Superstar Meets Supermom

Suzanne Fields

2/18/2011 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

It's not easy to perfect a formula to encourage human aspiration, but two very different women in the headlines think they've done it. Lady Gaga, who just won a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance, and the Tiger Mom, whose controversial book on "parenting" became an instant best-seller, are cut from the same cloth to make a splashy costume. Both have cleverly manufactured a personal story, sensationalized its message and packaged it in a way that sells to the insecure, the overanxious and the ill at ease. Superstar meets Supermom.

Though backgrounds, methods and measurements for success may be different, they both understand that we live in an age where frustration is the mother of invention, and as with the oyster, irritation is crucial. They get a pearl even if it's fake.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Germanotta, was angry when she didn't get the adulation and attention she thought she deserved as a classically trained pianist with a pretty face and dark hair who sang in high school musicals.

In interviews, she glibly describes her younger self (she's now an aging 24) as an insecurity freak. She tweets how she got upset when she was called "rabbit teeth." (Poor bunny.) Before she was Lady Gaga, Stefani had a hard time selling herself as marginalized, since she attended the same Catholic private school for girls as Paris and Niki Hilton on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Then she discovered that by carefully cultivating "outsider" status, she could offer therapeutic hype to those who feel vulnerable among the multicultural -- gay, black, white, beige and chola who perceive themselves as wounded by life's arbitrary darts and arrows. "Whether life's disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today."

Her fans look upon her as a goddess who walks among them, and if not on water, on 10-inch McQueen stilettos, a paragon for our time. If Lady Gaga can be comfortable "in the religion of the insecure," they can be, too: "You are a superstar no matter who you are!" (Sure you are.)

She's a pop preacher woman in the pulpit of performance art. At the Grammys, she hatched herself from inside a super-sized translucent egg, wearing a plastic see-through body suit that rendered her as looking like an alien with pointy shoulders, outstaging, updating and outfoxing Madonna. Critic Camille Paglia suggests she represents the end of the sexual revolution. Elton John calls her new song an "anthem" for gays. That about covers it from A to B, which is about as far as any performer has to go these days.

Amy Chua sings another kind of song in "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom," a handbook for mothers who want to act like the wicked fairy-tale stepmother with the questionably benign purpose of making sure their offspring learn Mandarin, understand particle-beam physics and perform in Carnegie Hall, no matter what the sacrifices. You could call her technique metaphorical foot-binding.

Born in the Midwest to Filipino immigrants of Chinese descent, Chua also characterizes herself as an outsider with childhood angst. Today, she's a Yale law professor who wishes she could have had an ordinary bologna sandwich "like everybody else." But there's lots more here than obsessing over bologna deprivation. Chua knows she's tapping into every mother's guilt for "not doing enough."

In these times of two-career families and microwave dinners, of soaring college tuitions and overwhelming competition to get into the elite universities, she reaches into Everyparent's anxieties. Her book coincides with studies that show American students as way short of the math and science scores of their Asian counterparts, exposing a dangerous decline in learning.

By making herself a tyrant -- rejecting her daughters' handmade birthday cards, forbidding girly sleepovers and play dates -- the Tiger Mom enables the reader to feel superior to her emotionally, while at the same time forcing a debate over the best way to train the next generation. Her Jewish husband -- they're raising their daughters Jewish -- offers "Jewish-mother" balance. Both parents are well accomplished, suggesting nature as well as nurture, that genes as well as discipline is at work. Like Lady Gaga, Tiger Mom characterizes other mothers as like herself. "I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify, too," she says.

Both Lady Gaga and the Tiger Mom are smart, talented and slick. No one -- well, not everyone -- begrudges them the big bucks they'll earn from their hard work in music halls and motherhood, in composing and writing. But we should be intelligent critics, not easily duped or naive, and recognize that their message is hyped for the hard sell, dumbed-down and sensationed-up, over-generalized, overwrought, overdone and overrated. Buyers beware.