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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Lady Gaga appeared on 60 Minutes last night, and told interviewer Anderson Cooper that she was a student of the sociology of fame.

As a sociologist, I would give her an A.

(Click here to watch the full interview)

Putting aside her musical talent, which she clearly has, Lady Gaga has made being famous itself an art. In creating a character, she recognizes that she is performing even while off stage.

In reality, celebrities—and the rest of us—are engaged in some sort of performance whenever we enter a social space. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote of social interaction as a form of theater, called the dramaturgical perspective.

Lady Gaga is not only aware of this, but uses her life as part of a carefully crafted performance. In the 60 Minutes interview she tells Cooper that she contemplates the purpose of every outrageous outfit she wears, and that ironically creating this persona has helped to carve out a sense of privacy.

Typically, celebrities engage in a specific kind of performance called the “celebrity interview,” where they often attempt provide the illusion of allowing us into their backstage social space. As Lady Gaga tells Cooper, these assumed confessions are usually just as crafted as any other performance (she calls them lies).

Part Lady Gaga’s mastery of the sociology of fame stems from her ability to conflate the real with the performance. When asked who she really is, she asserts that this is really her. As a postmodern performance artist, she asserts that her character Lady Gaga represents who she is more than when she identified primarily as Stefani Germanotta, her given name.

In a quest to discover who the celebrity “really” is, gossips and paparazzi collude to reveal celebrities’ secret selves, to show us what celebrities presumably don’t want us to know. Lady Gaga has succeeded, so far anyway, in shocking the public through her costumes, revelations, and disclosures to throw the celebrity “news” machine off of its usual game.

I confess that I am more of an observer than a fan of her performance, but she seems to be able to turn the logic of fame on its head, defining her public persona on her own terms rather than being defined by the industry.

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