When was the last time you looked at a popstar and thought “I want to be HER”? Was it Kelly Clarkson? Fergie? Taylor Swift? Perhaps I’m being solipsistic, but I will bravely wager a “no” here. Searching for an idol in the post-Y2K pop landscape is a sad and fruitless task, indeed. Justin became a cipher. Britney became a tragedy, then halfheartedly rebounded. Michael died, suddenly becoming pop’s third saint (you can guess the first two). Skipping Madonna, who has reached evergreen status, we’re left with Miley, Beyonce, and Rihanna. Sure, these women are popular, but do they inspire worship? They service us with tunes, but do they represent something more? Then, I get it: they do, actually. They epitomize what happens when The Girl Next Door gets a record deal in the era of Simon Cowell. And guess what? It’s boring.
A few years ago, a young female singer named Stefani Germanotta undoubtedly agreed. Frustrated by the particularly joyless American pop scene of the mid-2000s, she sought to fill the superstar void. She donned a glittery leotard and wig, hustled the NYC club circuit, called herself Lady Gaga, and told the world to take notice. By late 2008, we had. By late 2009, her simple wish had been granted: she was a bonafide pop Icon. Welcome to the Gaga Effect – a new era for pop aesthetics.
As Generation Y’s first true libertine, Lady Gaga has killed off faceless pop, rendering an entire micro-era instantly obsolete. For that alone, she must be commended. She knows that music – even music for the masses – works best when it’s weird. We immortalize what unsettles us most, which explains why Gaga’s song, “Bad Romance”, with its disease motif, Hitchcockian sexual allegories, and self-immolating wish, is a monster hit. Indeed, “monsters” – literal and figurative – fascinate the antic singer, who named her latest release The Fame Monster. It’s a concept album that catalyzes her two obsessions – fame and fame gone wrong – into sterling pop anthems. The accompanying videos have been hyper-stylized, state-of-the art Events – when was the last time the premiere of a music video became Must See TV?
Speaking of style, Lady Gaga currently dictates it, both on the runways and the streets. Because of their infamous appearance in her “Bad Romance” video, Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2010 infamous twelve-inch “Armadillo” heels went from obscenely priced cult item amongst the high-fashion set to “those weird claws” recognized by any household. Pantlessness is now de rigueur, as the Spring 2010 runways confirmed. Charlie Le Mindu, creator of the “haute coiffure” fantastical wigs and headpieces worn by Gaga, was recently interviewed by The New York Times and has become a cult icon in his own right. That’s another part of the Gaga Effect: her idols become ours.
Describing herself as the pop female version of Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga is more than the world’s most popular singer. She is a style pioneer. She is a postmodern architect of fame. She is a cultural mathematician and philosopher. Life, she will tell you, is an art show, and hers is on permanent exhibition; like Warhol and Leigh Bowery, she is both muse and creator, the medium and the message. Overt in attire and attitude, yet inscrutable in character and origin, her obsessively constructed persona also gestures to the dark, humorous façade of another idol, the brilliantly indigestible designer, Martin Margiela. The result is that Lady Gaga has intentionally become a paradoxical riddle – an ubiquitous enigma. Not since Madonna was simultaneously hawking Pepsi and burning crosses has the pop-consuming public encountered such a contrived and complex celebrity. That Lady Gaga is the spawn of two extremes – polar opposites best represented by Britney and Marilyn Manson – has actually allowed her to kidnap everyone in the middle.
It’s that power, more than anything, that makes her so exceptional in an age where other popular entertainers are simply complicit in keeping cultural tastes static. Impervious to the usual decorum surrounding Top 40 artists, Gaga has the ludicrous power to shove culture around, dictating her own – and therefore, our – zeitgeist. Her corruption of pop politics has been a refreshing perversion to witness. Once (flatteringly) described as an “exquisite horror”, Gaga literally bled onstage during a televised performance in September. She turned her own name into a form of wickedly addictive Jabberwocky. She, perhaps unwisely, made wheelchairs and gold-plated crutches look sexy in the clip for “Paparazzi”; in the same video, she poisoned a man while donning black lipstick and Minnie Mouse ears. A few months later, she set another paramour on fire, while wearing a coat made from entirely skinned polar bear – and nothing else.
And we watched, horrified, but enraptured. The Gaga Effect – it never fails.
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Colleen Nika is a New York City based fashion and music writer and regular contributor to Interview, Paper, Blackbook, and style.com.