In the week following the release of Madonna’s MDNA comeback album, the contender for her throne as queen of pop, Lady Gaga, announced details of her own comeback tour, with the revelation of European dates for the Born This Way Ball. Madonna may have gone to Number One on her release week – but with her album plummeting down the charts, the scene is set for Gaga to take her crown for good. However, Gaga has not reached this point with music alone – nor by the skilful manipulation of every aspect of her image.
The most crucial weapon she has wielded is an even-more skilful management of her ultra-loyal fanbase: Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’.
These rabid fans adhere to a very loosely defined and all-welcoming “Manifesto of Little Monsters” – and the title track of her album and tour, “Born This Way”, was widely perceived to be a call-to-arms for Gaga’s followers (You’re black, white, beige … Whether life’s disabilities/left you outcast, bullied, or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/’cause baby you were born this way). Of course, having such vague entry criteria means that more people are likely to join – and, in addition, Gaga regularly defines herself and her followers as being outsiders, despite the position that she occupies strictly at the centre of popular culture, complete with generally un-edgy lyrics or music. This fosters a pent-up, siege mentality – which only makes her fans more devoted.
In addition to cultivating huge loyalty to Gaga, along with the sense that each fan is part of a bigger movement or gang – which is immensely seductive to younger pop fans – the Little Monsters are hugely useful in neutralising any perceived slight against their idol. One recent recipient of Monster wrath was Kelly Osborne, bombarded with abuse and death threats after criticising the meat-wearing eccentric. Gaga manages her monsters very carefully, regularly addressing them and writing songs for them, and is undoubtedly keenly aware of their collective power.
Gang-like fanbases are nothing new: Slipknot’s “Maggots”, and the Biffy Clyro Army have both been around for a while. Those other masters of branding, KISS, arguably pioneered the trend with the KISS Army – formed after just two dedicated fans pestered a local radio station to play KISS songs early in the band’s career. This gave the band’s permanently enterprising bassist Gene Simmons a whopping idea, and the Army was swiftly co-opted to become the official fanclub. From that point, the band fed their fans a steady stream of propaganda that outsiders were persecuting them for liking KISS – a move that stoked the flames of the Army’s adoration to ever-more feverish heights.
But rock is inherently tribal and on the fringes of culture – a place where you would expect to find a gang ethos. Gaga, meanwhile, has really shown the way in demonstrating how that ethos can be tapped to benefit a more mainstream venture. Perhaps it was Gaga’s own passion for rock bands with fervent followings (she volunteered to roadie for Iron Maiden on their recent US tour) that gave her a few pointers. But in each and every case, the well-managed fanbase embodies some classic managerial tropes:
1. Use of mission statements
The artist enlists the fan to be part of a movement, with a defined set of goals.
2. Presentation skills
The artist then reports – through social media, concerts and the music itself – on the mission’s success.
3. Fostering unity
If the artist can deliver on expectations, a large and unwieldy group of people – who have the internet at their disposal to register complaints – will be peacefully and harmoniously controlled.
Predictably, other pop stars have followed suit. Jessie J has her Heartbeats, Pixie Lott has her Krazy Kats. These groups are even less well-defined than Gaga’s Little Monsters, who at least have some sort of pseudo anti-discrimination cause to follow. But they seem to be no less effective, expressing loyalty to their Chosen One, and serving as defence mechanisms against criticism. However, as with so many things in contemporary pop, Gaga got there first – manipulating and managing to perfection.