Commentary

Going Google Over Gaga: Online Video Finds Its Populist Queen

If Madonna was the star made by and for MTV and the rise of 80s music video, then surely Lady Gaga is the unofficial queen of the Web video era - thank God. While Avril Lavigne and Rihanna are also among the most viewed female artists online, Gaga's video releases are genuine digital events. And unlike Madonna, she is eminently more likable, hands down a better singer, and only more watchable as she gets stranger. This Lady was made for the Web.

Even more to the point, she registers the gestalt of Web video, participatory creativity. And so Google's identification with Gaga in the Saturday roll-out of its latest video spot for Google Chrome is a deft and apt brand move. The one-minute tribute to Gaga goofiness and user-gen content launched with prominent positioning on Saturday Night Live as part of what seemed like a French kiss the network was giving the music star. She played cameos in multiple skits, including the Justin Timberlake/Andy Samberg Digital Short you surely will be watching this morning ("3-Way") and was the musical guest. In her final set she mimics giving birth - you'll see that a lot today online, too.

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SNL on Saturday amounted to a 90-minute branding exercise for Gaga, launched at the top by the Chrome ad. She is portrayed as the "Mother Monster" urging fans and all other online uploaders to follow her example and bring out their inner monster of personal expression and creativity. Google Chrome's tagline, "the Web is what you make of it," drafts off of Gaga's populist persona and pushes forward a theme that is taken up throughout her appearances in the show. At times I was getting the Pynchonian paranoid sense that some incredibly prescient and forceful PR manager had orchestrated this. Gaga shows her good-sportism in an early skit with Timberlake (his customary store mascot bit) and then pops up as the filling in a Samberg/Timberlake 3-way before doing her own typically awkward antics in a singing set. Her role in the game show spoof, where she one-ups Timberlake in being able to remember the names of fans she met fleetingly, reifies the populist meme planted early by the Chrome ad in this Gaga-fest.

The usual media dullards continue to snap at Gaga's sampling/worship of Madonna, and they continue to miss the point -- that digital culture and media have made moot pursuing some modernist notion of "authenticity." Gaga is eminently more watchable, repeatedly, than most Madonna videos of old. They were made for the endless repeats of online on-demand viewing. She packs so many visual bits and pieces, seemingly random themes and rapid cuts and moves into every video (complete with an addictive beat) that re-runs are built in. They almost all have that "did you see this" quality that also embodies many viral video ad hits.

But most of all, Gaga has that weird blend of amateurish awkwardness and surprising talent that wonderfully emblematic of the best of Web video. Vocally she is polished and sometimes breathtaking. The dance choreography and techno themes are as catchy as they come. But somehow in all of this we see her frantically race from on-stage set piece to set piece like a high school talent contest performer. There is too much here, and she is trying desperately to pack all her creative energies into the moment we are watching her. Better, there are actually some good visual ideas at play that you want to watch evolve. The headdress with over-made eyes she wore in her first musical set Saturday and the slacks that looked like a patchwork of bolted metal recall the best of surreal fashion photography.

At the same time (and this is where she is very different from Madonna), Gaga always seems earnest in her costumery. I detect no pathetic or cloying need for attention at work. She embodies the upload nation ethic of personal expression and keeps it from slipping into noxious narcissism. Gaga's championing of her fans as creative "monsters" is (dare I say in these post-modern times?) authentic.    
2 comments about "Going Google Over Gaga: Online Video Finds Its Populist Queen".
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  1. Michael Hershfield from stevens marketing, May 24, 2011 at 1:10 p.m.


    Clearly Gaga's appeal stems from her deep sense of authenticity & pride in the enormous career she has established.

    I would add that her appearance on Letterman last night was extraordinary. The chemistry between them was palpable. Who would have predicted it. No one. I think a tribute to them both particularly Letterman. Perhaps the common bond @ the core of the chemistry, was the lack of pretentousness, mutual respect, particularly Gaga's props for Letterman's long & storied career.

  2. Cristian G from N/A, May 30, 2011 at 10:17 a.m.

    You make some good points in this piece Steve. However, you lose me with your closing paragraph:

    "At the same time (and this is where she is very different from Madonna), Gaga always seems earnest in her costumery. I detect no pathetic or cloying need for attention at work. She embodies the upload nation ethic of personal expression and keeps it from slipping into noxious narcissism"

    No need for attention? No noxious narcissism? Give me a break Steve. You're giving Lady Gaga FAR too much credit here than she deserves. Lady Gaga is no different than Madonna circa 1980's/early '90's where almost everything she did screamed, "look at me!", and made sure to feed into the love she had for herself. It's the need for attention and narcissism that make up part of the drive both Lady Gaga and Madonna have.

    Additionally, I sent this article to a friend of mine and he wrote back the following:

    "For the writer to minimize Madonna's music - and her videos - shows he no sense of context. It would have been much more equitable had they just emphasized the world Madonna worked in then versus the one Gaga works in now."

    Couldn't agree more.

    There is one thing that isn't pointed out in this article that I wanted to add. Though I feel both Lady Gaga and Madonna are incredibly attention/ego-driven individuals, Madonna always made sure to emphasize the journey is her own. With Lady Gaga, she's morphed her individual journey into an "us" journey, that includes her fans ("Mother Monster" and her "little monsters"). There is something incredibly engaging and wonderful about that, and the Google Chrome ad perfectly captures its spirit.

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