If you’ve paid even the slightest attention to news about Romania lately you know that this past week the artist known as “Lady Gaga” came to Bucharest to perform in front of some 35,000 people. Originally there was a minor scandal as it was thought that the Ministry of Tourism under “evil” Elena Udrea’s administration had paid for the concert but when it was discovered that the current (USL) Ministry of Tourism had authorized the funds, everyone agreed it was a good thing. It put Romania in the spotlight, it pleased a whole lot of Romanian fans, it possibly brought some foreigners to the country for the concert and a good time was had by all.
I’m the last person to judge taste in music because I essentially have none. I like Mozart, ABBA and Beethoven in that order and the rest of time I listen to nonsense so I can distract one half of my brain so that the other half can think straight. So whether the musical stylings of Lady Gaga appeal to you or not is something you can decide. But seeing this artist arrive in Romania reminded me of something bigger and something quite important.
When the bus from the airport bearing Lady Gaga arrived at the hotel in Bucharest, some fans were waiting outside for autographs. On the news I saw one young lady being interviewed afterwards and when asked how long she had been waiting at the hotel for an autograph, her reply was, “Four years”. I immediately shot to my feet upon hearing that because that teenage (?) girl was absolutely correct.
Even with our collective amnesia, where what we had for lunch a week ago seems a distant memory, remembering the events of four years ago is still possible. It’s no secret that four years ago an unremarkable musician who primarily played the piano and sang bland songs was transformed almost overnight into “Lady Gaga”, a striking, in your face personality with bizarre and flamboyant outfits and number one songs on music charts all over the world. Even if you’ve never once spent an ounce of effort to watch one of her music videos or purchase (download) her songs, you probably have listened to her music hundreds, if not thousands of times.
The story that everyone has absorbed unconsciously is that all along there was a talented musician and one day while living in New York the “right” person somehow heard of her, connected her with an influential record company and thus had the money to promote her and produce expensive (costing millions of dollars) videos and push her songs to be played on the air and thus the entire world finally had the chance to listen to her musical excellence and thus she became a star. The stage name and the clothes and all the rest were organically arising from her inner artistry and the resulting fame (and presumably fortune) is a result of natural talent getting that “lucky break”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. And I say that without rancor or prejudice against her music or fashion choices or anything else.
I remember the first time I was ever in a foreign country and turned on a radio – the songs were all identical to the ones I listened to back home in the United States. Only the DJs talking in between the songs in their native language were different. Turn on a radio in Romania, Argentina, Russia or Kenya and you’ll see that virtually everywhere on the planet the music is almost identical. Lady Gaga isn’t just famous in New York or Bucharest but also in Ulan Bator and Vladivostok. Nowadays with “internet radio” you don’t even have to leave your home – scan around and you’ll see that I’m right.
So the question arises – are these musical artists so talented that the entire globe listens to them sheerly in recognition of that talent? In other words, do these musical artists earn their worldwide fandom through dint of their excellence in singing and instrument playing? Or is it at least partly something else?
Let’s put it this way. Of all the non-alcoholic (manufactured) drinks in the world, are Coca-Cola and Pepsi truly the best two? Are there really no other colas or varying flavors of lemon-lime drinks or other fruit drinks besides Sprite, Fanta and Mountain Dew that appeal to people? Certainly the cuisine, the daily foodstuffs that people eat vary widely around the globe so how is it exactly that Coca-Cola and Pepsi products dominate in Japan, America and Lebanon? Are people’s drink preferences really so identical worldwide or is there something else going on?
There’s really nothing that wonderful and unique about Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta except for the marketing of these products. A 12-year-old kid with access to yeast can make their own soft drink with a little practice. Certainly entrepreneurs around the world could come up with their own flavors and easily manufacture carbonated drinks. But despite how easy it is to make these drinks, only two brands continue to dominate and there simply is no other explanation but that the marketing is the difference.
Coca-Cola, for instance, spends more than 3 billion dollars every year to promote products that literally everyone has heard of and is instantly familiar with. I’m sure even the remotest peasant farmer in Romania has heard of Coca-Cola and Fanta and doesn’t need any marketing to be aware of those products.So why do it? Why market these drinks or these musical acts so aggressively? Why the bizarre outfits and the millions of dollars to make a three-minute video? Why pluck a mild-mannered piano playing singer and turn her into a global superstar virtually overnight?
There is an old myth about capitalism and the “free market” that some people call the “ice cream myth”. Imagine a small island where there are two or three small shops selling ice cream. The theory is that the residents and visitors to this small town will sample the ice cream from the different shops and determine that one brand of ice cream is the best. Over time more people will go buy ice cream from the best shop and eventually the other shops will lose business and the best shop will make more money.
That’s fine and good from the customer’s perspective but not so good from the shop owner’s perspective. The owners of the two losing shops spent a hell of a lot of money starting their businesses and a lot of work and effort into operating that business. To see all of their money and hard work go down the drain because the flavors of the shop down the street were slightly better is a devastating blow. Furthermore, if these three hypothetical shops were opened with credit, money that was borrowed from a third party (say a bank) then the bank isn’t frustrated or devastated but actually angry (with themselves). They want to minimize risk at all times and not loan out money to three ice cream shops with the knowledge that one will succeed and the other two will fail.
The solution then is to guarantee (as much as possible) success from the beginning and thus expose yourself to as little risk as possible. If our hypothetical island and ice-cream makers were in the real world, the bank would use certain parameters to find an acceptable manufacturer of ice cream, invest its money in that one shop and then spend millions of dollars to market it with known, proven techniques. It would be promoted on the radio, on TV, with internet ads, guerrilla campaigns, contests, bloggers who receive free products, contests, musical concerts, coupons and all of the rest and the next thing you know, “surprisingly” now this single ice cream shop is a hit and a success and everyone who eats ice cream is happily consuming their products.
Whether or not Lady Gaga’s music is good is actually irrelevant. What matters to her financial backers (“the bank”) is whether or not she can be marketed. And “she”, as in the persona and brand known as Lady Gaga (not the real person who she is inside) is most definitely marketed. She has a “brand identity” with the bizarre outfits and clothes. Millions of dollars are spent on elaborate mini-movies (videoclips) to establish her as a brand and a product. Her own unique logo (the lightning bolt cleaving a headless body) is part of that branding. Her face and image are made to appear in magazines. Her songs are distributed to radio stations owned by international corporations around the world and then “surprisingly” (at least to anyone who knew her five years ago) now she is a worldwide star, famous and getting paid buckets of money to perform, including by the government of little old Romania.
If you could somehow find an aboriginal tribesman deep in the jungle who had never listened to a radio in his life and played for him four or five pop songs, one by Lady Gaga and the rest by unknown (to us) musicians, would he truly pick out the Lady Gaga song as being the best? In other words, if all the marketing, hype and promotions were stripped away would her music truly be considered the best? If four or five different homemade colas were compared in a blind taste test to Coca-Cola, would Coca-Cola really be considered the best?
Once you think about it in these terms, the answer is obvious. The world is not so homogenous and it is ludicrous to think that billions of people would all more or less agree on their musical and soft drink preferences. It’s only when these are pushed in your face using extremely advanced marketing techniques that manipulate and pervert natural emotional responses that art (or drinks) can be turned into a product, a deliberately manufactured product that is sold in enormous quantities to maximize profits.
Cute little polar bears and jolly Santa Claus and people holding hands and singing about world peace has literally nothing to do with sugar, water and phosphoric acid. But all of those things manipulate people’s emotions. And outfits made out of meat and flashing certain symbols using one eye hidden and one eye visible do as well. Whether these are understood consciously by the consumer (you and I) or not is irrelevant because the people financing these products most certainly do. Because when a person’s response can be predicted (as much as possible within parameters) then fewer varieties but a higher quantity of products can be sold and then there are only 2 kinds of cola and only 100 different songs on the top of the charts in any given country.
One of the reasons I still like Romania is that while the music and foodstuffs are the same bland universal products of multi-national corporations, the government here isn’t (at least not yet). Politicians here have absolutely no understanding or grasp of brand image or marketing. And more importantly, they are completely incapable of manufacturing consent, the techniques by which the consumers (in this case, voters) can be emotionally manipulated so that predictable, long-term behaviors can be achieved.
Therefore I need to keep in mind that sometimes a little chaos and unpredictability is kind of nice. After all, it’s part of who we are as human beings.