Lao Tzu

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Thursday, February 17, 2011

LADY GAGA: Our Unwitting Zeitgeist Incarnate

by Zenzoë

To her fans, Lady Gaga is the rocker supreme, a performance artist, philosopher, fashion genius, smart marketer, a spectacle of sexual liberation and human triumph over the odds. She is the ultimate “material girl,” with no apologies. To celebrate her is to celebrate fame as the highest of high values we hold so dear...but wait—what does Lady Gaga herself have to say?

Lady Gaga:  "Live your eyeliner, breathe your lipstick, and kill for each other.”

“This is the Manifesto of Little Monster: There is something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras. So precisely, so intricately and so proudly. Like Kings writing the history of their people, is their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as the kingdom. So the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the Kings. They are the Queens. They write the history of the kingdom and I am something of a devoted Jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future.”

Huh?  Am I missing something, or are these pronouncements as breathtakingly, mindlessly incoherent to you as they are to me?  “It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill.”  What is this— regardless of the admitted lie, the bond between Gaga and her fans, it must be defended with violence: “...for which we kill?”  Excuse me, but is this philosophy?  Seems more like insanity to me, or maybe just sheer blathering.

One thing we know—fame, celebrity, stardom, power, to be worshiped by a faceless multitude as addicted to fame and celebrity as she is—these are her ultimate values.

“...The fame fame
I can see myself in the movies with my
picture in the city lights
Photograph my mind and whatever else you'd
like to shoot you decide
All we care about is, pornographic girls on film
and body plastic
Give me something, I wanna see television and
hot blonds in odd positions

Doin' it for the

Until this post, if you were to google “is fame a healthy value,” nothing would have come up. This is America, after all, where fame  is IT, everything. Who would question such a value?

We also know Gaga was always a talented singer and musician, starting from the age of four. Once into her teens, she knew what she wanted from life. But it wasn’t until she completely changed her image, her brand, from an obscure, dark-haired, Italian-American girl with a big, Roman nose, to a blatant, damaged-blond, trashed-babe with a more petite, ethno-neutral, American nose, wearing any silly, grotesque, crapped up, slutish thing S&M enough to capture the celebrity-intoxicated soul of America—it wasn’t until then that she made it big.

That’s when she became a commodity, a marketable object, a “smart marketer.”

So what?  What’s a gifted girl rocker to do, if she wants to get noticed?  Well, maybe it’s more than just smart marketing; maybe something hidden informs such marketing decisions: Underneath the pseudo female-liberation, “hot babe” images of popular culture, lies the sad, sexist truth— female degradation and self-humiliation is the highest standard by which the misogynistic culture, a profit-oriented culture, judges female rockers.  Thus, in the male-dominated music industry she was going to have to conform—she had to adapt her image to the overall zeitgeist, which just happens to be sexist and hostile to true female liberation, female empowerment, female dignity and respect.  It wasn’t that Lady Gaga’s passion for fame was a triumph inspired by her having been a misfit in her teens, as the lie she tells her fans goes (her parents were wealthy; she was popular); it’s that she, as herself, was a misfit in the industry.  That meant, given her lust for fame, she had do anything and everything to fit in, even if it meant killing her original self.  She is not the misfit, making the abnormal normal, identifying with all outsider teens and their angst; she was, and is, the ultimate insider, now Queen of Conformity, Queen of Kitsch.

“She’s a really great manipulator,” said a close former friend. “It’s a long process to become a rock star, and she’s willing to crush anyone in her path to do it. She has zero ethics whatsoever. None.”

To her “Monsters,” however, Lady Gaga is salvation, solace, and friend to the friendless. She is worshipped. What she tells her fans speaks to an intimate connection, compassion and love: “When you are lonely, I will be lonely too...” That she manipulates her fans in this way is not manipulation at all; it is pure sincerity. She plays her fans like fools, and it doesn’t matter. If “we are nothing without our image,” then we are something with it.  The delusions of connection, love, greatness, power, soulful intimacy, all become better than everyday, ordinary reality, where we must be content with our real selves and our simple, ordinary lives.

Lady Gaga’s fans have been suckered into her realm, by the magic and spectacle of celebrity, where just wishing makes their bond with her a reality. "I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star... I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be - and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth."

Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class: “The belief that we can make things happen through positive thoughts, by visualizing, by wanting them, by tapping into our inner strength, or by understanding that we are truly exceptional, is peddled to us by all aspects of the culture, from Oprah to the Christian Right. It is magical thinking...This magical thinking, this idea that human and personal progress is somehow inevitable, leads to political passivity.  It permits societies to transfer their emotional allegiance to the absurd—whether embodied in professional sports or in celebrity culture—and ignore real problems. It exacerbates despair. It keeps us in a state of mass-self-delusion. Once we are drawn into this form of magical thinking, the purpose, structure and goals of the corporate state are not questioned. To question, to engage in criticism of the corporate collective, is to be seen as obstructive and negative. ...This magical thinking,...holds out the promise of an impossible, unachievable happiness. It has turned whole nations, such as the United States, into self-consuming machines of death.”

Is it an accident Gaga’s performances have a tinge of violence about them?  I don’t think so. After all, she was born of a militant, death culture. And the misogynistic violence of violent pornography is not a problem for her either, apparently; it’s a mandate: “All we care about is, pornographic girls on film and body plastic; Give me something, I wanna see television and hot blondes in odd positions”  This is what passes for “liberation.”

She is a “performance artist,” though, isn’t she?  I say, No.  She may be a performer, but she is no artist, except in the narrow meaning of the corporate music industry.  A true artist is an iconoclast, not the icon itself needing to be destroyed.  An artist goes ahead and draws a mustache on the Mona Lisa, as the French painter Marcel Duchamp did.  Lady Gaga only copies, by inference and eager intentionality, a culture twisted by greed, violence, lust for fame, profit, competition, destruction, death, and the degradation of woman. She does not draw a mustache on the face of her culture, she celebrates it. What she performs is kitsch, not art, satisfying the wildest dreams of a culture that wants women humiliated and aching for attention from a world that hates them. Oddly, therefore, she is a better Zeitgeist incarnate than even Andy Warhol was; she is the embodiment of everything shallow, calculating, bent on a ruthless success and war against sanity that is this culture—except she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t care. After all, she is busy changing “the world, one sequin at a time.”

Chris Hedges: "He [Michael Jackson] became a commodity, a product, one to be sold, used and manipulated... He was infected by the moral nihilism and personal disintegration that is at the core of our corporate culture. He was a reflection of us in the extreme.

The cult of self, which Jackson embodied, dominates our culture...This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the incapacity for remorse or guilt."

I don’t despise Lady Gaga—Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta—the person. Of course, I don’t like that she wants to role-model to young girls, that her “personal style is a commentary on what it means to be a lady,” that being a “lady” means humiliating oneself; that she and others to follow her may brainwash generations of young girls to delude themselves, to value fame above all; but, it is possible she is not as powerful as she thinks. What I despise is the zeitgeist itself, how everything real, everything honest, tender, gentle, peaceful, sane, wise and non-exploitive is turned on its head and rendered powerless in our culture. What I despise is what we’ve become, this sick, pathetic thing that Gaga unwittingly reflects back so accurately to us.


  1. Ripping commentary! The contrast between the Gaga and Chris Hedges is absolutely stunning. Five stars.

  2. Boy oh boy, that feels great to read. Thanks so much, Russ. How ironic, despite our patriarchal, misogynistic culture, it has more often been men who have been positive supporters in my life. Maybe it's just coincidence, and I'm overlooking something; anyway, thank goodness for all the good guys, and you obviously are one of those!

    I was feeling a bit nervous about posting it at TH, but with your comment, I braved it.

    Natural Lefty said, "Dang, I thought Lady Gaga was pretty cute until I started reading about her here, not that I really pay attention to pop stars like her." So, I just wanted to point out that "pop culture" is, in my opinion, as important a clue to the political and social times as anything else. An important influence for this piece was the documentary. "Generation M: Misogyny and Media in Culture," by Thomas Keith, PH.D, professor of philosophy at California State University-Long Beach, and one of the good guys. I keep recommending it and wish I could buy it for all my people.

  3. See the conversation over at

  4. 1. Again, your piece is gorgeously written and very smart. So don't get me wrong on that. (I glanced through some other pieces from your blog and they are also great; love that one about you and the pony, etc.) And I like in many respects the critique that Gaga is just basically a consumer product, not that original or subversive, and not necessarily any kind of ally to feminists.

    2. I also have the Hedges book on my table and your piece spurs me to get to reading it before I die of overwork.

    3. I actually have read very little about Gaga in the media, though I do listen to both her albums (esp. Fame Monster--which is a good, ironic title and very purposefully so) and have seen a handful of videos, so these are just impressions.

    4. But, but--one thing I like about her is the way that she seems (in my mind) to take the ubiquitous scantily clad woman motif from current pop culture and render it a bit, well, uncomfortable even for lascivious, probably misogynist viewers. In a way I think that maybe is subversive, even. I remember one of the Grammy shows in which she wore this rather frightening skin suit that had a kind of thong thing in back. (She does this thong thing a lot and I think usually to discomfiting effect.) She came out of a box or something and did all this weird stuff and then ended up at the piano (where she is really quite good). But with her ass out like that in a not-attractive and much more weird than pretty outfit it felt to me like she was mocking the way female performers are rendered sexual objects over musicians. At the same time it seemed to me that she was performing a kind of cyborg persona: a *disembodied* singer/robot mocking, perhaps, the audience itself. I mean, she was so not Britney or Beyonce in that moment. But maybe I give her too much credit.

    5. Related to that, I really like her long version video of the hit song "Telephone", which she does with Beyonce. I mean, maybe I'm just an idiot, but I find it out there and kooky and flat fun. (You have to sign in as an adult for it, but it's here: Yes, there are these weird scenes in which she's in "prison" and wearing only crime scene tape. But the whole video is also kind of Thema & Louise: Gaga and her Girlfriend/partner in crime Beyonce take out their revenge on some guy who is obviously an asshole and there's also something irreverent and hilarious about it, in my opinion.

    6. On the "kill" thing, there are of course lots of inflections on that word here: Kill as in fashion victory on the catwalk or the dance floor; kill as in performance victory; kill as in dominate socially; kill as in win against the bastards who imply you're a freak. I don't know, but just a possibility that she's not actually trying to foment a violent uprising of fans or anything.

    7. But I've never embraced the high-heels-are-a-symbol-of-how-oppressed-we-are brand of feminism. I'm more of a lipstick-wielding, sometimes sharp boots-wearing, sometimes-cracking-the-fashion-whip-is fun feminist. Even though of course I have no traffic in the excesses of Vogue or the notion that the "fashion industry" is in any way revolutionary.

    8. I really don't think I personally have the capacity to judge if Gaga is really an 'artist.' On that one I totally defer to you.

    9. Ok, I think that may be the extent of anything semi-intelligent I have to say. Except that maybe Gaga's song "Beautiful, Dirty Rich" is totally obnoxious and irreverent and I LOVE to blast it on my stereo and dance around house like an idiot.

  5. I became aware of Gaga only a short time ago, when 60 Minutes did an interview with her. Before that I was only peripherally aware of her—“Lady Gaga,” I heard here and there. I thought it was an infant’s toy, or something, like Barbie for babies. (Obviously, I’m not big on celebrity stuff.) The 60 Minutes interview only brought up questions for me, especially when I saw the worshipful hysteria she inspired in her fans. I don’t know...there was something phony about her too, so I started researching her. And this happened at about the same time I saw two great documentaries on Free Speech TV— “Generation M, Misogyny in Media and Culture” ( ); and, “The Price of Pleasure,” featuring feminist Robert Jensen (journalism professor at U of Texas) ( ) on the mainstream pornography industry and how prevalent, extreme and misogynistic it has become. Then too, as background to my take on Gaga’s “magical thinking” bit, was Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-sided,” which, as I’m sure you know, discusses the “law of attraction” which I never did appreciate anyway, but that book really sealed the issue for me. Well, nobody has to agree with any of those sources of information —though I did, obviously— but it’s just what was swishing around in my head, when I came across Gaga. Oh yeah, then there’s Hedges.

    I’m waiting right now for my computer to download your Gaga video, and also looking for a link and other stuff. I have dial-up, so it takes awhile. I know. I’m a dinosaur.

    For now, I’m not convinced her costuming is a conscious mocking of pop culture, or misogyny, or the music industry. I certainly didn’t get that from the interview, or from the interviews I have read online. Instead, I get the impression she gobbles it up, for shock value and makes no effective comments on misogyny; quite the opposite.

  6. As for her lying about having been unpopular and being bullied in school, that came from this article, mostly —a search of “popular” here finds the info on the first page: But, I suppose, the Post may not be the greatest source. If it’s true, though, it undermines the notion of “kill” you mentioned, “kill as in win against the bastards who imply you're a freak.” As I said in my post, nobody important said she was too freaky in her early days; but she wasn’t “freaky” enough for the music industry. I mean, I think she chose to change her natural look to conform, not to rebel and win in doing so. She built her image to win by submitting, not “killing” in any victorious sense.

    As for “kill as in dominate socially,” do you see that as a positive thing, Nancy? Maybe I don’t get what you mean, but I wonder how such can be anything but a sign of weakness, underneath? Whatever, I’m pretty uncomfortable with people dominating others socially.

    The video download is at the coke can in Gaga’s hair bit. That reminds me—about her social conscience—someplace you mentioned her having been outspoken in support of LGBT issues? Of course, that’s a good thing. All well and good. But here’s the thing, Nancy: She wears a Coke can in her hair; doesn’t that give new meaning to the term product placement?! Just how socially conscious is that, what with the Coke industry’s horrible environmental and human rights track record? Sheesh. I suppose you could say it's mocking, but, it's her favorite drink, no?

  7. Then there’s this: Calculate the carbon footprint of Lady Gaga’s career, from her tours, to her costumes, her diet (not a vegetarian, which adds to her carbon footprint). I mean, google her tours sometime—the list of cities is huge. I haven’t yet seen anything about her moving her troupe around via vegetable-oil-powered buses, like Willie Nelson does.

    Her meat dress alone... supposedly her MTV Awards meat dress produced 140 lbs of CO2 equivalents, which is, according to one site, the same CO2 production as driving a small car 200 miles, and this is to say nothing of the meat boots, meat hat and meat purse. Somehow we’re supposed to get “women are meat,” while she thinks nothing of animals or the environment? This is conscious?

    Sorry, maybe she’s good on some issues—maybe she has a budding conscience, but I don’t see her as giving up The Fame for the planet any time soon.

    Well, I had to stop the video half-way through (did listen/watch that first half - - I always have to download those, then play it back, and that one is way too long) But I searched the lyrics.

    Nancy, I can understand why you found the video “kooky and flat fun,” and I’m sure there isn’t any harm in your personal take on it, or that of other grown-up, professional, highly educated and successful women. I, personally, don’t see the video that way, but I can see how one could experience it like one might experience the playful fun of dressing up for Halloween, play-acting the extremes of human character, pretending to be Vito Corleone, or Hitler, or the sluttiest of slutty sluts. The thing is this, though—I’m not thinking about its (her performances, in general, too) effects on people who are fully formed, integrated, balanced and successful persons; I’m thinking about its effects on young people who take (what I see as) her portrayal of woman-as-trashy/tough, no-heart/no-vulnerability, S&M-porn-creature-of-men’s-hatred and integrate it into their personalities, for real, because they want to be like her. In that context, when the love songs, or songs of lost love, or songs of teen angst come along, her persona sends a message more about victimhood than personal integrity, it seems to me. About the romance of being a poor thing, but a tough poor thing.

  8. I feel the same way about the “high-heels-are-a-symbol-of-how-oppressed-we-are” issue. You may not agree, and maybe you’d be right, but I have to ask whether what is not oppressive for, again, highly educated, well-formed and successful women, might in fact be a sign of oppression on young, uneducated women who have only a job-depleted, NAFTA world to look forward to, where the only job options are MacDonald’s or selling oneself; where all the boys have been nurtured on violent, misogynistic porn?

    Call me old fashioned, but my bias sees such “art” as entirely within-the-box of a very sick culture (Again, not that you are sick for liking it!), and wholly kitschy (as in the “calculated to have popular appeal,” part of the definition). I’m more attracted to art with a balance of male and female characteristics, as in yin/yang. That video, to my mind, was way heavy on the masculine, and not masculine in any positive sense, but masculine in the sense of meanness. Cruelty. Hard and ruthless. I can’t see it as a positive thing, when women, after being trashed, get tough and mean. But this, after all, is what we are as a culture, no? So yes, the video does show American culture to itself, but I don’t think Gaga is consciously saying, “the poor and vulnerable are trashed, damaged and imprisoned in America.” I don’t think she cares about that. I think she wants whatever will make her more famous. Whatever works.

    I also see the influence of violent, misogynistic pornography in that video. That it has popular appeal is troubling to me too, but not surprising, not after seeing those two documentaries I mentioned. In “Generation M” at one point, for example, this black DJ guy is talking about how he worked in a club and was totally amazed to see young women having a great time dancing to Eminem’s most misogynistic lyrics; he said you’d never see black dudes dancing it up over racist lyrics. (You’d never have racist lyrics, either.) So that was one of the points there—just how deeply ingrained sexism is in the culture, so much so that women don’t even think twice about wildly embracing it.

    Oh, and I forgot the “magical thinking” part, as if I haven’t abused my welcome already. I agree, but I make a distinction between building confidence and magical thinking. You build confidence —not that I have any— by knowing your skills and potential, and then saying, “I can do this.” But to walk around believing yourself to be a celebrity, when you are not and could never be, is not self-confidence, in my opinion. Rather, it is delusion. Except where one’s loved ones are concerned; there we should all be stars in each other’s lives and be treated as such. Just my little 2¢ on that one.

    Having said all that, I’m certainly not in a mood to ban Gaga. The culture is what it is. I have a feeling this trend will pass, anyway. Who knows, the days when the showing of a mere ankle was a brazen act may come again! I imagine sex was probably every bit as sexy back then as it is today, with all our “liberation.” ...and, no, I don’t think burqas are sexy or liberating!

    Compared to global warming, the Gaga issue pales, anyway. Maybe we can agree on that?