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CMN 2160 C – Theories of the Media

Lady Gaga's “Fame” & The Evolving Notion of Celebrity in the 21st Century

Since her debut on the pop music stage a little over 2 years ago, Lady Gaga has become one of

the top international pop stars on the planet. With her eclectic blend of electro-dance pop music, kooky

fashion-forward ensembles and outspoken opinions on fame, she has captivated an audience that has

elevated her to the stratosphere of pop royalty, drawing comparisons to such legendary artists as

Madonna and Michael Jackson. From her humble beginnings as a burlesque dancer and struggling

singer-songwriter in New York to headline-grabbing style & music icon for the 21st century, Lady Gaga

(born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has made one of the most fantastic rises to fame in pop

music history, reflecting main themes of her first album appropriately titled “The Fame” (2008).

There are many factors that have aided in Lady Gaga's meteoric rise to fame, including: a fervent

dedication to her performance art and her fans; a string of international chart-topping singles; headline-

grabbing musical performances filled with over-the-top theatrics and daring fashion choices; a tireless

media tour to promote her music and her causes; all of which keep her front and centre in the media's

burning spotlight. However, one factor above all that has aided Lady Gaga retain her status has been

her constant and dedicated use of social media to reach out to her fans. Gaga has been one of the

pioneers of the social media revolution, using some of the most popular mediums such as Facebook

and Twitter to constantly stay connected with her millions of followers worldwide, posting status

updates on the minute details of her life in the fast lane.

Firstly, to understand Lady Gaga's fame, one must understand the notion of “fame” and its

origins. In Leonard Berlenstein's essay Historicizing & Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women
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in Nineteenth-Century France, he explores the origin of the modern-day notion of “fame” and

“celebrity”, which sprang from the public's disconnect with the elite members of society and the

increasing interest in popular actresses and male thinkers of the time. The phenomenon of “fame”

began in the fashionable salons of Paris, with the aid of the emerging newspapers, who were

instrumental in spreading the gossip about the actresses and philosophers who frequented the salons. It

was here that enterprising columnists would gather the latest talk about the theatre actresses that

captivated the attention of the salon culture, spreading the word about these ordinary women (less of a

focus was made on male actors at the time, as the women had a more alluring role in the public's

imagination), giving them the publicity that would gain them “fame” with the public.

Here, Berlenstein makes the connection with the modern notion of fame by stating:

Celebrity status draws together recognition for individual achievement – the preeminent cultural
ideal of Western societies since the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century – with the
power of the media to increase visibility and publicity. The public generally finds celebrities'
success, fame, and glamour so seductive that it seeks personal knowledge about them. Thus,
celebrities become “intimate strangers” to fans. (Berlenstein 66)

This can also be tied to the notion of fame as the new godliness. In an age when religious belief is on

the decline and the power of the divine no longer has a stranglehold over the public like it did before

the revolutions of the eighteenth century, regular people are ascending to the proverbial pedestal and

are being revered by millions of fans worldwide. Kurzan et. al.'s Celebrity Status (2007) notes that

“[c]elebrities were once ordinary humans like us, but they no longer are. The privileges that we grant

them in person help to reinforce their superior status” (355-356). Such is the case with Lady Gaga,

who is currently sits at the top of the pop pantheon, reigning over popular music with the power of her

personality.
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Gaga's story is very much the textbook delineation of the American Dream, wherein anyone

who is determined to work hard can achieve their dreams to live a life of freedom and success. And

nobody has worked harder in pop music to reach the top than Lady Gaga, who has been both praised

and cautioned by her fellow artists for her level of dedication to her craft. In a quote by Ryan Tedder,

lead singer of the successful band OneRepulbic, with MTV, he says: "My hat goes off to her. Nobody

works harder than Lady Gaga. Nobody. She is unbelievable. I don't know how she sleeps, or when or

if," he said. "But I know people who work with her, and they're like, 'She is the most dedicated,

committed, hardworking person around'" (Montgomery, “Ryan Tedder Doesn't...”). But her story could

not be more fitting, as Charles Kurzman et. al. posit in their study on Celebrity Status: “The celebrity

role is implicated in an established narrative arc. It begins with a compelling personal story about the

future celebrity's training, in which his or her extraordinary characteristics are developed. It generally

includes the happenstances of the celebrity's 'discovery', then dwells on the celebrity's ascent from

triumph to triumph, overcoming challenges of all sorts” (353-354).

Gaga's myth follows closely this pattern, as the young ingenue from New York who was offered early

admittance to the prestigious Tisch School of Arts at NYU, and worked the clubs circuit before getting

“discovered” and given the monicker of Lady Gaga, named after the Queen song “Radio Gaga” (1984).

After scoring a record deal, and writing songs for various big-name pop artists such as the Pussycat

Dolls and Britney Spears, Lady Gaga released her debut album “The Fame” in 2008, a concept album

inspired by Gaga's love of fame and the intricacies of the rich & famous lifestyle, spearheaded by her

international number one hit “Just Dance”. Her star has been on the rise ever since, with numerous

industry accolades including two recent Grammy Awards, record-breaking record sales, international

chart-topping hits, much talked-about live performances, a successful international tour, numerous

promotional duties with big-name brands, and of course, legions of dedicated fans whom she
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affectionately calls her “little monsters”.

The branding of her fan base is nothing new to the notion of celebrity, but the way that Lady

Gaga upholds her relationship with her fans, or her “Little Monsters” is very new to the twenty-first

century. Gaga herself is an extraordinarily charismatic figure, grabbing the imagination of her fans

with her apparently glamourous lifestyle, but not in the sense that she's a rich snob; she lives through

her art, always appearing in public with a new fanciful or outlandish outfit, always communicating her

love to her fans and dedicating her continued success to them, whether it's with her Twitter account, in

concert or in interviews. Kurzman et. al. describes the link between celebrity and fans: “Scholars have

sometimes associated the normative aspect of celebrity with charisma, Weber's residual category of

authority relations, in which followers obey a leader not for traditional-bureaucratic reasons, but

through a personal acceptance of the leader's 'exceptional powers or qualities'” (358). In this case,

Gaga's exceptional quality is her ability to be in character 24/7, like the glamourous stars of popular

culture myth. She insists on being referred to as Gaga, as opposed to her real name Stefani Joanne

Angelina Germanotta; she never appears in public without full makeup or stylized wardrobe, and she

never is anything but humble and gracious in her interviews. Interestingly enough, she is not

constantly grabbing headlines for her behaviour like much of the Hollywood-centred celebrities, but

instead for her spectacular promotional persona. She has been quoted as saying her mission is “to

liberate the world with her music”, and she uses every public opportunity to remind her fans that they

are the ones who make or break her, and the devotion she receives in return is back to the classic notion

of the “super fan”. She constantly empowers her “Little Monsters” to be who they want to be in a free

world, one of the previously discussed associations with the American Dream, and uses her shared

symbol of the “claw” and a “Manifestation of Little Monsters” to make it about something bigger than

herself, a rallying point for like-minded “monsters” (fans) around the world In this case, the “claw” is
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a signifier for “Little Monsters”.

The most important aspect about her public persona is that her digital presence is felt just as much as

her physical presence. When she's not performing, she's tweeting updates about her personal life to her

fans, always ending with each one with a reminder of her love for them. With the advent of Twitter to

public prominence, it has become simply another way for celebrities to reach out to fans, and Lady

Gaga has become one celebrity to use it to maximum effect. Paired with her Facebook fan page, her

website, and her non-traditional decision to have fans use digital cameras to take pictures and videos of

her shows and subsequently share them on YouTube, she has a presence felt in all of the most popular

social media platforms. As an opinion leader, her fashion choices have had an impact on the fashion

industry, her fans post videos and pictures of themselves dressing up like her stage and music video

personas, and her support of brands like Heartbeats by Lady Gaga headphones (in collaboration with

Dr. Dre), the MAC Viva Glam cosmetics campaign (in partnership with Cyndi Lauper), and her new

position as Creative Director with Polaroid. The commodification of her personality is felt in all the

products she places in her music videos (her recent Telephone [2010] video alone includes mentions of

products such as Diet Coke, Virgin Mobile, Hewlett Packard and Wonder Bread) as well as the ones she

officially supports (she is said to only officially endorse a fraction of the products she places in

Telephone [2010]).

What can be considered the final appropriation of her fame is hear fear of death. In Greenberg

et. Al's exploration of the effects of mortality salience on the appeal of fame, they mention how:

The awareness that death is inevitable and may signal the absolute end of existence creates the
potential for potentially overwhelming terror, which is assuaged by a dual component anxiety-
buffer consisting of a cultural worldview and self-esteem. Cultural worldviews are humanly
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constructed beliefs about reality that convey a sense that the world is meaningful, stable, and
permanent, and that offer opportunities for symbolic immortality (e.g., by having children or
amassing a great fortune) or literal immortality (e.g., by the promise of an afterlife) to those
who meet the cultural standards of value. Self-esteem is attained by believing that one is a
valuable participant in this meaningful universe and therefore qualifies for cultural routes to
immortality. (2-3).

Lady Gaga has constantly mentioned her desire for “fame” as a platform to have a lasting effect, to

“change the world one sequin at a time”. Her projects, while mostly centred around her music, have in

many instances been for charitable or community-minded effect, especially towards the gay community

that have supported her fervently since before she was an international pop star. She has taken part in

the MAC Viva Glam cosmetics campaign as a spokesperson, to support global HIV/AIDS awareness

and fundraising, and she both spoke at and performed for the American Human Right's Campaign

march and dinner in Washington on Saturday, October 10th 2010. This is another example of her

loyalty to her fan base, especially the gay community. But Gaga's own insecurities are also at the

forefront of her personality, of which she does not make a distinction between the public and the

private, as evidenced by her candid interviews and the personal details she disseminates through

Twitter. In an interview to discuss her recently released album The Fame Monster (2009), Lady Gaga

discusses some of the themes related to her focus on the “fears” she feels:

I have an obsession with death and sex. Those two things are also the nexus of horror films,
which I’ve been obsessing over lately. I’ve been watching horror movies and 1950s science
fiction movies. I’ve just been noticing a resurgence of this idea of monster, of fantasy, but in a
very real way. If you notice in those films, there’s always a juxtaposition of sex with death.
That’s what makes it so scary. Body and mind are primed for orgasm and instead somebody
gets killed. That’s the sort of sick, twisted psychological circumstance. (Paulson, “Lady Gaga's
Sex...”).

The mortality salience comes into effect here with her admonition to being afraid of death, and also the

mention of sexuality, which is tightly integrated to the representation of females in pop music. Her

constant drive to reach for the “fame” and the amount of work she puts into her image and career is

very telling about her desire to make herself “immortal” in popular culture, such as the legends she has
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been compared to such as Madonna and Michael Jackson.

In essence, Lady Gaga has touched on many of the classic factors on what it takes to be famous,

and even integrates to the whole notion into her personal myth to an unprecedented degree. One of the

most important factors in her tremendously speedy rise to fame has been social media and the level of

promotion she attaches to her life, being in character anytime she's in public. She has admitted that it's

not an act, it is simply something she has worked towards and “evolved” into, a full-time theatrical

production. While there has been much public discussion on her image, whether it's too sexualized and

over the top or even constructed by her record label, Lady Gaga has continued to prove that she is

legitimate, and the level of loyalty her fans provide her speaks a lot in her favour. Her persona is

reminiscent of all the larger-than-life idols she has proclaimed to inspire her, include David Bowie and

Grace Jones, and her base of “super fans” also signals that she may just be the return of the glamourous

pop idol in a sea of plastic clones.


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Works Cited

Berlanstein, L.R. “Historicizing & Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-
Century France.” Gender Watch 16.4 (2004): 65-91.

Greenberg, J., Kosloff, S., Solomon, S., Cohen, F., Landau, M. “Toward Understanding the
Fame Game: The Effect of Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame.” Self and Identity 9.1
(2008): 1-18.

Hampp, A. “Gaga, Oooh La La: Why The Lady Is the Ultimate Social Climber.” Advertising
Age 81.8 (2010): 42.

Henderson, A. “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture.” Magazine of History 6.4 (1992): 49-54.

Jurgensen, J. “The Lessons of Lady Gaga --- With digital dominance, business savvy, a niche-busting
sound and 1,001 wardrobe changes, she is a new model for success.” Wall Street Journal
January 29 2010: W1.

Kurzman, C., Anderson, C., Key, C., Lee, Y.O., Moloney, M., Silver, A., Van Ryn, M.W. “Celebrity
Status.” Sociological Theory 25.4 (2007): 347-367.

“Lady Gaga.” http://www.billboard.com/search/?keyword=lady+gaga&x=0&y=0#/artist/lady-


gaga/1003999. Billboard, n.d Web. 15 April 2010.

“Lady Gaga's Sex And Death Obsession.” http://celebrities.gearlive.com/vip/article/q108-lady-gagas-


sex-and-death-obsession/. Gear Live: VIP Breakdown, 11 July 2009. Web. 15 April 2010.

Pearson, R. “Fandom in the Digital Era.” Popular Communication 8.1 (2010): 84-95.

“Ryan Tedder Doesn't 'Remember' Telling Lady Gaga to be 'Careful'.”

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