tabloids or other media.

Gaga’s new(ish) Mother Monster self is completely rooted in the idea that she is being herself, even though that self is glamorous, constructed, extreme, over-the-top and all the things that we already associate with her image. Her new songs and the press she’s done surrounding the album foreground the idea that you should, like Gaga, be yourself no matter what. She has become the icon of outsiders by claiming her outlandish identity as not being artifice. What you see is constructed in the sense that it is thought out, but it is not “fake” or an “inauthentic” facade she puts on just to be famous (which is different, I think, from the Gaga of The Fame and The Fame Monster).

Now not only do we see her ‘real’ self, her image also explicitly invites audiences to connect with her and feel she is ‘just like us.” Anyone who has ever been on the outside can look to Gaga as someone who has been through the same ridicule and doubt that all outsiders experience. We see this in her recent Google Chrome ad:

The MTV documentary, Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside that premiered last week, is all about this view of the ‘real’ Gaga who is completely coherent with her public pop star image. Instead of the artifice of fame, her image is all about a highly stylized yet nevertheless authentic self as her claim to fame. Her talent and drive makes her special, but, at the same time, her message is that ultimately anyone who is true to themselves is already as special as she is. It’s a small shift, as she is still controlling what we see of her private self and is explicitly revealing things in her album and in the press surrounding it (in the MTV doc, for example, she discusses her early days as a performer, experiences being bullied in school etc) that showcase this more coherent image.

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5 responses

31 05 2011
Kelli Marshall

“She never takes off the makeup and fashion because that’s who she really is and, more crucially, that self (like all selves) is always already self-consciously constructed. At this moment, I think, we were meant to think of it as a private self, but not necessarily the ‘real’ self.”

Mind. Blown. So many selves. =)

Seriously though, great post! And thanks for introducing me to that Google Chrome commercial — hadn’t seen it.

Mother, hmmm, that’s a word I wouldn’t automatically associate with Gaga. How does “mother” work with how Gaga currently portrays herself, i.e., “an icon of outsiders”? Or is “mother monster” a descriptor she carried before that Chrome commercial (I’m a fan, but I’m not always up on everything Gaga-related!).

31 05 2011
erinmeyers

Thanks for your comment! I think blowing your mind with so many selves is a big part of Gaga’s m.o.

She named herself “Mother Monster” as a way to connect with her fans (she calls them the Little Monsters). She’s been using it for a while, especially on her Twitter feed. It may have started after The Fame Monster album was released, which I suppose means this shift to the authentic has been going on for longer. I see it as part of a move to connect with fans in a way that nurtures them by reflecting their own struggles. She is the ultimate outsider/monster, and thus anyone who feels that way can find solace in her image/music. She stays true to herself as a “monster” and encourages and supports her little monsters to do the same.

She’s also been into some literal birth/mother imagery in her Twitter feed leading up to the release of this album, talking about “conceiving” songs through collaboration with others, and, on the day the album was released, this:

31 05 2011
Kelli Marshall

“My water just broke,” LOL! Again, thanks for sharing.

Yeah, I knew she called her fans “little monsters,” and I know about putting your “paws up.” =) I’d just not heard her use the word mother in association with all that. But your explanation re: her as nurturer to other outsiders, etc., makes perfect sense. Thanks! =)

1 09 2011
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