Lady Gaga and the transcendent narcissism of social media

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For the next week, this site will feature updates on some of my favorite past blog posts while I am (largely) offline.

I begin with my post about last summer’s Lady Gaga concert. For the past week, I’ve been listening to the new Lady Gaga album, “Born this Way”, as my workout music of choice. It’s an album that Gaga has attributed to her the inspiration she draws from her fans, in a monument of mutual appreciation that reminded me of my reaction to last summer’s concert.

Last night I went to see Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball in concert. The last performer I saw at an arena-sized concert was Madonna, to whom Gaga is often (appropriately) compared. That was 15 years ago, and at the time I was the age that Gaga is now, Madonna was the age that I am now, and social media had yet to be invented.

I layer those chronologies because the differences between Madonna and Gaga, or at least in the way I see them, seem to be inextricable from the birth of social media culture. When I was in my early 20s I was fascinated by Madonna, and in particular by the lively debate among feminist scholars over whether and how to engage with her as a phenomenon. In retrospect that whole conversation about Madonna feels very of the moment: characteristic of the seriousness (read: humorlessness) that tortured progressives and feminists in particular, and one of the earliest incursions of pop culture into the sacred terrain of academe. It seemed like every facet of Madonnna was up for analysis: her embrace (or was it critical engagement?) of the male gaze; the merits of the music itself, and the question of whether those merits were even relevant; her sexualized self-image; her sexual orientation and her role in the LGB (“T” not yet part of the acronym) community.

Everything, it seems, except her fame itself. A fame that was so big, so constitutive of what Madonna was, that we didn’t for the most part think to name it: so obvious that it eluded the scholarly discussion entirely.

Fifteen years later and the Madonna for our time is a performer who explicitly called her album The Fame. And fame is what last night’s show was all about: in the lion’s share of dialogue from Gaga herself (reflecting on her fans, her need for her fans’ love, her fans’ reaction to seeing her, her love of being famous) but most of all in the meta-narrative of a spectacle that made 20,000 people into something that felt more like a collective ego — Gaga’s — then an assortment of individuals.

Gaga’s ability to bottle fame — the experience of it, the desire for it — is inextricable from her mastery of social media. She’s at the top of the Twitter charts, described as a social media genius and a transmedia storyteller. But seeing her in concert, it’s clear that this is a performer for whom social media is not a tool: it’s a mirror.

Gaga in concert feels like nothing so much as a social media presence come to life. Everything is credited to her fans — her success, her performance, her ability to write quickly. She isn’t a person we are engaging with: she is a persona we are creating. The question of authenticity (so dear to social media pundits’ hearts) never comes up: “I hate the truth,” she says. “I choose bullshit every time.” Without truth, without authenticity, we can give ourselves over to the social experience of Gaga as a creation that we own, as much as we own and create Flickr or YouTube.

That’s the universe that Gaga invokes herself:

There’s 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. Its 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 to become rather, in the future. When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too. And this is The Fame.

(Thanks to James for that transcription.)

As enthralling and energizing as it was to be part of a social media community come to life (what we used to call, “a community”) the transformation of fame from context to subject left me uneasy. The word that springs to mind in describing Lady Gaga’s persona (no need to separate it from her person, as she’s made clear) is narcissism: how else can you describe the choice to talk relentlessly about your fans (or “little monsters”)?

But it’s the relentlessness of that conversation that pushes it into new territory: where the narcissism is text instead of subtext. Yes, I feed on my fans, Gaga says. And we feed on her feeding on us. We create our own celebrity and then rejoice in our celebrity celebrating us, an endlessly reflecting mirror. What we see is not simply Gaga’s narcissism but our own: the transcendent narcissism of an audience that can no longer separate the adoring fans from the adored (and adoring celebrity).

That’s the same transcendent narcissism that drives social media: a culture in which we all strive to be mini-Gagas, building our followers, responding to our commenters, embracing “audience engagement” as the highest good of a conversational medium. The Fame isn’t something we give to Gaga, or buy from her: it’s something we try to create for ourselves, online.

Originally published August 25, 2010.

6 Comments on this site

  1. MacSmiley

    Yuk. I'm not gaga for Gaga. But just reading this makes me feel dirty. I think I'll take a shower now.

  2. David Shellabarger

    I completely agree.
    Very interesting analysis.

  3. Muradsdin

    very interesting and knowledgeable information, thanks for sharing it…..:)

  4. writelife

    I don't have this thought out yet but it seems a curious revision of the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “We are what we pretend to be.” Maybe Gaga is what we pretend she is? Not sure …

    I understand comparisons to Madonna but I think the better one is with Elton John. She's doing what he was doing about mid-1970s, at least in part. Both were/are carnie routines of the moment. I also recall Elton John referring to his music as disposable (well, he did back then).

  5. Mika

    She's also crazy talented…

  6. Bob

    Okay, I buy the conceit of this post, but what I want to know, am trying to grasp is, what does this mean? The narcissism, from where I watch it, is mostly propelled not just by ego, but by a desperation to stand out because that is grasped as the currency we are trading in now. As someone from the Boomer Generation, so many people I know are driven to exploit social media not because they want fame, but because they want a job. They are not always comfortable with it, not always good at it, but it is being hammered into them that they must do it and create a brand persona. Whether the crescendo has been reached yet in this cacophony, I imagine there is a bell curve effect and this Fame mongering will morph in yet unanticipated ways. To close with Gaga, after her moment is done, will she end up being consumed by the culture she has created or keep her body and soul intact? And where will this culture she is creating go from here?

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