“What the heck are these blue balls in Lady Gaga’s MTV Music Video Awards peformance Sunday night?”
That’s the question I got emailed this week from a friend of mine. Since I wrote a book about how Lady Gaga built her loyal fan base, he thought I would know. Well, this confusion from my friend is a classic Gaga technique for building loyalty and is one of the lessons in my book.
The idea here is to create and use symbols that only your community of loyalists will understand.
In history, studies of cultures and societies often show an emergence of shared symbols. We can all visualize many symbols we share with others as members of a given group, city, or country. These shared symbols are tangible vehicles through which some meaning is expressed. The symbols could be gestural, pictorial, object-oriented, linguistic, or some combination of these. Through the repeated process of rituals, symbols are given significance in the group. Shared symbols also have the ability to be exclusionary. Those who can recognize and understand the meaning of these symbols feel part of the group, like they be long, while outsiders will not understand the meaning and turn away, sometimes mocking the symbols. Gaga and the Little Monsters use many symbols to communicate with each other, with the most well known one being the “monster paw.” By using these symbols that only her loyal fans understand, she is speaking to them in a special language. Fans feel a strong bond to the community, and to Gaga, because they feel part of a special club of people who understand what the symbolism represents, while outsiders do not.
This is exactly what Gaga was doing with the VMA performance of her new single, “Applause,” from her upcoming album ARTPOP. The concept of the album is that Gaga wants to bringing art back into pop culture. The 4:51 minute performance was chock full of costume changes (three in all), blue metallic balls and face painting.
You may not have understood all the imagery or references, but Gaga doesn’t care. She want to create an entertaing performance for everyone but she includes these special symbols that she knows only her diehard fans will understand. Here’s what most Little Monsters recognized:
1. The opening white outfit was inspired by the floating dress worn during the Born This Way album tour for the song “Bloody Mary.” The white board around her head was meant to portray a blank canvas for the artist.
2. The opening few lines that Gaga sings a cappella are not on ARTPOP but were written especially for this performance.
3. The boos and shouts of “Lady Gaga is over!” as Gaga floated down the stage in the white outfit were not from the live audience but were part of the soundtrack to symbolize that artists must deal with harsh criticism.
4. The first costume change into the sparkly blue, heavily shoulder-padded jacket and skirt with a platinum bob wig was a nod to the looks she sported during “Just Dance” days from her first album, The Fame.
5. The second costume change to the bright yellow wig was reminiscent of her “Telephone” video with Beyonce.
6. Special metallic blue balls the size of cantaloupes are carried by dancers at one point in the performance and even Gaga grabs one and throws it across the stage. The balls are a reference to pop artist Jeff Koons “Gazing Balls” exhibition from earlier this year. Gaga is a big fan of the artist and he is mentioned in the lyrics to “Applause.”
7. The third costume change, into a just barely-there seashell bikini, is a reference Botticelli’s famous painting, the Birth of Venus.
Note: all photos are credited to Kevin Mazure/WireImage
The key to shared symbols, like the Terrible Towel and the Apple logo, is not the symbol itself. What is important is how the meaning of the symbols binds a community together. People who are part of the community truly understand its meaning and are moved by it. For Steelers fans, we wave the Towel to rally our players when they need our help to accomplish a crucial first down. No matter that the players are on TV and they can’t hear or see us. We know they can feel us. Yes, I know that may seem ridiculous to non-fans, but die-hard fans understand the power of the Towel. When Apple fans see other sporting the Apple logo, it says that that person “thinks different” just like they do.
What symbols do you have for your business that your only your best customers understand? Have your fans created their own symbols that they use online? Try building symbolism into your marketing to help engender more loyalty and emotional connections to customers.