Lady Gaga accepts the award for best female video for "Bad Romance" at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday.
Lady Gaga definitely tried. But despite her lobbying, on Tuesday, Sept. 21, the United States Senate didn’t advance a defense bill that would have included a qualified repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian service members.
Although Gaga didn’t influence the outcome of the Senate vote, the singer’s battle to get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell overturned was pop theater on a grand scale, replete with massive media coverage and Gaga’s ambition and idealism running as wild as the action in her music videos.
Her push to educate the public, however, was undercut by the fact that it was presented in the outlandish style she’s become known for as an artist, some said. After all, the speech she wrote for a Portland, Maine, rally was called “The Prime Rib of America” — a reference to the infamous meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards.
“It made sense that she would speak out,” said Kelly Jane Torrance, a Washington-based journalist who writes about pop culture and politics. “But I went and actually looked and saw what she had said and I was disappointed. She’s clearly an intelligent person to create the persona she has and sold as many records as she has but her speech really didn’t make a lot of sense.
“She was talking about her meat dress. She could have surprised everybody and come up with a really intelligent argument. Probably most of her fans are already on board … but she might have been able to convince more people.”
Edna Gunderson, the pop music critic for USA Today, also believes Gaga went about publicizing her cause the wrong way.
“Flanked by gay soldiers and dressed like a drag queen on the red carpet at the MTV awards, Gaga cheapened the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell issue into another gambit for attention,” said Gunderson by e-mail. “It’s a tactic that’s unlikely to sway the people who actually have the power to change the law. Bono, on the other hand, took a Bible into Jesse Helms’ office and completely changed his thinking on the issue of AIDS. That’s getting the job done.”
Substance over Snooki
Flawed execution aside, in the larger sense, any musician who engages in social activism delivers a much needed serious message to audiences, said Torrance.
“In a way, celebrities getting involved in politics might be a necessary evil,” said Torrance. “Because for some people it’s the only way to get them to pay attention to what’s going on.”
“Unfortunately, we have become a world where we are mesmerized by the Kardashians — probably not the highest form of sentient life,” said Holly Gleason, a longtime music journalist and former artist development consultant. “It’s all about Snooki’s poof and The Situation’s abs, and that’s where we choose to focus our energy.”
Gleason said Gaga has flipped the script on the media’s fascination with celebrity: “If Lady Gaga wants to take that and turn it back around and go, ‘Hey, these gay people want to serve our country,’ that’s kind of fighting fire with fire.”
Howie Klein, the former president of Reprise Records and currently publisher of the political blog Down with Tyranny! said that artists who include a side dish of politics with pop music also resonate within the historical context of pop since they’re carrying on a respected tradition.
“Politics and social developments were very meaningful (in the 1960s),” Klein said. “A lot of that had to do with the (Vietnam) war and the struggle for racial equality. It’s a similar situation today, where there is also quite a bit of turmoil and that turmoil is reflected in music.”
Striking a chord
Musicians who take on social causes can strike a deeper chord with the public than actors because of the differing nature of those professions, Gleason said. “Music is a huge agent for social change. Theoretically, people buy into music because (musicians) speak a truth people want to be part of. Movie stars pretend to be other people that they bring to life. And that’s a huge difference to me.”
Gaga’s foray into politics did display boldness on her part, no matter how flawed her execution, said Rob Patterson, a veteran music journalist who writes a column for the Progressive Populist.
“People that do this are in some ways taking a risk,” said Patterson. “Most artists who do this kind of thing think, ‘Well, I’ve got a platform and I’ve got people who listen to me, so I’m going to try and use it for some good.’ ”
Patterson said that Gaga’s push for gay rights has also been beneficial for her because it displayed a social significance that wasn’t always evident in her music or videos.
“I happen to think Lady Gaga is fairly trivial as a music artist,” Patterson said. “But the fact she’s doing this kind of thing makes me more disposed towards her and more into thinking maybe I should take her a little more seriously.”
Veteran music journalist Ira Robbins said that artists often send messages that are somewhat muddled, and it should be incumbent upon fans to do research before drawing any conclusions.
“It took me a long time to come to the understanding that people who you admire artistically may not really be substantial thinkers when it comes to world events or politics or economic analysis,” Robbins said.
Stephen Stromberg, who serves as the deputy opinions editor of Washington Post.com was also in the camp that found Gaga’s ideas “politically incoherent,” as he said in a recent column, yet thinks she could be an agent for social change if she altered her focus.
“I think a much bigger task would be if Lady Gaga really threw herself into advocacy and got her (fans) to the polls,” he said. “The ones who are old enough to vote of course.”