There are artists and there are pop stars and rarely the twain shall meet. In a review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Comme des Garçons exhibit, artist/writer David Salle wrote a sentence that succinctly exposed just how different these professional species are: “The modern artist says, Love me for hating what you love, and love me for not needing you.”
Pop stars don’t hate because alienation is bad for business, and they absolutely need you. These days, a pop star will rarely utter a negative word in the subgenre of vérité media profiling them, whether documentaries or tv series alike. If 1991's Madonna: Truth or Dare set the bar for bad celebrity behavior caught on camera (besides a general ain’t-I-a-stinker approach to being a diva that often is punctuated by her smiling into the camera, she laughs when she finds out her makeup artist was raped), the recent spate of these doc-alikes have fallen woefully short of clearing it. Only Nicki Minaj’s 2012 E! reality show My Truth matched the shamelessness of Truth or Dare in its willingness to depict its deeply admired subject as less than a benevolent goddess who’s been put on earth to make it a better place. Over a brief three episodes, Nicki rants about her stage’s lighting, complains about a stylist’s wardrobe options, talks shit on Mariah Carey and Barbara Walters, and pouts continuously. So perpetually dissatisfied is she that My Truth makes her life out to be a series of disappointments.
Nicki, however, is never more enthusiastic on My Truth than when talking about her fans—in fact, the aforementioned lighting rant is framed by the fear of letting her fans down with a substandard show. “That relationship I have with my fans is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed,” she explains at another point.
Well, of course it is. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. Further, it’s what lets her know that she’s doing a good job, especially if her professional goal is to reach as many people as possible (and as a pop star backed by a major corporation, that is most certainly a goal). It’s so clear that fans are a way of reinforcing a pop star’s ego that I’m always a little surprised when they aren’t more tactful when gushing about their rapt congregation. If a pop star actually loves her fans (a dubious prospect but let’s extend the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument), it is a conditional love that is only extended in reciprocation and thus is unbalanced in nature. The fan is the one who makes the first move—it’s within the fan that adoration finds its origin. The fan can love any number of specific things about the pop star—her art, her charisma, her vibe, her story, her look. The artist, in turn, loves the love, which is fundamentally abstract. Should the fans ever take their love away, as the vast majority of them eventually do, well, do you think that any pop star goes on loving those fans in their absence? Any pining that results is surely a manifestation of self-pity.
Though all this seems obvious, pop stars more often then not dedicate chunks of their documentaries to their fans. Because the vast majority of these movies are produced by their subjects—and such, are extended promos—it’s very difficult to suss out the “real” from the presented and thus examining fans as ego proxies is useful. These stars won’t necessarily tell you the truth, but they might inadvertently reveal something interesting.
Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’s 2012 Katy Perry: Part of Me seems at such a loss in explaining why its subject is famous (fair!) that it instead shows that she is famous, with countless montages of fan meet-ups and shots of screaming kids in concert arenas where she performs. Katy’s fans, like her, simply exist, and they do it all over the place.
2013's One Direction: This Is Us spends a good deal of time explaining how the group’s X Factor following used social media to harvest what became global popularity. A montage of screaming fans is intercut with black-and-white footage depicting Beatlemania, a neuroscientist pops up on screen to explain the effect music has on one’s dopamine levels (“The girls are not crazy, the girls are just excited”), and Harry Styles expresses his disdain for the label of “famous” (it’s too vague a description of him for his taste). But the guys also examine their ubiquitous adoration with an almost scientific remove—at one point, Niall Horan announces, “This is why we have the best fans in the world,” runs to the window of the room he’s sitting in, opens it, and the cheers fill the room from the street below. It’s like he just turned on a faucet of applause. Later, we see the guys on a roof of a building gesturing to their fans below to get louder and quieter, conducting their public like an orchestra. It’s refreshing that they don’t take these things so seriously, but clearly they’re testing how much actual power they can wield in these moments.
In 2013's Justin Bieber: Believe, he never seems more sincere then when breaking down in tears and warbling, “I miss her, bro,” when he talks about Avalanna Routh, a 6-year-old fan of his who died of cancer. There’s plenty footage of the two of them hanging out, and it all feels like actual human connection. That’s a rare sight in movies like these.
You can contrast these with the ambient hum of fan devotion that sounds throughout Truth or Dare, barely acknowledged, or even more dark, the way the 2008 documentary Britney Spears: For the Record argues that for its subject, hell is other people (for example, walking 20 feet to a building from her car poses a logistical challenge that requires a team). Early in the doc, its interviewer suggests to Spears that she’s a prisoner of her own fame, and though she refutes it, the rest of the movie provides a strong case for that argument. Life Is But a Dream, the 2013 Beyoncé doc that originally aired on HBO, merely allows the Beyhive some cameos without much rumination from Bey on her kingdom—though way too much of that movie is devoted to telling and not showing (and most of the telling comes from a very stilted interview with Beyoncé in a movie she directed herself, thus basically plays more like a monologue than a conversation), in this regard you get a sense of the subject’s innate confidence without her having to say a word about it. (And if there is any contemporary pop star who doesn’t need you, surely it is the force of nature that is Beyoncé.)
And that brings us to the latest entry in this subgenre, Gaga: Five Foot Two directed by Chris Moukarbel (who full disclosure, I know socially), which debuts on Netflix today. Somewhere between the grit of Truth or Dare and the fantastical yarns of Life is But a Dream and Part of Me, Five Foot Two aims to show you the real Gaga during the making of her album Joanne. That release was itself marketed as her authentic expression; there’s a montage here of Gaga using the word “personal” over and over and over again while doing press for the album. She’s real enough to admit, “Me and Taylor are fighting,” over the sizzle of the frying pan she’s using to cook while wearing little if any makeup, but she also can’t quite believe her own life sometimes: “Who gets their makeup done while they’re getting a major body treatment?” she wonders aloud in a doctor’s office while she gets freshened up by a makeup artist as she awaits injections for her chronic pain.
Gaga, as we well know, nominally dotes over her fans—her “Little Monsters”—but there’s a refreshing dearth of that in Five Foot Two. We do see her meet with a teen who won an iHeartRadio contest. After the fan gives nonspecific praise for Gaga’s “Born This Way” song, Gaga breaks down in tears saying, “It really is so sweet that you wait outside for me.” She later explains, “My fans are my heart and soul,” and we see her weeping during a performance, overcome with the received love. This is all expected and redundant, but at least it’s brief.
A more telling moment occurs when Gaga is recording Joanne’s “Hey Girl” with Florence Welch. As Gaga prepares an Instagram post, Welch says she’s shocked that Gaga can post to anything on the platform when she knows 18 million people (her follower count then, I guess) are about to see it. “I know,” says Gaga gravely. “Don’t remind me.” Even the most advanced scholar of fame has a hard time wrapping her head around it.
For a long stretch, Five Foot Two is quietly astonishing—Gaga is either a very chill person or she’s just very good at playing it. Hard to say, impossible to correct for the variable that is the camera pointed at her. We can’t be sure that this is the “real” Gaga because, well, just as we did upon the release of Joanne, we don’t have any sense of her foundation—it’s just been a string of costumes since she hatched as a fully formed superstar, and the Joanne era is a just slightly dressed down version. I found myself wishing that I were watching Gaga captured during her creative peak (circa The Fame Monster) and not during the creation of what may very turn out to be a minor work in her catalog. That said, this also captures her preparation for the Super Bowl halftime show, which could very well turn out to be a watershed moment in her career.
Still, Gaga makes good sense most of the time—if she is not “real,” per se, at least she is reasonable. She explains how Joanne’s stripped-down aesthetic represents a newfound confidence that coincided with her turning 30—prior to this moment, she says, she didn’t feel she was good, smart, or pretty enough to present herself so humbly. Her words on her feud with Madonna are particularly well chosen (“Telling me you think I’m a piece of shit through the media is like a guy passing me a note through his friend”). She’s capable of talking about other things than herself, albeit sparingly, like Trump, her family, and the inspiration of her American Horror Story: Roanoke character. (If there were some riff on the Bechdel test in which celebs were interrogated on their ability to talk about anything besides themselves in these docs, the vast majority would fail.) During a poolside meeting on her styling for Joanne, she removes her top and sits through the rest of it with her breasts exposed, nonchalantly explaining, “Sorry, I just... it feels better.” If she’s acting, you can’t tell, and either way that’s a hell of a performance. Whereas so many of these rock docs argue that their subjects are captivating because they are famous, Five Foot Two instead wonders if Gaga is famous because she is captivating.