What is a super-fan? I think immediately of the Beatles. There’s that scene in A Hard Day’s Night in which adoring fans chase the band. The guys are smiling — John and Paul and George and Ringo — but there is a note of hysteria. Madness has been unleashed, some special category of desire that has made physical contact with a Beatle more important than anything else in the universe.
I remember watching old footage of young girls screaming their brains out and then collapsing in a heap as The Beatles performed. I asked my parents what was wrong. It scared me. It seemed that something terrible was happening. These people were having an experience that was too much for them. They were willing to do anything, in my eyes: throw themselves from cliffs, rend flesh, erase their own personhood in the face of irrational yearning. I feared for their sanity and, perhaps, my own. I didn’t like seeing people on the edge.
But that is me. Lady Gaga is composed of sturdier stuff. She wants nothing more than to stand out there, alone on the stage surrounded by a numberless, raving throng. She wants to bring back the super-fan.
“When I’m writing music, I’m thinking about the clothes I want to wear on stage. It’s all about everything altogether — performance art, pop performance art, fashion. For me, it’s everything coming together and being a real story that will bring back the super-fan. I want to bring that back. I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part of us.”
That’s Gaga in an interview with MTV News a couple of years ago. She’s always known in her bones that super-fans are the Holy Grail of Pop Fame, the fame of the true legends: Elvis, the Beatles, Marilyn. There hasn’t been someone really worthy of having super-fans for a long time. The diffusion and fracturing of culture has been too profound. No one performer can be big enough, anymore, to command that much attention. Sure, there are instances of super-fandom here and there, amongst a particular demographic or sub-group: the Jonas Brothers, for instance, and the kids who love them. But having real super-fans means cutting across all those distinctions. It means having moments where you hold an entire culture in the palm of your hand. It means you can push the buttons of millions of people, drive them wild and outside of themselves simply by walking on to the stage.
Lady Gaga’s latest offering to her fans is a music video for her song “Telephone.” It starts in a women’s prison. There’s a vicious catfight, some lesbian kissing, and a pair of sunglasses made from burning cigarettes. The story moves on to the choreography of sandwich-making and then a mass murder at a roadside diner. Fabulous stuff.
I was struck, though, by the strange realism of the video, especially in the prison. It is no mistake, I think, that Quentin Tarantino is referenced throughout (Lady Gaga and Beyoncé leave the prison in the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill). Though Tarantino is often criticized for an overuse of irony and a “meta” style, his movies are at their best when a sudden rush of violence, perfectly orchestrated, brings you very much into a real moment. Those moments in Tarantino movies are disturbing, all the more because he so easily manipulates the viewer in and out of them. The ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs is not funny or pleasant or cool. It is scary and wrong and it sticks in your craw, for real.
For all the artifice of Lady Gaga, her love of fashion, the play and performance art that characterizes all of her gorgeous productions, she has a feel for immediacy and the effectiveness of genuine experience. I suppose she first learned of this power dancing burlesque on tabletops in the small underground clubs of New York City. Here was artifice and immediacy on simultaneous display. Here was play that never lost the real bite of danger. Her father once walked into a club where she was gyrating in a leather thong. He just walked right back out again.
Play and immediacy wrapped up in an uncomfortable embrace — this has been a part of the music experience all along. Try, if you can, to figure out exactly what the mythic figure Orpheus is supposed to represent. A father of civilization on one hand, his music brings order and establishes the path to the heights of culture. (There is math, after all, at the heart of the musical scale.) On the other hand, Orpheus’ music makes people crazy, drives animals to hysteria, changes the course of rivers, conquers death. Orpheus made people want to lick him and taste him and eat him. As the story goes, he met his end at the hands of female followers of Dionysius (Maenads) who were so enraged by his musical powers that they tore him apart with their bare hands. They were fanatics. Super-fans.
Last year, Lady Gaga picked up a new tattoo. It’s a quote from Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet. Yes, the same Rilke whose entire conception of art and poetry is Orphic to the core. The Rilke who wrote in his Sonnets to Orpheus:
At bottom the ancient, gnarled,
root of all things
upraised, hidden springs,
that are not revealed.
Hunt-horn and battle helm,
angry men, overwhelmed,
women like lutes …
Crowded twigs on a tree,
not one of them free …
One! oh climb higher … oh higher …
Most still break. But instead,
this first one, overhead,
bends itself into a lyre.
(translated by H. Landman)
The quote Gaga chose from Rilke is about the need to write, a need that is akin to death. “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” That’s a pretty serious sentiment to have tattooed on your own body. A person like that might just be ready for Super-fans, a new race of Maenads for the 21st century. You can say that Lady Gaga is the newest next thing. I say that she is one with the ancients. • 16 March 2010