Lady Gaga and the Autonomous Self: Who are we?

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Posted on November 16th, 2010 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Social Issues, Theology

Though I would not necessarily laud all of her decisions as a performer and artist, Lady Gaga has surprisingly and quickly become one of my key reference points in my academic work as a theologian and my practice of pastoral care in ministry.  I think what Lady Gaga has come to represent for our culture and my generation specifically is the personification of the autonomous self (among many things), which ultimately reflects our struggle to determine and define personal identity.

Sociologist David Riesman in his book The Lonely Crowd (1950) first named the “autonomous self” as being a phenomenon hung over from social disillusionment post-WWII.  Before the industrial revolution Riesman argues that Americans derived meaning from tradition, the roles our ancestors fulfilled in the communities that we settled.  Tradition as the source of meaning and identity for the self, however, was quickly replaced by ideals from the industrial revolution, namely that of progress and institutions’ ability to achieve it.  After WWII and with the advent of the atomic bomb, however, our trust in progress and the institution was deeply shaken.  In other words, if the atomic bomb reveals the realized promises of technological “progress,” maybe there is no meaning or identity in that after all – or at least a meaning and identity that we do not want.

Riesman argues that we have then since shifted into a postmodern existentialist drought in which the self is defined by autonomy, or rather one’s ability to invent one’s own self.  We no longer rest on the traditions of those who went before us or in the institutions that give us social order.  Instead we are left with the burden of proof – who we are is defined solely by our own making.

As I mentioned before, I believe Lady Gaga is the personification of this self entirely defined by personal invention.  Stephanfi Germanotti (Lady Gaga) spends countless hours on costume design, music and lyric composition, and cinematic direction sculpting the character of Lady Gaga into a living, breathing work of art that ultimately reflects the very nature of American culture caught in the midst of postmodern existentialist crises.  Her elaborate and seemingly random costumes and nonsensical pop lyrics all regurgitate what is popular in mainstream music and television, but the persona of Lady Gaga perverts it.  She takes what we celebrate as sexual, popular, and good and makes it repulsive as if to say, “You have no idea where you find meaning or identity, America.  You define yourselves by the sex you have, and ultimately that is no identity at all.”

Especially in her most recent music video, “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga embodies the autonomous self in a way that satirizes American culture that treats sex as a source of identity. Her pale, corpse-like body in “Alejandro” reveals the true vulnerability and frailty of the human form in opposition to the super-human scantily clad models featured in other popular music videos.  Her inability to define herself as anything other than “not your babe” – an identity expressed only in opposition to the other – reflects our own inability to positively affirm who we are independent of a sexual partner.  Her final submission to the mob of sex-crazed men fills her audience with such sickness and revolt that we cannot help but turn inward on ourselves and evaluate not only our own literal promiscuity but also all of the ways that we have failed to understand ourselves as something other than our own creation.  In other words, Lady Gaga reveals to us that we have no idea who we are.

So, how are we to know who we are if we are in fact self-defined autonomous selves?  If tradition, progress, and institutions can no longer be trusted to provide us with meaning and purpose in this world, and a culture of popularized sex only distracts us from thinking about it, what are we to do?  I suspect that the issue of meaning, purpose, and identity in this world is a struggle that every generation has fought.  Though we may have at one point trusted the narrative of tradition – I am now what my mother once was – the narrative did not itself give us meaning, but our belief in it did.  We agreed that narrative had meaning and moved forward together as a society trusting those traditions.

I agree with Riesman that we no longer trust the narratives of the past; we only cling to what we can define as individuals.  I also agree with Lady Gaga that instead of wrestling with issues of our identity we have become obsessed with a culture of sex.  While this is fascinating commentary, it still does not answer the question “Who am I?”  Though my Lutheran tradition suggests that I am an imprint of the creative force that created me, a unique expression of the divine, what weight does that narrative hold in not only postmodern existentialism but also interfaith work?  If we do not all agree on a narrative regarding the source of our identity, can we know who each other is?  I conclude this piece not with many answers, but an invitation to conversation about identity.  Who are you and how do you know that?

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3 Responses to “Lady Gaga and the Autonomous Self: Who are we?”

  1. Bryan Parys says:

    Very compelling. I think this gets straight to the heart of the biggest riff in any kind of dialogue. I think that a big part of knowing who we are involves understanding and acknowledging our pain–only then can we understand that there is pain in ‘the other’ and therefore go about coming up with ideas for reparations.

    On another note, your analysis of Gaga reminded me of Phillip Glass’ opera, Einstein on the Beach–a minimalist frenzy of synth and “singers” endlessly chanting snippets from advertising of the day (the 1970s). It was, in part, a script-mirror to the speed of information at the time, saying: “Now look what you’ve done, America.” I love that Lady Gaga is EinsteinRedux.

  2. Antal says:

    I have to admit up-front, that, though I listen to a lot of music. I do not watch MTV and alike anymore. I can’t escape the video’s on Youtube. but when I did – looking back – I have to say that in your exemple of Lady Gaga, that she is, in… a sence, replicating Brian Hugh Warner aka Marilyn Manson. Extravagant, both doing it for their own reasons, (I do not know Stephani’s) trying to establish that “mask” to hide behind, and to provoke!
    Or maybe a little more like, Madonna.

    Anyway, to try and find an answer, maybe the question should than be “Who do you want to be”
    I agree as well, you are what you hold on to.
    But there is not 1 defining answer to give, I think, here, then, the “plural/multiple (devine) singularity” is the rule of all good/truth-full answers leading to one whole truth.
    Any answer is good!
    It remains a good question, to think about and define for oneself.

  3. Jennifer Sanborn says:

    Kari, this particular sentence really captured me: “Though we may have at one point trusted the narrative of tradition – I am now what my mother once was – the narrative did not itself give us meaning, but our belief in it did.” As I watch classmates struggle at times with new interpretations of old narratives, it’s fascinating to see if their beliefs can adjust to a new narrative that reflects enough of the old belief system to move forward, or if the entire “self” collapses. I tend to think we are resilient creatures….

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Kari (24) is in her third year of a Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. Her passion for interfaith dialogue has emerged while traveling to over 20 countries in the past five years, and she currently lives in Oxford, England with her husband Brian.


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