The Aesthetics of Popular Culture and the Social Dynamics of Fame

Still from Lady Gaga's music video "Paparazzi"
Still from Lady Gaga’s music video “Paparazzi” (2009)

Never has it been more impossible than it is today to ignore what we’ve come to regard as “pop culture.” 21st-century modes of dissemination have facilitated the reach of the “popular arts” to the effect that they are virtually inescapable. Despite their ubiquity, the songs exhausted on top 40 radio and the films advertised endlessly on TV have not gained esteem from scholars of art and aesthetics. Societal gravitation towards and obsession with popular culture has worked counter effectively, giving art critics an excuse to denigrate it as below them both intellectually and aesthetically. In turn, the hegemonic exclusivity of “fine” or “high” art reigns supreme, for only these practices are afforded legitimate aesthetic, sociological, and theoretical attention. This sort of wholesale denunciation of the popular arts is problematic for a multitude of reasons.

First, as Richard Shusterman explains in “In Defense of Popular Arts,” the works and genres that we’ve designated as “mainstream” give us too much satisfaction to merit exclusion from theoretical consideration.1 It is convenient for critics to ignore works that attract such a mass following, but the very fact of that allure necessitates a discussion, not only of the psyche of the conventional consumer but also of the aesthetic conditions of products of popular culture. It is needlessly aristocratic to ignore pop culture because of its wide scale appeal and supposed lack of sophistication. Even in an era of insipid beats and prosaic plotlines can we find art that measures up, in every criterion, to the works revered by scholarly critics.

Essential to any discussion of the popular arts in relation the fine arts is to establish a recognizable line of demarcation between the two. What is meant by the word “popular” and what is consequently assumed of works designated in this way? For one, popular art is commodified and consumed with rapidity by the masses. Popular music is no more than a click away on iTunes and popular TV shows require only the pushing of buttons on our remote. They are readily available and readily absorbed. Popular art is, by and large, emblematic of a contemporary need for immediate gratification; part of what makes it so addictive is its ability to indulge and satiate that need.

Fine art, by contrast, tends to be presented in contexts less driven by contemporary, mainstream culture. It is more often considered in relationship to tradition and is not customarily transmitted to an audience through the mass media people consume as part of their daily lives. Fine art is also assumed to engage us more deeply than popular art; this is to say that where the latter is easily decipherable at its surface, high art presupposes stimulation of our cerebral and analytical functions. As pointed out by Shusterman, there is a “tendency in intellectual discourse for the term ‘aesthetic’ to be exclusively appropriated as a term of high art and sophisticated style.”2 As a result, we’ve synonymized popular with indulgent and fine with sophisticated, or even sublime, which is to say it is transcendent and regarded with a kind of exclusionary exaltation. What I aim to do in defending the dignity of popular culture is disqualify the rhetoric we’ve so arbitrarily applied to it, proving that conventional art criticism has negated a class of aesthetically and intellectually worthy works in the process.

One medium where the word “pop” is strikingly relevant is in music, where we often nominally codify celebrities as “pop stars” and “pop sensations.” Pop music has been inherently burdened both theoretically and culturally by a long history of critical condescension, and, furthermore, the presumption of its inanity. For instance, Theodor Adorno wrote that popular music “is usually characterized by its difference from serious music.”3 He continues, “the whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization.”4 Grand generalizations about the nature of popular music like this one are the reason why our conversations about it have been relegated to discussion of its cultural appeal and not its genuine, artistic qualities. Shusterman responds, “critics of popular culture are loath to recognize that there are humanly worthy and aesthetically rewarding activities other than intellectual exertion.”5 Adorno seems to operate on the foregone conclusion that the highly commercialized structure of the pop music industry precludes the existence of bona fide creativity. Several artists who’ve been denigrated as “popular,” though, have transcended the commodification of the industry and created art that comes not from a desire to sell records, but from the same authentic place that Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 came from. The attempts of music theorists to give pop the attention it deserves have been lackluster at best, contributing to its rejection on aesthetic grounds.

In looking at pop music in the 21st century, we must accept the fact that music is experienced in several different ways. A distant experience, “which has its roots in the quest for philosophical and theological knowledge rather than pleasure,” is what we generally perceive to be had by musicologists.6 Because of the oftentimes light, good-natured feelings evoked in us by popular music, scholars have designated this type of reaction as “active,” or as Shusterman explains, “much more energetic and kinesthetic.” We cannot, though, assume that these semantic designations are unchangeable because of the parochial attitudes present in previous music criticism; pop music can just as much be experienced intellectually as classical music can, and vice versa. Pop music cannot be rejected for the purposes of preserving fine art hegemony simply because it evokes “somatic stimulus.” Enjoyment is not the antagonist of intellectual consideration, nor does it presuppose an unsophisticated approach to that which is enjoyed. 7

A paradigm of this confluence of mainstream enjoyment and intellectual exertion is Lady Gaga. More so than anyone, Lady Gaga epitomizes what we intend to communicate when we say “pop.” Aside from her chart-topping success and larger-than-life persona, Gaga has created a genre in the music world that is rightfully and indisputably her own: Artpop. She croons on “Applause,” the lead single to her third studio album, “pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.”8 It is a subliminal mantra that underscores all of Gaga’s work; by aestheticizing the music that has fallen victim to its own celebrity, she allows the worlds of art and pop to converge rather than compete. She explains, “the intention of the album was to put art culture into pop music, a reverse of Warhol. Instead of putting pop onto the canvas, we wanted to put the art onto the soup can.”9 What Gaga means is this: Warhol’s genius was in normalizing the artistic. Take Brillo Boxes, for instance, a silk-screened sculpture replicating the household cleaning product, part of the artist’s Grocery Carton series.10 The Warholian artistic revolution suddenly elevated everyday life beyond its utilitarian function and pedestrian regularity. In “The Warhol Effect,” Simon Watney probes further, examining how Warhol’s pieces obscured the conventional barriers erected between art and the everyday. He writes, “Warhol is significant because he presents a new type of artist and artistic practice which requires a reconceptualization of the relation between art and life.”11 It is evident from Warhol’s “factory,” the haven and headquarter of his transgressive artistic movement, to the exhibitionist persona he exuded, that the previous separation of art and life, and the idea that the two occupied different realms of human existence, was quickly being eliminated.

Andy Warhol standing beside "Brillo Boxes"
Andy Warhol standing beside “Brillo Boxes” (1964)

Another aspect of Andy Warhol (and Lady Gaga’s) profound contributions to pop culture is their ability to fetishize what society deems meaningless. In the case of the former, Brillo Boxes and soup cans are brought to the galleries and art museums. Watney writes that an intrinsic property of Warhol’s work was his “quiet invalidation of predetermined models of artistic values.”12 Lady Gaga does something similar: as we’ve seen in traditional and contemporary music criticism, little regard is given to pop music and, more generally, radio music; Gaga’s artistic interpretation of pop lifts it above its basic skeletal structure without compromising its modernity or universality. The zenith of her music is a conjunction of stereotypically-radio beats with synthetically avant-garde structures. It is filled with prophetic symbolism and historical references that pervade a genre assumed to be frivolous and artistically bankrupt. All of this is only amplified by her largely unacknowledged vocal prowess and classically-trained piano capabilities. Even her music videos are far more comparable to mini-films than to the culturally appropriated and sexually charged works from her peers. Gaga is, for lack of a more succinct word, “artpop.”

Pop music is almost universally regarded as “normative,” “disinterested,” and “customary.”13 Lady Gaga, since she burst onto the scene in 2009, has been anything but. In every facet of her public persona, she has made a calculated effort to set herself apart from the deluge of pop princesses whose songs require the most rudimentary of intellectual engagements. In her sartorial choices, Gaga evolves from day to day. Each outrageous costume is presumptuously assumed to be a ploy for attention when, in actuality, it is reinvention. In becoming a new person each time she is lambasted by paparazzi upon leaving a hotel, Gaga treats her body as a canvas on which her ideas about fame, music, and religion are projected. In converting pop music and herself into an artform, Gaga’s work “intersects with a wide range of disciplines: popular musicology, film studies, popular culture studies, and the burgeoning sub-discipline of aesthetics: philosophy of fashion.”14 Most notable in Gaga’s music videos is her complex relationship with fame and religion. Historical, existential, and sociological questions are posed about each in one of Gaga’s defining works, the music video for “Paparazzi.”

“Paparazzi” affirmed Lady Gaga’s status as the resident outlier in a golden-age of systematic pop stars. Preceding it were rather methodical and unexceptional hits that, like most pop artists, spoke to the allure of the dance floor and the bed sheets. In “Paparazzi,” though, Lady Gaga’s fascination with celebrity and its demise made way for a visually brilliant mini-film, directed by Jonas Akerlund, that explored what she herself calls “the art of fame.”15 In presenting a visual and interpretive case-study on the seven-minute thriller, I aim to affirm Shusterman’s claim that the mainstream merits aesthetic consideration while pointing out the crucial flaws in Adorno’s critique on popular culture.

The film begins with Gaga passionately in bed alongside her male counterpart.16 The two quickly become intimate, whispering to each other in Swedish before moving to a scenic balcony where the power dynamic between them becomes strikingly evident. Gaga is seated on the ledge as her partner physically controls her, pushing her dangerously close to a catastrophic fall as cameras from afar snap away at their encounter and pleasant piano notes are juxtaposed with the obvious discomfort of the scene.17 It is immediately a commentary on our cultural obsession with celebrity that even in a star’s most expectedly confidential moments do we find a way to document it. As Gaga attempts to escape her boyfriend’s controlling embrace, he throws her off the balcony, and in a moment of satirical self-reflection, the singer’s own fall from grace is chronicled in the form of flashing newspaper headlines that read “Lady No More Gaga” and “Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom.” Gaga lays in a pool of blood as the vulturous paparazzi relish in their money shot: the tragic fall of the infinitely glamorous, troubled superstar.18

Gaga is resurrected and exits a limousine into the same mansion where the video begins, this time crippled and, as the media wrote, at “rock bottom.” Her glamorous entrance alludes to the cyclical nature of celebrity, the descent followed by the comeback, per sé. The camera assumes an almost voyeuristic perspective, zooming in on inanimate, empty-eyed women, one covered in her own blood, the other cloaked in plastic.19 The shots, though, are visually beautiful, inviting the viewer to question our somewhat subconscious predisposition to glamorize death and tragedy. The lyrics that accompany the campy cinematography affirm this notion: “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me, papa-paparazzi.”20 In this reciprocal obsession between celebrity and society, each seeks affirmation, “love” rather, and even Gaga herself proclaims to be no different. Rather than exempting herself from the robotic, fame-obsessed culture she reprimands, she declares herself to be a byproduct of it.

In the video’s climax, Gaga meets her boyfriend, clad in an eyepatch and holding a newspaper, for a drink.21 She dons a leotard plastered with World War II helmets that reference the cover artwork of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about Holocaust survival. As Ayah Rifai explains, “Gaga is, by analogy, a survivor of larger scale female victimization.”22 In the scene, though, she plans revenge, playing the subordinate girlfriend until poisoning the Swede’s drink, comically calling 9-1-1 afterwards to tell them she’s “killed her boyfriend.”23 She subsequently exits another limousine to the love and affection of the paparazzi, whom she’s ostensibly won back. It is on the surface a direct representation of cyclic celebrity culture, but, more so, it dovetails into a discourse on the ruthless lengths we go for fame in the 21st century.24 After her tragic fall into the deepest realms of cultural insignificance, the “rock bottom,” Gaga is willing to do what was done to her, attempt murder, to win back the paparazzi; without them, the celebrity is an artist without approbation, suggested to be synonymous with or possibly worse than death.

On the nature of the public’s spasmodic relationship with celebrities, Gaga once said, “Everyone wants to see the decay of the superstar…we want to see people who have it all lose it all; it’s dramatic, it’s a movie.”25 Paparazzi effectively parodies this dynamic by portraying not only society’s obsession with the superstar through the lens of the overzealous, ravenous paparazza, but also the superstar’s unrelenting devotion to fame itself, and the self-deluding hedonism inchoate in that obsession. The ideas presented in Paparazzi, though, exceed even this. Gaga’s video echoes much of the sentiments expressed by Michel Foucault on power-circulation, discipline, and emancipation. He wrote:

Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application. 26

This dynamic is depicted parabolically in Paparazzi as a microcosmic example of the sociology of fame; both the paparazzi and their famous subject possess the power and manipulative capacity to legitimize the existence of the other. Without one another, the paparazzi is merely a photographer, and the celebrity is no one special—the mutual neediness between the two gives way to a ping-ponged conception of power, reverberating between the two simultaneously. Both Gaga and her admirers are simultaneously all-powerful and powerless and, as Foucault explains, power ultimately resides in the institution that controls them both, allowing for both the objectification and subjectification of the celebrity.

The institution of fame could be thought of as an allegorical jail, imprisoning its subjects in a “micro-fascist bureaucracy.”27 On the ethnography of disciplinary structures, Marc LaLonde interprets Foucault’s analysis as a dissertation on “the processes of power and the bodies that are crushed between them.”28 The fascist proclivities of the institution lie in the control exercised through it—in applying this type of political rhetoric to fame, one can identify it as both totalitarian and socialist all at once, simultaneously balanced and disproportionate. Jeremy Bentham conceived of the Panopticon in the 18th century as an institutional design by which one guard could keep watch on all his inmates. At the same time, though, this guard, central and in constant eyeshot of his inmates, feels as though he’s under the same scrutiny and persistent observation as those imprisoned. Foucault expanded on this concept with his thoughts on disciplinary power.The industrial age, he argued, necessitates some architectural structure that allows each body to be observed and recorded with surgical precision so as to ensure a kind of societal methodology, both economically and socially. Marc LaLonde perceives the Foucauldian concept of Panopticism to be a “form of power alluding to surreptitious yet forceful societal practices that expand the efficient control over and within the human creature…it is self-perpetuating and self-sufficient micro-fascism.”29

Fame through the panopticist lens operates, then, on binaries: the rise and the fall, the watchguard and the inmate, the photograph and the object. When Lady Gaga goes to jail at video’s end for the murder she’s committed, she is essentially professing her subordination to the system, to the disease of fame. In Foucauldian rhetoric, we can examine fame as the plague:

The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.30

The plague, when transmitted through the institution of celebrity and pop culture, functions as an almost masochistic infatuation. This is unsurprising in context; Gaga has written before that she “lives for the applause.”31 Despite the invasive ways of the paparazzi, Gaga’s character in the video is crippled without them. To win back the headlines, she abandons all sense of morality, killing her boyfriend, but rising back to the top. She acquiesces to a public life, one that hurts the celebrity more than anything. It facilitates, though, the possibility for that infinitesimal moment of glory: the comeback.

The parodical nature of the video cannot be ignored, for it amplifies Gaga’s overarching, career-long narrative on the sociology of fame. Is she a product of the system or has she transcended it? Either way, Paparazzi, and many other Gaga mini-films (namely, Judas, Bad Romance, and Applause) offer a condemnatory and yet unarguably cinematographic perspective on the nature of fame and its inherent constraints. In relation to Shusterman’s argument, Gaga makes the case better than most for the legitimate aesthetic and theoretical contemplation of popular culture. For the purposes of refuting Adorno’s insular arguments on pop music, Lady Gaga’s work is a collision of the high and the low, the pop and the art.

On a phenomenological level, it is also worth considering the popular arts in this way: anything that affords us such substantial, everyday enjoyment is worth analyzing for what it reveals about the modern consumer. Driving on the highway on a steaming hot summer day, we’re usually looking for something lighthearted and structurally embryonic to offer us some simple, uncomplicated enjoyment. The pop music heard on top 40 radio stations oftentimes fills this void. It is sonically pleasing and the lyrics invite a personal connection, presenting no obstacle to our active experience of it. Coming home from a 10-hour work day, we’re rarely craving a Stan Brakhage film to stimulate our intellectual senses. Instead, most Americans turn to some hyper-dramatic yet compelling TV series that evolves into a four-hour binge-watch. We endeavor, on a daily basis, to enjoy first, philosophize second. Some works allow just the former, while some just the latter. Much of pop culture, though, is a synthesis of the two, in that it feeds our foundational thirst for entertainment while also inviting deeper, more aestheticized discourse.

The phenomenon of popular music, though, as in its cultural bandwidth and fanatical following, is too often the only argument employed in defending its stature opposite high art. Too frequently do we, as a culture, simply adhere to precedential art criticism and consequently feel bad for loving pop culture the way we do. The popular arts, contrary to what theorists and scholars would have you think, should not feel like a “guilty pleasure.” The aestheticization of pop is far more expansive than a Lady Gaga music video; Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, adapted from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, was a box-office hit garnering substantial awards-season fanfare. The cover art for Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album, which went at least double platinum in eight different countries, was created by New York City-based painter Will Cotton, whose iconographic landscapes have been the subject of academic discourse in the high-art world. Gaga’s ARTPOP album cover features the iconic Gazing Ball by Jeff Koons, exemplary of the singer’s commitment to the intermingling of art and pop. Even without cameos from esteemed creators in the art world, though, popular culture can withstand the arguments against its aesthetic validity, and, in doing so, art critics needn’t look any further than the boundless artistic diversity present in modern-day music, television, and film.

Jeff Koon's "Gazing Ball (Ariadne)" on the left and Lady Gaga's "Artpop" cover on the right.
Jeff Koons’s “Gazing Ball (Ariadne)”; right: the cover of Lady Gaga’s “Artpop”

The ultimate idea that art theorists, musicologists, and aestheticians aim to disseminate in their seemingly-scientific denigration of the popular arts is that what brings joy and stimulus to the average listener is not worth their philosophical and aesthetic consideration. They establish an intellectual barrier that separates them from the masses and fine art from high art; Adorno even goes as far to say that the average listener is “deficient in music literacy.”32 We cannot, though, apply such arbitrary, elitist notions to a genre as culturally-important and pervasive as the arts. The assumption that a standardized, rudimentary structure is an intrinsic property of works that afford us joy and happiness is one I am rigidly skeptical of. The popular arts, at the very least, merit the same holistic and individualized review we grant to fine art and, if Lady Gaga is any indication, can offer the same aesthetic and sociological discourse they’ve been said to lack.

  1. Shusterman, Richard. “In Defense of Popular Arts,” Popular Art and Everyday Aesthetics. P.7.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Adorno, Theodor. “On Popular Music,Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, P.17.
  4. Ibid. P.48.
  5. Shusterman, Richard  “In Defense of Popular Arts,” Popular Art and Everyday Aesthetics. P.7.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Germanotta, Stefani. Applause. By Paul Blair, Nick Monson, Martin Bresso, and Nicolas Mercier. Lady Gaga. Rec. 12 Aug. 2013. Lady Gaga and DJ White Shadow, 2013. CD.
  9. “Lady Gaga ARTPOP.” Interview by Leah Simpson. N.p., 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 May 2014.
  10. Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in a Post-Historical Perspective by Arthur C. Danto; MarkTansey: Visions and Revisions by Arthur C. Danto. Review by: David Carrier, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 3, Philosophy and the Histories of the Arts (Summer, 1993), pp. 513-515
  11. Dyer, Jennifer. “The Metaphysics of the Mundane: Understanding Andy Warhol’s Serial Imagery.”  Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 25, No. 49 (2004), pp. 33-47
  12. The Metaphysics of the Mundane: Understanding Andy Warhol’s Serial Imagery, Jennifer Dyer, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 25, No. 49 (2004), pp. 33-47
  13. Iddon, Martin, and Melanie L. Marshall. Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Germanotta, Stefani. “Lady Gaga on ‘Mastering The Art of Fame'” Interview by Anderson N.p., 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014. <>.
  16. Germanotta, Stefani and Akerlund, Jonas. Paparazzi. YouTube video, 0:48. Uploaded on November 25, 2009.
  17. Ibid.,1:46.
  18. Ibid., 2:28.
  19. Ibid., 4:08.
  20. Germanotta, Stefani. Paparazzi. By Rob Fusari. Lady Gaga. Rob Fusari and Lady Gaga, 2008. CD.
  21. Ibid., 5:29.
  22. Rifai, Ayah. “Gaga in Oz: Hearing The Woman Behind the Camera in Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’” Weblog post. Gaga Stigmata. N.p., 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 4 May 2014.
  23. Germanotta, Stefani and Akerlund, Jonas. Paparazzi. YouTube video, 6:15. Uploaded on November 25, 2009.
  24. Ibid., 6:29.
  25. Germanotta, Stefani. “Lady Gaga on ‘Mastering The Art of Fame’” Interview by Anderson Cooper. N.p., 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014. <>.
  26. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.
  27. LaLonde, Marc P. “Power/Knowledge and Liberation: Foucault as a Parabolic Thinker.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Missoula, MT: American Academy of Religion, 1933. 81-83. Print.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.
  31. Germanotta, Stefani. Applause. By Paul Blair, Nick Monson, Martin Bresso, and Nicolas Mercier. Lady Gaga. Rec. 12 Aug. 2013. Lady Gaga and DJ White Shadow, 2013. CD.
  32. Adorno, Theodor. “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17-48.
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