Commentary

Why the Nation Went Gaga over Lady Gaga and Sarah Palin


"You won't be able to order a cup of coffee at the f---ing deli without hearing or seeing me," Lady Gaga told her boyfriend in 2008. It took only two years for her prophecy (or threat) to come true. Tickets to her Monster Ball global tour were so in demand that Stefani Germanotta (Gaga has a real name) expanded it from 30 to 106 cities. Her provocative music videos made her the first person to get more than 1 billion hits on YouTube (GOOG); fans bought 14 million albums and 53 million singles. In China—where it's faddish to exclaim, "Oh my, Lady Gaga!"—she's replaced God in the vocabulary. As her stage name suggests, she is a bundle of contradictions—a masterful mimic (she's studied everyone from Madonna to Andy Warhol) who seems strangely authentic. She is a new kind of premeditated, unmediated, instant pop star, and all that's exuberantly gaga about 2010. Who will ever be able to look at a piece of raw meat in the same way again?

This was also the year that economic worries drove people gaga and into the streets. Furious about tuition increases, students pelted Prince Charles' Rolls-Royce (RYCEY). Strikes in France, some over a proposal to raise the retirement age, cost at least $270 million a day in lost business. The angry showed up in Toronto for a trade meeting and spray-painted obscenities in the financial district. In the search to assign blame, some in the U.S. rallied around Ron Paul's once-quixotic campaign to discredit the Federal Reserve. Karl Rove collected $38 million from the disenchanted to help give President Obama and the Democrats a "shellacking."

Many anxious Americans went gaga for another groundbreaking celebrity. Sarah Palin's Tea Party symbolized an explosive frustration with the status quo, and her political action committee raised $3.3 million. Palin, too, is brilliantly derivative and compellingly original—a new kind of premeditated, unmediated, instant pop star. The genius of Gaga and Palin is their promise that the frenzy they inspire is for our benefit, not theirs. Lady Gaga said of her fans: "I want to make the one melody that really saves your spirit." The Mother of all Grizzlies told her Tea Party fans: "I will live and die for this cause." During the shell-shocked upheaval of 2008 and 2009, their brand of fame-seeking may not have drawn us in. We were too hunkered down. In 2010—disgruntled and looking for escape—we went gaga for it.

Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield writes about retailers, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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