Lady Gaga, Star with Roots in Appalachia, Campaigns in Pittsburgh — Mom from West Virginia Town Left for NYC, Part of Rural America Brain Drain

A divided Moundsville watches: “She should wear a Steelers jersey.”

On one level, Lady Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh tonight with Joe Biden, on the last night of the 2020 election, is a classic celebrity endorsement. Gaga is a globally famous pop star. Politicians seek out props like Lady Gaga all the time.

On another, Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh, Paris of Appalachia, is a reminder of the changing geography and economics of America, as depicted in our film, Moundsville, available on PBS or on this site.

Moundsville, WV (pop. 8,400), is a nearby town, built around a 2,200-year-old Native American burial mound, that once housed some of the world’s mightiest factories, including Fostoria Glass and Marx Toy Plant, maker of Rock’em Sock’em robots.

Lady Gaga’s mom, Cynthia Louise Germanotta, grew up in the Moundsville area in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, like millions of Americans, she left for bigger cities, in her case, New York. Factories were closing, destroying millions of good, middle-class jobs, destroying people’s dreams of any future in the area, and helping places like New York City rebuild. Lady Gaga’s grandmother stayed behind, part of the aging populations in the Rust Belt who helped elect President Trump in 2016.

These regions are not going to rebound until they can figure out ways of drawing young, talented people back to them, which, as James and Deb Fallows report in their excellent Our Towns book and upcoming HBO movie, is in fact happening in a lot of places. (Yes, Pittsburgh is one of them.) Lady Gaga could help America by making rebuilding small towns sexy.

Affirming her connection to Appalachian Trumpian good ole boy culture, Gaga posted a video of herself in camo in front of a pick-up truck. “I’m voting for America,” she tells the camera. “Which means, I’m voting for Joe Biden.”

“And if you live in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Florida or Arizona,” Gaga continues, “I encourage you to vote. And if you have a friend that lives there, tell them to vote. I’m going to be in one of these states tomorrow. Guess which one I’ll be in. Hint: I used to live there.”

She drinks from the beer can, squeezes liquid out it, then slams it on the ground. “Cheers,” she declares, “the 2020 election.”

The state she’s referring to is of course Pennsylvania. In Moundsville, just over an hour away from Pittsburgh, Gaga is still popular, even if her politics leave people just as divided as the 2020 election. That beer, truck and camo video is funny, but it probably isn’t swinging that many votes in the end; West Virginia is a lock for President Trump.

“People are very opinionated,” Rose Hart, founder of the Appalachian Outreach charity, told me. “Strong supporters of Trump, or they can’t stand him and are going to Biden because of him.”

Playing in nearby Pittsburgh is “a good move for Biden, and her fan base,” said Steve Hummel, owner of Moundsville’s Archives of the Afterlife, a paranormal museum. “Politics is business.”

There are ways Lady Gaga could bring people in Appalachia together. “She should wear a Steelers jersey,”said Alex Martinez, who works at the Acapulco restaurant in Moundsville, “or an all-meat uniform.” (Gaga wore a meat costumer at the MTV awards in 2010.) The Steelers, currently 7-0, are wildly popular in West Virginia.

“She has her own opinion, but she should keep it to herself,” said former Moundsville mayor, and Trump supporter, Phil Remke. The town is still proud of her, he added. Lady Gaga, he said, “is allowed her own opinion.”

John W. Miller

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