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Oh, and there was Lady Gaga.
It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that 2009 was the "Year of the Gaga." After first appearing on the pop charts, seemingly out of nowhere, in 2008 with her hit single "Just Dance," Lady Gaga suddenly found herself on the tip of everybody's tongue.
Released in April 2008, "Just Dance" steadily climbed the charts through the summer and fall, gaining Gaga a huge fan base through radio airplay and word of mouth (and, just a guess, from people blasting the song out of their cars). By the end of 2008, "Just Dance" had become the unavoidable song of the moment, the ubiquitous soundtrack for just about everybody's New Years festivities. The following week, after 22 weeks of climbing, it reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Gaga madness had officially reached pandemic status.
Quite an auspicious start to 2009 for a girl who had been, until quite recently, a nearly unknown singer/songwriter performing nightly burlesque-inspired shows in New York City dives after leaving the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU (where she gained early acceptance at age 17) to pursue her music career. But once "Just Dance" hit the top of the charts, it seemed that nothing could stop an endless torrent of Gaga: "Poker Face" and "LoveGame" following close on its heels. And then came "Paparazzi."
By the time "Paparazzi" was released as a single just after the Fourth of July, 2009, Lady Gaga had become a household name and a fixture in American pop culture. As The Washington Post wrote: "She's freaky-deaky, like a female drag queen, a hot mess yet super-savvy, fierce and fab, a prodigious pianist, dressed like a vamp but almost childlike in her sincerity." And her fans absolutely love her.
Arguably the most meaningful track on her debut album The Fame, "Paparazzi" deals (on the surface) with the pressures of being a celebrity. The New York Times explains: "'Paparazzi'" is a love letter from camera to subject but stops short of admitting that the affection runs both ways." The paparazzi (the word comes from Paparazzo, a character in an Italian movie) are those odious freelance photographers who make their living chasing around celebrities, snapping candid shots they can sell them for big bucks to gossip-hungry magazines and websites like TMZ and US Weekly. Many celebrities have a severe love-hate relationship with the paparazzi: on the one hand, all that exposure can be necessary to sustain pop superstardom, but on the other hand, all that exposure can be embarrassing, or incriminating, or just deeply destructive to any attempts to live life like a normal human being. (Paging Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Nicole Richie…)
Long story short: if Lady Gaga (or any other celebrity, for that matter) were in a Facebook relationship with Fame, the status would be "It's Complicated."
The nonstop exposure inherent in a world dominated by the paparazzi means that Lady Gaga is, effectively, always on stage. She never gets to take off the mask of her artistic persona; she never gets to stop being Lady Gaga to enjoy a few minutes as plain old Stefani Germanotta (yep, that's Gaga's nom de realité… bet you've never heard it before, right?)
In a recent interview with the UK Independent, Gaga explains and perhaps even embraces the consequences of 24/7 celebrity: "If her every moment is a performance," writes journalist Fiona Sturges, "then the paparazzi are her enablers, instantly beaming images of her around the world. Since her rise to fame, barely a day has passed without Gaga appearing in the papers buying fish 'n' chips in a fluorescent leotard or stepping out for the night in her PVC cat suit…Put on a baggy sweater and you could lose them, I say. She looks at me aghast. 'That's a very dangerous precedent, and it's not fair to my fans. They don't want to see me that way just like I don't want to see Bowie in a tracksuit. He never let anyone see him that way. The outlet for my work is not just the music and the videos, it's every breathing moment of my life. I'm always saying something about art and music and fame. That's why you don't ever catch me in sweatpants.'"
(If you want to see some vintage Gaga (as Stefani Germanotta, long brown hair and all), check out this video. It's pretty much amazing, and we can really see her roots in classical piano and voice training. When the woman at the end says, "Watch out, Norah Jones," she should probably be saying, "Watch out, world!")
Lady Gaga certainly knows what it means to be über-famous, and "Paparazzi" ("it's not parody, it's commentary" she says) speaks to the troubled relationship that fame creates. She understands on a deep level that celebrity in its purest state is simply a form of performance art, and in that she is the consummate artist. Her songs are not simply music to be heard, they are a visual, sensory, somatic experience to be seen and felt. As she explained to MTV: "What has been lost in pop music these days is the combination of the visual and the imagery of the artist, along with the music — and both are just as important…So, even though the carefree nature of the album is something that people are latching onto right away about my stuff, I hope they will take notice of the interactive, multimedia nature of what I'm trying to do. The things I like to do and the theatrics, I like to incorporate them into the choreography. With my music, it's a party, it's a lifestyle, and it's about making the lifestyle the forefront of the music."
"Paparazzi" is perfect subject matter for Gaga's fixation on the artistic experience, since much of the experience of fame lies in the realm of the sensational and the absurd. The concept of "fame" itself is one of the most surreal abstractions we have. Fame truly is in the eye of the beholder and is as ethereal as fog, surrounding a person one moment and burning away the next. The notion of "celebrity" (from the root "celer" meaning "quick") is in essence a simulacrum (a copy without an original). Celebrities exist in a hyper-real space where what is projected is "de-flawed" for sale to us, the non-celebrity public. To have a relationship characterized by celebrity depends on the notion of distance; the idea that some kind of unbridgeable divide splits the famous from the rest of us. Our obsession with celebrity (and with particular celebrities) arises from our desire to cross that divide, so that we can escape reality and become one of the images—a piece of saturated perfection. And that's why we look at them, read about them, smell their perfume and taste their lip-gloss: so we can be a part of something that is not only not ourselves but in fact beyond ourselves as well.
Fame exists because of a duality: people can only be famous because there are other people who are not famous, so the famous stand out by comparison. If we were all famous, then nobody would be famous. Lady Gaga understands this, and watches with a bemused expression through her mile-long false eyelashes as the obsessive paparazzi stalk her, questioning how she went from being a misfit in high school to one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She is one of those performers who truly loves her fans and thrives on their affection, yet she believes that fame should be accessible for everyone, especially the misfits: "The Fame is about how anyone can feel famous," she says "Pop culture is art. It doesn't make you cool to hate pop culture, so I embraced it and you hear it all over The Fame. But, it's a sharable fame. I want to invite you all to the party. I want people to feel a part of this lifestyle. 'Paparazzi' might come off as a love song to cameras, and in all honestly, on one level it IS about wooing the paparazzi and wanting fame. But, it's not to be taken completely seriously. It's about everyone's obsession with that idea. But, it's also about wanting a guy to love you and the struggle of whether you can have success or love or both."
And here we find the deeper subtext of the song's lyrics. "Paparazzi" isn't just a dance-pop commentary on the pressures and problems associated with fame; it's also a tortured love song of the Shakespearean variety. (Now before you get your panties in a bunch, we are not equating Lady Gaga's writing to Shakespeare, but we are saying that she riffs successfully on that same universal theme that underwrites many of The Bard's best plays and sonnets: unrequited love.)
Isn't unrequited love the true essence of the relationship between celebrity and paparazzi? The cameras will never stop flashing as long as there is some faint hope that the object of their affection might "give it up" or "show some love" right back… and don't we all get to share in that experience—thrilling and heartbreaking all at the same time—every time we have a crush on someone who doesn't (yet) love us back? "I'll follow you until you love me," Gaga sings. Who hasn't felt that way at some point? Are we really just singing about celebrity photographers here, or is this part of a more timeless and universal story? When we fall in love, after all, don't we all fall into something like the role of the paparazzi, chasing after the objects of our affection just like the celebrity photographers chase after the stars. Interpreted this way, the entire song can be seen as an allegory for the larger struggle of loving something that pushes you away.
We've almost all been there. That crushing, awful pain that you experience after the sharp realization that the person you love does not love you back. It is visceral, it does not go away, and man does it hurt. (Gaga's been there, too: she says that she drew much of her songwriting inspiration for The Fame from a failed relationship she had with a heavy-metal rocker while trying to make her name in New York.) "Paparazzi" appears to be her side of this relationship at its most crystallized, and its most vulnerable.
If you think about it, the constant people-pleasing and image-making that celebrities must engage in to keep their fans happy is a bit like how we behave when we are trying to win someone's affection. We are constantly stressed out, trying to make sure we're doing everything right and saying all the right things so that "the one" will love us back. And when that guy or girl you like doesn't like you back, it certainly feels like the entire world is against you, even if you're not world famous. So maybe we're not all that different from Lady Gaga, after all.
In her gruesome/awesome performance of "Paparazzi" at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Lady Gaga suffers the pain of unrequited love until she theatrically "dies" right in front of the audience. Making full use of her background in the theatre, she staggers around the stage while fake blood pours from her chest, finally collapsing in agony. A male dancer lifts her up and in the last moments of the song, she grabs onto a rising cable and hangs suspended, covered in blood, lifeless over the crowd. "Paparazzi" is a wrenching love story, heartbreak at its most visual and profound.
And then there's the music video. Shot on location in a pair of lavish LA-area mansions, the seven-minute video, which feels more like a short film, follows Gaga through a wild journey of love and betrayal. After poisoning her devious lover, she calls the police herself and announces that she has murdered her boyfriend. Then she waits patiently for the cops to arrive; the video's last shot shows Gaga being taken away through lavish gates into a squad car while the cameras go crazy. Spin magazine tried to distill the lesson of the video: "Murder makes you even more famous, accessories make an outfit, and maybe those cameramen aren't so bad after all—the video closes with a triumphant GaGa celebrating her own comeback by posing for the lens. How very Chicago."
In the end, "Paparazzi" fully captures Lady Gaga in triple-threat mode, as songwriter, producer, and performer that works as both bubblegum pop and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, as real art. This is a song that ruptures the thin line between love and lust, adoration and fixation, heartbreak and death. It is a study in obsessions: that of the celebrity with the camera, the artist with her art, the fan with the artist (and, in all three cases, vice versa). It portrays the metaphorical death that comes from unrequited love as well as the literal death of the artist's soul at the hands of a bloodthirsty public. But it is also a love story between two people. At the end of it all, at least in the video, Gaga emerges triumphant, beaten but not broken, and ready to try again. And she could not be more grateful for those loyal fans who have lifted her up and helped her through the hardest times. Unlike many celebs who just please the fans because they know it will help their image, Gaga is the kind of performer who will show up at a club on a random Sunday night after an exhausting show simply to tell the adoring crowd that she loves them back. We think she sings "Paparazzi" with a knowing grin because deep down she knows that she and her fans are the same: "Lady Gaga fans are some of the most obsessive out there right now," observed a reporter from Interview. "How do you relate to them?" Gaga's reply: "I love my little monsters. Now I live and create only for them."