The Meat of the Matter: A Neo-Aristotelian Analysis of Lady Gaga’s “The Prime Rib of America” Address

Watch the address here.

Michael J. Fox wants you to think about stem cells. Scarlett Johansson is all about Obama. Pam Anderson gets naked for PETA. If there is a malady or an injustice, Bono has spoken to someone somewhere about it – and posed for a picture to prove it. Just by looking at a list of celebrities who engage in activism, it might seem that a prerequisite for celebrity is a burning passion for a pressing issue. While that logic might be a bit faulty, it’s certainly true that many celebrities leverage their access to media to set agendas and raise awareness about issues they deem important. They star in public service announcements, sit for morning television interviews, make the late-night talk show rounds and even organize huge benefit concerts – all in a bid to persuade the masses to support a certain cause or vote a certain way. Indeed, some clever individuals even turn the tables and use activism as a vehicle to celebrity instead of the other way around. But is popularity and name recognition enough to change minds? Simply being notable – or notorious – shouldn’t be enough to sway the minds of free-thinking adults. How do celebrities augment their notoriety to convince us to take actions for their causes? What rhetorical strategies do celebrities leverage in concert with their notoriety to make an argument and persuade?

A phenomenal example of a celebrity making an argument lies in Lady Gaga’s “Prime Rib of America” speech against the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibited gay people from serving openly in the United States military. Examined with the Neo-Aristotelian method of rhetorical analysis, this piece of oratory provides insight into how celebrities leverage their talents beyond fame to create a compelling argument and persuade their audiences. In this speech, Lady Gaga does so by diligently and effectively dipping her stiletto into the canons of classical rhetoric. In keeping with the Neo-Aristotelian methodology, this article reconstructs the context of the oration, explains the methodology, and applies the methodology to allow insight into the communication process.

BACKGROUND AND DESCRIPTION OF ARTIFACT

The controversial policy of excluding gays and lesbians from serving in the United States military – known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) – finally ended on September 20, 2011. But just one year before that date, the future of that policy was uncertain. Enacted in 1993 by President Clinton, the policy was the result of a compromise after Clinton campaigned on a promise to repeal the longstanding ban on gays in the U.S. military. Immediately after his election, Congress quickly enacted the discriminatory policy into federal law saying that anyone proven to engage in homosexual acts was to be discharged. The Clinton administration then issued Defense Directive 1304.26, which said service members could not be asked about their sexual orientation, according to a comprehensive and well-cited exploration of the policy’s history on Wikipedia (“Don’t ask don’t tell”). After its passage, there were several movements to fully repeal the policy via both the judicial system and the legislative system, and in September, 2010, Judge Virginia Phillips declared the law unconstitutional. There was an immediate stay on the judgment, keeping the policy in force. At the same time, legislation was slated to be introduced into Congress that would repeal the law, but the bill needed more votes to proceed without a filibuster from Republican Senator John McCain – including those of Maine’s Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. This tense situation precipitated a rally in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, ME, at which the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN, whose mission is simply “freedom to serve”) planned to exert pressure on the Maine Senators to vote for the bill. SLDN were lucky enough to garner the attention, support and attendance of international pop icon Lady Gaga, who announced her scheduled appearance to her millions of twitter followers on September 19, according to gay news blog Towleroad (“Lady Gaga Heading to Maine”).

Enter the spectacle of Lady Gaga. A young woman from New York City who rocketed to fame in 2008 by singing songs about fame and excess, by 2010 she had released two successful albums, was in the middle of a wildly successful stadium tour, was the most-followed person on social networks and had just won eight awards at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) on September 12. Inspired by the recent challenges to DADT in the courts and legislature, she had shown up to that awards ceremony escorted by an entourage of uniformed ex-service members who had been discharged under the policy – wearing a dress crafted out of meat. As a testament to her massive influence, following her actions at the VMAs and her proclamations of support for gay and lesbian soldiers, blogger Andy Towle noted that the SLDN web site experienced a record 91.3% boost in internet traffic (“DADT Update: Lady Gaga, SLDN, Outserve Appeal to Maine Senators”).

Gaga’s relationship with her fans is unique and pertinent to this analysis of her oration. She takes the well-known phenomenon of the parasocial relationship to new levels. This usually one-sided relationship results when fans of an artist or media personality feel that they know the object very well, but the object has no knowledge of them. Gaga actively reflects her fans’ parasocial relationship right back out at them. She often speaks about how intensely her fans inspire and motivate her, and she often sheds tears while doing so, precisely like many of her fans do when talking about her. One of her core messages is that even though she is now larger-than-life and famous, “fame” comes from within. She tells her audiences that they can be whatever they want to be, simply by doing it and believing in themselves – and that her fans’ strength is her strength. She quite literally preaches love, reciprocity and empowerment through her acts and her music.

A research question emerges here. While much is written about Lady Gaga and images of her are virtually omnipresent in the media, very little has been written about her from a critical perspective. There is a blog-journal aimed at academic analysis of her called “Gaga Stigmata”, but it does not contain criticism of her “Prime Rib of America” speech, or the extent to which she relies on her extraordinary relationship with her fans to persuade them. Lady Gaga’s early promotional materials state that she is “changing the world one sequin at a time,” so her intent to move and shake have been clear from her beginning. The question though, is this: while the reflected parasocial relationship she has with her fans seems unique to Gaga, is it really the key to her success in affecting audiences and driving them to web sites? Is it the only tool necessary for Gaga to wield influence over her audiences? Extending this question outward, what rhetorical strategies do celebrities use when engaging in political activism? Examination of Gaga’s “Prime Rib of America” speech provides answers.

Before Gaga takes the stage to deliver her speech, approximately two thousand attendees crowd around a stage in a park. “Beautiful Day” plays – a song recorded by activist front-man Bono and the band U2. Pastoral, small-town trees frame a brick wall with a huge American flag hung over it, in front of which stands a podium featuring a sign with the SLDN logo and a twitter hashtag phrase on it, prompting participants to update their social networks about the proceedings. Lady Gaga walks confidently onstage and hugs several organizers. She wears a slim-fitting yet mannish women’s business suit, a blue tie with stars, and stiletto heels. Large glasses sit on her face, just like the ones Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, wears. Gaga’s long blond hair is draped down about her shoulders relatively conservatively. She approaches the podium, stops and holds her left hand above her head in the two-fingered “V” of a peace sign. She holds this posture for 25 seconds as people take photographs of her. She faces front, then to the audience on her right, then to the audience on her left and then back to center. Members of the audience have by now emulated her and are mirroring her peace sign. As the music fades, she lowers her hand, as do the audience members. As the crowd quiets, awaiting the voice of Gaga, ten seconds elapse before she says, “Good afternoon.”  The crowd erupts. “Can you all hear me?” The crowd goes bonkers again for a few seconds, and rapidly quiets. And Gaga’s oration begins.

Throughout the speech, Gaga appears confident but not fully polished. She notifies the audience that she has spent forty-eight hours trying to think of “the perfect thing to say” and declares the title of her address as “The Prime Rib of America.” She is obviously reading as she tears sheets from her script and drops them on the ground in an exaggerated fashion as she proceeds, making appropriate eye contact every few seconds. Though always measured and steady, her voice rises and falls in intensity, often accentuating words heavily and punctuating them with a pointed finger like a grandstanding politician. She even adopts the harsh cadence of a military drill sergeant at one point.

To start off her address, she raises her right hand and repeats the oath that service members take to serve the Constitution of the United States. But at the end, she shields one side of her mouth like she is telling a secret and says, “Unless there’s a gay soldier in my unit, sir.” She goes on to say that “equality is the prime rib of America,” but the fact that gays don’t get to enjoy it is hypocritical and un-American. She outlines arguments for keeping the ban in place, and breaks it down into simpler words (her own) for the audience. She refutes those defenses, expressing her feeling that defense of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is backwards and much like defending Matthew Shepard’s killers. Keeping the meat metaphor in place, she likens the Constitution to a buffet, and asks if the military should be allowed to pick and choose which parts of it to defend. She suggests a new law to send home homophobic soldiers, since she sees them as the ones with the problem. Finally she addresses her oration to “the Senate, to Americans, to Senator Olympia Snowe, Senator Susan Collins – both from Maine – and Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts” before screaming loudly in a blood-curdling voice that only Lady Gaga can create, “ARE YOU LISTENING?” She then leads the audience in a chant of “Go home! Go home!” before thanking the audience, backing up and giving the peace sign. She flings the remaining pages of her speech into the air, walks offstage and gets directly into a waiting car as “Beautiful Day” fades back in. The crowd continues to cheer as she departs.

DESCRIPTION OF NEO-ARISTOTELIAN METHOD OF ANALYSIS

An effective way to examine Lady Gaga’s “The Prime Rib of America” speech is by using the Neo-Aristotelian approach. The development of this approach by Herbert Wichelns in 1925 started the modern field of rhetorical criticism, and it dominated the field until the 1970s (Foss 22). In his essay, “The Literary Criticism of Oratory,” Wichelns separates rhetorical criticism from literary criticism, and further defines oratory as “intimately associated with statecraft . . .bound up with the things of the moment; its occasion, its terms, its background can often be understood only by the careful student of history” (28). This perspective positions the Neo-Aristotelian approach as especially well-suited to oratory – and Lady Gaga’s speech in particular – as it draws its units of analysis from the classical concept of rhetoric. While Lady Gaga may not be a classically trained rhetor, she is a modern celebrity crossing over into the realm of politics, where traditional ideas about oratory do indeed still survive. She carefully crafts a traditional feel in this oration, so we will examine her through a traditional paradigm. In keeping with strict Neo-Aristotelian methodology, this article would draw insight from an analysis of the canons of invention, organization, style, delivery and memory in Lady Gaga’s address. However, I will focus on invention and delivery, as these canons provide the most insight into the rhetorical strategies celebrities use aside from their popularity. I have examined video footage of the address and used a printed transcript to code instances of the canons in the address. The results follow.

APPLICATION AND ANALYSIS

Gaga goes beyond relying on her celebrity to persuade her audience. Instead, she effectively uses traditional rhetorical strategies, specifically within the canons of invention and delivery. First, she effectively demonstrates and uses invention in her address. It is obvious that a celebrity – especially one as popular as Lady Gaga – walks onto a stage with a tremendous amount of initial ethos. The attendees of the Portland rally are clearly excited to see her. They are all undoubtedly aware of her commitment to the cause, as the media widely covered her actions at the VMAs the week before. The audience is titillated by Gaga’s arrival, and demonstrates that it will hang on her every word as she uses silence to test her control of it before beginning her speech. But she also creates ethos by demonstrating knowledge of the arguments the proponents of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” use. She takes time to break the arguments down for her audience so that they might understand the arguments and her perspective on them. She is careful to align herself with gays, even though she is not a gay woman, by saying things like, “because I’m gay.” She makes a concerted effort to appear as one of “the people.” At the end of her speech, she declares her name as “Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta” instead of Lady Gaga. She is bursting out from behind her celebrity and building credibility as an ordinary United States citizen. At the same time, her politician-like outfit and demeanor also lend credibility to her as we shall see more explicitly in analysis of delivery.

Beyond her play with ethos, Gaga lays out several logical arguments, creating logos. Her arguments center on exposing hypocrisy. She exposes hypocrisy in the oath that service members take, since discriminatory policies against gays still exist in the United States.  She exposes the hypocrisy of the military being able to pick and choose from a metaphorical buffet of rights to defend. Bringing our attention to metaphors, we observe that she relies on her meat metaphor from the VMAs to make the logical argument that freedom and equality represent the best about our country – the choicest cut of meat – and it should be equally available to all, according to the Constitution. This metaphor also drives home the idea that service members, like celebrities, are often treated like pieces of meat. If gays want to serve their country as warm bodies holding guns, they should have that right because in the end we are all made of meat – even celebrities.

Gaga also bravely wields pathos as a weapon, invoking Matthew Shepard and his murderers. She draws a parallel between defendants of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the defendants of Shepard’s murderers. This is especially important and effective in building her argument, because defendants of discriminatory laws seem to distance themselves from accusations that their claims are based in racism, sexism, or here, homophobia. Again, she works to expose hypocrisy by bringing the emotion of disgust to the forefront. The Matthew Shepard torture and murder almost evokes mythos for gays and lesbians (and anyone, in fact), as it was such a horrific and tragic event. The tragedy was widely covered in the media and Matthew’s death spawned a nationwide movement of advocacy for hate crimes laws and against homophobia. In this respect, Gaga could have almost gone too far in wielding his name. Instead, she achieves her goal of bringing emotion into play.

Most striking is Gaga’s use of delivery. Here, she really differentiates herself from other celebrity activists. She arrives looking almost like a caricature of a political orator – the suit and the glasses offset by the Charlie’s Angels hair and mile-high stilettoes. Her glasses and peace sign echo Alan Greenspan and Richard Nixon. But we quickly see that she is playing by the rules, albeit with her own unique spin on them. She is interpreting and expressing her vision of the standards of formality that are proscribed for political orators. She takes them on, repackages them and presents them to us. She is not just a celebrity offering up a motivational speech at a rally; at this moment she is an orator and a true rhetor. Although she is reading, she makes eye contact with the audience. She also maintains control of them, eliciting cheers and jeers where she wants them. Her voice is steady, and although she makes mistakes (probably due to lack of preparation as she made special arrangements to fly to Maine and back between tour dates) she recovers from them skillfully and quickly, avoiding the pitfall of stuttering or using stalling techniques that one expects from an unseasoned orator, such as “uuuuhh,” which even lauded orators like Barack Obama occasionally fall back on to this day. Gaga stands tall with commanding posture, leaning on the podium only to break down arguments into plain language for the audience. She emphasizes many of her words with a finger pointed in the air, much like politicians do. She puts her hand on her heart when talking about herself. She assumes the rights and responsibilities of a political orator.

As a celebrity activist, Lady Gaga clearly does not rely on her popularity and initial ethos to do the arguing for her. Even if her arguments are a bit underdeveloped and the metaphors she uses to convey them are a bit out-there, Gaga still works within the classical canon of invention. She is indeed a master at delivery, especially on short notice. She tailors her appearance, voice and gestures to what an audience may be expecting of a political orator. We can satisfy at least part of our initial research question with these findings. Beyond their popularity and initial ethos, celebrities can use traditional rhetorical strategies to achieve persuasion. The canons are not reserved for politicians and critics. They are time-tested persuasive tools that can be employed by anyone – even Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta from New York City.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSION

While this study was constrained by time and space requirements, we already begin to see from it that celebrity is a kind of hyper-ethos that a rhetor can bring to the podium. But persuasive speech likely requires more than just excessive ethos. Further research into the effectiveness of other celebrities’ attempts at persuasive speech will be illuminating, especially if critics focus on how much the celebrities rely on their fame. Another arm of research into celebrity activists’ rhetoric may be a generic criticism of the “elevator speech” they tend to regurgitate when talk-show hosts offer them ten seconds to talk about their causes. Also, an in-depth rhetorical analysis of how Lady Gaga maintains a parasocial relationship with her fans en masse will be highly valuable to critics of rhetoric. Regardless, examining Lady Gaga’s “The Prime Rib of America” speech provides valuable insight into the communication process and cements Lady Gaga’s status as a truly talented artist, even outside the disciplines of music and fashion.

WORKS CITED

“Don’t ask don’t tell.” Wikipedia. 21 Sep. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_ask,_don%27t_tell&gt;. Web.

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. 4th ed. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009. Print.

“Lady Gaga Rallies for Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in Portland, Maine – 9/20/10.” Online posting. YouTube. 21 Sep. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4rGla6OzGc&gt;. Web.

Towle, Andy. “DADT Update: Lady Gaga, SLDN, Outserve Appeal to Maine Senators.” Towleroad. 21 Sep. 2011. < http://www.towleroad.com/2010/09/dadt-update-lady-gaga-sldn-outserve-appeal-to-maine-senators.html#ixzz1YcrIhj7u&gt;. Web.

Towle, Andy. “Lady Gaga Heading to Maine.” Towleroad. 21 Sep. 2011. <http://www.towleroad.com/2010/09/lady-gaga-heading-to-maine-for-dadt-rally-on-monday.html&gt;. Web.

Wichelns, Herbert A. “The Literary Criticism of Oratory.” Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: a Twentieth Century Perspective. Ed. Robert Scott and Bernard Brock. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Print.


2 Comments on “The Meat of the Matter: A Neo-Aristotelian Analysis of Lady Gaga’s “The Prime Rib of America” Address”

  1. francine says:

    This is great! writing a paper on the same thing with the same text book by Foss. great work! keep it up


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