Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, And The Shifting Nature Of Pop-Star Fandom


Today is the official release date for Lady Gaga’s long-incubating Born This Way, and it’s being accompanied by aggressive efforts to move copies–today the album’s retailing for 99 cents at Amazon MP3, while Best Buy is doling out free CDs to anyone who signs up for a smartphone contract this week–as well as promotional appearances from Gaga herself. Tonight she’ll be signing things at Best Buy in Union Square; Wednesday she’ll perform on the American Idol finale; and on Saturday she joined Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live, performing three BTW tracks (and breaking water to close things out), transforming into an ersatz Stacey Q for a Digital Short, and appearing in a couple of sketches, one of which served as a sort of metacommentary on what a pop star has to do to be famous these days.

So yeah, the overt theme of “What’s That Name?” was that Justin Timberlake is kind of a dick who has a better recall of MC Skat Kat than he does Chris Kirkpatrick, and that he’s something of a player now that he’s freed from the gossip-page shackles of Jessica Biel. But having him play off Gaga–who was able to recall a fan’s name even though they certainly didn’t have the, ahem, connection that JT had with the one-night stand whose name he forgot–was sorta shrewd, and transformed the sketch into a (perhaps inadvertent) comment on what pop stars feel they need to do in order to stay in the spotlight.

Last night during an extended pre-Born This Way Twitter Q&A, Gaga claimed that her innate ability to recall a fan’s name and bio as satirized in the sketch was in part inspired by real-life events. The idea that said claim is at all plausible is a testament to how aggressively she’s courted both her stardom and the people who put her in that place since her initial ascent; if there is one pop star who’s put herself out there in a way that makes one wonder how she does all this stuff without collapsing from exhaustion or having a clone (or both) it’s Gaga.

Which is not to say that this sort of constant putting oneself out there is required of someone who wants to reach pop-star dominance, or a magic ticket to becoming superfamous. (Tons of pop’s lesser lights are just as oversharey and generous with their time.) But given that Timberlake came up during the tail end of music’s boom years–the 1999 establishment of the RIAA’s Diamond Award, which honors those albums that shipped 10 million copies and which hasn’t been given out to a record released since Usher’s Confessions came out in 2004, coincided with ‘NSync’s rise–it’s not much of a stretch to say that the “joke” in this sketch could also be seen as a presentation of the rift between generations. Timberlake could grow into a pop star who came off as something of an asshole because the times that birthed his career allowed him to do so; they also allowed retailers to sell albums for $18.99 and not spin off any singles from those albums, locking consumers into the higher price point. Gaga, meanwhile, doesn’t have the luxury of exploding record sales and an ascending economy, which could very well play into the reasons why she’s more inclined to empathize with her fans and make her music available to them at the lowest possible price. Which makes for a better pop star is certainly up for debate–quite a few people value the remove of the “star” and find it essential to the mystique that perpetuates fandom–but it does also make you wonder if, should Justin ever decide to re-enter the world of music, he’ll feel like maybe he should while away an hour or two reactivating his long-dormant Twitter account and fielding questions from fans.