A few years ago, some friends and I dropped 40 bucks apiece to catch Lady Gaga at Boston's House of Blues. We were all really there to hear "Just Dance," but were perfectly happy to sit through her unreleased singles. Still, even the most diehard fans amongst us couldn't contain themselves when Gaga started rambling. She informed us that "the monsters were killed in the year 3009," before screaming "Who wants to fuck me tonight?" The crowd, consisting almost entirely of women and gay men, went wild. When people ask me whether it's worth it to see her live, I tell them the music was incredible and the costumes were amazing, but I wish she'd sung more and talked less.
Since then, Gaga, in all of her "performance art" brilliance, has done anything but. It's phenomenal marketing, and the singer has certainly come a long way since her "Red and Blue" days. She's even taken up the cause of gay rights to add to the public perception of her as a rebellious and unusual figure. When discussing the special connection she shares with her gay fans in an Advocate interview this week, Gaga went so far as to declare that she considers herself a member of the LGBT community. "The b letter," the attractive, thin, blonde pop star declared before giggling coyly. Like I said, phenomenal marketing.
The problem, of course, is that this brand of marketing is based almost entirely on out-weirding herself. It will be impossible for Gaga to ever be taken seriously as anything other than a caricature. Gaga's "freak" schtick has made her rich and famous, but money and Twitter followers don't equate to influence and respect. Gaga is more than welcome to choose the former over the latter, until she starts lampooning an important cause.
The most visible argument used by those who oppose gay marriage is to present the notion as self-evidently ridiculous. Two men getting married! The absurdity! Everyone knows it's insane! But it's quite obvious that everyone doesn't. For the first time in this nation's history, more people favor gay marriage than oppose it. Men, women, whites, non-whites, even Catholics all support equal rights for their gay relatives, friends, and fellow citizens. But opponents of gay marriage are able to point to a passionate, vocal minority as representative of supposedly accepted belief. And they're able to point to figures like Lady Gaga, who are odd and counter-cultural and self proclaimed freaks, as representative of the type of people who support this movement. The precise opposite of Elizabeth Taylor, who embraced what, at the time, was a fringe cause and made it mainstream, Lady Gaga has embraced a mainstream cause and made it appear fringe.
As a general rule, celebrities make shitty activists for the same reason politicians make shitty policy. When hurling one's cultural or political capital behind a movement much larger than oneself, the success of that movement becomes inseparably intertwined with one's reputation. The heftier the capital, the more inseparable the individual is from the cause. Which means that when he or she takes a hit, so does the movement. Talks about the debt ceiling invariably degrade into discussions of which politician keeps promises better or compromises more, rather than what economic policy makes the most sense, because the political reputations and electability of those involved are all that's at stake for anyone casting a vote.
The incentives for celebrity activism are similarly misaligned. This was readily apparent to anyone who read the Village Voice's critique of Ashton Kutcher's anti-sex slavery campaign. He made his case with poor data that resulted in a campaign that misidentified the root causes of sex slavery as being tied up in sexual morality. In the end, he trivialized an important cause. In response to the article, Kutcher defensively tweeted a link to an interview in which he essentially said what the Village Voice did: the data is bad, partly due to moral bias. He then angrily informed everyone he just plays dumb on TV and warned American Airlines they were advertising with an organization that <3's selling humans. But Kutcher's seemingly insane Twitter tantrum was less misguided than his adopting this cause in the first place. When the Village Voice mocked him, they mocked a voice that is now permanently associated with eradicating sex slavery. He has to keep his rep intact to avoid hurting this cause. He's an asset to it only insofar as he's respected. If he isn't, he turns into a liability. (This isn't the case for meticulous philanthropists showing genuine commitment and making genuine sacrifice. Contrast, for example, Kutcher's approach to that of Bill Gates.) Gaga and Kutcher might have signed on to their respective efforts out of genuine conviction, but that doesn't mean we're all better off for their poorly thought-out involvement. Sometimes, celebs would do well to write a check, shut up, and sing.