2016 Press Releases

Op-ed: Lady Gaga's transformation: Fandom, cakes and politics

11 Nov 2016
Dr Melanie L Marshall, lecturer at the School of Music and Theatre, UCC, is co-editor of Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture, which will be released in paperback next month.

Joanne. The new album title alone has personal significance for Stefani Germanotta, known professionally as Lady Gaga. Joanne is one of her middle names, and comes from an aunt on her father’s side who died of lupus long before Gaga was born. Her aunt Joanne is remembered, too, in the name of Gaga’s dad’s restaurant. 

Gaga told Howard Stern that Joanne is like a goddess her family worships, and who watches over them. Joanne’s student ID and a note she wrote to Gaga’s dad are in the album booklet. This album is personal, and while promoting it, Gaga has told lots of stories about her family life.

This more personal Gaga is signalled by the new image: pink ‘Marianne’ hat, Daisy Dukes, fringed shirts, guitar. It seems a long way from lace masks, police tape, and the infamous meat dress that James Corden so humorously referenced when Gaga appeared in his Carpool Karaoke as part of her old-school album promo. The country look is accompanied by visual statements of her authenticity as a musician. The image of her fingers bearing ridges after playing guitar is but one example.

Will Gaga’s Little Monsters stick with her through this transformation? It would be surprising if they didn’t. Gaga’s fans have a sophisticated understanding of the construction of image through music, fashion, and props. They understand that this country music persona is a performance. Far from a rejection of the outlandishness of her previous costumes and acts, this image coupled with Gaga’s entertaining anecdotes of family life, and the mix of music styles on the album are a continuation of her play with authenticity.

Rock and pop stars have a long tradition of exploring this in various ways—from Bruce Springsteen’s worn-in blue jeans to David Bowie’s dramatic make up and changing personas to Nicki Minaj’s vocal code switching. Gaga can take this new direction without worry about losing her fan base because her fans understand identity as something that we each make and perform on a daily basis and that we vary according to place and context. Gaga’s fans understand it because they already do it themselves.

Gaga’s fans are growing up in an era where almost everyone creates and maintains a public social media self. Everyone with a social media account does a kind of labour sometimes described as ‘entrepreneurship of the self’. That is, we create a kind of public personal brand that in turn becomes a form of cultural capital. We use these personas to build networks of peers. Virtual networks can be particularly important sources of support for young people who might feel a profound sense of difference from their peers, who feel like misfits. Indeed, they are important for anyone who feels disconnected from the people around them, or who is now living far from friends and family, far from the community they grew up in.

One way that Gaga’s fans build community is by making their own artistic creations inspired by Mother Monster, and uploading photos of their work to Facebook, Twitter, or the Little Monsters website. Some fans draw or paint; some write stories. Many fans dress up and recently adopted the new Joanne look for Halloween.

Some fans bake cakes that pay homage to Gaga costumes. Bakers seem to have found the Haus of Gaga Origami dress particularly inspiring. Jay Murphy of KAK (Kick Ass Kakes) took it further and created a larger-than-life size Gaga made from a wooden frame covered with vanilla cake, vanilla buttercream and fondant icing. The cake trend continues: one of her fans @murilsousa on Twitter recently tweeted a picture of a cake with a pink Joanne hat. 

Bradley’s Baking Bible created an instructional video for making a Lady Gaga cake to celebrate the release of Joanne. This cake, topped with the pink Joanne hat, is filled with rainbow colours in honour of Gaga’s support of LGBT equality. This approach underpins her Love Trumps Hate stance after the election result.  

The cakes, whether their creators know it or not, are part of a long-standing Western cultural equation of cake and womanhood. There’s Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations sitting over her decaying wedding cake. Or Marian McAlpin of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman who bakes a cake representing herself—a light, white sponge cake, flavoured with vanilla and lemon and decorated with buttercream icing—and then offers it up to her partner Peter, who she feels has been trying to destroy her. He doesn’t eat it. The book ends uneasily with her lover, Duncan, eating all the cake. Outside literature, there’s the 19th-century US wedding tradition of the ornamental bride cake. The angel food cake covered with hard white icing symbolized the pure, virginal bride, and the act of the wedding couple cutting in to the cake stood in for a more private act between the couple.

The cakes Gaga commissions tend to be richer and more complex. When she was in Dublin in 2010, she ordered a wedding cake with a bride splattered in blood for Halloween. She gave her ArtPop collaborators cakes in the shape of a skull with a blonde ponytail. The one below is made of dark chocolate cake with butterscotch truffle ganache.

Gaga’s fans using their creativity to pay homage to Gaga are helping to create the social media persona of their Mother Monster. Gaga is an assemblage in a philosophical sense. She is the creation of Stefani Germanotta, her collaborators, fashion advisors, publicity and media teams, and her fans. Gaga prompts us to ask questions about the nature of being and individuality at a time when social media and economic pressures encourage us to create ourselves as personal brands. It takes a team to make Gaga: herself, her family, her collaborators, and her fans.

Dr Melanie L Marshall is a lecturer and director of UCC's MA in Music & Cultural History at the School of Music and Theatre, UCC. She is a musicologist with interests in gender, sexuality and eroticism in music, and music of early modern Italy.

The paperback of Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture, edited by Melanie L. Marshall and Martin Iddon, is available to pre-order now.

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