With a record-breaking 17 million fans on Facebook, an equally chart-topping 5 million followers on Twitter, the most popular hashtext on twitter (#becauseofgaga), the most watched YouTube video (“Bad Romance,” with over 271 million views), and more than $34 million in ticket sales from her Monster Ball Tour, Lady Gaga, a.k.a. the artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta, is undeniably a musical force to be reckoned with. At least for the moment.
Nominated for 13 MTV Music Video Awards, including four for “Bad Romance” (which attracted so much attention when it premiered that it ground Gaga’s website to a halt), Gaga knows how to fill seats, sell albums and incite a frenzied devotion among her followers, whom she affectionately refers to as “Little Monsters.” The emphasis is on the “little.” With a fan base dominated by the under-20 set (her fans on Facebook range in age from 10-21), the driving force behind Gaga’s popularity and success comes from “kidpower.” Yet the content of Gaga’s music and videos is far from kid-friendly, and the impact on her young female fans is particularly troublesome.
Indeed, Gaga admits that “the last thing a young woman needs is another picture of a sexy pop star writhing in sand, covered in grease, touching herself.” However, if you were to replace “sand” with “brothel floor” and “grease” with “diamonds,” Gaga is precisely “another sexy pop star,” albeit one whose hyper-sexualized façade has greatly contributed to the pornification of American culture. As theatre historian and University of Illinois professor Mardia Bishop explains, “pop culture and porn culture have become part of the same seamless continuum. As these images become pervasive in popular culture, they become normalized … and … accepted.”
Given the youth of Gaga’s fanbase, however, this foray into porn culture – the increasing acceptability and pervasiveness of sexualized imagery in mainstream media – is where the Gaga phenomenon takes a dark turn.
“Visual images and narratives of music videos clearly have more potential to form attitudes, values, or perceptions of social reality than does the music alone,” notes author Douglas A. Gentile in his book “Media Violence and Children,” “because they add additional information and rely less on imagination.”
For example, Gaga’s critically acclaimed “Bad Romance” video packs a lot of messages – none of them wholesome – into a five-minute musical in which the singer is kidnapped, drugged, and forced to sell herself as a prostitute to the highest bidder. The video ends with a scantily clad Gaga lying on a bed in a post-coital pose beside the smoldering skeleton of her “customer” while her pyrotechnic bra emits fire.
That said, Gaga is far from the only mainstream artist contributing to the sexualization and pornification of young children through the mediums of pop music and music videos.
Among the worst culprits constantly bombarding young people today with sexual images and references are music videos, which are found daily in 75-80 percent of the homes of 9- to 14 year olds. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 30-120 minutes a day watching music videos – 75 percent of which contain sexually suggestive materials, and with the advent of portable technology, children’s television and music are often unmonitored by parents or guardians.
Not only does this accelerate adolescent sexual behavior (girls between the ages of 12-14 are two times more likely to engage in sexual activity after being exposed to sexual imagery), but it increases the likelihood of more sexual partners.
As for Gaga’s “little monsters,” between the celebrity worship and the hyper-sexed imagery found in the pop star’s videos, they’re getting double-teamed. Indeed, Nancy Bauer, a Tufts University professor, argues that as “adoration of celebrities as idols or role models is a normal part of identity development in childhood and adolescence,” young girls often look to celebrities as moral exemplars. This adoration can manifest itself from something as simple as putting up posters of the celebrity to more destructive behaviors, such as starving oneself to mimic a celebrity’s body shape.
Thus, to younger children, Lady Gaga crawling around on the floor in diamonds and giving a lap dance to an emotionally distant male stranger becomes the embodiment of Gaga behavior – to be studied and emulated. For example, the image of Gaga with overly large, computer-generated eyes in “Bad Romance” has given rise to a whole new craze in eyewear – circle lenses. After the video premiered, a professional make-up artist and spokesperson for Lancome, Michelle Phan, uploaded a “How To” video teaching girls how to achieve a similar look. The instruction video, which calls for five layers of false lashes, two eyeliners, brow gel, three different eye shadows, a brow pencil, circle contact lenses, and an anti-inflammatory “not meant for daily use,” received over 12 million hits.
One user commented “!? Nice. I want to do this look but I’am just 11 years old!!!” Another girl, 16 years old, admitted to owning 22 pairs of the dangerous (and expensive) lenses.
The American Optometric Association, however, has cautioned that the lenses used, which increase the apparent size of the eye by covering not only the iris but also part of the whites of the eyes, pose serious health risks, including “the potential for irreversible sight loss.” If Gaga intended her large eyes to represent innocence lost – a fair and, admittedly, clever, symbol – that’s not what 12 million young viewers got out of it.
That Gaga’s fan base is significantly younger and therefore less capable of comprehending the difference between reality and fantasy and more likely to interpret imagery on a literal level than the fans of past artists demonstrates why Gaga is such a central factor in the pornification of American youth through popular music. Anything they see, whether it’s Gaga caged up with vertebrate sticking out of her back or Gaga using her sexuality to seduce and then murder a male counterpart as she does in “Bad Romance,” is accepted as fact. Her outrageous fashion choices and excessive make-up keep up this façade. As Gaga herself admits, “I don’t even drink water onstage in front of anybody, because I want them to focus on the fantasy of the music.”
But as professor Bauer notes, “the difference [between Gaga and other celebrities] is, somehow, that these people feel individually like [Gaga’s] a real role model – that they could be her.” It is precisely this reciprocal relationship, something that usually manifests itself only in individuals with borderline-pathological celebrity worship syndrome that explains the difference between Gaga’s fans and others. Fans that are not otherwise borderline-pathological hold similar mindsets, including the fantasy that Gaga loves them on a personal level, shares in their successes and failures, and is not only a role model but also a projection of the self.
Gaga reinforces this perception through her own carefully choreographed behavior, appearing to show genuine love and an almost motherly concern for her fans. As she explains to one interviewer, “What I’m really trying to say is I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much.” Gaga also manages to create a sense of intimacy and reciprocity in what is traditionally a non-reciprocal relationship, constantly attributing her success and happiness to her fans. For example, Gaga tattooed “Little Monsters” on her forearm, tweeting, “Look what I did last night. Little monsters forever, on the arm that holds my mic.” In response, one fan gushed, “If I ever meet YOU, I’m going to get your signature tattooed on me too!!” Another states, “I wish we could sit down together and talk about all this stuff together. You would love the stories I have! And I know you’d believe me.”
This pseudo-reciprocal relationship, then, is foundational to Gaga’s pervasive impact on fans. After all, when fans are imbued with a sense of importance, they become ravenous consumers of associated commercial products. Yet, in an ironic take on “Bad Romance,” in the end, it’s Gaga’s young fans who are being used for their consumer appetites and sold to the highest bidder.
And what merchandise those appetites have spawned. Gaga’s once obscure fashion has come to inspire Prada, Armani, and Alexander Wang. Nude corsets, lace, bodysuits, feathers, and “the pantsless look” have all been featured on the runways. Particular materials – corsets, high-heels, leather, rubber, fur, and underwear as outerwear are all commonly used in the porn industry, and all appear in Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” These fashions, like fashions of the past, trickle down to reach young girls – which explains how sexually provocative slogans like “Feeling Lucky” find themselves stamped on the backs of underwear marketed to 7 year olds.
Clearly, there are trade-offs in every relationship, and Lady Gaga is no exception. However, while Gaga gets stardom, wealth and affirmation out of her young fan base, it is not without a certain amount of trepidation that one wonders what her “little monsters” are getting in return.