Wherein, on the eve of her latest Dallas concert, we ponder the impact of Lady Gaga’s voice in entertaining and empowering the gay community
RICH LOPEZ | Contributing Writer
Given today’s celebrity culture, one would think, “What sane person would wear a meat dress?” It’s a good question. Fashion has become synonymous with fame, but Angeline Jolie wouldn’t be caught dead wearing beef earrings to the Oscars. And Rihanna could never pull off a red carpet appearance showing up in an egg.
Such antics are reserved for one person. And she’s a Lady.
“What makes Lady Gaga interesting is that she’s so explicitly artificial,” observes Sean Griffin, a professor at Southern Methodist University where he chairs the division of film and media arts. “She has this weird dichotomy that on a certain level she’s very genuine and authentic in her emotional outreach, but then there’s the very public plastic image on display.”
Griffin, who has taught a class on lesbian and gay film and video (before Gaga burst onto the pop culture landscape), has considered how her particular iconic status has struck a different cord from many celebrities before her while harkening to those who paved the way.
“Her impact is that she’s been so upfront and proud about supporting gay rights and so much so that it’s almost a part of her image, her brand even,” Griffin says.
That brand has encouraged all of society’s misfits, whoever they may be, to celebrate that status. In turn, this has created a win-win situation for Gaga — and whether it’s a shrewd move or happy accident, everyone from the pretty and rich to the quirky and minimum-waged can join in on the party. Everyone has hang-ups, Griffin says, but Gaga is one of the few high-profile heroes telling them that’s all right.
“She plays up her outsider, non-conventional status, saying she was this dorky kid who didn’t know how to fit in,” Griffin says. “But then she brilliantly balances that with her outrageous outfits playing her public role [and] we don’t really see the real Gaga. You could even say she’s more artificial than Madonna.”
Inevitable comparisons to Madonna have been present since the beginning. But the trap in comparing Madge to Gaga is merely a time stamp. At her peak, Griffin says, Madonna was certainly friendly toward her gay fans, but that LGBT culture was an accent to Madge’s camp — it wasn’t key to her pop image. Gaga has made it a part of her persona.
“When she uses the term ‘Little Monsters’ and makes it a collective, that’s part of why she’s so popular. Gaga is for a new generation in terms of where we are. Madonna was for us what Gaga is for younger gays now,” Griffin says.
Not that Madonna’s generation of gays don’t appreciate the Fame Monster. Griffin says they appreciate her outspokenness and value what she’s bringing to the public conversation. And from that generation raised on disco and new wave, a good beat is always appreciated.
“There is that,” Griffin laughs. “The kids of the late ‘90s think they discovered circuit party music, but honey, there was this thing called disco.”
Griffin resists characterizing Gaga’s artificiality as some kind of con; instead, it’s the stuff icons are made of. She challenges conventional thought while being embraced by the masses. Gaga’s outspoken nature on supporting gay rights clearly exhibits her care for the community while her avant garde dresses make her fabulous.
He also notices that Gaga’s accessibility is unique to subcultures. On her last visits to Dallas, her appearances post-American Airlines Center shows at the Round-Up Saloon and Station 4 weren’t just about an after-party, but blatantly told her fans she doesn’t forget where she started. She strengthens her relationship with her fans (especially her gay Dallas fans) and that bond impacts not just a sense of self, but even the political stage.
“Her way of presenting herself is ‘Come on — we’re all family, we’re all friends,’” Griffin says. “That resonates. And politics happen within relationships. Things that matter like same-sex marriage is extended in feelings with those you have a bond with. It’s partly Gaga’s courage and forthrightness that has created this situation in which she’s blossomed. And stemming from her support at her shows to hanging with her people all comes from that.”
It’s fair to say that the 20-something pop star is already in the gay pantheon of strong female heroes. In that way, Lady Gaga should be compared less to Madonna and more to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (for her vocal support on AIDS issues), Cyndi Lauper (for her embracing of the inner freak) and Barbra Streisand’s outsider, unconventional beauty. They’ve all paved the way for a new type of gay den mother, and with Lady Gaga’s obvious talent and civic mindedness, she will likely do the same for icons still to come.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 25, 2013.