Listen, I’m too old to REALLY care about Lady Gaga. But I’ve seen her on a couple of award shows and interviewed on SIXTY MINUTES. I gotta admit it: She has a kind of admirable self-discipline in her savvy, intense devotion to her art as she understands it. Unlike, say, Madonna or Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, she can really sing. She’s also quite pretty and doesn’t go in for self-mutilation. On the surface she has a kind of an edifying message of embracing the marginalized or whatever. Her songs, though, leave me cold (and Taylor Swift’s are often pretty good). One reason is that the music strikes me as quite unmemorable. Another is the words, which, as Susan McWlliams explains, often celebrate sadism and potential sadists. Here’s an especially provocative taste:
I’m thinking of the fact that the 2000s were a decade where we suffered the trauma of learning that all our highly vaunted new technologies – cell phones, Internet, digital whatevers – did not mean that we had created conditions for a new age of democratic human flourishing, as we had imagined. (I remember going to an event in Manhattan, back in 1999, and how everyone there – with the exception of the Nation author Jon Leonard – honestly and fervently believed that the Internet was going to mean the end of big money in politics, the end of big business, and the rise of a new egalitarian, more loving, age. Doesn’t that sound awfully quaint now?) Those technologies liberated us in some ways, to be sure, but they also brought new kinds of terror into our lives, from the possibility that we could easily drunk-text our ex-boyfriends or drunk-e-mail our colleagues, to the possibility that our kids could be targeted by predators while sitting in the living room, to the possibility that your very “identity” could be “stolen” in one way or another. Even before the recent economic collapse, it was a decade defined by its everyday terrors, terrors unprecedented in recent cultural memory.
Into this traumatized culture stepped Lady Gaga, who not only channeled the emergent cultural belief that it’s all about “kill or be killed” – but also channeled that belief into catchy songs and pretty stories in which she is always the killer. Through her, we live the sadistic fantasy of hurting before we are hurt, beating before we are beaten.
She’s our post-Paris, post-traumatic poster child, the idol of our latter-day tribe. Gaga’s not that different from any of us really, no matter what she wears, not the singularly pathological figure that some have made her out to be, but a means for figuring the almost pathological costume that hangs over us all.
You’ll notice that Susan’s post appears on the website FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC, which is devoted to exposing the considerable downsides of our high-tech, libertarian society from a point of view often identified with the writer Wendell Berry. That doesn’t mean the contributors necessarily vote Republican (Susan doesn’t and she teaches at the fashionably liberal Pomona College), and you’ll be relieved to know that most of them didn’t like President Bush. I’ll have more to say about my friendly disagreements with “Porcher” friends down the road.
But I do agree with Susan on the whole Gaga phenomenon. There really is a lot of anger out there folks, and that’s not altogether a bad thing. But the Lady is a sign of our pathology–obviously no remedy….