“We want Michael! We want Michael! We want Michael!” – Crowd
“Here he is, here’s the guy want to see!” – Homer Simpson
“He’s three hundred pounds!” – Apu Nahasapeemapetilon
“He’s white!” – Woman in Crowd
“He’s dressed without flair!” – Moe
“Boooo! Boo!” – Crowd
It would take an awful lot of words just to catalog, to say nothing of exploring or explaining, the myriad of mistakes that comprise “Lisa Goes Gaga”. The episode had it all: bizarre and comedy free flights of fancy, unvarnished celebrity marketing, excruciatingly bad exposition, magic powers, characters acting bizarrely out of type (Lisa, Skinner, there were a lot), pointless and unrelated scenes, and, to top it all off, the entire thing may or may not have been the dream of some anonymous backup dancer. But all of those problems cascaded from one central failing, the inability of Zombie Simpsons to handle the very famous.
Whether or not you are a fan of her songs or of the outsize public persona to which her music is only tangentially connected, Lady Gaga is undeniably one of the most famous and discussed people on planet Earth here in 2012. She’s enormously popular with her fans, of course, but she’s also reached that rare level of fame where literally anything she does is news to the celebrity press, and her statements and actions frequently push beyond the paparazzi ghetto and into regular news. Even a passing familiarity with popular culture requires you to at least know who she is.
This is Wikipedia’s list of Season 23’s guest stars:
Aron Ralston, Jane Lynch, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Tim Heidecker, Gordon Ramsay, Eric Wareheim, Neil Gaiman, Andy García, Kevin Michael Richardson, John Slattery, Matthew Weiner, Kevin Dillon, Janeane Garofalo, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Dana Gould, Ted Nugent, Armie Hammer, David Letterman, The Tiger Lillies, Jeremy Irons, Michael Cera, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Julian Assange, Kelsey Grammer, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Jackie Mason, Robbie Conal, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, Nicholas McKaig, Kenny Scharf, David Byrne, Glenn Close, Brent Spiner, Kevin Michael Richardson, Steve Coogan, Treat Williams, Bryan Cranston, Eric Idle
There are a lot of recognizable names on that list, but in terms of raw fame, none of them are even in the same league with the one time Stefani Germanotta. Parts assigned to a bunch of television chefs, or a talk show host, or even some well known movie star are basically interchangeable. There are, after all, quite a few television chefs, and if Jeremy Irons doesn’t want to be the talking bar rag, there are plenty of other respectable British actors with great voices out there. There is only one Lady Gaga.
That yawning fame gap means that you have to do something special for her. Just having her show up as somebody’s girlfriend or rival won’t fly. Even more importantly, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Someone who draws that much attention from that many places opens up a nearly unlimited array of potential subjects and stories. Zombie Simpsons wasted all that by having Lady Gaga not just play herself, but play herself as Lady Gaga the Megastar.
We’ll do what she did, and that’ll make people like us, right?
(Second image shamelessly yoinked from here.)
Twenty seasons ago, The Simpsons took a similar opportunity with Michael Jackson – who was, relative to the time, probably even more famous than Gaga is now – and turned it into one of their most memorable episodes. Crucially, they did it by stripping Michael Jackson of everything that made him Michael Jackson the Megastar: his looks, his fame, his fashion, his sex appeal, everything. All they left him with was his talent and his voice, which, if you’re having him play a fictional cartoon character, are the only truly important parts.
Creative, recognizable and funny will always be better than mindless repetition.
They understood that exaggerating the already exaggerated – and that kind of globe spanning fame is nothing if not the exaggeration of one person into something more than a person – was pointless. Once someone has actually taken a chimpanzee with him on tour or gone out in public wearing a dress made of meat, there isn’t anything you can do to make the situation meaningfully stranger. Trying to compete with things like that by making them even bigger or weirder isn’t the least bit creative, it’s just an animated imitation of something someone else is already doing. If news broke tomorrow that Lady Gaga was touring in a pink and purple train with giant shoes on its drive wheels and a built in concert stage, you might be impressed, but you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
By contrast, making Michael Jackson an ordinary person is a real feat. Unexceptional and unremarkable are two things Michael Jackson never was. From the time he became famous as a child right up until his death, Jackson was always larger than life. But on The Simpsons (and really only on The Simpsons), he was just a guy, a bricklayer from New Jersey who liked it when people were nice to him.
That humanity is why the story in “Stark Raving Dad” has such heart to it and why the episode is unique among all the things Michael Jackson was famous for. Bart and the rest of the town love Michael the Megastar. For them, it’s about the album sales and the dance moves and the one white glove covered in rhinestones. For Leon Kompowsky, however, those things are incidental to Michael Jackson, the talented boy who loves his sisters and writes songs for them.
The only time “Lisa Goes Gaga” even hinted at that kind of depth and creativity was when Lisa went off on Gaga for giving people false hope and unrealistic expectations. All the positive attitude and self confidence in the world can’t change the fact that sometimes people fail, that sometimes life gives you lemons that cannot be turned into lemonade. But the episode dropped that idea almost as soon as it considered it, and ended with Lisa doing things that the overwhelming majority of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters will never get to do: meet her and sing with her and experience even a little bit of what it’s like to look upon the world from that tremendous height. After all, there’s a parallel universe somewhere in which Germanotta stubbed her toe before an audition or didn’t meet the right people and today she’s wearing regular clothes and working at a temp agency for slightly more than minimum wage.
The Simpsons openly contemplated that idea by showing that what made Michael Jackson special would’ve still made him special even if he’d been a fat mental patient who dressed without flair and never sold a single record. After all, his music could reach deep and bring people together even when it was played on an overturned waste basket. Massive fame and all the glitzy trappings that come with it may be nice, but they are too impersonal to define a person or their talent. Zombie Simpsons was too distracted by the shiny objects to notice that, so they mistook Lady Gaga’s fame and the pizzazz that comes with it as an end in itself rather than as a side effect of something more important. Once that mistake was made, the episode never had a chance.