By Devin O’Neill
Lady Gaga clearly just wants attention.
How does this still manage to be a controversial statement? But it is, it is. It looks so benign, but it hides a number of terrifying realities inside its apparently innocent body, just like she does.
Human beings are social creatures and social capital matters. It gets us access to resources, to mates, to power. Lady Gaga has access to resources, to mates, to power.
She violates the formula in a crucial way, though: she openly admits she wants our attention. She begs for it. She wants applause.
“Oh, she just wants attention, he just wants attention” is, in our culture, an insult. The implication, probably, is that the attention is undeserved. But there’s always a paradox right in the middle of this: why would we give someone that didn’t deserve it all this attention? Why is it it so hard to ignore, to keep the provocateurs from winning? Why does Lady Gaga have 39,783,855 followers on Twitter?
What would we discover if we delved into the deep mechanics of this? Attention might be more complicated than our dismissive vacillations indicate. What if we started thinking about WHY attention gets allocated? This forces us to remove the blanket “she’s provocative” from Gaga’s body of work and look at the images, hear the sounds, see the cuts and the edits and the screams and the sweat, and to say, why do people love this? Why do people love her?
That’s where Gaga Criticism came from. It all started with this girl’s desire for attention. Shame on her?
In order to come to a conclusion about her, we’re forced to understand the role of attention in our own lives. The age of personal branding’s given us a sort of fevered, obsessive love/hate connection with how we’re perceived, and none of us really seem to be able to get off the train. This social network is on top of the effort we already put into getting noticed when we craft a job application, dress up to go out, or work to form relationships with friends and colleagues. Nobody likes to be left out. In the age of PRISM, everybody’s famous. The only question is: how famous?
If Gaga’s providing us with anything, it’s got to be entertainment, as she claims. She certainly doesn’t clothe us, feed us, or fuck us, not literally or directly, anyway. She may inspire us, though. She may do that.
In the “Applause” video she walks us through all the varieties of her desperation for attention. She struts on a catwalk. She emulates classical works of art, and contemporary ones too. She grows a tail. And, like most of us have done over and over, she dances alone in her room in her underwear, nothing but a mattress, the floor, and the glory of her own existence.
Does our existence have glory? Do we deserve applause when we’re dancing alone in our underwear? Do we want applause and glory? Don’t lie now. Don’t lie. Be honest with me.
The entire time she’s clawing her way towards us, speaking directly at us, winking at us coquettishly, seducing at us, raging at us, pleading with us. I can’t think of another Gaga video where she spends so much time walking straight towards the camera. She carries a massive bouquet of flowers on her back like a cross, because she knows she’s a slave to our approval, to her own needs, far more effectively than we’re a slave to her vision. But she admits this. She admits it with authority.
She knows she needs us, desperately, and here she admits that. We don’t like to talk about how much we need other people at all. It makes us really uncomfortable. I need you. Please don’t go. Please hold me, Please encourage me. I’m nothing without you. Gaga’s yelling all that at the top of her lungs.
At the heart of the vortex that surrounds her howls one question over and over again – WHY WHY WHY WHY – the same question I ask when I wake up in the morning. And we watch, and we watch, and we watch, and we realize that even as we’re trying to understand the dramatic, stimulating, arresting visual and aural worlds she creates, we’re answering the question. We’re giving her what she needs.
When she was performing at the Born This Way Ball in Los Angeles, in the middle of “Bloody Mary” she slammed down to her sweaty knees on the stage, stretched out her arms and tilted her head to the roof, and screamed “SAY MY NAME! I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THE FAME!” As we chanted GAGA-GAGA-GAGA along with the monk-like chorus of the song, her body twitched, eyes closed, hands grasping, as she absorbed our power. She knows where her bread is buttered.
“Give me the thing that I love / Put your hands up and make them touch” – a bizarrely literal, physical understanding of applause that makes clear the insane nature of a really old human ritual. Why do we do this? Why do we bang our hands together in hordes in order to create this tidal-wave of noise? When did we start? When will it stop? When will she stop?
We’re a giant approval machine, and we're all giving it to each other. The reasons why are often ambiguous. Gratitude, altruism, pity, solidarity, humor, or the support of a beautiful vision of how the world could be, a vision that we love, a vision we haven't seen before. A new vision.
During one particularly surreal segment of the video Gaga appears as a black swan.
Because no matter how loudly people groan about the fact that she’s dropping another album, or the fact that she’s found yet another way to collage aesthetics from the past and future, or the fact that her new work just isn't like her old work which isn’t like her older work, or the fact that she’s arguing with Perez Hilton on Twitter, or the fact that she’s only lassoed pop culture and bent it to her own selfish purposes, nobody, and I mean nobody, predicted Lady Gaga in advance.
Devin O’Neill is a transmedia storyteller, branding practitioner, and performance artist. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Make friends with him at https://facebook.com/devinoneill
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