French intellectual Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100 last month, before he could comment on the latest single from Lady Gaga. If you think this an absurd notion, note that Lévi-Strauss's major project—discovering the common aspects of myths from different eras and continents—has influenced many pop scholars, including Greil Marcus. In our American Idol-ized culture, few myths loom larger than pop fame, which is why the philosopher and anthropologist might have had something to say about Top 40's self-professed conceptual artist of the moment. In a way, he still does.
Gaga herself invites such highfalutin scrutiny. In interviews, she alludes to Andy Warhol and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose words she has tattooed on her arm. Pop's intelligentsia has largely gone along with Gaga, anointing her, like Madonna, a dance maven who has something to communicate aside from great grooves. So when Gaga sings, in the title track to her celebrated debut album The Fame, that "all we care about is runway models, Cadillacs, and liquor bottles," she's doing it (or so some critics insist) as a setup, a way to undercut that callow consumption in the chorus, during which she sighs: "We live for the fame ... Isn't it a shame?"
A star's ambivalence toward fame—both courting and criticizing it—is itself an old myth, and one with a storied pedigree, whether you're talking about John Lennon or Eddie Vedder. There's no shame in Gaga running with the idea. Lévi-Strauss took heart while tallying repetitions of cultural tropes in his "search for the invariant." Though his real interest, in Gaga or anyone plowing familiar mythic ground, would be to find what's revealed by the new telling. The problem with Gaga is that she refuses to add any concrete value, while also wanting us to think she has something to say. She's described her concept of "the fame" variably as an "inner sense of confidence" and something about how "nobody knows who you are, but everyone wants to know." When pressed to clarify by a reporter, she denied "trying to feel" anything at all: "I make soulless electronic pop," she said. Then last week at a benefit for Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, Gaga performed "Speechless," a song from her new EP, The Fame Monster, which she described as a heartfelt tribute to her father. (And she performed it on a piano painted by Damien Hirst.)
Gaga may want to have it both ways, but that doesn't mean we should let her. Inscribing Rilke's question—"must I write?"—on your arm and then hiding behind a nihilist's superficiality amounts to a pretentious form of bulls--t. As the 20th century drew to a close, and postmodern critics of Lévi-Strauss gained clout, the idea of whether we can "know" anything about artistic texts became its own cliché. But Lévi-Strauss's death gives us a chance to remember what it's like for a writer to bear the risk of intending to mean something. Gaga shows no appetite for this. Instead, she is content to give us thesis and antithesis, because the contrast sparks commentary (and, yes, her fame). She writes strong melodies and gives us great photos, but unlike Madonna—who was willing to tie provocation to a discernible purpose in "Like a Prayer"—Gaga offers no synthesis. Of course, bubblegum music can get a pass from needing to say anything if it's philosophically modest: rocking all night and partying every day. But with due respect to the swear-word police, pop also becomes offensive when it puts on airs it has no intention of earning.