In 2008 Professor Adrian North of the Department of Applied Psychology at Heriot Watt University released a book titled ‘The Social and Applied Psychology of Music.’ What Professor North did was conduct a psychological study on 36,000 music lovers, rating their preferences of 104 music styles followed by a personality test. What he found was those who listen to pop or top 40 music, such as Lady Gaga (his example), are likely to have high self-esteem, lack creativity, be hardworking, outgoing and gentle but – and here’s the clincher – not at ease with themselves.
Music is a touchy subject, and anyone who has ever criticized another’s music choices will probably tell you, that their criticisms have been met with fierce defensiveness. Professor North speculated that we are defined by our music choices; our identity is composed of what we do, how we present ourselves and what we listen to. It’s cultural shorthand for identifying ourselves as part of a group. He went on to state that it’s profoundly connected to who we are as individuals, a reflection of our characters, and a correlation between our personality, lifestyle and emotional reactions to the world around us.
So how is any of that relevant to Lady Gaga? Well. Gaga has spun a web of false affection in naming her fans little monsters, which in turn has been tagged ‘cult-like’. Gaga’s monsters are highly dependent on their ‘inspirational leader’ for insight and guidance, and in line with the above ‘lack of ease’ they are likely to be disillusioned, dependent and harbor a desire to be a part of something greater. Not that these are bad things. Little Monsters, much like their creator, are culturally manufactured and commercially sponsored identities. Those who relate to the Monster identity are likely to have already experienced ostracism and/or social misidentification, making them more attuned to Gaga’s cultural scriptures.
L. K. Smith of the ‘Psychology of Monsters’ blog wrote an entry about the role of the Monster identity in defining Gaga’s adherents as displaying elements of cult-like fanaticsm. Although Smith’s account is supportive of Gaga’s ideologies, its credit is held by the valid points raised – a clarification of ‘cult’ and the ‘cult’s relevance to Gaga’s discipleship. What she found was that, although conforming to constituents of ‘cult’ behaviour – charismatic leader, motivational teaching, group trust, shared language etc – Monsters were not exactly a cult because they mean well, they have intention to do good deeds and are free to engage with other ideas at any time.
In the aforementioned blog, Smith quotes a psychologist, Michael Langone, as defining dependency, disillusionment and desire as the reasons for joining a cult. Individuals with a propensity to join cults are those who lack self-confidence, feel a need to belong and yearn for inclusion. Smith then admits that Little Monsters are dependent and do, in fact, suffer a lack of self-confidence, hence their reliance on Lady Gaga to guide them.
This is where we trip into a grey area. I hope you don’t mind the big quote – “She is a strong woman and she inspires Little Monsters to abandon their insecurities and hold onto the person who they truly are. Many Little Monsters depend on Lady Gaga in order to stay strong and look to her for advice and strength. They feed their dependency cravings on her message. Although this dependency can sometimes for some be extreme I think that most Little Monsters identify the limit of positive dependency and are not at any risk of psychological harm.”
I am not arguing any risk of psychological harm given the facts, but it seems likely that, should Gaga fade into cultural oblivion , most would simply move on to the next musical luminary. Most Gaga fans I’ve met however are fiercely defensive of their idol, to the point of irrationality and extreme displays of emotion. Whether this is harmful or not, I don’t know.
Smith goes on with “Another trait that Langone identifies is disillusionment. He suggests that individuals who feel detached from one’s own culture and do not agree with the status quo, desire change, and more often than not cults meet this desire.”
Apparently, all of this is a good thing for the Monsters! Smith claims it’s important to meet people, who believe what we believe, who are our kindred spirits! If this occurs, we can reach a perfect social dynamic and if we remain positive, nothing bad can happen. Balance is key.
This is naïve, and perfect cult-like behaviour that she has just told us is acceptable. There is a difference between a devoted fan base and an army of followers who consume everything without critical and independent thought.
This is what I think: a vast majority of devoted Gaga fans would never entertain the idea that their Mother Monster fails at being an strong inspiring figure who adores her monstrous progeny. Any implication that casts Lady Gaga off as a commercial icon, constructed and managed to the last detail, whose adoration and commitment stems mainly from the immense amount of money she is making from her fans, is met with impassioned and wholehearted resistance. Often in the form of extreme, co-ordinated abuse to the poor soul who dared mutter the above words.
Rob Fusari, Lady Gaga’s ex-boyfriend and Producer/co-writer of her first album The Fame spoke of the young Italian ‘guidette’ that first arrived on his doorstep – an image dislocated from the one we know of now. Taking a look at the many Stefani Germanotta performances on YouTube, you get the impression that the young soulful girl we see could be anything but the eccentric Gaga that is now so synonymous with pop culture. Gaga wouldn’t be the first and certainly won’t be the last person to re-invent their personality for mainstream success, and even looking at her development over the past 3 years in the public eye has seen an evolution of her identity. The playful blonde girl we saw in Just Dance bears so little resemblance to the bondage-clad woman of Edge of Glory, an individual who shocks and provokes at every opportunity with little to no rational explanation for doing so other than to showboat.
The point here is not that there’s something wrong with re-invention, but in order to champion for the rights of the minorities, the misfits and the eccentrics in the world, to tell them to accept who you are, that you were ‘born this way’, one must practices what they preach. As Alex Knepper of ‘lady gaga is a fraud’ says “the hypocrisy reeks to high heavens: Lady Gaga has cast herself as the champion of misfits, eccentrics, and weirdos, telling them to embrace their identity, no matter what the costs; no matter what others might say to them. But she is particularly ill-equipped for such a role, given that she herself compromised her identity to win stardom!” This is so evident if throw back to even four years ago, when Gaga maintained the quaint, almost dorky appearance of Stefani. Gaga’s constant evolution along these eccentric lines, stumbling further and further away from any coherent meaning, has created an iconic identity that towers over any musical or artistic production she releases.
I could write for weeks about the disconnect between what Lady Gaga says about herself and her music, and the actual meaning and interpretation of what she has done. She is presented, adored and held up as an icon, a champion – someone who speaks passionately for worthy causes, who reappropriates artistic influences into her music and videos.
Gaga told Ryan Seacrest on May 26 “It’s funny, when ‘Born This Way’ went to number one, it went to number one in like 90 minutes on iTunes, I said to myself, “Aww f*** yeah!’ Then a huge roach crawled on me. And then I was thinking to myself, this is exactly what I want. I did not get into this business for the money. I don’t care about the material things. I don’t do this because I want tons of attention. I did it because it was my destiny to be a performer and to be part of mobilizing the voice of my generation.”
I wouldn’t know where to start on this. I guess I’ll bite with the most obvious; I’m not entirely sure about how Gaga’s music represents my voice, or even those of most of my peers – and I am from the same generation as Gaga. I cannot relate to her music in any way whatsoever, and I can’t see how anyone else could either, beyond it being a catchy melody. When we analyse the pop arena not one other musician who sings about such meaningless tripe passes off their music to be so representative of a generation, of a struggle or as political commentary. Gaga produces mindless pop music which deserves to be treated as such, and Alex Knepper again put it so eloquently with “Gaga and her fans present her as an avant-garde, politically-conscious revolutionary, single-handedly bringing art, style, and sensibility back to the pop arena.”
She is not.
So how the hell has Gaga gotten herself into this position? Probably from her frequent cryptic and relatable comments, her insistence that her fans are her everything and the success she has made from such a committed use of social networking. There is no doubt that Gaga is a very smart person. I just don’t think her fans are.
The Little Monsters didn’t invent the phrase; it didn’t develop at concerts from discussions among fellow fans. It wasn’t created by a devoted lover of her music – the whole illusion of a communal identity was fostered by one person – guess who? The Little Monster ideology was created by Gaga. For me, this is the most troubling part of hearing the Little Monsters tell me how included and involved they are in their little clique. They didn’t make it. None of them did. They just picked it up.
This race to adopt a commercially written and promoted identity speaks volumes about those who adopt it. Remember the ‘lack of ease’ of Top 40/pop listeners? The dependence on someone else to tell them what to do, how to act, what to believe in and the desire to be a part of a group that is greater than themselves? Here it is, manifested in real people.
Australian radio station 2DayFM is currently running a promotion to “Show how monster you are” to win tickets to an upcoming performance. One fan told me that what constitutes your “inner monster” is “anything and everything, being yourself and being proud for it” – cripplingly vague direction but one which could be construed any number of ways. This is the key to Gaga’s widespread appeal, and the insistence that she represents everyone. Because she doesn’t represent anything. This makes it infinitely easy for her to be representative of something or someone because without a concrete ideology, she is a fluid being who can adapt to anything.
So, if Lady Gaga helps you through a struggle or to better define who you are, then that’s great. But at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, she is a person who merely distracts from existential problems and assists to build an unsustainable identity around fandom.
Edited by Milo Peña.