The Ecstasy of Lady Gaga — How Her Artistry Connects with French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard (part one)
The following was originally submitted for Dr. Stephanie Wheeler’s “Rhetorical Traditions” course as a ‘contemporary mash-up’ paper.
In this first part, I explore a few career & philosophical points of interest from when Lady Gaga’s rise to superstardom through 2012.
Lady Gaga is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and culturally powerful recording artists and singer-songwriters of the millennium so far. Her public image has been relentlessly analyzed, imitated, and scrutinized since releasing The Fame album in 2008. While Gaga’s music and political activism have changed millions of lives in the 13 years since, the very nature of human communication and interaction has changed the global population, too. Although he died just before the advent of the smartphone and the formation of perpetually real-time social media, Jean Baudrillard profoundly predicted today’s state of hyper-reality decades prior with his book/essay “The Ecstasy of Communication”. Through a close reading of this work, we can better appreciate and understand Lady Gaga’s immersive aesthetic and ethos — whether that be from the perspective of Gaga as a lady, artist, activist, or branded symbol of our era.
As a “Little Monster” of Lady Gaga’s over the past decade, I must admit that I could write at length about my interpretation of Gaga’s rhetorical and stylistic choices; however, for the sake of brevity, I will primarily attempt to relate a nine-page excerpt of Baudrillard’s work, The Ecstasy of Communication, to artistic and fashion choices Lady Gaga executed during the eras of her albums The Fame Monster and Born This Way. (In subsequent mentions within this paper, The Fame Monster refers to the deluxe edition of Lady Gaga’s The Fame album, combined with The Fame Monster EP.)
When Lady Gaga achieved superstardom and the pinnacle of fame in popular culture, she did so with grandiose songs like “Poker Face”, “Paparazzi”, “Bad Romance”, and “Telephone” (the latter of which made her cultural force consubstantial with that of another superstar, Beyoncé Knowles). Yet behind the international smash hits lie subjective truths about our atomized and dejected society, truths that Jean Baudrillard tapped into years before Lady Gaga became ‘The Fame (Monster)’, and years before the lady known as Stefani Germanotta was even born. Jean Baudrillard claims that we live in
the time of miniaturization, telecommand and the microprocession of time, bodies, pleasures…this body, our body, often appears simply superfluous, basically useless in its extension, in the multiplicity and complexity of its organs, its tissues and functions…(Baudrillard 129).
We can interpret Baudrillard’s remarks on miniaturization and the body as indicative of the relationship between Gaga and her fanbase. Baudrillard concludes, just prior to the previous statement, that “As soon as this scene is no longer haunted by its actors and their fantasies, as soon as behavior is crystallized on certain screens and operational terminals, what’s left appears only as a large useless body, deserted and condemned” (Ibid).
For listeners hearing Lady Gaga’s songs without accompanying visuals or any prior familiarity with her image, they may indeed conclude that Gaga’s fashion choices are superfluous, and they may be won over merely by her musical talents without the added shock appeal. For those in the ‘Haus of GaGa’ and among ‘Little Monsters’, each team member and fan’s relationship to Lady Gaga nonetheless marks “the multiplicity and complexity” of Gaga’s “functions” as a pop music provocateur.
In multiple interviews, Gaga has acknowledged her claim to fame would not be possible without the help of her ‘Haus’ and unwavering acts from her ‘Little Monsters’. And even in music videos she has been featured in, Lady Gaga becomes a spatial embodiment of miniaturization — not just through her 5’2” height, but also through frequent changes in lenses (See Figure 1).
Although Jean Baudrillard declares that we live in “the time of miniaturization”, he also proclaims that we are living in an era of hyper-reality. In his definition of hyper-reality, Baudrillard explains that
what was projected psychologically and mentally, what used to be lived out on earth as metaphor…is henceforth projected into reality, without any metaphor at all, into an absolute space which is also that of simulation (Baudrillard 128).
While pop music is often derided for being overly formulaic and uncreative, Little Monsters and detractors alike view Lady Gaga as a creative force breaking through pop music conventions and expectations Western society places on womanhood. One interesting example of hyper-reality that Baudrillard hints at for his readers involves the symbolism behind a vehicle. Regarding and admiring the allure of a car, Baudrillard professes that there exists a “play of possibilities” where
“The subject himself, suddenly transformed, becomes a computer at the wheel…The vehicle now becomes a kind of capsule, its dashboard the brain … (instead of a live-in projectile as it was before)” (Baudrillard 127).
Whether Gaga was familiar with Baudrillard’s theory when she released her Born This Way album in 2011, Baudrillard’s own metaphor of the vehicle ironically became projected into hyper-reality when Lady Gaga quite literally appeared as a motorcycle on the standard edition of that album’s cover (see Figure 2)!
Gaga’s photoshopped black and white face, juxtaposed with her photoshopped hands transformed into the motorcycle’s chassis, produces an image where she “becomes a computer at the wheel…its dashboard the brain” (Ibid). We know that Lady Gaga was not literally born as a motorcycle! But, within the context of her larger-than-life visuals, we have no choice but to accept that Lady Gaga’s transformation from the embodiment of ‘The Fame (Monster)’ to a more hyper-real existence involves this motorcycle as a symbol of her creative transformation.
Additionally, Lady Gaga’s arc to superstardom aligned with the election of the first and only African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his Vice President-turned-President, Joe Biden. During the first term of the Obama Administration, Lady Gaga started utilizing her fame towards a political agenda which advanced LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S.
Well aware that a substantial amount of her fanbase includes those who identify as LGBTQ+, Gaga distinguished herself from other pop stars of the time to explicitly call for both the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and for legally recognized, nationwide same-sex marriage. In just one instance of many, Lady Gaga was filmed by C-SPAN giving a speech at the 2009 National Equality March. During the speech, she exclaimed:
“President Obama, I know you are listening. ARE YOU LISTENING!? …and to [the gay, former Congressman] Barney Frank, we are putting more than pressure on this grass [the Congressional Lawn]; today, this grass is ours!”
By capitalizing on her public image as audiovisual and aesthetic spectacle, Lady Gaga has proved — and continues to prove — Baudrillard’s point that “With the television image…our own body and the whole surrounding universe become a control screen” (Baudrillard 127).
Lady Gaga operates in an “ecstasy of communication” that Jean Baudrillard prophesied as a network of communication where
“the promiscuity that reigns over the communication networks is one of superficial saturation, of an incessant solicitation, of an extermination of interstitial and protective spaces” (Baudrillard 131).
While both Baudrillard and Gaga account for the processes of creation and transformation in their work, Gaga also manages to prove her versatility by also engaging in “an extermination of interstitial and protective spaces” (Ibid). She has done this not only through her advocacy for LGBTQ+ equality, but also through her live performances. In my personal opinion, this is made most clear during her GRAMMYs performance of the song “Born This Way”. After arriving upon a ‘vessel’ with an egg-shaped capsule, Lady Gaga ultimately ‘hatched’ out of this egg to debut the then-new song and then-unseen facial modifications (See Figure 4).
Once again, the realm of “carnal promiscuity” has been perverted into something alien. Once again, we know that Lady Gaga did not literally hatch from an alien-shaped egg, but that was what she nonetheless wanted the world to believe; by and large, her Little Monsters (and those in attendance at the 2011 GRAMMYs) had no choice but to believe that as truth.
In conclusion, and in some sense, Lady Gaga is a manifestation of one of my friend’s claims. In his own Medium blog post tying back to what Jean Baudrillard’s writing reveals, the self-declared ‘Egg God’ professes that
“The problem of not knowing who we are has given way to not knowing who we think we should be” [emphasis his].
As my friend, the Egg God, also explains, “Identity can now be obtained in the same way goods that were once affordable could be bought…Now, in place of products, all that exists are communicative signs” (Ibid). Today, we are indeed confronted with this reality, as an unprecedented level of availability and accessibility has paradoxically stunted the ways in which humans have traditionally engaged in communication: through intimate and collective face-to-face interactions.
As we continue to live in the age of miniaturization and hyper-reality, Baudrillard laments that we “can no longer produce the limits of [our] own being” (Baudrillard 133). However, because of Lady Gaga, I personally believe that to be somewhat false — Lady Gaga has inspired many to produce their own life’s play, seemingly on each fan’s own terms, but really dictated by social constructs like gender identity and sexual orientation.
Despite the crushing sense of alienation and “the end of interiority and intimacy” (Ibid) we are experiencing in these times, Lady Gaga’s performance and spectacle has provided a colorfully scattered means to a rather queer liberation, even if it is a microscopic and/or pornographic simulation of her own artistic identity.