ESSAY- Lady Gaga: And the Pornification of America

With a record-breaking 17 million fans on Facebook, a chart-topping 5 million followers and the most popular hashtext on twitter (#becauseofgaga), the most watched YouTube video, and more than $34 million in ticket sales from her Monster Ball Tour, Lady Gaga, a.k.a. the artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta, is undeniably a musical force to be reckoned with. At least for the moment.

Nominated for 13 MTV Music Video Awards, including four for "Bad Romance" (which has been viewed over 276 million times on YouTube and enough traffic to ground Gaga's website to a halt), Gaga knows how to fill seats, sell albums, and incite a frenzied devotion among her followers, whom she affectionately refers to as "Little Monsters."

The emphasis is on the "little." With a fan base dominated by the under-20 set (her Facebook fans mainly range from 10-21), the driving force behind Gaga's popularity and success comes from kid power. Yet the content of Gaga's music and videos is far from kid-friendly, and the impact on young female fans is particularly troublesome.

Indeed, Gaga admits that "the last thing a young woman needs is another picture of a sexy pop star writhing in sand, covered in grease, touching herself." However, if one replaces "sand" with "brothel floor" and "grease" with "diamonds," Gaga is precisely "another sexy pop star," albeit one whose hyper-sexualized façade has sped the pornification of American culture.

As theatre historian and University of Illinois professor Mardia Bishop explains, "pop culture and porn culture have become part of the same seamless continuum." Given the youth of Gaga's fanbase, however, the increasing acceptability and pervasiveness of sexualized imagery in mainstream media— "normalization" Bishop calls it–- is where the Gaga phenomenon takes a dark turn.

"Visual images and narratives of music videos clearly have more potential to form attitudes, values, or perceptions of social reality than does the music alone," notes author Douglas A. Gentile in Media Violence and Children, "because they add additional information and rely less on imagination."

For example, Gaga's "Bad Romance" video packs a lot of messages into a five-minute musical. The singer is kidnapped, drugged, and forced to sell herself as a prostitute to the highest bidder; and the video ends with a scantily clad, post-coitally-posed Gaga lying on a bed beside the smoldering skeleton of her "customer" as her bra emits flames.

That said, Gaga is far from the only mainstream artist contributing to the pornification of young children. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 30-120 minutes a day watching music videos— 75 percent of which contain sexually suggestive materials. And with the advent of portable technology, children's television and music are often unmonitored by parents or guardians. Not only does this accelerate adolescent sexual behavior (as 12- to 14-year-old girls are two times more likely to engage in sexual activity after being exposed to sexual imagery), but it increases the likelihood of more sexual partners.

Nancy Bauer, a Tufts University professor, note that celebrity adoration is a normal part of identity development for young girls, but such adoration can manifest itself from something as simple as putting up posters to more destructive behaviors, such as starving oneself to mimic a celebrity's body shape.

Thus, to younger children, Lady Gaga crawling around on the floor in diamonds and giving a lap dance to an emotionally distant male stranger becomes the embodiment of Gaga behavior— to be studied and emulated.

The image of Gaga with overly large, computer-generated eyes in "Bad Romance" has given rise to a whole new craze in eyewear: circle lenses. After the video premiered, a professional make-up artist and spokesperson for Lancome, Michelle Phan, uploaded a "How To" video teaching girls how to achieve a similar look.

The video, which calls for five layers of false lashes, two eyeliners, brow gel, three different eye shadows, a brow pencil, circle contact lenses, and an anti-inflammatory "not meant for daily use," received over 12 million hits. "Nice," commented one user. "I want to do this look but I'am just 11 years old!!!" While the American Optometric Association cautioned that the lenses provide the potential for irreversible sight loss, a 16-year-old admits to owning 22 pairs.

Anything they see– whether it's Gaga caged up with vertebrate sticking out of her back or seducing and then murdering a male counterpart in "Bad Romance"– can be accepted as fact. "I don't even drink water onstage in front of anybody," Gaga admits, "because I want them to focus on the fantasy of the music."

But as professor Bauer notes, too many of Gaga's fans see her as such a real role model "that they could be her." This relationship that veers too close to personal projection, and Gaga reinforces the perception through carefully choreographed behavior, appearing to show genuine love and an almost motherly concern for her fans.

"What I'm really trying to say,"  she tells one interviewer, "is I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much."

Gaga also manages to create a sense of intimacy and reciprocity in what is traditionally a non-reciprocal relationship, constantly attributing her success and happiness to her fans. For example, Gaga tattooed "Little Monsters" on her forearm, tweeting, "Look what I did last night. Little monsters forever, on the arm that holds my mic." In response, one fan gushed, "If I ever meet YOU, I'm going to get your signature tattooed on me too!!" Another states, "I wish we could sit down together and talk about all this stuff together. You would love the stories I have! And I know you'd believe me."

This pseudo-reciprocal relationship, then, is foundational to Gaga's pervasive impact. After all, when fans are imbued with a sense of importance, they become ravenous consumers of associated commercial products. Yet, in an ironic take on "Bad Romance," in the end, it's Gaga's young fans who are getting sold to the highest bidder.

Gaga's once obscure fashion has come to inspire Prada, Armani, and Alexander Wang. Nude corsets, lace, bodysuits, feathers, and "the pantsless look" have all been featured on the runways. Particular materials— corsets, high-heels, leather, rubber, fur, and underwear as outerwear are all commonly used in the porn industry, and all appear in Gaga's "Bad Romance."

These fashions, like fashions of the past, trickle down to reach young girls— which explains how sexually provocative slogans like "Feeling Lucky" find themselves stamped on the backs of underwear marketed to 7-year-olds.


The author is the founder and director of the Albemarle-based Rutherford Institute, a non-profit legal clinic advancing civil and religious rights.