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Lady Gaga, known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta until quite recently, is a phenomenon. Although only 24, she already has six number one songs from two albums, The Fame and The Fame Monster. She has toured the United States and world as a conquering pop hero, whose ascent occurred at exactly the right time with exactly the right trajectory to propel her into superstardom. Gaga is not the only vocal artist to meet this kind of success. She is preceded by the likes of Madonna, Mariah Carey, Beyonce Knowles, and, to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. But as of the writing of this post, Gaga has something that none of her predecessors had: The Method.
Markets in Music
In the past 100 years, markets have developed widely differentiated markets to satisfy an ever-more sophisticated melange of tastes on the part of humans. Before the 20th century, musical styles may have changed relatively slowly and catered towards small groups of elites and particular localities. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, the decreasing cost to the transmission of information along with increasing standards of living fostered a vastly increased consumption of music. People consume music in the sense that they listen to it and know it, but prefer more music to less, just as with any other good, all things being equal. Discarding old music is not a condition to further consumption, only the unsatiated appetite for more is.
In recent years, several notable artists have been able to maintain their position on the top of the charts by providing music that people demand. In some cases, their styles have changed to fit so as to please shifting preferences in the market. The most notable of this group of artists is Madonna and Mariah Carey. Mariah, whose traditional path to pop supremacy leaves little in common with Gaga’s, need not be addressed in this post. But in many ways, Madonna is Gaga’s most similar predecessor. Her example helps inform the path Gaga will take. Madonna burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s with music that was as catchy as it was interminable– I, for one, cannot get “Borderline,” “La Isla Bonita,” or “Like a Virgin” out of my head if I try upon hearing it. Within a matter of years, as she attempted to evolve artistically, she fell out of favor with the public. Madonna’s concerted effort to change her image into a sexually liberated dominatrix in her album Erotica and book Sex did significant damage to her brand. As her songs fell off the charts, Madonna’s increasingly desperate bid to remain in the public eye almost completely destroyed her. But Madonna was nothing if not resilient, and she learned from her mistakes. She remade herself for Ray of Light and never strayed too far from the cultural mainstream again.
By the time of 2008, pop music in the United States had become moribund with the same acts, being replenished only by American Idol contestants who were successful not because they rocked the boat, but because they excelled at traditional artistic convention. The market was saturated with typical romantic ballads, rap self-aggrandizing, and both gritty and soft country songs. The pop music segment, which consists mostly of young people whose tastes have not hardened fully yet, had consumed enough of the old. The time was ripe for something new.
Lady Gaga literally burst on to the scene. With the market so ready for something different, all it would take was a little “going gaga” to light a real fire. Her sartorial splendor ratcheted it up a notch. Was it just a temporary act? Nope: her music videos doubled down on the schtick and she rarely broke character. In fact, she told one source that she’s “Gaga 24/7.” She told another to never call her by her real name again: it’s Gaga from now on. From the impractical, yet somehow aesthetically interesting hairdos to the occasionally unflattering but always interestingly shaped dresses, Gaga’s method was simple and pure. She would push every superficial boundary right up until the breaking point while offering up pleasing, aggressive, strongly sexually suggestive music.
The most important element of The Method is not going past the breaking point. How would she know what it is? She doesn’t have a team of market analysts and economists looking for this mythical breaking point. She knows because we’ve already seen it: Madonna’s Erotica phase.
Madonna made the mistake of getting too personal. The market readily consumed her music, and even her behavior: she was young, after all. But they would not go for boundary-pushing content that seemed authentically representative of Madonna herself. Too personal, the material was perceived as representing the genuine sexual deviant she always was. There’s no faster way to stigmatize one’s self to the broader market to which, in reality, she wished to appeal. Indeed, she only became a hero to various small groups of people by unwittingly sacrificing broad appeal. She did not intend this. We know this because of how fast she dropped the routine. I suppose it is possible that Madonna converted to that phase out of commercial calculation, but whether she did or not is not as relevant as how it was perceived by people.
Gaga has not made any mistake like this. When she became a national figure in fall of 2008, she studiously avoided campaigning for her choice for President on national radio, saying that while her preference was well known, she would not say it to Ryan Seacrest on air, presumably because it would peel away a layer from the extraordinary artifice she had devised. Nothing personal to her previous identity, Stefani Germanotta, remains. What was Stefani Germanotta like? Check out this 2005 appearance by her on MTV’s Boiling Points.
Not too different from the rest of us, but a far cry from the Lady Gaga we know and… well… appreciate today. Our Lady Gaga has platinum blonde, dirty blonde, or bizarro color hair depending on the theme of the evening. A day dress? Try trash bag couture, the devil version of 1990’s chic, or geometric glamo-sportswear on for size. Virgin Media did us a favor by putting her “worst outfits” on display here. My favorite is her red lace outfit from the MTV Music awards, shown earlier, but focused on below.
There is something so revolting about this outfit. And yet, it is partly because of this, partly because of its newness, that I cannot turn away. The most compelling part about it is that it gets me using my imagination. Why did Gaga choose this? Can she see from under there? Whatever we say about the garment, it’s not uninteresting. Not only do we talk about it, we want to see more. It’s instructive to compare this to Madonna, and in more recent times, Adam Lambert. Madonna is sublime at what she does, while Adam Lambert is actually pretty good himself. But when Madonna gave us Erotica, it was hot, when it should have been cool. What I mean by that is that it seemed to represent her real personality. Adam Lambert’s 2009 appearance on Good Morning America was cancelled after a male performer simulated giving the singer fellatio at an MTV performance. It’s not just the homosexuality that bothered people. It’s that he warmed up to us too soon. We don’t know him. Maybe now we don’t want to know him. America’s okay with certain types of sexuality as long as it’s genuine, distanced performance.
This is what Gaga has mastered in her method. None of her outfits represents who she really is. Not her name, not her hair, not her food preferences, not what kind of animals she really likes, her hopes, dreams- nothing- all barred from us. Here are some of her lyrics from “Bad Romance”:
I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
I want your love
Since we cannot possibly take these lyrics entirely literally, we are forced to take them figuratively, metaphorically. Again: thought-provoking, but this is not authentic personal expression. She may say otherwise, that this is who she really is, but it isn’t true. It’s a well-crafted commercial persona for our consumption. She’s smart enough to stay in character, too. Whereas Madonna broached controversial Catholic imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video, Gaga is light-years away from taking on religion or war. Madonna discovered The Method too, but at a later stage in her career. Gaga knew it going in. Gaga is Stefani Germanotta’s avatar, in every sense of the word. And there’s nothing threatening to people about it because it’s purely play. She’s in on the joke.
Evidence for The Method
Recently, Lady Gaga and Beyonce unveiled their long-awaited 9 minute music video for the song “Telephone,” which is currently dominating your airwaves. The video is a terrific piece of circumstantial evidence that The Method is not something intrinsic to Lady Gaga, but something that can be replicated. Here is the video:
The first 5 minutes of the video aren’t particularly interesting and seem intent merely on connecting it to its prequel, “Paparazzi,” in which Gaga gets arrested after poisoning her boyfriend. But the last 4.5 are extraordinary. Beyonce also begins wearing Gaga-esque outfits and behaving like a “monster” as Gaga might say. Unfortunately for Gaga, Beyonce is the real star of the video, and as with their joint effort in “Videophone” (also a prequel perhaps judging by similar 1940s-ish wardrobe/hair in particular scenes), steals the show. But what I wish to draw your attention to here is the complete Gagafication of Beyonce. Beyonce adopts similar personality artifice, actually out-Gagaing Gaga herself. I love it.
There is another subtext here. Beyonce’s last album was called “I Am… Sasha Fierce.” This album is her best by far (so far), featuring “Halo,” “Sweet Dreams,” “If I Were a Boy,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” The album title referred to Beyonce’s long-lived (though now deceased) alter ego, Sasha Fierce. According to Beyonce:
Sasha Fierce is the singer’s sensual, aggressive alter ego, but don’t expect her to surface anywhere but the stage. “Sasha Fierce was born when I did ‘Crazy in Love.’ People, when they meet me, expect that all the time, but that person is strictly for the stage.”
This implies that we don’t really know the real Beyonce very well either. As noted in my “Siren Paradox” post, we haven’t seen her real hair, or much of her real preferences and beliefs. She performed at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, but she also performed with Destiny’s Child at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush. Yes, one more likely represents her genuine vote preference, but things may not always be as they same. Beyonce is notoriously guarded about her private life. The artistic synthesis between Gaga and Beyonce, both using the method through completely detached, methodical commercial targeting is a beautiful thing to behold.
But you know what they say: all good things must come to an end. I suspect that at some point Gaga’s exterior will begin to crack. She might have a marriage, a child, or late-night hotel altercation. She might get drunk, express a serious political theory, or get into a public personal bout with a rival. I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon, but she, like everyone else, has multiple desires in life that may shift in priority depending on her income.
To make an analogy, in economics there is the backward bending supply of labor curve. Above the reservation wage and halfway up, people tend to work more as they make higher wages. For this phase of the curve, we say that the substitution effect is greater than the income effect, which both continuously operate within us, but shift in priority as incentives as our wealth changes. At some point, they switch in importance, with the income effect overwhelming the substitution effect in our mind. That is, we no longer wish to work more hours at these higher wages, we wish to use more of our time for leisure. We just bought that 200 ft yacht and by gosh we’re going to use it, even if it costs $40,000 to fully gas!
Just so, at a certain income level, the odds are that Gaga will care less about appealing to the broad market and risk revealing herself more. At this point, she will probably never make quite as much money as she used to, but she will be more personally satisfied and the cost of her constant vigilance in obeying The Method will be relaxed. Let us hope that when the time comes, if it comes, that she can still stay in on the joke and, even if pursuing some random social justice issue, she does not take herself too seriously, as so many others have failed in doing.
Xenolinguistics, as broadly understood, though mostly as a matter of farce, is the study of non-human languages. In May 2009, the blockbuster Star Trek premiered around the world. In one of its funnier exchanges, James T. Kirk and Uhura bring xenolinguistics to our awareness:
KIRK: So you’re a cadet. You’re studying. What’s your focus?
UHURA: Xenolinguistics. You have no idea what that means.
KIRK: Study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax. It means you’ve got a talented tongue.
Yes, typically, xenolinguistics is the study of “alien” languages, but one must permit the possibility of other languages on planet Earth, whether from ocean-dwelling mammals as seen in Star Trek IV or Elvish from Lord of the Rings, so I choose to define it as the study of “non-human” languages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Klingon arguably does not qualify, as its creator, Marc Okrand, developed the language with human language universals, though with admittedly rare syntactic and phonetic combinations. (Of course, one must cede that languages could have developed independently on other planets, as they apparently did in Star Trek, with exactly the same linguistic universals, tendencies, and restraints as ours.) The combinations are rare because they impede cognitive processing and pronunciation, respectively.
First, regarding cognitive processing, Klingon uses an “object first” sentence structure, whereby the sentence “I hit Charlie” becomes partially inverted in Klingon as “Charlie I hit” though they mean the same thing. Very few languages in English have this type of sentence structure, and the few that do are locked away in the Amazon or similarly remote, or possibly even undiscovered, environments. The reason why object first, as opposed to subject first languages, are so rare is because, in summary, we tend to think linearly. Starting with an effect, not a cause, increases uncertainty and ambiguity in the brain as it processes the sentences. Therefore, it seems likely that object first sentences have either evaporated with time due to others having a distinct competitive advantage, or that they never arose significantly in the first place due to its relative handicap. We would predict that such languages could only exist, all things being equal (this is a key phrase), in an environment of relative isolation, without trade and significant cultural exchange.
Second, regarding pronunciation, Klingon possesses a particularly odd phonetic inventory, yet its sounds, while not generally consistent with what occurs in human languages, are can all be found in the inventory of human sounds. In other words, there are no sounds in Klingon that a human cannot make. The reason why its sounds, alone and in combination, are relatively rare in English is because they cost of a lot of energy to make. The presence of harsh fricatives and gutturals is accentuated by lax (meek, in Klingon terms) vowels.
This discussion on Klingon is all to say that we really have no idea what an alien language would be like, as we are bound by certain customs and universals as human speakers. Suzette Haden Elgin recognized this problem when she wrote the science fiction novel, Native Tongue. In the novel, humans interact with aliens, but since presumably the plasticity of an adult brain is so low, only babies have the ability to learn alien languages because adult brains get overloaded by them. Therefore, Elgin’s solution to the problem is that humans force babies to interact with aliens thereby learning alien language and serving as a bridge. Yet there are many very important reasons to believe that even babies would have difficulty learning alien languages. Our specifically neural structures, as made more clear every day by neuroscientists, linguists, and psychologists, strongly impact our relationship with language. An easy way to think about this is the difference between how chimps and humans deal with language. Yes, chimps are capable of rudimentary language, expressing words with consistent referents, but they are not capable of the complex grammars we are.
The same might be true of aliens. Whether humans or aliens have the comparatively finite grammar is beside the point: the cost of information transmission seems like it will be relatively high. Whether the information transmission occurs through telepathy, or the spoken or written word, obviating the impact of impossible phonetics for the human tongue, grammars and meaning would be the most difficult barriers to understanding. But this is not to say they would be insurmountable. Logic is a fine tool to use, so long as specificity is a quality aliens value.
This is why meaning could be a problem. The physicist-cum-Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author David Brin turned the tables in his incredible Startide Rising saga. In this universe, humans, derogatorily called “wolflings” by most aliens, speak with far more ambiguity than others. It is the humans that do not value specificity, littering the language with metaphors and words that have all kinds of double or triple meanings. Someone familiar with any Chinese language would scoff at merely three possible meanings for an isolated word, as it could have many more than that. Most alien languages, such as Galactic Six or Galactic Five, do not allow for ambiguous meanings, as each word corresponds to something very specific and could not mean anything else. Some languages on Earth accomplish this feat with elaborate case systems in which certain morphemes are attached to a word, whether grammatically or morphologically, denoting its relationship to a subject, object, or other grammatical role.
The practical import of xenolinguistics is not yet that we need to communicate with alien races, of course, though this would be nice if we could find a way to do so. We would better be able to negotiate on our own behalf in the event of calamity, or just to establish beneficial trading relations. More immediately, but in light of the contributions of science fiction thinkers, consideration of xenolinguistics might help us assess the differences in meaning that need to be ironed out by natural language processors, for this is the difficulty with speech recognition programs and all manner of artificial intelligence. How will we store the information in such a way that it will convey all denotations and connotations, which may change given the context, and how will we store the context information in the word? In the book, I have a section on how natural language processors do it today and how it might improve. Unfortunately, we still have precious little real xenolinguistics to build upon for these tasks and therefore the absolute practical import is sadly very low for aspiring xenolinguists. My advice? Learn computer science.