By John Taylor
When Elvis still reigned as the king of rock ‘n roll, pop culture was a rebellion. With pop stars like Taylor Swift and Britney Spears “rocking” the stage these days, it is no surprise that most people consider rebellious pop culture a thing of the past. While, admittedly, modern pop culture is often synonymous with conformity and commercialism, not all pop icons are willing to pledge their fealty to a commercialist idea of normal, cool, and acceptable. They instead dedicate themselves to the universalist attitudes found in those who celebrate difference, oddity and the strange. Lady Gaga is one such luminary. Her message is very clearly about all-inclusive love and acceptance of anyone, regardless of differing race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, preference, religion, creed or age. Although her message has spanned her entire discography, it is not limited to that. On September 20th 2010, Stephanie Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, followed through on her promise to make the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a personal mission.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a policy enacted by President Bill Clinton as a measure to end the ban on homosexuals in the military, but only so far as the homosexual servicemen kept their sexual preferences a strict secret. The policy was deemed appropriate because, as John McCain theorized, homosexuals may cause tensions in squads undergoing life-threatening situations and dissolve fortitude or cause mistakes that cost lives. The excuse for this discrimination is nothing other than discrimination itself. It simply excuses homophobia.
Lady Gaga still attacked this issue as a pop icon, despite the very serious climate she was about to join. Reporter Katie Zezima observed the difference between a standard speaker at a rally and Gaga: “‘There she is,’ a girl shrieked. Not the typical reception for someone who is on hand to deal with a Congressional filibuster.” Lady Gaga’s persona as a constant performance definitely affected her reception at the rally and also as a political force. She may have been getting wild shrieks and her famous “claw-hands” from the supporters at the rally, but one can hardly imagine Congress shrieking for more Gaga and throwing up the claw. Although Gaga does not throw around statistics or quotes, the ethos she establishes is both incredible and awful.
Gaga’s issue with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, as she phrases it, is “that John McCain and other Republican senators are using homophobia as a defense in their argument.” And although she is approaching it from a (perhaps shall one say) moderately credible source, she instantly connects her point and validates her entire debate when she brings up the murder of Matthew Shepherd. She connects her political opponents to the butchers of a gay rights legend when she points out, “Wasn’t [homophobia] the defense of Matthew Shepard’s murderers? When they left him to die on a fence in Laramie, they told the judge, ‘Oh, Matthew’s gay, and it made us uncomfortable, so we killed him.’ ‘Oh, he’s gay, it makes me uncomfortable, send him home.’” The way she makes herself credible is by stripping the credibility off the backs of her opponents, unless they are willing to pick up the butcher’s knife. Her persona as a pop icon didn’t hinder this insight and it certainly didn’t stop her there.
Although her fame classifies her as a pop icon in any setting, and the fact that she personifies herself as a living performance, may hurt her credibility in a situation such as a political rally, Gaga doesn’t let that keep her from using those skills to her advantage. Even though she is upfront about her existence as Lady Gaga, throughout the speech, she almost plays the part of a gay soldier herself. Although her sexuality is in question, she is definitely not a soldier, suggesting that this performance is for the sake of adding to her impact and connecting with the people she’s fighting for. The stance she takes is that of a gay soldier and that the discrimination she is fighting affects “us gay soldiers,” in a way. Her use of the word “we” connects her to the offended demographic without explicitly saying why this affects her; it simply does.
Gaga’s personal goal, or personal exigence, does not come as an offended or hurt gay soldier but as an outraged citizen exercising her right to protest injustice where she sees it. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is government endorsed discrimination and the wrong in that is clear enough to anyone who is a supporter of equality in America. Gaga’s call to write in this instance is not from a call to support gays necessarily, or to protest military discrimination or government policy. Gaga’s desire with this piece is simply to point a flaw in the logic that supports “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Her speech is entitled “The Prime Rib of America” and is a metaphor for equality being the best cut of meat that the U.S. has to offer, as she wonders aloud, “This equality stuff, I thought equality meant everyone.” If equality truly is a cornerstone of the American way, how can we abide such blatant prejudice? Her exigence comes from a need for her to see equality in every corner of the America she expects. As someone with international attention, her efforts and support may be more important than that of a common citizen, and she recognizes this as an obligation to help when able.
The way in which she chooses to speak is vital not only in a discussion of genre, but also in a discussion of audience. The speech was a public address, but because it came forth amidst a rally, it can also be taken as a form of social protest. Beyond that, the speech was recorded both formally and informally. In the news videos, one can clearly see the several modern-day smart phones being used to record Gaga doing something that isn’t typically “her thing.” Although her audience may have been mostly the people at the rally (one can assume nearly all of them are supporters of the repeal of DADT), the recording of her speech is a vital component. This immortalizes her delivery and can now reach Youtube viewers and anywhere that news stations feel it appropriate to screen. Those who dissent can now see the logic she presents. However, other than those who are included one could almost say incidentally, Gaga directly addresses and calls out U.S. senators John McCain, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Scott Brown. Although she’s chosen her direct audience by participating in the Maine rally, she also picks out for her opponents the people she most wants to hear her. By name-dropping, she ensures the inclusion of dissenting senators as members of her audience.
Lady Gaga is not a politician, but she also hasn’t limited herself to self-expression in her life. Art can be as important to a political cause as a speech. Take, for instance, Obama’s instant-classic red, white and blue “hope” poster. However, art cannot always say exactly what we want it to, or work as explicitly as we need it to. In these cases, it is just as viable for a pop-star to write an impassioned speech as it is for a poet to read at the presidential inauguration. Lady Gaga participated in an on-going debate that she felt obligated to help win. Pop star or no pop star, after listening to her speak, it is hard to disagree that equality truly is the prime rib of America, and all of us: black, white, gay straight, soldier or citizen, are entitled to a slice. And thanks to the efforts of so many faithful Americans, Lady Gaga included, have helped make equality available to everyone. “It’s prime rib, it’s the same size, it’s the same grade, the same cut, at wholesale cost, and it’s [finally] in the Constitution.”