From dating to political organizing, nearly every gay community-building experience has migrated (largely, if not entirely) online.
Add another: the day-of-the-diva album buying experience.
Earlier this week, Lady Gaga released an official version of her “long-anticipated” new single a week “early” in response to an Internet “leak.” (Please note my qualifying air-quotes.) The exciting, catchy song, “Applause,” is a three-minute ego stroke that pays tribute to the singer’s nouveau-icon status, and the virtual gay clubs had a commensurate freak-out. Facebook and Twitter exploded with blog links and amateur reviews and lots of exclamation points!!! signaling that something big was afoot in pop culture.
Over the last forty years or so, as new technologies (cable TV, digital song files, the Internet) have multiplied and more pervasive marketing strategies have emerged, new music releases have developed the ability to be “events.” Naturally, none have taken better advantage of that capacity for pre-release buzz and drama than the reigning gay pop divas of each decade: Cher, Madonna, Britney and now, Lady Gaga. For gay men in particular, the release of a new album by any of these names is enough to incite a “Running of the Brides” type stampede to the nearest record store.
Or rather, computer: the mad rush is now to a keyboard, and it’s into cyber-space that the collective channels its excitement. Sure, the excitement over “Applause” online was real and palpable. Yet the “shared” experience among fans was really just an act of everyone being isolated at the same time. We increasingly listen alone, even as we allow our opinions to be shaped by overpowering tidal waves of online groupthink that are increasingly impossible to outrun.
I know plenty of folks remember record buying when it was a truly tangible experience: scooping up vinyls from crates at some head shop that smelled like patchouli. My teen years weren’t quite as romantic – unless you consider stocking up on CDs at the mall’s Sam Goody, the scent of French fries from the neighboring McDonald’s wafting through, to be a religious experience. (Okay, confession: I do.) But music lovers my age have had a foot in each world. We are old enough to remember queuing up at a brick and mortar store for a new album, and young enough to have been engaged with digital music delivery since the advent of Napster. (The revolutionary file-sharing platform founded by someone I could have gone to high school with.)
I can trace that evolution in my Madonna albums. (She’s my queen, Gaga For Gaga types.) Until the millennium, the process was always the same. I’d trot to the record store on the day of release, grab a copy, and listen to it over and over. I’d form my own opinion on where it ranked among the other entries in her pop catalogue, and the only real way to compare notes with other fans was in real life conversations at parties where there wasn’t much else to talk about and you couldn’t yet feign iPhone preoccupation to avoid chitchat. (“No, I agree. Ray of Light is her best work yet.”)
Madonna’s 2000 album Music was the last I bought without Internet assistance. I walked to Boston’s Tower Records at midnight to grab a copy; they always stayed open late on the night of big new releases, so that die-hard fans scoop up their coveted CD. (I remember seeing a lot of cowgirl hats and studded jeans in line that night.) When 2003’s American Life came out, it was the first time Madonna offered digital pre-sale: buy the lead single ahead of time, and it would be delivered to your PC early. I did it (how could I not?) but I remember feeling that something was underwhelming. Not just the song, eking out of my computer speakers instead of booming out of a proper stereo. It was the experience of obtaining it that felt a little – boring. By the time the album came out, nearly half the tracks had received online previews through promotional partnerships with everyone from AOL to MTV. Most of 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, the last album I bought in a midnight sale, had leaked well ahead of its official release. Since then, I’ve had to conscientiously avoid sonic spoilers, or make appetite-whetting bargains with myself. (“Okay, you an only listen to four songs ahead of time…”) I still stay up until midnight, but just to hit the iTunes “PURCHASE” button as soon as it becomes active. The physical album I buy whenever I get around to it, maybe weeks later. And I’m already in a dwindling minority that insists on having a hard copy.
Along the way, whether with Madonna or any of the other gals du jour, the shopping experience allowed for a certain amount of caring and sharing. I had a tradition with one close college friend whereby we would skip class on the day of a new Britney Spears release (which happened annually, she once made albums like McNuggets), hit the same Best Buy, and spend the day cruising around: experiencing every new song for the first time together, and debating our new faves. This bonding experience was so ridiculous and yet so deeply meaningful, even after she moved to California she planned a trip back to Boston just to buy Blackout together. (Priorities, people.)
But compare that to the circumstances that brought us “Applause.” Months of chatter and speculation; a leak; then 24 hours later it’s out, everyone’s heard it, and we’re over it. In, out, on to the next. The only thing still shaping up is which way the online winds will blow about the reception to it. Because evaluations of pop stars, much like politicians, happen less frequently around dinner tables now – and more often online, where the race to be snarkiest somehow manages to crowd source opinions of whether “we” are totally into someone or “we” are totally over them.
I know, times change. Mediums change. And there’s always one diva or another blaring at the clubs, serving up the latest self-empowerment anthem for gay guys to wrap themselves in. In that sense, they still build community. But I can’t help but wonder if it would be stronger if we still heard them for the first time together, on a car radio with a best friend, rather than in isolation on our laptop headphones. Or if we still met up with fellow fans on the eve of the big event, drooling with anticipation and reveling, IRL, in shared excitement.
Besides, imagine how cool those meat dress costumes would look in line.