The Lady Gaga Principle


Traveling in the circles I do, I’ve certainly heard more than my fair share about Lady Gaga. From what little I’d heard of her first album I was sure that I wouldn’t care for her music much; that’s not to say I thought it was bad, just that it didn’t really sound like my sort of thing. Last year, when she released Born This Way and Amazon was selling the MP3 version for 99 cents, I decided to go ahead and buy it, if nothing else because it came with a free one-year upgrade to Amazon’s Cloud Drive that would normally cost twenty bucks. I made sure to listen to Born This Way a number of times before forming a solid judgment, and in the end my opinion hadn’t changed much: She’s a tremendous performer and she has an amazing voice, but the kind of music she chooses to put out there really isn’t the kind of music I like to listen to. Still, millions upon millions have certainly found a lot to love about it, and she’s used the power that her celebrity has given her to do a fair bit of good for the GLBT community, so I have a certain degree of admiration and respect for her.

Any feelings of goodwill I may have for her, however, are more than tempered by a couple of things she’s done that I have real issues with. The first came when she released the “Born This Way” single and many critics pointed out that the structure of the song closely resembled Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Lady Gaga correctly pointed out that both songs use chord progressions that date back from long before Madonna began her career, but then she used the word “retarded” to describe comparisons between the two songs, and that just isn’t cool. Particularly for someone who has become, and seems to actively nourish her identity as, an icon for equality, you can’t use that word in such a derogatory fashion. That word is approaching near “N-word” levels of prohibition, and for good reason. Such careless use of such a loaded word shouldn’t be tolerated, and I should think that Lady Gaga would have had the sense not to use that word. (She did apologize later, and for all the times that I myself have carelessly and recklessly used that word in a derogatory fashion in the past, I apologize profusely.)

The other thing that bothers me about Lady Gaga is how she jerked around “Weird Al” Yankovic when he wanted to do his “Perform This Way” parody, not just refusing him rights but making him go all the way through production of the song, at his own expense, and then kneecapping him at the last minute. If you aren’t already aware of what happened there, Weird Al’s own blog about what happened, “The Gaga Saga,” is must-reading. I’m not quite the fan of Weird Al’s that I was when I was younger, but that has less to do with his own work than the fact that the popular music he parodies just completely fell off of my radar well over a decade ago. Still, to be parodied by Weird Al is supposed to be a rite of passage for all big-name music acts, a sign that you’ve made it, and there’s a reason why so many artists are more than happy to grant Weird Al permission to parody their songs. Denying Weird Al doesn’t tend to be a good career move, and while no one expects Lady Gaga to flame out the way, say, Coolio did, it’s one of those things that does hamper my ability to appreciate Lady Gaga.

I was thinking about “Perform This Way” recently, because when Weird Al finally released the music video on YouTube, it was kind of a huge disappointment, at least for me. As some of my friends remarked at the time, trying to do a parody of Lady Gaga was a task that not even Weird Al’s comedic genius was up to handling. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Lady Gaga is essentially impossible to parody because she’s already deep into the realm of self-parody. Remember a couple of years ago when she wore a meat dress to the MTV Video Music Awards? Remember how none of the jokes that resulted from that incident generated anywhere near as many laughs as the dress itself? By making herself such a spectacle — and not since Madonna has the music world seen an artist who’s so well aware of where “that line” is, when to stay behind it, when to poke a toe across it, and when to leap across it yelling at the top of her lungs — Lady Gaga basically cuts off a lot of potential parody of her. Sure, you can criticize her in other ways, but parody is one of the most effective methods of criticism there is (because, especially in times as troubled as these, people crave an excuse to laugh), but parodic imitations of her seldom, if ever, seem to match what she herself comes up with for her own image, and that is a very effective way to cut off some of the most effective forms of criticism there are.

I’m certain that conservatives were paying attention to Lady Gaga, because that pretty much describes the shift they’ve undergone these past four years.

Much has been made recently about how hard to the right a significant chunk of elected Republicans, and mainstream American conservatism, has turned since President Obama took office; I’ve certainly blogged enough about it. Even after the crippling losses Republicans suffered in the 2006 and 2008 elections, instead of following the traditional Washington wisdom of moving to the centre to appeal more to independent voters, there can be little doubt that Republicans bucked that wisdom and veered hard right. Whatever libertarian “no tax money to save failing corporations” leanings the Tea Party may have started out with were soon subjugated, then pretty much obliterated, in favour of going after social service and social welfare programmes using the same “handout” rhetoric that has defined the Republican party since the Reagan years. In the minority in the two years after Obama’s election, and even as the majority party in the House of Representatives, congressional Republicans have doubled down on their perception as obstructionists, attempting to block bill after bill unless they get things just the way they want.

In some ways Mitt Romney is almost the personification of this new strategy, the Lady Gaga of the Republican Party as it were. Despite the poorly-chosen “Etch-a-Sketch” comment of one of his aides during the primary campaign, and again defying the convention of moving to the centre after securing your party’s presidential nomination to attract swing voters, Romney continues to ape far-right rhetoric, talking points, and policies. More to the point, Romney’s aloofness about the size and sources of his substantial personal wealth, coupled with his surrogates’ use of the phrase “you people” so often it almost seems like part of a campaign slogan now — make him pretty much the stereotypical image of a greedy, out-of-touch (remember him struggling to come up with the word “doughnut”?), help-the-rich-and-screw-the-poor tycoon, and he seems to play up that image more than he tries to distance himself from it.

If Republicans and conservatives are, in fact, consciously using the strategy of embracing their stereotypes, it seems to be working. As much as any presidential election can be determined three and a half months ahead of time, Romney is far outperforming John McCain right now, and he certainly has a very reasonable chance of winning the presidency come November. I haven’t seen the kind of thorough analysis of this year’s congressional elections I’d like to see, but I get the feeling that whomever gets inaugurated next January will be dealing with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. This probably has more to do with swing voters admiring Republicans’ fortitude after the Democrats largely squandered their huge congressional advantage in 2009 and 2010 — you might not like what the Republicans want to do, but at least when they say they’re going to do something, they do it — but I think a good deal of it also has to do with the fact that it’s become so hard to parody Republicans because they’re embracing their own parodied images and beliefs and making them mainstream.

There is a limit to this, of course. No one is expecting conservatives or Republicans to walk arm-in-arm with members of the Westboro Baptist Church anytime soon, but that still leaves room for a lot of anti-GLBT rhetoric and legislation, as we’ve seen just in the past few months in North Carolina and Chick-Fil-A. Tying mainstream Republicans/conservatives to the Westboro types would be like trying to paint President Obama as being in league with violent left-wing radicals and socialists … hey, wait a minute. See what I mean?

Unless President Obama somehow scores a decisive win over Romney in November — and I don’t see this election being too decisive in either direction unless something huge happens in the next three months (like the collapse of European financial markets) — I doubt Republicans are going to abandon their hard push to the right, and if all that matters is winning (which, unfortunately, seems to be a governing axiom in American politics these days), they’d be foolish to stop because it does seem to be working quite well for them. Is there a point past which voters will abandon Republicans in droves until they get less extreme? If Lady Gaga is our guidepost to judge by, the answer would appear to be no.

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