Prophets of doom claim that this Saturday—May 21, 2011—will be the beginning of the Rapture and that God’s forsaken shall be left on Earth to be tormented for five months before the world comes to its final end. Satan, you can imagine these Christian fanatics saying, will be revealed in the form of a pop star, saturating radio airwaves with her malevolent message of equality for all, leading the damned to hell on the backs of grotesque motorcycle-human hybrids sporting hooker-red lipstick and branded with the definitive sign of the devil: a beveled and embossed logo. Of course, that’s just an allegory conceived to frighten us into subservience to pop music’s status quo. But Lady Gaga’s official sophomore long player, Born This Way, feels like it’s been hyped for almost as long—and certainly as fervently—as the End of Days. Which poses two distinct problems: the age of its songs and its stubborn obedience to said status.
M.I.A. is often cited as a counterpoint to Gaga, as an artist who, despite criticisms of commercializing political violence in the same way American rappers have packaged and sold the gangster lifestyle to suburbia, makes music that’s as challenging as her persona is hypocritical. Gaga’s flaw is almost exactly the inverse: She fancies herself a cultural revolutionary, employing subversive, if not always completely cogent, visual messages to promote self-love and civil rights, but fails to create music that similarly challenges pop-radio audiences. It’s a dilemma that faces any mainstream artist who wants to attain—and maintain—popularity, and thus reach the widest possible audience.
For the better part of two decades, the hip-hop community has applied a strict litmus test to any newcomer hoping to crack the upper echelons of rap: Street cred is essential. Rock has often had a similar requirement of authenticity, but almost anyone is accepted in the glittered halls of the pop pantheon. That is, unless the level of one’s dues-paying is deemed disproportionate to his or her success. Questions about Gaga’s Upper East Side upbringing and rise to fame have persisted since she became a household name, and with good reason: Her willful admission that everything she does is artifice, her on-stage declarations that she hates the truth, and her opportunistic transformation from vapid fame whore to protective mama monster with a message all point to her being, to paraphrase the performer in an early interview, the most impressive con artist pop music has ever seen.
Madonna has always been accused of appropriating the “other” for her professional gain, but it’s Gaga who’s taken that conceit to almost obscene levels, pandering to the gay community in particular in ways no other pop artist ever has, not by paralleling her oppression as a female to that of other minorities, as Madonna so frequently and shrewdly has, but by actually transforming herself into a “freak,” first with outlandish costumes and, more recently, with prosthetic body modification. These elements are all fascinating redefinitions of beauty, of what’s “normal,” and physical manifestations of the ugliness that Gaga may have once felt inside, but the girl who was, by many accounts, pretty popular in high school, has effectively fetishized the “other.”
The reason many have accepted this blatant co-opting, then, is because we want to believe that—again, like Madonna—Gaga’s motivations are pure, even if championing the cause of what she realizes is her core fanbase seems like the ultimate exploitation. Gaga’s near-pathological, around-the-clock commitment to the persona she’s created, to say nothing of her devotion to her fans, is about as “real” as it gets in the pop world. And, occasionally, she succeeds at convincing us that being a freak is a state of mind: The freakiest thing about her fantastic “Born This Way” video isn’t its ideas (the creation myth that opens the clip is really no different from the story of Adam and Eve or the war between matter and antimatter in the early universe), it’s Gaga herself—that 30-second span leading up to and through the final chorus where she unleashes her inner freak, grinding up against Rick Genest, whipping her Pink Ambition ponytail around, and rolling her eyes into the back of her head like she’s possessed.