The Presentation of Fame in Everyday Life: The Case of Lady Gaga

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

This is an electronic copy of an article published in Margin, The Divas Issue,
Volume 1, Spring 2012, pp. 58-68. Also available in pdf format.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2012. "The Presentation of Fame in Everyday Life: The Case of Lady Gaga." Margin, The Divas Issue, Volume 1, pp. 58-68.



It would be literally unbelievable to all readers of this paper, I have no doubt, to tell the tale of a university administrator who did not know who Lady Gaga was when, in November of 2010, I told her I was going to organize a sociology course on the fame of the performer and when literally thousands of media sources in every continent of the world were reporting about my course. Yet, that tale would be true. Perhaps this event is too idiosyncratic to develop a more encompassing explanation, but it nonetheless strengthened, rather than undermined, the notion on my part that a sociological perspective of fame is needed and that such a perspective would need to ponder on the dynamic interplay between society and self. It is as part of a broader ongoing research project focused on the social conditions of the fame of Lady Gaga that I here offer some thoughts on this interplay in the construction and reception of fame. [i]

The title of this paper invokes a (famous) book of the (famous) sociologist Erving Goffman, who developed a dramaturgical approach to the analysis of face-to-face interaction on the basis of a conception of social life as a theatrical performance [ii]. In our everyday life today, the “obvious inadequacies" [iii] of the dramaturgical model are far fewer than when Goffman was writing as the lines between public and private selves are blurred more than ever before. In the case of Lady Gaga, moreover, the art of fame as a performance is deliberately and resolutely pursued and embraced by her and also received as such by her audience. I hope to provide a framework for the understanding of this distinctly sociological aspect of Lady Gaga’s fame.

Fame: Towards a Sociological Perspective

Etymologically derived from the Latin goddess Fama, the phenomenon of fame was historically related to a quality of ill repute, of being spoken about through public gossip, a negative connotation which today is associated with infamy as one modality of a more neutrally understood fame. Today, in fact, it is more typical to celebrate fame to create indeed celebrities whose fame is explicitly acknowledged, whether for good or bad. A new species of famous people has thereby emerged who embrace the practice of fame itself as an art. In the world of popular entertainment today, Lady Gaga may count as one of the most exemplary cases among these artists of fame.

Although the phenomenon of fame today, in general, and Lady Gaga’s fame in the world of popular music, more particularly, are of a contemporary nature, it is more than useful to bring out that the active pursuit and embrace of fame in the arts is not without history. In the world of classical music, for instance, the Hungarian-born pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had acquired a status of fame in the middle to late 19th century which in many ways was comparable to that of Lady Gaga today. [iv] Both musicians, whose primary instrument is the piano, are well-known not only for their music but also, and particularly, for their fame and for having gained favor among a wide international audience, including many of the political and other cultural dignitaries of their respective days. Like Lady Gaga, Liszt was both artistically admired and commercially successful, leading to a level of devotion that was so staggering that it was uniquely described, by the famous German poet Heinrich Heine, as ‘Lisztomania.’ Biographies of Liszt routinely describe him as a rock star of the 19th century or the Michael Jackson of his days. On the occasion of the bicentennial celebration of Liszt’s birthday in 2011, the newspaper The Telegraph devoted an article to the pianist’s special sense of mixing entertainment with art, an ambition that is often also attributed to Lady Gaga.[v] At the same time, both performers have at times also been denounced as flashy or superficial.

Whether in contemporary society or in the past, many pertinent questions can be asked about fame. At the most basic level, a sociological perspective conceives of fame in relational terms as pertaining to the quality of an interaction between the person to whom fame is attributed, on the one hand, and the audience who participates in such attribution, on the other. As such, fame is essentially social as no person can be famous, by definition, without a society within which that fame is practiced. Applied to the case of Lady Gaga, therefore, the sociological questions that need to be asked about fame are at least twofold: 1) What are the societal conditions that have propelled Lady Gaga to her current status of a global pop superstar; and 2) What are Lady Gaga’s own perceptions and visions of fame, in general, and of her fame, in particular. A sociological examination of fame is thus essentially an inquiry of society and self in the presentation of fame.

Society: The Social Conditions of Fame

Sociologically, it can be taken as a given that the fame of Lady Gaga rests, to some or even large extent, on an artistic talent that is aesthetically expressed in musical and other related forms (songs, videos, fashion, shows). What is at the heart of a sociology of fame in the world of music are all those forces and mechanisms which exist socially within the environment of music. In my teaching and research, I have identified at least eight social conditions which have contributed to Lady Gaga’s fame. I can here not offer an in-depth analysis of these conditions but do wish to explain their relevance.

1) Business and Marketing
To be successful, musicians like all other artists need to rely on an infrastructure and organization to connect the aesthetically valuable with the commercially viable. Although it is sometimes wrongly identified as the singular or most important aspect of Lady Gaga’s fame, there is no doubt that a well-function business machinery has been at work to bring the performer to a global audience. [vi] Yet, whether there are marketing lessons to be learned from the case of Lady Gaga’s fame for other artists remains questionable as it is also the case that Lady Gaga is rarely gifted as a musician, composer, and performer.

2) Entertainment Law
All societies are structured by means of a variety of more and less formal norms. It is a mark of modernity that such normative integration is also accomplished through highly formalized legal means, even when something as deceptively frivolous as pop culture is concerned. When it comes to legalities, indeed, pop music is anything but low brow. On the contrary, intricate laws pertaining to such matters as contract, copyright, and trademark are pertinent to a career in music. Not surprisingly in view of the scope of her success, Lady Gaga has been involved in almost a dozen lawsuits since her rise to fame.

3) Media Exposure
The manager of Lady Gaga once referred to his star as a “digital baby," [vii] a qualification that accurately describes the manner in which she rose to fame, from an initial discovery on MySpace to her currently dominating presence in the social network media, especially on FaceBook and Twitter. But it is not true that the internet alone or even primarily has been responsible for Lady Gaga’s success. Instead, what is most special about her fame in this respect is that she has used the new media while at the same time also successfully relying on the traditional media of radio, television, and print.

4) Fans and Live Shows
The strong identification of the fans of Lady Gaga as ‘little monsters’ is a characteristic so peculiar that one can surely speak by now of a subcultural phenomenon. Perhaps it was precisely because there was a vacuum in the world of pop and rock centered around trends and stars that the rise Lady Gaga was a most fortuitous event. Lady Gaga’s live shows, in addition, offer a place of intense interaction, both of the fan (in the singular) with his/her favorite artist and of the fans (in the plural) with one another. The dedication of Lady Gaga to offer a true spectacle additionally adds to her fame because it reaches beyond her hardcore fans to a wider audience of listeners and spectators.

5) Gay Culture
The gay community entertains an exceptional place in the fame of Lady Gaga as a special sub-set of her fans. The gay community in the United States, in particular, was among the first to embrace the music of Lady Gaga, especially because of its gay-friendly stylistic qualities in the realm of techno, dance, and pop. Additionally, Lady Gaga has explicitly recognized this support and has made it an explicit theme of her music, most notably in her 2011 song “Born This Way.”

6) Political Activism and Religion
Lady Gaga’s embrace of gay culture has also inspired her to be very vocal in her support for gay rights. Most concretely she has taken a variety of efforts to rally against the treatment of gays in the U.S. military by means of the so-called policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. [viii] Most recently, Lady Gaga has extended her activism to anti-bullying initiatives, for which she has co-founded with her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the Born This Way Foundation in collaboration with Harvard University and a number of other groups and celebrities. What is exceptional about this resolute adoption of activism by a pop star is that it involves an intrusion of ethical values in the world of popular aesthetics when the course of history has gone distinctly in the direction of a differentiation of these cultural spheres. The same holds true for religion, perhaps even more so because of its inevitably special place among believers. But about religion, too, Lady Gaga has spoken out in public, both as a person openly committed to certain religious beliefs and as an artist relying on religious symbols. Needless to say, these issues have not gone without public notice and debate, with all due consequences for her fame. [ix]

7) Sex, Sexuality, and Gender
During the Spring and Summer of 2006, Stefani Germanotta transformed herself from an indie-rock musician to the self-proclaimed techno-pop performance artist Lady Gaga. This transformation was at least in part motivated by the expectation that success for a female artist is more likely in pop than in rock. At the same time, Lady Gaga did not want to be seen as just another blond in the world of pop. But the lady is a female nonetheless and has been exposed to a number of issues that are gendered and, at times, sexist, to wit the ludicrous speculations over her sex and the incessant comparisons with other female artists. [x]

In keeping with the theme of this journal, the use of the term ‘diva’ deserves some consideration in this context for it has occasionally been used to describe Lady Gaga and other performers somehow thought to be like her. As the term is predominantly used and understood today, diva must be recognized as a distinctly gendered word that often lapses, intentionally or not, into sexism. After all, there is no equivalent term to diva for successful males, and any male so labeled is distinctly denigrated precisely because the term is reserved for females. Of course, meanings need not be stable over time or across communities, and females have, to some extent, begun to embrace the term. Even then, this adoption only makes sense in the background of its predominant meaning.

8) New York
Stefani Germanotta grew up in a rather privileged environment in New York’s Upper West side. Moving to the Lower East side district when she was 19 would eventually enable the creation of Lady Gaga as she was exposed to the full artistic range New York has to offer as a unique mix of high and low art, of Broadway plays and rock ‘n’ roll, of a classical piano training and the electronic sounds of the dance clubs.

Self: Lady Gaga on Fame and the Fame

Lady Gaga is not only an object of the fame bestowed upon her by her audience, but also actively embraces and pursues her fame. Both in her artistic work and in interviews, she has explicitly dealt with fame. [xi] Her first album, The Fame (2008), deals in a number of songs with what Lady Gaga refers to as the difference between ‘fame,’ which is largely understood as recognized fame or celebrity, and ‘the fame,’ which she understands as a more positive quality that is not necessarily associated with being well-known.
“I think there’s different kinds of fame. I think there’s ‘fame,’ which is plastic and you can buy it on the street, and paparazzi and money and being rich, and then there’s ‘the fame’ which is when no one knows who you are, but everybody wants to know who you are." [xii]
Speaking on the conception of the fame, Lady Gaga most distinctly expresses the idea that it is a quality that can be shared among her and those who join her as her fans and, more generally, her audience.
“The Fame is about how anyone can feel famous... it’s a sharable fame. I want to invite you all to the party." [xiii]
At the same time, however, as Lady Gaga became more famous over the course of her growing career, she also had to acknowledge that she was more exposed to fame (in the sense in which she understands it more negatively), something she would again deal with explicitly in her work. Most striking perhaps in this respect was the live rendition of her song “Paparazzi” at the Video Music Awards (VMA) in New York City’s Radio Music Hall in September 2009, when (unrelated to the actual lyrical theme of the song) she was inspired by the death of Princess Diana to deliver a blood-soaked portrayal of the price of fame as a form of dying. [xiv] In her follow-up album The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga further addressed different negative aspects of having acquired fame in several songs in the form of various fears, including the fear of her fame itself.
“Of never being able to enjoy myself, because I love my work so much, I find it really hard to go out and have a good time." [xv]
Dealing with the many dangers that come with fame, Lady Gaga sees a special role reserved for the people she surrounds herself with for organizational as well as artistic purposes. Lady Gaga is a solo artist who, as a successful star, is accompanied by producers, managers, musicians, dancers, and others, whom she also considers to have a protective function.
“I think that with fame comes a lot of people that are jealous, and with success comes people that want things from you. The key to having both is surrounding yourself with people that want good things from you." [xvi]
When it comes to her work, importantly, Lady Gaga claims her fame to be based on a variety of artistic accomplishments, including music, videos, fashion, and performances. As she mixes musical sounds with particular ways of performing, Lady Gaga thereby understands that art always needs to be communicated to an audience. Commercial success, as Lady Gaga herself sees it, is not to be equated with the fame, but is merely one of its effects. Instead, she claims authenticity by emphasizing that she writes and co-produces her songs, plays piano as well as sings (and claims to never lip-sync), and is generally involved in every aspect of her work. Rather than displaying arrogance or selfishness, Lady Gaga conceives of this sense of control as a necessary condition for a long-lasting career.
“Because that’s your fame. That’s where your fame lives… my luminosity, my constant flashing light. It’s in my ability to know what I make is great. I know it is: I know it’s great, and it’s that sureness-- that sureness is infectious." [xviii]
In relation to this understanding of her own accomplishments, Lady Gaga pursues her work full-time as her life. As such, she sees no difference between herself as a person and the persona of Lady Gaga. In this day and age when the distinction between private and public is blurred in so many ways, Lady Gaga seeks to be Lady Gaga full-time. Whether this ideal is attainable and/or ultimately tragic is too soon to say, but it is clear that Lady Gaga sees it as her mission to embrace the fame as a student of its sociology.

On the television program 60 Minutes that aired on the day of the Grammys in February 2011, Lady Gaga explicitly addressed the sociology of fame in response to a question by Anderson Cooper regarding my course at USC which was discussed widely in the media at the time the interview was conducted. She thereby affirmed that her pursuit of the fame was an essential part of her work, not one of its mere side-effects.
“I’m a true academic when it comes to music and when it comes to my style, my fashion... [I studied] the sociology of fame and how to maintain a certain privacy... When you asked me about the sociology of fame and what artists do wrong, what artists do wrong is they lie, and I don’t lie." [xviii]
The ongoing sociological analysis of the fame of Lady Gaga in terms of the interplay between its social conditions and the self-perceptions on the part of the performer should lead to make sense of the most peculiar aspect of Lady Gaga’s fame, which is surely not its scope, for fame in pop and rock music is typically not regionally confined. For whatever else it is, pop music is after all popular, by definition. Instead, what is remarkable about, and what begs for an analysis of, the fame of Lady Gaga is the fact that it has taken place now, over the past couple of years, at a time when the popular music industry is in shambles, especially in economic terms. In contrast, an analysis of the fame of the likes of Madonna or Michael Jackson would inevitably be restricted to a historical exercise.

Acknowledgement

A previous version of this paper was presented at a panel, "On the Nature of Celebrity: Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, and Lady Gaga,” that was held at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, October 19, 2011. I am grateful to the organizer and participants of the panel for their feedback. I warmly thank Hannah Silverblank ’12 for her kind suggestion to submit this writing.

Endnotes

[i] The blog I maintain about my course, “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame,” includes readings, sources, news articles, and related videos: www.gagacourse.net.
[ii] Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.
[iii] Goffman, xi.
[iv] See Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (1811–1847). Revised edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.
[v] Hewett, Ivan. “Why Franz Liszt is Infuriating... and Irresistible.” The Telegraph, July 20, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/8650474/Why-Franz-Liszt-is-infuriating...-and-irresistible.html
[vi] For a brief preliminary analysis of the marketing of Lady Gaga’s fame, see Deflem, Mathieu. “Marketing Monster: Selling the Fame of Lady Gaga.” The Wicked Twins: Fame & Notoriety. Exhibition catalogue, Paul Robeson Galleries, a program of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2012, pp. 30-35.
[vii] Drao, Leena. “Lady Gaga’s Manager: We Make Music Videos for YouTube.” TechCrunch, May 26, 2010. http://techcrunch.com/2010/05/26/lady-gagas-manager-we-make-music-videos-for-youtube/
[viii] Parker, Suzi. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Activism Is Getting Results.” Politics Daily, September 16, 2010. http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/09/16/lady-gagas-dont-ask-dont-tell-activism-is-getting-results/
[ix] Williams, Mary E. “Lady Gaga’s Religion-Baiting Controversy.” Saloncom, April 12, 2011. http://www.salon.com/2011/04/12/lady_gaga_judas_video_controversy/
[x] See Deflem, Mathieu. “The Sex of Lady Gaga.” The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga. Ed. Richard J. Gray. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2012, in press.
[xi] Necessarily selective, this brief analysis of Lady Gaga’s self-understanding of fame relies primarily on two published biographies and the interviews included therein. See Lester, Paul. Looking For Fame: The Life of Pop Princess Lady Gaga. London: Omnibus Press, 2010; Herbert, Emily. Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame. New York: The Overlook Press, 2010.
[xii] Herbert, 103.
[xiii] Lester, 104, 105.
[xiv] A video of Lady Gaga’s 2009 VMA performance can be viewed online on the MTV website: http://www.mtv.com/videos/shows/vma-09/435679/paparazzi-live.jhtml
[xv] Lester, 134.
[xvi] Herbert, 177.
[xvii] Ibid., 171.
[xviii] The quote is taken from the video of the 60 Minutes program, entitled “Lady Gaga & the Art of Fame,” that is posted by CBS on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBk22UhcJIo

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