The Lady Gaga Backlash

Lady Gaga released the video for her latest single "Alejandro" on Tuesday. The song is a pastiche of ABBA by way of Ace of Base and the video pays homage to Madonna and Bob Fosse, with images of gay boys in Nazi-esque uniforms marching, humping and writhing all over Gaga, who is alternately wearing a leather nun's habit or a bra made from machine gun barrels. Yes, it's a whole lotta look.

The next day, Gaga showed up at her younger sister's high school graduation ceremony wearing a revolutionary ensemble (pictured below) that might have given Grey Gardens' Little Edie pause. She was immediately accused of hogging the spotlight from her little sis and that the outfit was completely inappropriate for graduation from a Catholic high school, which just so happened to be the same school Gaga attended. The imagery from the video, her sister's graduation from a Catholic school and the outfit were, surely, all designed for the most media impact possible. But something about the one-two-punch of the video and photos seems to have caused a quickening in the inevitable Gaga backlash.

The "Alejandro" video has been watched nearly 10 million times since Tuesday on YouTube, with more than 76,000 comments offering either high praise or outright contempt. Most of the comments are about how she's "ripped off" Madonna or has blasphemed the Catholic church. Even poptart Katy Perry took to her Twitter account and called the video "cheap" and "blasphemy as entertainment." It's hard to take Perry seriously after her lesbian tourist anthem "I Kissed A Girl" and new single, "California Gurls," where she talks about getting drunk, being a cheap beach slut and melting all the boys "popsicles." Sounds like Katy was hoping to hog a little spotlight for herself.

It's been nearly 30 years (gulp!) since Madonna channeled Marilyn Monroe for "Material Girl," not to mention borrowing looks from 50s pin-up queen Bettie Page and the dance moves from the gay underground drag balls for "Vogue." Except Madonna wasn't accused of ripping off these artists; she was paying homage. Gaga, who is only 24, grew up watching Madonna and is now honoring her inspiration in "Alejandro," which also pays a debt to Madge's "La Isla Bonita." Is Madonna upset about any of this? No. She  likes Gaga, and the two have already done a send-up of their tabloid created rivalry on Saturday Night Live. Expect a collaboration in the near future.

Gaga is unabashed pop. The music she makes is ear candy. Many people hate it. I get it. However, unlike Britney, Katy, Ke$ha and Miley, Gaga can actually sing, write her own songs and play multiple instruments. I've yet to hear her lip sync, which means her high-energy live performances usually leave her vocals strained or breathy. Gaga can also give a coherent, intelligent interview on a variety of subjects. She's a vocal supporter of civil rights for the GLBT community and says her gay fans are the ones who elevated her fame.

This makes Gaga a threat on many fronts. She's a smart woman with an opinion; she pushes cultural and societal buttons; she wields an amazing amount of influence; she flaunts her fame and (bi)sexuality. Mousy-haired coffee house singer Stefani Germanotta's rise to global superstardom in less than five years is one of the most calculated artistic reinventions in music history. I say, good for her.

The Internet is full of singers, songwriters and performers playing guitar and keyboards in poorly-lit bedrooms hoping they'll be the next Gaga or Justin Bieber. Cutting through the web's non-stop noise is a miracle in itself. Luckily, Gaga has real musical talent  to back it up. Anyone who's heard her sing a cappella or accompany herself on piano cannot deny the woman can sing.  But it's the image and the media frenzy that seems to be causing the backlash.

Remember when Madonna delivered her own one-two-punch in 1992 with the Erotica album and the next day the release of the Sex coffee table book? The album was poorly received and the book, which was heavily influenced by Andy Warhol, was a step too far even for the masses who embraced her. She was overexposed, self-indulgent and musical tastes were changing. Soon, grunge and rap would overtake the airwaves. The media obsession reached fever pitch then imploded, and Madge's music career (along with a string of shitty movies) went fallow, the consensus her career was in decline. It would take five years and embracing the burgeoning electronica scene on the Ray of Light album to put her back on top.

I first took notice of Gaga in the summer of 2008 when she performed "Just Dance" on So You Think You Can Dance. I was hooked immediately. It seemed after that performance that Gaga was everywhere. You couldn't surf to a website, pick up a magazine or turn on the television without seeing or hearing Gaga. She sucked the oxygen out of the room. Not quite a year after the release of her debut album The Fame, came an EP called Fame Monster, followed by the shock and awe of the "Bad Romance" video. How would she top herself? She hasn't...yet.

The "Telephone" video was fun, but overblown. The decision to release "Alejandro," Fame Monster's weakest track, and pair it with a beautifully filmed, but overly-serious set of images that seem to have no correlation to the song, despite Gaga's message that the video was a tribute to her gay fans, was also a miscalculation. And, yet, for all the accusations of "Alejandro" being a Madonna rip-off it's still one of the most compelling, talked about music videos to come along in years.

The most bizarre backlash is from gay men. Today on Facebook, I read a number of comments from gay men who have referred to her as a "tranny," "Lady Caca" and one who said she only appealed to "shallow fags who like shiny things." This isn't the first time I've heard derision from the gay community about Gaga. I have a friend who DJs at a local gay club here in Atlanta, isn't a fan and hates having to play her music in his sets. He's never been able to articulate exactly why he hates her, because his music collection is filled with more disposable pop than you can shake a disco stick at.

Of course, I'm not saying that every gay man should like Lady Gaga, but I think many have shunned her because they are expected to like her, just like every 'mo is supposed to worship Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Madonna. The need to break out of the stereotype and not have gay culture assimilated and consumed is a strong motivator. I totally get it. What I don't get is the vitriol and just plain nastiness that comes from the gay community as they slag her off. It's poor form, gentlemen, especially as the GLBT community continues to fight for civil rights and promote tolerance.

Whether you like Gaga or not, she is an invaluable voice and, I believe, a sincere friend of the GLBT community. She supports gay marriage, raises money for HIV/AIDS organizations and is outspoken in interviews about the need for tolerance in America and around the world. Elton John cashed a check for $1 million this week for playing virulent homophobe Rush Limbaugh's wedding reception, but that story was lost in the white noise once "Alejandro" hit YouTube.

Without a doubt,  Lady Gaga is overexposed. Maybe she hasn't realized it yet, but she will. She's too talented, intelligent and driven to be one of Warhol's "15 minute" types. She'll take a break soon, but like Bowie and Madonna, she'll reinvent herself with a new sound and image. And the hullabaloo will start afresh all over again.


this is a great piece.
Very thoughtful and well-said post.

Unknown said…
You should be a reporter for the arts. Really.
Anonymous said…
This is really excellent Collin.

Didi, he already is a reporter for the arts. He edits an arts & culture mag in Atlanta.

Charles said…
I saw the same post, Collin, and was as confused as you. If for no other reason, the enduring memory I have of Lady Gaga is when she appeared at the microphone during the October March on Washington and screamed "Mr. Obama are you listening??"

Flat out: no matter what you think of her contributions to music, WE NEED HER.

Nobody else--nobody else--puts him or herself on the line for the gay community, including most out/gay celebrities. Lady Gaga always puts the gay community first--in thought and in deed--in everything she does, from promoting the work of gay designers like McQueen to thanking her gay fans (specifically) in speeches and interviews.

I can't even think of another celebrity in any commercial art field who has said, "I do this in support of gay people."

I don't care if gay people don't appreciate her music because gay culture--generally speaking--is split between pompous art snobs who won't listen to anything created in their lifetime to anti-pretentious trash culture lowlifes who revel in filth.

Clearly, I'm in that latter camp. And happily.
nolapoet said…
Good explication of the sub-sub, Collin. I took notice of Lady Gaga when I saw how madly in love my students were (are) with her every move. Was I ever surprised to discover the anti-pop-tart. Her music/videos are no more inane or dangerous than any New Wave dance tunes. (The Beyonce' jailbreak video left me hanging, but I understand it's one in a series.) She IS intelligent, articulate, and a politically liberal woman--which makes her a triple threat for some. Ooo la ooo la la...
Pris said…
Great post. I agree...upstaging her graduating sister wasn't one of her better moves.
Nancy Devine said…
my students tend to be freaked out by lady gaga. they think she's a hermaphrodite. they don't really know the word; they do recognize it when i say it. it gives me a chance to talk about the word and concept intersex...that it's more politically correct.
i like culture icons who are larger than life, who push the limits. why? students often refer to these people and then i get to hear what they think about topics that are a bit on the edge here in north dakota. (oh the questions about the pregnant man!!!) it amazes me how many questions kids have even though we live in a culture of so much information.
as for me, lady gaga as a performer is big deal. i'm impressed with her support of glbt rights, of how vocal she is. all of us do need people with the guts to speak up.
Joy Leftow said…
this is fantastic stuff, very thorough reporting and review - I learned a lot
Anonymous said…
I see she's been back in the news again for flipping people off at a baseball game in NYC. She's had one hell of a week for publicity.

David said…
Right on, Collin!

And the wonderment over rumored hermaphroditism is ridiculous, whether it's true or not.
lissa4evah said…
Hey Collin, finally had a chance to read this. I really enjoyed it. I don't think there is anything to fear over this 'backlash', but I'm glad you wrote it. I love me some GaGa because I appreciate her talent, I have to hope that there are others out there who can look past any of the crap they are trying to shovel on her to see that she has abounding raw talent. And if she is truly as smart and talented as we know her to be she won't be going away very soon. She'll maintain the love of all her little monsters and continue to win new ones with her creativity and intelligence!
lutz said…
Great article! What I love most about her is that she is so fearless . People always go on about her marketing skills and about how everything is calculated, but in reality she is the first mainstream popstar to challenge the ever more confined ideas of "how to be a star" (ie look sexy and do not have an opinion) since Boy George in the 80s. Doing what she does takes an enormous amount of guts, and she's not afraid to follow her convictions.

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