Enough Already: Has Lady Gaga Gone Too Far?
Posted Thursday, November 15, 2012 10:27 AM
There’s the old rock adage that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse—just ask Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Buddy Holly, etc.. There are few stories more romanticized in the Rock’n’Roll canon than the struggling artist who hits the big time, only to be consumed by the excesses of sex, drugs, and self-destruction. It might be an effective tactic for getting into the Hall of Fame, but it’s not entirely practical.
Still, that rags-to-riches-to-ruins arc is the ideal mold so many artists try to fit. It’s easy enough to exaggerate the poverty of one’s youth, to smash up hotel rooms, to impregnate a plethora of groupies. But that last step, to cut off your creative services to the public when they want it most, requires something of a sacrifice. “People love you when they think you won’t be around for very long,” Lady Gaga told Harper’s Bazaar in April 2011. “But I’m not going anywhere.”
As the reigning Queen of Pop, Gaga’s crafted narrative thus far fits the rock cliché nicely. Born Stefani Germanotta in New York City, Gaga worked her way up through the club scene before taking over the music world with 2008’s The Fame. Her artistic oeuvre, which spans from music to video and performance art to haute fashion, is teeming with excess and indulgence. Early songs like “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Money Honey,” and the title track of her debut glorify her success—written before she ever had any—but also hint at the powerlust more dramatically exhibited in the final, pivotal single from The Fame, “Paparazzi.”
The song, its accompanying music video, and Gaga’s performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards garnered a sudden mass of much more serious critical attention. No longer just another bimbo diva with dance beats and slightly weirder-than-average outfits—here was a performer and artist dealing with dark subject matter in a provocative way. Her VMAs act began with an ominous invocation—“I pray the fame won’t take my life”—and ended as she hanged lifelessly from center stage, covered in blood.
"I feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, I can somehow cure my own legend,” Gaga explained to Elle Magazine not long after that infamous performance. “I’m dying for you on domestic television—here’s what it looks like, so no one has to wonder.” Her macabre streak continues on The Fame Monster (2009) and beyond: smoking corpses in the video for “Bad Romance,” her institutionalization in “Marry the Night,” her killing spree and incarceration in “Telephone”—all of these depictions comprising a choose-your-own-ending book chronicling Gaga’s high fall from grace.
Has Lady Gaga found a way to cheat death? To fulfill the fate of the Tragic Rock Star and still emerge, time after time, from her self-imposed ashes? Are these public displays of petits morts enough to satisfy a bloodthirsty fanbase, or do they merely build up tolerance in anticipation of an epic finale?
Gaga is not the first to playact her way to superstardom. David Bowie’s seminal 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, neatly sums up a great rock tragedy right in its title, and remains the godfather of all things Glam. Bowie once explained to William S. Burroughs in a 1974 piece for Rolling Stone the story of Ziggy: In short, our leading man is a struggling artist in a cursed society where no one cares about his music because the world is going to end in five years’ time anyway. He has a dream wherein “the infinites,” nomadic black-hole dwelling creatures from outer space, advise him to write the song “Starman” about an alien who will come down and save Earth. The song is a hit; Ziggy becomes a popular idol. “Now,” Bowie says, “Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, […] they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.’” And that is how Ziggy played guitar.
If such a story seems eerily parallel to David’s own career, that’s because it is. “Starman” was Bowie’s first hit song since “Space Oddity” three years prior – nearly a lifetime by pop music standards – and brought him the same fame and adoration as it did to his fictional Ziggy. But did Bowie start to think of himself as an extraterrestrial prophet? “I fell for Ziggy, too,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “It was quite easy to become obsessed with the character. I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a Messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy.”
The only problem with Bowie fully and permanently transforming into his demigod alter-ego was that his ending was already written. For Bowie to truly be Ziggy, he would have to play out all his acts—death by extraterrestrials included. There could never be a “Soul Love: 40 Years of the Spiders from Mars” tour because Ziggy’s gruesome and very public demise is part of what makes the story so effective. So Bowie killed the man and broke up the band—abruptly and unexpectedly, while still riding a wave of immense popularity. “I hope you and Ziggy will be very happy,” Bowie told an NME reporter in 1972. “Ziggy’s my gift to you.” With Ziggy’s legend secured and story complete, Bowie was able to go on to a vast and prolific career in his own right, inventing and dispensing of various characters over the years.
From her lightning-bolt makeup to her penchant for science fiction imagery, it’s clear that Gaga draws significant inspiration from Bowie. But the obvious difference between Ziggy Stardust and Lady Gaga is that the latter is not a fictional character. Lady Gaga is not a mask or a façade for Stefani Germanotta, or so she insists in various interviews; Gaga is Gaga is Gaga. Inseparable from her public persona, the distinction between fantasy and reality in her performances becomes hazy at best. When she prostrates herself in one video, only to reappear glamorous and unscathed in the next, does it cheapen the effect? Repeated spam-fueled Internet rumors of Gaga’s death in a hotel bathtub were only too easy to believe. But every time she falls, in music videos or gossip columns, adds another case of Pop-Starlet-Who-Cried-Wolf to her record—how thin can our suspension of disbelief stretch before we simply stop being impressed?
When Gaga does go, it needs be the most extravagant spectacle of her career: there will be blood, and explosions, and glitter. It’s what her Little Monsters expect of her, what her inner Fame Monster demands of her: always more shocking, always more daring, more hyper-realistically glamorous and gruesome. So how long before we say of Gaga, like Ziggy, that she simply took it all too far?
Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Andrea Wilson, Dephisticate (Wikipedia Commons).