Pop-Frauen der Gegenwart: Körper – Stimme – Image. Vermarktungsstrategien zwischen Selbstinszenierung und Fremdbestimmung, edited by Christa Brüstle. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2015.
The final print version of this chapter is available in google preview.
An expanded version is included in my book, Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame: The Rise of a Pop Star in an Age of Celebrity.
Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. “Lady Gaga – The Scream of a Rock Star.” Pp. 73-93 in Pop-Frauen der Gegenwart: Körper – Stimme – Image. Vermarktungsstrategien zwischen Selbstinszenierung und Fremdbestimmung, edited by Christa Brüstle. Bielefeld: transcript.
"The only new rock star is Lady Gaga. That's it.”
Lady Gaga is commonly thought of as a pop star and placed in the company of other female pop singers. This designation, however, may lead to overlook the extent to which Gaga’s aesthetic and public persona are not solely rooted in pop but also, and decidedly, reflect rock music stylings and an encompassing rock star attitude. In this paper, I unravel the various rock aspects of Lady Gaga, including the musician’s evolution from within the rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal scene in New York, her self-presentation as a rock star, her associations and collaborations with established rock stars, the presence of rock in both the style and content of her music, and the adoption of rock-related styles among her fans. I argue that the music and other artistic expressions of Lady Gaga derive much of their unique appeal from this conscious infusion of rock in pop.
The number of misrepresentations and unfounded interpretations of the music and style of Lady Gaga may well exceed the number of wardrobes the singer has been seen wearing over the years. This is sadly not a joke, inasmuch at least as popular music and culture are not either. Analyses of Lady Gaga suffer greatly from a lack of appropriate contextualization or a mere depth in factual knowledge. Humorous references to sexuality in Lady Gaga’s music (for instance, in the song “LoveGame” where she sings about a ‘disco stick’) are interpreted as dangerous signs of a hyper-sexualized world or are otherwise dismissed as manufactured gimmicks (Paglia 2010). Aspects of Lady Gaga’s aesthetic stylings, ranging from the color of the singer’s hair to the words and chords used in her songs, are interpreted on the basis of shallow similarities with other performers. By example, because Gaga’s 2009 song “Alejandro” contains the word ‘Fernando,’ the track has been dismissed as an ABBA rip-off, when the insertion of the name was actually the result of her producer RedOne’s deliberate reference, by word and in tone, to the famous group from his adopted country of Sweden. As I suggested elsewhere (Deflem 2012), the critique of Lady Gaga as being a sensationalist copycat of an earlier performer or group of performers betrays a rather disconcerting form of sexism against female pop stars that still holds true today.
Seeking to offer some sense and sensibility to the interpretation of meaning in Lady Gaga, I will analyze the manner and extent to which Gaga embraces the aesthetics and attitude of rock in her pop music explorations. I do not argue that Lady Gaga is unequivocally or even primarily to be placed in the world of rock music. Instead I suggest that rock is always present in her work even though she is primarily situated in the world of pop. Far from accidental, I also argue, Lady Gaga’s attempt to infuse rock into pop is deliberate and, both implicitly and explicitly, contributes to her fame and reception as a transcending popular music icon. This blurring of the genre distinctions between pop and rock at the same time re-affirms the boundaries of taste as centrally involving a distinction of likes and dislikes.
This analysis builds theoretically on a cultural-constructionist perspective of the aesthetics of music to reveal the inter-subjective nature of musical judgments. The analysis of my presentation uncovers six dimensions of the rock qualities and aspirations of Lady Gaga’s music: 1) Lady Gaga’s music evolved from rock into pop; 2) she conceives of pop as the new rock; 3) she brings musical elements of rock into her pop songs; 4) she self-identifies as a rock star; 5) she is embraced by and collaborates with rock musicians; and 6) her fans display elements of, and are recruited from the world of, rock fans, especially from the world of hard rock and heavy metal.
The Sociology of Music
From the perspective of musicology, pop and rock music have both commonalities as well as distinguishing characteristics as specific forms of organized sound, to use the terminology of the modern composer Edgar Varèse. However, a sociological understanding of music as culture brings out different and additionally important demarcations (Martin 1996). Whereas from the viewpoint of musicology, the focus of attention is on the technical side of musical composition and performance, such as the kind of rhythms that are used, music is sociologically considered an aspect of culture, which itself is conceived of as one dimension of society. In general terms, culture can be defined as the ideas and ideals of a society, which are mediated in symbolic form through language, words, and signs and are materialized in various products of human activity. Culture is to be analytically conceived both as expressions of ideas (what is thought) and manifestations of praxis (what is done) at the level of society at large or within certain subsections thereof (subcultures).
In modern societies, culture has differentiated to include relatively autonomous institutions related, respectively, to knowledge (science), values (ethics), and aesthetics (art). Music refers in turn to an additionally differentiated cultural sphere within art that is centered around sound. This differentiated understanding is indicated by the very word ‘music’, as it is derived from the Greek mousa, the goddesses of literature and art. Sociologically, then, music refers to the whole of cultural ideas, roles, and institutions that are associated with the organization of sound.
This sociological understanding of the meanings associated with music relates both to the composer/performer and the audience. Music is a social activity that pertains to a relation between musician and listener. The intersubjective nature of music is not easily acknowledged in an individualist society like our own. Also, in any society, a certain hierarchy exists of various musical and other artistic forms. As culture, therefore, music is not necessarily monolithic but plural and not necessarily static but potentially changing.
The Sociology of Pop and Rock
Applying the constructionist understanding of music to pop and rock, these different music cultures can be ideal-typically defined as two forms of popular music which, over time, have differentiated and are relatively autonomous, with occasional bridge-building attempts and various forms of separation, co-existence, and (re-)combination between them. The sociological understanding of music as culture rather than as sound has important implications. By example, popular music critic Simon Frith (2001) can be observed lacking such an understanding in his discussion of pop music as commercial, for-profit music that is a matter of economic enterprise, not art. Frith argues that pop is deliberately designed to appeal to everybody and is essentially conservative. What Frith thus does not acknowledge is to sociologically consider what counts as (rather than is) pop (as opposed to non-pop) in the specific context of a given society.
From a constructionist perspective, instead, pop music is not music that is simplistic from a musicological viewpoint or commercial from an economic standpoint but music that is culturally associated with having those and other related qualities. Pop is not so much simple as commonly thought of as being simple, whether this is accurate in a technical sense or not. In its proper execution, surely, pop music relies on technique as much as does classical music or jazz, even though the specific techniques involved may be very different and/or more or less based on (theoretical) music instruction rather than (practical) experience.
Up until at least the earlier half of the 1970s, the expression ‘pop and rock (music)’ used to be a typical designation to refer to a range of popular music forms, broadly to be traced to the years since the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and the development of popular rock music during the 1960s. The terms rock and pop were then often used interchangeably. But this originally relatively broad understanding of rock and pop that captured a variety of popular music styles gradually dissolved and collapsed, especially during the latter half of the 1970s, as new terms were coined for specific popular music forms (disco, soul, funk, hard rock, punk, heavy metal, and so on) and, more generally, a cultural separation began to be introduced between pop and rock, the central aspects of which are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1: The cultures of rock and pop.
Lady Gaga as Rock Star
Within the suggested sociological framework, the basic thesis of this paper is that Lady Gaga infuses elements of rock into her pop music and stylings in a variety of ways and thereby deliberately seeks to accomplish a merger of the implied authenticity of rock with the aesthetics of pop. Lady Gaga works towards an understanding of pop as rock, thereby also trying to establish a blurring of the genre distinction, even though the relevant demarcations are time and again reinforced.
To substantiate this argument, I will in the following analysis uncover, as an archeological endeavor, various dimensions of the rock qualities of Lady Gaga. I make no claim on the relative value or significance of Lady Gaga’s rock sensibilities relative to her pop disposition and other, artistic and non-artistic elements in her work and its reception. Instead, I make the more modest but also more precise claim that rock is one aspect of the music and persona of Lady Gaga and that this rock element makes an important difference in how she presents herself to, and how she is received by, her fans in the popular music community (of both pop and rock) as well as among her audience of more and less casual onlookers at large.
Specifically, I will rely on a variety of illustrations to reveal the following aspects of the rock in the work of Lady Gaga: 1) Lady Gaga’s music evolved aesthetically from rock into pop; 2) Gaga conceives of her pop music as a new form of rock; 3) she brings overt and acknowledged rock music elements into her pop; 4) she self-identifies as a rock star; 5) she is embraced by and collaborates with rock musicians; and 6) Lady Gaga’s fans display elements commonly associated with fans of rock, especially heavy metal. Thus, these six aspects of Lady Gaga as rock star pertain to aspects of both sound (sections 1 through 3) and the presentation of self (section 4) and others (sections 5 and 6).
From Rock to Pop
Before this analysis will proceed, a few words of background on the career of Lady Gaga may be useful (Herbert 2010; Lester 2010; Sullivan 2013). Lady Gaga was born Stefani Germanotta on March 28, 1986. She grew up in New York City where she attended a private Catholic school. A musical child prodigy, she began playing piano at age four and enjoyed a classical musical training, additionally taking vocal lessons and acting classes. At age 18, she enrolled in an arts program at New York University but, on her 19th birthday, she announced to her parents that she had decided to leave college to pursue an independent music career. She subsequently moved into an apartment on 176 Stanton Street and started hanging out with people she met in New York’s Lower East Side, specifically at the bar St. Jerome’s on 155 Rivington Street. Cut off from her parents’ financial support, the aspiring performer had jobs as a waitress while also go-go dancing at New York bars like the Slipper Room.
Almost one year after her decision to leave college, on March 23, 2006, Stefani took part in a show case performance organized by her then manager, Bob Leone, at the Cutting Room in New York. This performance, a video of which is available on YouTube, proved to be eventful for it was there that another singer performing that night, Wendy Starland, contacted producer Rob Fusari to tell him of the as yet unknown singer. Stefani and Fusari soon met and began to collaborate on a number of songs, which gradually came to be stylized as pop and dance tracks rather than the indie-pop and rock Germanotta had practiced until that time. Producer Fusari also coined the nickname Gaga for the singer, who would turn it into the formal moniker ‘Lady Gaga’ soon thereafter.
The transition to the world of pop and dance music seemed to pay off when in September 2006 Lady Gaga was signed to a contract with recording company Island Def Jam. After a mere three months, however, Gaga suddenly found herself dropped from her contract. Some time in the spring of 2007 she was (re-)discovered via the music posted on her MySpace page by Vincent Herbert, a talent scout for Interscope Records who also got her in touch with a new manager, Troy Carter. Lady Gaga was subsequently signed to Interscope as a song-writer (for songs recorded by the likes of the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears) and a performer.
On January 1, 2008, Lady Gaga moved from New York to Los Angeles to begin finalizing her first album for Interscope, armed with several songs she had already recorded with Rob Fusari and newly recording additional tracks with producers RedOne and Martin Kierszenbaum. In April 2008, she released her first single, “Just Dance,” and her debut album, The Fame, followed in August that year. Lady Gaga’s music initially did not reach an audience beyond the club scene, but by January 2009, the single “Just Dance” was a number-one hit in the United States. By the spring of 2009, both “Just Dance” and its follow-up single, “Poker Face,” had reached the top of the charts in multiple countries around the world. Gaga’s fame steadily increased from then on.
From the start of her music career, there was an essential element of confusion over what Stefani was or should be doing. Her musical talent was undeniable, but the proper expression thereof in a suitable format was a matter of a gradual process. Among the reasons she decided to leave NYU, she has herself said that she grew restless and found herself out of place as she was referred to as ‘too pop’, ‘too rock’, ‘too brunette’, ‘a character’, and ‘not an artist’ (Lester 2010: 20).
Importantly, when Stefani was first brought in touch with producer Rob Fusari following her performance at the Cutting Room on March 23, 2006, it was explicitly in terms of her potential as a prospective rock singer. Fellow performer Wendy Starland contacted Fusari precisely to tell him that she thought Stefani Germanotta would fit as the singer he was looking for in the style of the rock band The Strokes. When later that week Fusari and Germanotta meet, the producer is initially not impressed with what he sees but changes his mind as soon as Stefani sings her song “Hollywood.” Yet Fusari does suggest a change in style towards a more pop-oriented sound, which, rumor has it, she initially rejects. However, the singer is soon convinced after being told by Fusari about an article he had read in the New York Times about singer Nelly Furtado’s change in style towards dance and pop, more broadly also discussing the difficulties women experience in the world of rock music.
Stefani and Fusari begin working together and agree, after a period of some negotiations, on a production contract. Fusari gives the singer the nickname Gaga because her theatrical performance style remind him of Freddy Mercury of the British rock band Queen (who had a hit song called “Radio Ga Ga”). On October 6, 2006, the newly styled singer performs for the first time solo as Lady Gaga and announces the recording of a forthcoming album. However, just three months after her signing with Island Def Jam, Gaga is suddenly dropped from her record label, and the planned 2007 album, entitled “Retro-Sexual,” never gets finalized.
Besides the suggestions of producer Fusari, Lady Gaga also independently moves towards a change in style via some of her contacts in the Lower East Side. Specifically, performance artist and heavy-metal DJ Lady Starlight introduces Gaga to bikinis, go-go dancing, and heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Pentagram. From April 24, 2007 onwards, Lady Gaga performs with Lady Starlight about a dozen shows, as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue or The New York Street Revival and Trash Dance.
video of which is on YouTube. On pictures that have since surfaced on the internet, Lady Gaga is shown with Starlight in a denim jacket emblazoned with an Iron Maiden patch. At the same show, she is arrested for walking around in her panties. As the collaboration with Lady Starlight indicates, even in the presentation of her pop and dance music Lady Gaga seeks to maintain a distinct rock appeal, one which she will never abandon and at times deliberately explore in more depth.
Pop as Rock
Once she was re-styled as a pop and dance performance artist, Lady Gaga distinctlyly sought to fulfill a need to bring pop back. Her rise to fame, especially in 2009 and 2010, was in some part enabled by this desire inasmuch as those dark years of the music industry, right after the collapse of the music-selling market, were marked by a void that had to be filled as there was simply no other global pop sensation out there. The very success of Gaga’s rise to fame, at a time when the music industry was slumping severely, demonstrated that it was time for the next superstar in popular music. And since the time when Lady Gaga had risen to fame and had become the next pop sensation (along the way suppressing some other former pop stars), she and other popular music performers, especially female pop singers, began to mutually facilitate one another’s success. From about 2010 until today, indeed, female pop stars, ranging from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj to Lana Del Rey, Adele, Lorde and many others, have ruled the world of popular music.
Importantly, what Lady Gaga did in order to bring pop back was to infuse it with certain aspects of the attitude, styles, and aesthetics of rock. This infusion is not an alien adoption of sorts, but on the contrary relates to the singer’s specific background and musical roots. Her father, Joe Germanotta, instilled his musical likes on his daughter. Born and raised in New Jersey, he used to play in a Bruce Springsteen cover band and was a fan of classical rock music bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. As a child, Lady Gaga wrote her first song, “Dollar Bills,” on Mickey Mouse music paper on the basis of the Pink Floyd song “Money,” a record she had heard her father play. Gaga’s first true composition would also be a rock-oriented piece, when in 1999, at age 13, she wrote the balled, “To Love Again.” (As an interesting side-note, Lady Gaga’s family in the early 1990s moved to a duplex apartment in the Pythian building located on 135 West 70th Street in the Upper West Side of New York, where her parents reside until this day. The Pythian is a remodeled residential apartment complex that originally housed a recording studio. On April 12, 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets there recorded the ground-breaking rock ‘n’ roll classic “Rock Around the Clock.”)
The young singer’s roots in classic rock have stayed around since she began a professional career. Among her acknowledged musical influences from the world of rock, she has mentioned David Bowie, AC/DC, Queen, The Beatles, and many others. As recent as June 2014, Gaga tweeted her life-long devotion to the music of Bruce Springsteen. It is through this infusion of rock in her music that Lady Gaga seeks to transcend pop and branch out artistically. Other manifestations of these genre-crossing activities include Gaga bringing in elements of her classical music background and seeking to bridge urban (dance) and mainstream (pop) cultures.
Lady Gaga’s ambition to present pop as rock also ties in with her New York City background, in particular her merging of the many different cultural traditions and styles the city has to offer. Gaga was favorably exposed to this cultural mix by having been brought up near the theatre district in the Upper West Side, on the one hand, and then moving to the Lower East Side with its seedy rock ‘n’ roll scene, on the other. The essential outcome of this cultural mix is that Lady Gaga presents her pop as the new rock. Lady Gaga thereby fights the conventional elitist understanding of the hierarchies of musical genres and, in protest, proclaims that “pop music will never be low brow,” as she would chant during early TV performances of “Just Dance” (Deflem 2012). Lady Gaga’s pop is presented as both dirty or filthy and artistically valuable. This ambition is most concretely reflected in the title of one of her older (unreleased) songs, “Filthy Pop,” right up to the title of her most recent album ARTPOP that was released in November 2013.
Rock in Pop
Besides conceiving of pop as rock, there are various musical elements of rock explicitly present in Lady Gaga’s work, both early on after her transformation from Stefani towards Lady Gaga as well as more recently. These rock aspects are both thematic as well as stylistic.
Thematically, rock is referenced several times in Lady Gaga’s music. Her earliest songs as Lady Gaga are heavily inspired by her life at that time in the rock ‘n’ roll scene of New York’s Lower East Side scene. As is the case with all of her music, these personal experiences are directly reflected in her songs, which contain several lyrical references to rock and metal. Many of her love songs, then and later, are about her now ex-boyfriend Lüc Carl, whom she dated off and on for several periods both before and after her rise to fame. A former rock drummer, Carl is a heavy metal aficionado and a self-proclaimed 80s-type metalhead who currently hosts a metal radio show called Hair Nation.
Lady Gaga’s songs about Carl reference the world of rock and metal at various times. By example, the unreleased song “Fooled Me Again (Honest Eyes),” which Gaga a few times performed on live radio, begins with a quote from a Neil Young song and contains the line “The rock star's girlfriend, she lost the fight.” In “Shake Ur Kitty,” another unreleased song from around the transition period between 2006 and 2007, Gaga references Carl’s world of metal, singing “I met a drummer last week… We hit the floor… with your Van Halen pin, and your dark sideburns.” Similarly, in the song “Rock Show,” Gaga laments her boyfriend going out on the road (“he left town with the rock show”), while in “Dirty Ice Cream” she references him kissing her “like a rock star.”
Lady Gaga’s references to rock continue in several of her songs on her first two albums, The Fame (2008) and The Fame Monster (2009). The signature track “Beautiful Dirty Rich” contains a drug reference when, with a stutter reminiscent of The Who’s “My Generation,” she sings “Daddy, I’m so sorry, I’m so s-s-s-sorry yeah...” The song “Boys Boys Boys” was written as a direct response to the song “Girls Girls Girls” by glam metal band Motley Crüe. It contains the lyric, “Let’s go see the Killers,” about a concert by that band which she and her boyfriend attended at Madison Square Garden in 2006. Continuing her fascination with her on-and-off-again boyfriend, the hit song “Paparazzi” displays Gaga’s obsession in the context of the world of rock when she sings “Leather and jeans, garage glamorous… I’ll be your girl backstage at your show, velvet ropes and guitars, Yeah cause you’re my rock star in between the sets”. The hit song “Bad Romance” once again references Lüc Carl’s heavy metal style when Gaga sings “I want your leather-studded kiss in the sand.”
Stylistically, much of Lady Gaga’s work is rock-based or rock-oriented even though her music is as a whole usually is not rock. Gaga’s singing voice is at times raw and raspy, not soft and smooth, and incorporates the contrast of gentle and harsh singing, alternating singing softly with screaming loudly. Examples can be heard on “Bad Romance” from the 2009 album The Fame Monster and on “MANiCURE” and “Swine” from ARTPOP. These rock vocal stylings are even more common at Lady Gaga’s live concerts. During one of her raps at the Monster Ball, for instance, she would often yell and growl, and scream her name loudly: “My name is... LADY GAGA!” At her ongoing artRAVE tour, she similarly yells during the song “Swine” in a manner much more evocative of a heavy metal singer rather than a female pop sensation.
The instrumentation and production of some of Lady Gaga’s songs are delivered in a rock style as well. Her earliest rock collaborators include guitarist Nico Constantine on her unreleased album for Island Def Jam as well as Tommy Kafafian, who by then had already had a rock album produced by Rob Fusari, on her debut album The Fame. Both Constantine and Kafafian, who had just come from the disbanded rock band Program the Dead, joined Lady Gaga as members of her first live band, along with metal drummer Andreas Brobjer (and r&b keyboard player Brian London), on her 2009 world tour. That part of her tour also featured rock arrangements to many of her songs, as first seen and heard at the Glastonbury festival in England in June 2009.
On all of her concert tours since 2009, Lady Gaga has relied on rock guitarists, giving her songs an edge not always heard on her recordings. On the Monster Ball tour in 2010-2011, featured guitarists were Ricky Tillo and Kareem ‘Jesus’ Devlin, both players with a background exclusively in rock music. On the Born This Way Ball of 2012-2013 and the ongoing artRAVE tour that started in May 2014, guitarist Ricky Tillo has been joined by Tim Stewart, a player experienced in both heavy metal and pop.
At her live shows, Lady Gaga also brings in an obvious rock and metal element by inviting her friends from her days living alone in New York City. During the Monster Ball tour, one of the support acts was glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, whom Gaga knew from her early days in New York. The arena version of that tour also featured Lady Starlight spinning metal records before the show. Starlight has continued to perform on her most recent tours as well, albeit it as a performance artist and techno deejay. More generally, Lady Gaga generally associates herself with rockers, such as by having hard rock band The Darkness as opening act on her Born This Way Ball tour, by stage-diving at the 2010 Lollapalooza show of Semi Precious Weapons, or by decorating her dressing room with a picture of Jimmy Page, the guitarist of Led Zeppelin.
While largely used in a live setting, guitarists have also been instrumental in bringing a rock sound to some of Lady Gaga’s recordings as well. Examples include the songs “The Fame” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” on her debut album, “Heavy Metal Lover” on Born This Way, and “MANiCURE” on ARTPOP. The latter song also features heavy metal guitarist Doug Aldrich, who is well-known for his work with heavy metal bands Dio and Whitesnake. Another interesting rock element in the stylings of Lady Gaga’s recordings is that the ballads are produced as rock songs as well. Examples include “Brown Eyes” on The Fame, “Speechless” on The Fame Monster, “Dope” on ARTPOP, and, most famously, Born This Way’s “You and I,” which was produced by Mutt Lang, the producer famous for his work with AC/DC and Def Leppard.
The stylistic implications of Lady Gaga’s rock disposition are to date most explicit on the Born This Way album of 2011, a record that was deliberately set up as a rock album, even though not every song on the record can musically be described as rock. Not coincidentally, the album cover features Gaga morphed into a motorcycle, in which manner she also performed the song “Heavy Metal Lover” live during the Born This Way Ball tour. Another song of the album, “Electric Chapel,” opens with a heavy metal guitar riff, and Gaga herself plays guitar during the live version of this song on the Born This Way Ball. The song “You and I” features former Queen guitarist Brian May and contains drum samples from the Queen song “We Will Rock You.” May also joined Lady Gaga during a live version of the song that she performed as the male character of Jo Calderone at the Video Music Awards in 2011. Another song from Born This Way, “The Edge of Glory,” is stylistically influenced by the sound of Bruce Springsteen and features Clarence Clemmons on saxophone. The late member of Springsteen’s E Street Band also appears in the video to the song as one of his last public performances. As another example, the song “Stuck on Fuckin’ You” is a blues rock song recorded during the sessions for the Born This Way album, that was later released as a download.
Transcending musical sound into the social realm of the presentation of self and others, Lady Gaga has oftentimes identified herself as a rock star and in various ways shied away from a more typical pop star profile. By her own saying, Gaga does not want to be a sexy pop singer (Deflem 2012). Instead, she presents herself as a rock star as part of a broader identity of otherness, freakishness, monstrosity (Corona 2011). The monster theme in Lady Gaga’s presentation of self is revealed in multiple ways. Her 2009 album is called The Fame Monster, which contains a song called “Monster.” The video to the hit song “Bad Romance” is built around a story of sex slavery in which Gaga is sold to the Russian mafia but in the end destroys the man who bought her. At her now famous performance of “Paparazzi” at the Video Music Awards in 2009, Gaga staged her own demise, walking on a medical cane with her clothes covered in blood, and eventually dying. These horror portrayals of decay and death are alien to the safe and clean world of pop and instead resonate with themes that are portrayed by rock artists such as Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Zombie, and Marilyn Manson.
Lady Gaga also connects the presentation of her sexuality with a rock attitude. As argued elsewhere (Deflem 2012), Lady Gaga sings about sex in several of her songs, but she does not want to be conceived as sexy. She says that she plays on sex freely and she connect this portrayal of sexuality explicitly with being a rock star (Lester 2010). This rock attitude Gaga also displays when she addressed the rather silly rumors of her own sexuality, jokingly commenting that she had both male and female genitalia (Deflem 2012). During live performances of the song “LoveGame” at the Monster Ball, she would again reference having a ‘big cock’ and encourage the audience to get there ‘dicks out’ while her dancers, both male and female, are simulating masturbation.
Lady Gaga’s fashion styles include sometimes risky, unsafe elements that are more rock than pop as well. She uses S&M references, shocking forms of nudity, leather, metal, and studs in several of her dresses. Reinforcing the rock style of the Born This Way album, Lady Gaga held an in-store appearance to promote the record, at Best Buy in New York, dressed in leather and with a motorcycle behind her. When she is not dressed in one of her typically outlandish outfits, Lady Gaga is oftentimes seen, typically when she is at work in a recording studio, wearing rock and metal t-shirts, displaying the name and imagery of bands such as Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, and Slipknot. More generally, Gaga often wears leather, boots with spikes, clothing that is made of metal, and clothes that can be considered dangerous because they can cause physical harm. “You can’t make me take off my leather,” she would scream during the song “Money Honey” at her Monster Ball show in Kansas City. In print publications and online, likewise, Gaga often appears in fashion shoots that are anything but pop. A famous cover of Rolling Stone magazine shows Lady Gaga wearing a bra with machine gun extensions.
Such forms of political and otherwise normative activism that Lady Gaga engages in are more commonly held to be typical and appropriate for rock stars. A musician being political is in and of itself considered rock, not pop. Interestingly, the argument can be made that because Lady Gaga adopts this rock attitude from within the world of pop, her actions are even more noticeable and provocative for being different and may thus be more effective as well. This heightened resonance is indicated by the fact that Lady Gaga’s music has occasionally been censored for its lyrical content and messages and that some of her concerts have been restricted or canceled. The antagonism Lady Gaga invokes is not pop. Instead, Lady Gaga is shocking and controversial, much like many a rock star would want to be.
Rockers Go Gaga!
Looking to the response to Lady Gaga from members within the rock community, it can be noted that Gaga’s rock orientation has often been recognized, accepted, and embraced. Several rock stars want to meet her, be seen with her, and collaborate with her. Examples of rock stars meeting Lady Gaga and wanting to be photographed in her company are too numerous to mention. They include Paul McCartney, Alice Cooper, the band Kiss, Sting, Bono of U2, Biff Byford of metal band Saxon, members of Iron Maiden, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, and singer Rob Halford of heavy metal band Judas Priest, to name some of the most famous.
Many widely revered rock stars have also been very positive about Lady Gaga’s music and her status as an innovative performer. Alice Cooper praised her as a performer who “totally gets it” and recently stated that she is among a new generation of artists who bring theatricality to their shows. Bassist Gene Simmons of Kiss has called Lady Gaga the only rock star of the past decade. Punk icon John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) has dubbed her fantastic, witty, and clever. And drummer Dave Lombardo, founding member of the heavy metal band Slayer, recently attended a Lady Gaga show at Roseland Ballroom in New York in April 2014, commenting favorably on her musicianship and being photographed with some of Gaga’s rock friends from New York. Less famous but otherwise acknowledged musicians in rock have expressed a musical appreciation for Lady Gaga as well. By example, Dominic Miller, best known as the guitarist for Sting, commended her musical skills. Even non-rockers, like rapper Lil Kim, have called Lady Gaga a rock star.
The meetings of rockers with Lady Gaga have on some occasions enabled meaningful collaboration in musical respects as well. Examples of Lady Gaga collaborations with rockers on recordings include: Marilyn Manson, who is featured on a remix of her song “LoveGame” by Chew Fu; Elton John, with whom Gaga recorded a song for the movie Gnomeo and Juliette; and Brian May and Doug Aldrich who play guitar on some of Gaga’s recorded songs.
Finally, Lady Gaga songs have also been covered and performed by rock musicians. By example, Alice Cooper performed “Born This Way” at the Bonaroo Festival in Tennessee in 2012. Guitar legend Jeff Beck regularly performed an instrumental version of “Bad Romance” during his 2011 tour. And Faith No More has covered “Poker Face” at live shows in 2009 during the band’s Second Coming reunion tour.
As a concert attendant, too, Lady Gaga has been seen at rock and heavy metal shows, such as when she saw Kiss in New Jersey and Iron Maiden in Florida (both shows which she attended with her then boyfriend Lüc Carl). More recently, when she herself performed at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas in March 2014, Gaga was seen in an Iron Maiden t-shirt attending the show by thrash rockers Lazer/Wulf. Lady Gaga’s occasional appearances at festivals tie in with her often commenting on having attended festivals, such as when she and her friend Lady Starlight took their top off when they saw Iggy Pop perform at a festival. Also, Gaga has embraced the fans at her concerts who adopt metal and rock stylings, such as when she did a shoot-out to a fan at one of her Monster Ball concerts when she saw him wearing a Kiss t-shirt. The same fan would later successfully convince Alice Cooper to pose for a picture doing the so-called ‘monster claw’ hand gesture that has been popularized by Lady Gaga and her fans.
(Little) Monsters of Rock
Turning to the fans of Lady Gaga, some of them have openly acknowledged and favorably received her status as a rock star. Lady Gaga has a distinct and specific understanding of her fans, whom she refers to as ‘little monsters,’ a term that originated in the summer of 2009 and that has since been adopted, to varying degrees, by her fans as well. In an interview with Larry King in June 2010, Gaga explains the origins of the term. Talking about her fans behaving at the show, she says that they were “salivating at the mouth”, they were rabid, “and they just behaved like monsters.” In some of her songs, Lady Gaga also sings about monsters, and she and her fans use the monster claw as a gesture of expressing their identity.
Lady Gaga’s little monsters form a veritable subculture of fans. They are in that sense quite similar to metalheads, punks, and other popular music collectivities such as the ‘Deadheads’ and the ‘Kiss Army’ that are at home in the world of rock but have virtually no counterpart in pop. It should be noted that, as the commercialization of popular music beyond the marketing of sound recordings has continued on in recent years, this situation may be changing as more and more expressions for the fans of all kinds of pop stars are being introduced (e.g., 'Directioners,’ ‘Beliebers,’ and the ‘RihannaNavy’), even though it is not always clear that those terms reflect a subculture or instead are merely promotional devices.
Some of Lady Gaga’s fans have adopted rock and heavy metal stylings, particularly from a visual viewpoint. Especially at concerts, Gaga fans dress in leather and denim, use spikes and studs in their clothing, showcase their tattoos and piercings, and use fake blood to convey a rock style of monstrosity and freakishness. Some (of these) fans also refer to Lady Gaga as a rock star and/or encourage her to adopt rock music even more explicitly as she already does. This echoes the sentiments of Kiss bassist Gene Simmons who has expressed his admiration for Lady Gaga’s talent, attitude, and style, encouraging her to do a rock album.
Among the rock-oriented fans of Lady Gaga are especially noteworthy those music lovers who are primarily rock and metal fans and who otherwise do not associate much, if at all, with pop music. Some Lady Gaga fans, indeed, are primarily rock fans, metalheads, and punks. Although they may not form a sizeable minority in Lady Gaga’s fanbase, it is all the more striking that they are present in the Lady Gaga community even when their devotion is not always well received in their respective rock communities.
In this paper, I have analyzed the rock aspects present in the music and style of Lady Gaga with respect to sound as well as self-presentation and reception. Based on a constructionist perspective in the sociology of music, I showed that Lady Gaga’s position in the world of pop is complemented with, and needs to be understood accordingly, elements of rock in the themes and style of her music, her attitude towards op as the new rock, her self-presentation as a rock star, and a similar reception by others, including both rock musicians and fans.
My paper has empirically uncovered various illustrations that can substantiate the claim that Lady Gaga merges, bridges, and fuses rock and pop. Yet, although the argument can be defended that Lady Gaga is a rock star because she is considered that way by herself as well as others, there is a measure of disagreement and contention about this perception as well. The very fact that this paper needed to explore the topic systematically betrays that Lady Gaga is not always recognized as a rock star, or at least as a pop star with rock sensibilities, and that the rock elements in her music and style, although present, are not always recognized. Besides, there is no doubt that Lady Gaga’s work is primarily located in the world of pop and that she also calls herself a pop star and refers to her music as pop. At the present time, a full turn towards rock, especially in the form of a recorded album, is unlikely to come from Lady Gaga, even though some of her fans would want her to do so.
The reasons for Lady Gaga’s preference to work in the world of pop and infuse it with rock no doubt relate to personal choices of an aesthetic quality. But subjective motives aside, Lady Gaga’s belonging to the world of pop and her reaching out to the style and attitude of rock also involve distinct gender issues (Deflem 2012). Pop music is typically seen as more feminine and rock as more masculine, so that, all other conditions being equal, a female performer can expect to be more successful in pop and acquire more fame via success in the world of pop, thus reaching more people with whatever artistic objectives that are aspired. In that sense, Lady Gaga’s choice to associate with pop may have been at least partly strategic. Even then, Gaga’s move into the world of pop would raise questions concerning authenticity and the boundaries between pop and rock only if and when successful rock stars would be any less manufactured (or authentic) than those who attain fame in the world of pop.
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Deflem, Mathieu. (2013b): "Four Truths About Marketing Lady Gaga Lies", in: The European Business Review, July/August 2013, pp. 70-72.
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Martin, Peter J. (1996): Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Paglia, Camille. (2010): “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex,” in: The Sunday Times, September 12, 2010.
Sullivan, Brendan Jay. (2013): Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives, New York: itbooks.
See also my book:
See also my related papers on popular culture and fame.