Lady Gaga is constantly being called out for selling out, and maybe it’s because we had, and continue to have, such high hopes for her. Her vocal chops are solid and her songwriting more inspired and creative than that of many of her pop peers. Her music videos, performances, and red-carpet walks are a delicious mix of glamour and macabre, of haute couture and Hannibal Lecter. As an outspoken and actually fairly effective gay-rights activist, she ushered in an era of politically and socially active pop stars—like Beyoncé and Katy Perry (who was trying her darnedest to be political with that Obama dress). Lady Gaga has done things that are interesting and provocative and possibly even genuine, so with her recent somewhat lackluster and commercial-pop record, it’s hard not to think she’s become a sellout.
But Gaga’s latest music video, “G.U.Y.—An ARTPOP Film,” seems to be a response to these accusations and lines up nicely with a pearl of nonsensical wisdom she shared at her keynote the day after her vomit-splattered, Frito-Lay-sponsored concert at SXSW: “Don’t sell out. Sell in.” Whatever that means. As ridiculous as that advice may sound, I think she means that in order for her to make the music she wants, she has to play into the pop machine, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.
The new video opens with a feathered Lady Gaga sprawled on the ground, an arrow through her chest, as a swarm of suited men grabs at the money scattered around her and parades away. These money-hungry suits are clearly representative of her label. She drags herself to Hearst Castle, the family home of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. There she experiences her rebirth in the waters of the mansion’s pool, surrounded by the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills as the Muses and Andy Cohen as a divine, Zeus-like figure. This rebirth, surrounded by these representatives of Bravo at Hearst Castle, is Lady Gaga’s acceptance of the need for this kind of mass-produced—perhaps even trashy—pop culture, in contrast to her own artistry.
Lady Gaga wants to be—or at least wants to appear to be—the kind of artist who is in it just for the music, saying, “I would give it all up tomorrow if I had to sell my soul. I will retire from the commercial market if I can’t be myself.” But she understandably wants the fame and fortune, too; otherwise she would’ve kept playing at underground Manhattan clubs rather than accepting a record deal with Interscope.
This supposed dedication to her craft is part of Lady Gaga’s image and why her fans love her. Every female pop star today has a carefully cultivated persona: Beyoncé has Queen Bey, Rihanna has bad girl RiRi, Katy Perry has—well, I don’t know if candy and whipped cream count as a persona. But Lady Gaga’s persona, for all its outrageousness and attempted controversy, still has something human, something genuine about it—at least more so than those of her peers. And that’s why fans care so much about her selling out.
We want to believe she cares just as much as we do. The closing of the video serves as a nice bookend to the opening: Gaga charges into a corporate office, flanked on both sides by two Real Housewives, and distracts the suits with money cannons, giving her and her posse the opportunity to kill the greedy corporate fat cats in their offices.
She is killing off corporate influence, using capitalism’s own tools to do so. Whether or not this move toward musical freedom will play out in real life has yet to be seen. However, Lady Gaga promises that there is a second act of “ARTPOP” in the works. Hopefully by then she’ll free herself of corporate greed, get over her obsession with Botticelli’s Venus, and return to what made her great in The Fame Monster and Born This Way: creating pop that is surprising, eccentric, and still somehow deeply personal and relatable.