It’s the middle of the night in a packed venue in downtown Philly. With one high-heeled foot on the piano bench and another on the piano itself, Lady Gaga puts her hand on her heart and rasps into the microphone, “I, Lady Gaga, swear that I will never—ever—lip sync, in any show, for the rest of my life. My fans didn’t come to see some drunk bitch stagger around the stage, _pretending_ to sing! So I promise that every single note will _always_ be absolutely, completely live!” And sitting down at the piano, in her leotard and wig, she proceeds to accompany herself on a power ballad that has yet to be released.
At some point the piano appears to catch on fire, possibly meant to parallel the intensifying emotion of the song, but quite as likely just for the fun of it. It blazes away, the song comes to its triumphant conclusion, and the crowd channels their adoration up through their windpipes and out their throats with a decibel level that rivals the entire apparatus of speakers hanging precariously from the arena’s ceiling, a setup the mass of which probably equals that of several small apartment complexes.
Throughout this show, which I saw just before the beginning of school, Lady Gaga makes a series of carefully calculated miniature speeches to her audience. Just as the dancing is choreographed and the song order is fixed, these speeches are clearly scripted; and yet, just as the spectacle of her show ultimately becomes personal in nature, the things she says are less generalized statements to an anonymous mass than specific messages, imperatives even, to each individual audience member, laid out simply and yet compellingly enough to turn this entertainer into a serious political force.
The first tenet of the show—of Lady Gaga’s message to her audience—is more or less, “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” She tells her fans, “I still get that nervous feeling sometimes—you know, that horrible high-school feeling, like everyone’s laughing at you—I got made fun of every day in high school… but I’m not afraid any more. You made me brave.” And then she goes on to tell everyone that they should not be afraid to be themselves either. Now, this is something we have heard many times—from entertainers, motivational speakers, teachers, Disney movies, the inside of Dove chocolate foil wrappers—but Lady Gaga truly walks the walk (in giant shoes). You can’t tell someone prancing around on stage in a green sparkly leotard toting a giant plastic illuminated crystal wand, wearing heels and a wig, that she is doing it because it’s stylish—take it from me, she looked ridiculous. The decision to have the lead dancer be a six-foot-tall, African-American cross dresser with S&M boots and a tambourine was not the result of market research on what Americans are most comfortable with. These choices (and many others in the show) are certainly deliberate, but they do not stem from a habit of doing what is the easiest or most acceptable thing to do. So you believe her. And it feels good. It makes you want to grab an authority figure and tell him to his face, “I’m free, bitch!” And then she plays another incredibly catchy dance number. And you feel great.
So, once she’s got everyone jazzed about their personal freedom of expression, once she’s established a working ground based on the universal desire to be accepted as one is, she takes it further. Here’s the next step in your logic: if you are willing to claim this freedom for yourself, how can you deny it to anyone else? This becomes the second tenet of the show, specifically as relates to the LGBT community. She talks about discrimination—for instance, how there are thousands of young people who are homeless because their parents have kicked them out for being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. She says, “They were kicked out because their parents didn’t understand they were born that way!” And it’s compelling. And the aforementioned lead dancer is a fantastic, joyful dancer. So, you think about it.
Her final tenet is less explicit in a way, but it came through with particular power at the concert I attended. It entails self-sacrifice. She sets the example of self-sacrifice neither through any staged ritual of giving something up for someone else, nor through publicly calling on and bequeathing some gift to an audience member. (Well, she does do that—but that was more to be able to tell a specific person that he or she was special, and also to give her a cute lead-in to “Telephone.”) She does it by having the show in the first place. While most shows may seem like a giant party that anyone would want to host night after night, the show I went to was just a day or so after the VMAs, in which Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” music video had won the highest award, and she had been awake for 48 hours straight. Not exactly ideal circumstances.
And it showed. You can’t hide two days of sleep deprivation, no matter how much you try. Her eyes were tired, her smile was rare, and her voice sounded even raspier than usual, like someone coming down with a cold. And yet, this made her performance even more compelling for me. Though it was a little distracting—I found myself wondering what time she would be allowed to quit her fans after the show and go to bed—it also showed how committed she was to doing this _thing_ for her fans. I know, I know, she is getting paid for it, but the money and sheer professionalism cannot account for the sincerity of effort she put into our entertainment. In fact, it is precisely because the show is not simply for entertainment that performing well for her fans is so important to Lady Gaga.
With, say, a painter, it might be readily accepted that he or she worked to create paintings for the sake of art itself, or because he or she liked making art. Let’s say this person’s statement is, “I’m doing it for me.” Then let’s take an altruist, giving money to help the poor. His or her statement is, “I’m doing it for you.” Thirdly, let’s take a certain type of performer, say a rock star, who puts on a show so he or she can become rich and famous. His or her statement is, “I’m doing it for you for me,” and Americans are fine with that, because we like famous people, because we don’t have an aristocracy to gossip about. What kind of person would say, “I’m doing it for you, for me, for you?” Who does that sound like? I think it sounds like a politician. Someone giving a speech during a campaign wants to give the message: “I am speaking to you, because I want your votes, so I can help you live a better life by governing your city/state/county well.” Of course, one of the criticisms of politics is that it seems many politicians are just in it for the money and the fame.
Lady Gaga’s statement would be the same as the politician’s: “I’m doing it for you, for me, for you.” She puts on a show so people will love her and make her famous, so she can spread awareness of the LGBT community and win support for their rights in this country. Does that make her a politician? Not at all. She never once pretends it is not a show, and she tells you upfront she wants the money and the fame. It is precisely because of this that you can (kind of) trust her. She genuinely cares about these issues. And it is because she cares about these issues that she is willing to perform, night after night, the same songs, the same sequence, and the same speeches, unconditionally live, even when she has not slept for two straight days. She demonstrates commitment and self-sacrifice to rally her fans to do the same, to empower and emancipate others even at personal cost, in order to make a difference in the world.
Plus she makes good music.
I respect that.