When Lady Gaga's camp announced that it would be releasing an exclusive edition -- complete with remixes and three additional studio cuts -- of the upcoming "Born This Way" album at Target, it excited some of her Little Monsters for the wrong reasons. Gaga, of course, enjoys enormous support from the gay community and is very vocal in reciprocating that love. After all, "Born This Way" is the 1,000th No. 1 single, but the first in 50-plus years of chart-toppers to use the word "transgendered."
So how, some of her fans wondered, could she choose to support a retail chain that made headlines last election season for using $150,000 of corporate funds to support a political action committee -- MN Forward, an ostensibly pro-business political action committee -- that supported Tom Emmer in his failed 2010 run for governor of Minnesota? Emmer's campaign had earlier made a donation to a Christian rock organization that advocates death and violence to gays. Emmer also supported a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel quickly apologized to the public and Target employees for the support of Emmer. But following the apology, further donations to the political right -- and specifically to candidates with anti-gay voting records -- were made.
Gaga spoke to the issue for the first time in this interview, telling Billboard that she wasn't comfortable with the Target partnership when it first came up as a possibility, and that she met with "the entire executive staff" at Target, along with her manager Troy Carter.
"That discussion was one of the most intense conversations I've ever had in a business meeting," Gaga says. "Part of my deal with Target is that they have to start affiliating themselves with LGBT charity groups and begin to reform and make amends for the mistakes they've made in the past...our relationship is hinged upon their reform in the company to support the gay community and to redeem the mistakes they've made supporting those groups."
The reality may be a bit more complicated than that, however. Target VP of communications Dustee Jenkins spoke with Billboard at length expressing Target's excitement to be working with Lady Gaga and portraying the controversial donations as more of a lack of procedural oversight than anything else.
Jenkins says to that end, Target has created a new "policy committee" to review such matters. The committee doesn't include Steinhafel and has yet to have its first quarterly meeting, but Jenkins directed Billboard to a page on Target's corporate site that had "in the last week or two" posted new guidelines for Target's political contributions.
To be clear, Target is not all bad news for the LGBT community. Jenkins noted a recent interview with Target director of enterprise strategy Daniel Duty, an openly gay employee who spoke to Dot429.com about what a great employer Target was for gay professionals. And Jenkins also mentioned that Target had already earmarked "almost a half-million dollars" to spend on various organizations within the LGBT community, name-checking Out and Equal Workplace, as well as local Minnesota groups such as Twin Cities Pride and Project 515.
Without a doubt, those dollars will be cherished and put to good use by those organizations. But in the world of corporate cause spending, it's worth contextualizing that figure. Jenkins says Target spends $3 million per week on community causes, which means its spend on LGBT issues represents roughly less than 2% of that budget.
And as with most large companies, political donations are a complicated calculus of company identity and strategic business interests. Case in point: Best Buy, another partner to the music industry, also donated $100,000 to MN Forward; Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said on his blog to employees, "In our quest to focus on jobs and the economy, we've disappointed and confused some employees and customers. I'm taking it to heart."
Jenkins says she "didn't think" Gaga's feedback had resulted in direct policy change, but that she was one of many voices Target had considered in order to better understand issues concerning the LGBT community. For example, Jenkins cited a recent meeting in San Francisco between LGBT groups and Target executives, but declined to provide greater detail. "We very much appreciated the conversation and the dialogue with [Lady Gaga] and her team all along the way," Jenkins says. "They've been a wonderful partner in this and they certainly shared their feedback."
Jenkins says Target is now committed to being more "thoughtful" -- she used the word 11 times in a half-hour interview -- about the issue of political donations. But when asked directly, she couldn't guarantee that Target wouldn't end up making future donations to candidates with anti-gay voting records. "No," Jenkins says, "but what I can say is that we're going to use our policy committee to ensure that we're being more thoughtful."
They may well want to be, as Gaga will undoubtedly hear from her beloved fans if that thoughtfulness doesn't present itself. She repeatedly mentions her love for her fans and her desire to "assault" the senses of mainstream America with a pro-LGBT sensibility. "It's so important to me, please, to clear up any misconceptions or concerns," she says of the Target relationship. "Whatever you can do to assure my fans and the gay community that I have their back, please do."