Nothing has been as sticky. No other advert, print or video or Web, no tweet or blog, billboard or word of mouth, has so thoroughly knitted itself into my merchandise-buying neurons. I'm fully bought-in, invested. Ebola isn't as viral. My wallet is open and its tongue is hanging out.
My vote for Advertisement of the Year 2009 is Lady Gaga's video "Bad Romance," a five-minute self-exploitation film that sells booze, high-end audio gear and stiletto heels as hard as it rocks. Canny and cagey and completely engaged in the business of business, brand Gaga is the first white artist I can think of who has embraced aspirational, label materialism with the kind of gusto shown by hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Jay Z.
Part of me hates to throw nitromethane into the Gaga fire. The 23-year-old dance-pop sibyl is such a work of entertainment engineering, the flywheel in an enormous piece of media-eating machinery, that giving her due as an artist brings with it a certain ruefulness, the sensation of being manipulated. Not that I begrudge her the millions in album sales or the inevitable mantel full of Grammys. The Lady's got pipes, for sure, and she plays a flaming piano in a flesh-colored rhinestone bodysuit as well as anyone since, say, Liberace. I also respect the fact that even though she came up as a piano prodigy, attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, she has taught herself to dance like a pro. That can't be easy.
And, obviously, the club singles -- "Paparazzi," "Poker Face" and "Just Dance" -- are ferocious, brains-on-the-dance-floor Visigoths.
The next Madonna? We'll see. But at the moment it seems that Lady Gaga's innovations reside mostly on the business side of celebrity and that she is a disruptive technology all her own. There was a time, after all, when commercial considerations were regarded as fundamentally inartistic. Remember the fuss over Led Zeppelin's selling out its music to Cadillac, or the Beatles to Nike or U2 to, well, whomever? Only last year, critics wailed about the supposed loss of innocence in Michael Bay's GM-sponsored "Transformers." This month, Nielsen released -- with appropriate tongue-clucking -- its list of the top 10 shows with the highest number of product placements: No. 1 was "The Jay Leno Show."
Lady Gaga is so beyond any kind of embarrassment that she's made mercantilism its own aesthetic. In her previous video for "Love Game," a street tough swigs from a bottle of Campari as he watches Lady rut and grind (Campari, for when your evening plans call for rough sex on the subway). In the video for mega-hit "Poker Face," the card table is emblazoned with the logo for Bwin.com. She quaffs Neuro sports drink in the "Paparazzi" video; sports a Baby G watch in "Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say)"; and wears Beat headphones by Dr. Dre (including a version of her own design) in at least a couple of videos.
All was prelude, however, to the "Bad Romance" video, which features placements for no less than 10 products: a black iPod; Philippe Starck Parrot wireless speakers; Nemiroff vodka; Gaga-designed Heartbeats earphones (via Dr. Dre); Carrera sunglasses; Nintendo Wii handsets; Hewlett-Packard Envy computers; a Burberry coat; those crazy, hobbling Alexander McQueen hyper-heels; and enough La Perla lingerie to choke an ox.
This isn't a music video so much as the QVC Channel you can dance to.
The narrative of the video -- acknowledging that we kill to dissect -- seems to be about the Lady Gaga character (wide-eyed and innocent, in a bathtub, Ivory soap pure and about as white) abducted by slavers, doped with vodka and put on auction in front of a bunch of tattooed, vaguely Russian-looking men, where she dances like a techno Salome. The atmosphere is superheated and oppressive, the barometric pressure looks to be about 1,000 psi. In the end, she's purchased by a man with a brass chin who beds her. But he didn't count on the incandescence of That We Call Gaga, and he spontaneously combusts. Bummer.
The temptation to deconstruct should be avoided. This is a video featuring a truly striking and beautiful woman strutting around in her skimpies to an epic club hit, surrounded by the most arresting art-house imagery the director (Francis Lawrence) and Lady Gaga's posse could dream up. The value to the product placers? How about more than 35 million views on YouTube since Nov. 10? If I worked at a Philippe Starck retail outlet I'd be stocking up on canned goods, bomb shelter-style.
In interviews, Lady Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) wants to compare her Haus of Gaga -- comprising her various business and creative interests -- to Andy Warhol's art-making Factory, which is a bit of bad faith. Warhol's art reified ordinary, mass-market objects, such as the Campbell's soup can. Lady Gaga is name-checking luxury merchandise and being well paid for it. The only sound more penetrating than the beatbox is the deafening roar of cash registers.
What's so subversive about "Bad Romance" -- and perhaps this is a reflection of the compromised times we live in -- is that the art doesn't seem at all diminished by the business agenda. It's beautiful, it's dance-able, and it's exquisite advertising. I just wish my Alexander McQueen pumps fit better. The last stone of any church-state, art-commerce, virgin-whore wall has been toppled and -- my God! -- we don't miss the wall.