How Lady Gaga Embodies America's Prosperity Trap

She’s talented, but like many Americans takes too many privileges for granted

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The poor kid. She felt tormented in high school, where the rich(er) kids were mean and other students regarded her as a freak. Her parents were strict. She tried to be different and found it tough. When she succeeded, other people tried to claim credit for it.

You could almost feel sorry for Lady Gaga, the cubist-clad pop phenomenon who, at 24, has become the biggest-selling recording artist on the planet. But take a step back and you realize that she feels so sorry for herself that no additional sympathy is needed. Even more than that, Gaga's prolonged adolescent funk (which may still be ongoing) reflects a kind of fin de siècle narcissism that afflicts much of America: We had no idea how lucky we were over the last 50 years. Gaga may be one of the few who can still get away with it.

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Gaga talks about ambition and accomplishment in a recent Vanity Fair cover story, complete with the kinds of odd and risque poses that have made her Public Enemy No. 1 to millions of parents. "Nobody f---in' made me who I am today," she tells writer Lisa Robinson, who seems to buy the tortured-artist storyline. Then Gaga decries "everyone that was spitting in my face and making me feel so worthless."

Well, not exactly everyone. Lady Gaga's uncomfortable childhood included parents whom Vanity Fair describes as "middle class," who raised their family on Manhattan's Upper West Side—where a modest, two-bedroom apartment typically costs $1 million or more. Her parents sent Gaga and her sister to an elite private school where tuition is currently $35,000 per year. So for the Gaga family (technically, the Germanottas) tuition payments alone were more than the median annual income for the typical American household. When Gaga got dumped by a boyfriend or crashed after a drug binge, according to Vanity Fair, a supportive family gave her refuge and helped her recover, with no Palinesque drama or pouty siblings battling her for attention. She also received years of private music and voice lessons from top-shelf instructors, providing her with deep classical training that many self-taught musicians would kill for. Oh, the agony.

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Maybe at some level, the young woman personified by the Lady Gaga stage act appreciates these profound privileges. But in her public statements, Lady Gaga sounds like a lot of other disaffected Americans who are miffed that things didn't turn out better. She fails to realize that she won the "Ovarian lottery," as Warren Buffett puts it, by simply being born into what was perhaps the most privileged generation ever. She regards challenges and setbacks as unfair events that ought not have happened to her. In short, Gaga represents America's entitled class, the scion of the baby boomers, who feel they deserve a fulfilling life without having to overexert themselves.

Gaga is obviously a huge success, but the sense of entitlement she exudes in the following Vanity Fair excerpts reflects the prosperity trap many Americans find themselves in: They're becoming deeply disillusioned as comforts they grew up with and took for granted slowly slip out of reach. Gaga, a multimillionaire, has escaped this trap, but many in her cohort won't.

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A few disclaimers about my analysis of the following quotes: It's possible that the mischievous Gaga is fooling everybody by making random statements that don't reflect her true feelings. So maybe the joke is on me and my fellow scolds. I don't know what she has told Vanity Fair or other news outlets that didn't get published, so context is missing. And the precocious Gaga is still full of youthful grandiloquence that even she may look back on and smirk at. Still, most twentysomethings don't go around saying things like this:

I just bought my parents a Rolls Royce for their anniversary because I knew that they would never buy anything like that for themselves. Who would! Oh right, a self-important celebrity trying to reward herself for what she feels is a lifetime of backbreaking labor. If her parents had their way, they'd probably forego the Rolls and put the money into a 401(k). Still, the Rolls ought to come in handy in Manhattan, where Mama and Papa Gaga can now creep along in luxurious slow-motion instead of speeding beneath the streets on the subway. Hopefully she also ponied up for a parking garage.

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I've been eating s--t my whole life in terms of my career—well, I ate s--t for about four or five years. Only four or five years? Not bad. A lot of people eat it far longer than that—and never end up rich. That torturous training as a kid may have saved you another 10 or 20 years of misery.

My fans are more iconic than this purse. And I love fashion, but I don't love it more than my fans. And that's what this bag is all about. This is how Gaga rationalized the purchase of an Hermes Birkin handbag (price range: $9,000 to $34,000), which she allowed fans to decorate with graffiti. That's how she turned an elite status symbol into a tribute to ordinary ennui. Get it? Now that is brilliant American consumerism, talking yourself into a lavish treat by defining it as a gift to somebody else. How selfless. If only she had charged it on a credit card then defaulted when she couldn't make the payments.

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I don't want people to love me. I want them to love themselves. But if they didn't love you, you wouldn't be able to buy your parents a Rolls or your fans a Birkin, and you'd still have that awful taste in your mouth….

I'm a lion, and I can't be destroyed. Except by yourself.