Lady Gaga is giving herself plenty of "Applause." But on Sunday, she really needs ours.
On the way to that peak called "Icon," every rapidly ascending artist eventually reaches a plateau, a crossroads, a pivotal moment. It's where the winds change and the ground shifts under their once-steady, heretofore well-kissed feet. And depending on how the breeze blows (and more importantly how they handle it), the artist can either sail to the top, tumble to the bottom, or set up camp and settle for whatever satisfactory level of success has now been reached. Lady Gaga, I think, is at this moment.
If she wants to continue the climb, she needs more than polite claps when she opens Sunday night's MTV VMAs with "Applause." She needs a standing ovation.
Because while I wouldn't count her out just yet (much as I admit I might like to), the cracks are beginning to show in the once impenetrable egg she rode in on. Her greatest assets are now becoming her biggest liabilities: her attention-whoring, which used to feel fun and playful, now seems self-indulgent. Her once-refreshing artistry, which does contain vision and musical talent that is much better-than-average by pop star standards, is now impossible to take seriously: she buried whatever merit it has under tons of bombastic chest-thumps about her self-ascribed status as The Greatest Cultural Innovator and Most Important Artiste of the Modern Era.
And never have devoted fans seemed like such a liability. Despite her philanthropically on-trend anti-bullying efforts, she's managed to cultivate a virulent breed of super-fan, her 'tween-age "little monsters" that spit vileness via social media to anyone that critiques Gaga, and anyone she has a personal beef with. Most recently, her ALL CAPS CRAZY PANTS JUNIOR HIGH TWITTER ARGUMENT with Perez Hilton caused her proud "stans" (that's "stalker-fan," which should tell you everything you need to know) to send death threats to the Internet gossip-monger... and his baby son. They may reflect a loony fringe group - the Westboro Baptist Church of music fans, promising fire and brimstone to anyone who dare question the supremacy of their messiah - but they still make her Nutso By Association. And while Gaga may post sanctimonious, after-the-fact admonishments on her website, reminding fans that such behavior runs counter to her messages of peace and love and happiness, there's no denying that she encourages it. You don't broadcast your feuds to famously irate fans and then sincerely expect them to let you "fight your own battles," any more than you post about your shitty day on Facebook because you're "not looking for sympathy or anything, you guys."
And that speaks to Gaga's biggest problem. For someone who purports to have such single-minded artistic vision, she wants everything both ways. She wants to be perceived as a serious artist, but she tells her fans to dismiss critique; you know, that thing artists are supposed to invite, even if it's not always positive. (It all winds up bolstering their credibility in the end, anyway. Why, they may even wind up with an academic sub-discipline named for them.)
She wants to be seen as an underdog, a freakish outcast. But Paris Hilton's former classmate from a ritzy, private New York school also wants to be the most popular girl on the Billboard charts: she recently goaded those vulnerable, in-need-of-love-and-support fans she cares for so much into blowing their allowances on multiple copies of her new single and watching its YouTube video over and over, in order to sail "Applause" to the #1 spot. The practice earned the pointed criticism of Billboard editorial director Bill Werde, who tweeted that she was trying to "game" the charts.
Oh, and it didn't work, either. "Applause" came in third in the week's charts, selling 218,000 copies. Katy Perry claimed the top spot with "Roar," selling 557,000.
Lady Gaga's smart, though. Since the tides are slowly turning against her, she's cleverly recognizing it. This ad (not "film") she made with her marketing department (not boutique collective "Haus of Gaga") cleverly furthers the narrative that she is an outcast. The mainstream is brainwashing you that I'm "out," she says. If you think for yourself, you'll know that I'm "in"!
But even some of her biggest fans are having a muted reaction to "Applause." (Funny enough it is one of my favorite songs by her in years.) And its hysterically self-important lyrics, which we have no reason to believe are intended to be ironic or camp, are not doing much to allay eye rolls from average music fans about her increasingly aggrandized self-importance. ("Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me," sings Super Monster, I mean Mother Monster.)
She's not fighting for a comeback: despite what her Twitter-reared, immediacy-junkie fans might believe, two years is actually a short span between artist albums of non-factory produced music, not an interminable wait. But she is at a crossroads.
Sunday night we might find out which way she goes.
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