Olivarius: The greatness of Gaga

Culture Quotient

Over spring break, my mini-feed was abuzz with Yalies posting Lady Gaga’s latest music video “Telephone” featuring Beyonce. Comments like “have you seen this yet????!,” “BEST video ever” and “WTF!” abounded.

Since its release almost two weeks ago, “Telephone” has had over 22 million views on YouTube and has become an Internet sensation. With “Telephone” Gaga, as always, has taken performance to the next level.

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Madison Grinnell
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In a jet-lagged state, I watched it over and over. Sleep deprivation made the prison dance montages, lesbian make-outs, cigarette sunglasses and images of poisoned diner food interspersed with Americana feel like I was in an alternate universe. Gaga saturates her videos with graphic imagery that is simultaneously repulsive and aesthetically fascinating. There is shock value and beauty and ambiguity all in one 10-minute segment. Classic Gaga.

2009 was Gaga’s year. She blasted to fame, won a slew of Grammys, Teen Choice Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and sold over 8 million albums to boot.

Truth is, her music is pretty unremarkable: If Kelly Clarkson had produced “Poker Face,” it would have been a dud. Most of the awards she wins are for her videos and performances, not her lyrics.

Why do we love her so? She is the whole package — glamour, pop, scandal, fashion and rumor — in one tiny 5-foot-4-inch, 23-year-old form. She walks off airplanes in absurd architectural costumes, creates 10-minute-long high-concept videos laced with powerful Warholian imagery and doesn’t debunk rumors like “does she have a dick?” No one, not even David Bowie, does glamour and celebrity like Gaga.

Lady Gaga proved to be the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg of pop music all in one. She is a tycoon — redefining glamour, challenging convention and getting up in your face — she has made millions on the back of it. And that’s what makes her such a trailblazer.

The Tisch dropout is an ultra-savvy media manipulator engaged in an elaborate and complex project to re-glamorize the pop star. None of that is readily evident in her actual songs. But that might be part of the point. Regardless of whether you buy her pop-intelligence, you can’t deny that “Gaga” genius in one important sense. Timeless branding of things we don’t usually brand.

From dangling on stage in La Perla lingerie as fake blood gushes from her breast to wearing an orbiting head dress to an award show, every appearance she makes is worthy of the front page. Her image sells, whether you revere it or find it pretentious.

Virgin Mobile, Diet Coke, Wonder Bread, Polaroid and the dating Web site Plentyoffish.com all recognize this; the flagrancy of product placement in “Telephone” is almost distracting. How many other artists have companies vying for them to put arsenic in their Miracle Whip?

Let’s compare Gaga to someone even more successful in 2009: Taylor Swift, who made $18 million last year according to Forbes estimates and was listed by Nielsen SoundScan as the top-selling digital artist in music history. They are a bit different, you might say. Swift is the girl next door. Gaga is your parents’ worst nightmare. Gaga makes music videos with graphic death imagery. Swift sings songs about teen love and being “15.”

Parents love Swift because she spews morals they deem good for their daughters. They see her as a responsible big sister. The most controversial thing she did last year was host “Saturday Night Live” (and she was amazing). The least controversial thing Gaga did was meet the Queen of England in a red leather dress.

Admittedly, the pop stars have some similarities. Like Gaga’s music, the world could do without Swift’s. Swift’s career is based on a particular image and branding — tapping into the tween scene in a way that would make Britney circa 1997 drool. She has become the celebrity face of l.e.i jeans and Wal-Mart, and many companies are vying for her as well.

But Swift’s brand is a ticking time bomb. As we know all too well from the Spears, Aguilera, Moore, Simpson battle of the 90s, the girl next-door image has an expiration date. She turns 21 this December. Soon America will not buy into lyrics like “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” As precedent shows, she will either fade into obscurity or have to rebrand herself as a young sexually empowered woman, singing songs like “Dirrty” or “I’m a Slave 4 U,” struggling to find a new niche.

Gaga will not face the perils of musical puberty. As far as we are concerned, Gaga doesn’t have an age, sex or “innocent” thought in her body. Her burlesque film neon/noir videos might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we have never seen anything like her. She is a novelty and will continue to be controversial, shocking us with images we seldom face in mainstream culture, like Butch lesbians and non-heteronormative sexuality. And power to her.

As Gaga said in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, her music and performance is “all about letting people who don’t fit in know that someone out there is fine with who they are.” I guess America is a country of freaks then, and it is Gaga’s genius for getting us to embrace it — while making millions in the process.

Kathryn Olivarius is a junior in Branford College.

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