“Stardate 2009: Lady Gaga has been sent to earth to infiltrate human culture one sequin at a time. Activate camera probe.” So begins every kitschy, pulsating episode of Transmission Gagavision, the online video log of Lady Gaga, the planet’s newest pop sensation, who could well be described as Ziggy Stardust’s overindulged Gen Y spawn. Ever since last fall, when she launched her debut album, The Fame, Gaga’s chart-topping dance singles Poker Face, Just Dance and Love Game have been perpetually in the ether. While other pop stars are blogging about feelings, erroneous tabloid rumours, and half-baked political views, Lady Gaga’s “transmissions” are a multimedia orgy of fashion, performance, and free-floating commentary about how thoroughly she plans to astound the public with her art. “I don’t like blogging,” she said recently in an interview. “I think it ruins the mystery of the artist. I don’t really want people to care too much what I think about anything other than art and fashion and music.”
Another thing Lady Gaga doesn’t much care for: pants. Even those who have never heard her music—futuristic, disco-influenced dance tracks—may have come across media reports about her aversion to pants. More often than not, she’d rather appear at red carpet events, on TV interviews and on stage in lavishly adorned PVC bodysuits. “I think no pants is sexy,” she told MSN. “I love the naked human body.” Earlier this year in Chicago, she was stopped by police after venturing out in what could fairly be called underwear. “It was really funny,” she later said, “because all you saw was this half-naked girl on the street yelling at some cop, ‘It’s fashion! I’m an artist!’ It was fun.” More recently, being photographed outside St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, she was mistaken for a prostitute by Russian cops and shooed away. “It’s very strange, to be completely honest. There are a lot of pop stars that don’t wear pants,” she told TheStyleSpy.com, adding, “It’s very ’70s and it’s very freeing. Here’s the thing. For me, it’s not stage clothes and then outside clothes. I have always been this way.” On June 21, when she appears in Toronto at the MuchMusic Video Awards, Canada can expect enormous crowds and scant pants.
Lady Gaga—née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, 23—is not so much a who but a what. She is her own creation—a gender-bending, ageless figment of her own imagination. “Gaga’s my real name now,” she told one British interviewer when he pressed her. “It’s been that way for years and years.” Helping her to execute her vision is a collective of young artists known as The Haus of Gaga—based on Andy Warhol’s Factory—that is devoted to outfitting her in preposterous designs, producing novel choreography, art-directing her performances, and generally keeping her 10 steps ahead of every other mainstream artist, even when she’s on the most mainstream of stages (recently she has stunned audiences on American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and The Today Show). Before the public has even processed one of her bizarro fashion statements, Gaga is onto something even more confounding: the hair bow made of hair, the zippered eye patch, the bubble dress, the geisha lips, the purple china tea cup she carted all around London, the giant gold metal headpiece that orbited her head while she chatted casually and pleasantly with Ellen DeGeneres on daytime TV. An overt, fluid sexuality is part of her shtick, but her aim is never to look conventionally attractive. Rather, she often distorts her body, playing with shape and proportion so that half the time she could be a mutant. “You’ll never see me in flip flops and a T-shirt,” she told the New York Times.
There is a school of pop stardom that espouses “realness.” It says your songs should be confessional, and reveal your true self. For Justin Timberlake, this means bringing your mom to award shows. For Britney Spears, it means allowing yourself to be photographed pumping gas in schleppy clothes, latte in one hand, kid in the other, so that fans will see you’re just like them. The danger, however, is that digital-age celebrities become so “real” they are boring. Legendary producer Tommy Mottola, speaking recently of Jessica Simpson’s career trajectory—why she rose and fell so quickly after the making of the MTV reality show Newlyweds—told Vanity Fair: “That kind of exposure—it’s very revealing—is not necessarily the kind of thing audiences, though they want to see it in the beginning, want for their singer in the end. It’s a shot of adrenalin, but you come down just as quickly.”
That exposure is exactly the kind of thing Lady Gaga—so named for the Queen song Radio Gaga—believes has ruined pop music. At minimum, she believes, popular art of any sort should reflect a heightened reality. “What has been lost in pop music these days is the combination of the visual and the imagery of the artist, along with the music—and both are just as important,” she told MTV.com. “You can place Lady Gaga in a lineage with people like Madonna and David Bowie,” says David Brackett, music professor at McGill University. “She seems to be interested in overtly manipulating the image.” Instead of engaging the idea of “realness,” she’s created an absurdist alternate reality—identifying David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Warhol as her inspirations—where music, fashion, performance art and sex collide to create a commercial art supernova.
Gaga’s authentically inauthentic brand has proven refreshing to consumers and industry insiders alike, so much so that she has become easily the most emulated pop star of the past year. She was arguably a style resource for other artists even before she herself became a mainstream phenomenon. Bodysuits are now staples in the stage wardrobes of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and others. Christina Aguilera was accused of ripping off her entire look. Nicole Ritchie was recently featured in a Gaga-themed photo spread in BlackBook magazine, and even Adam Lambert, this season’s American Idol runner-up, “Gagged out,” as Perez Hilton put it, in the season finale by wearing sparkly, monster-sized epaulets. “For me, it’s everything coming together and being a real story that will bring back the super-fan,” she told the New York Times. “I want to bring that back. I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part of us.”
The tradition of alter egos—from Alice Cooper to KISS to Madonna—is a long one in popular music. Before the ’60s, says Brackett, pop stars weren’t expected to reveal their true selves. They were more like actors, interpreting other people’s work. “With the advent of rock music and people who performed their own songs,” he says, “this idea that there is a connection to some kind of authentic self became much more prominent.” In 1973, David Bowie reintroduced the notion of fiction and fantasy into pop with his legendary concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a phenomenon, says Brackett, “that showed there was an audience of people who wanted this kind of artificiality.” In recent years, even the most mass-market artists around, Beyoncé and Garth Brooks, have exposed themselves to ridicule by releasing albums by alter egos—Sasha Fierce and Chris Gaines, respectively—buying themselves some freedom from the constraints of their own hard-won realness.
Lady Gaga, rather than flirting with alter egos, is borrowing a page from the playbook of androgynous shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Like Manson (formerly Brian Hugh Warner), she never breaks character, and like him, her whole life is a performance. “It’s not just a show for me,” Manson once told MTV. “It’s my life. I live my art and I think people are starting to understand that. They don’t understand me, but they’re starting to understand where I fit into the world.”
Of course, Gaga, like Manson, did at one point have parents and a civilian name. Stefani Germanotta was born in New York’s Lower East Side to Italian-American parents. Her father was an Internet entrepreneur. At the age of four, she started playing piano and by 13, she was writing songs. As a teenager, she attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, the same prestigious high school that Caroline Kennedy and Nicky and Paris Hilton attended. And she was miserable. “When we had off-days where we didn’t have to wear uniforms, I used to wear my outfits and I would really get made fun of,” she told China Daily. “It lost me my self-confidence and I suppressed myself for a while.”
Soon she began performing in underground clubs in Manhattan. At 17, she devised a performance art show with her long-time collaborator DJ Lady Starlight. “I was lighting hairspray on fire and doing go-go dances to Iron Maiden records in Indian headdresses and a bikini,” she told British talk show host Jonathan Ross. She loved the effect of dry ice on stage, she said. There was never enough fog in these venues for her liking, so she used to carry her own fog machine in her purse.
In Lady Gaga’s world, mainstream success and artistic purity have never been incompatible. At 19, after dropping out of art school in New York, she moved to Los Angeles and signed a deal with Def Jam Records after music mogul L.A. Reid heard her singing down the hall from his office, but she was dropped three months later—she said they just didn’t get her. She began writing songs for other people (she has contributed songs to albums by the Pussycat Dolls, Fergie, the New Kids on the Block and Britney Spears), and eventually caught the attention of executives at Interscope Records, where she signed on in 2008. Her album was co-produced by the R & B artist Akon.
In her own mind, Lady Gaga’s success marks the triumph of the weirdo arty misfit in a world dominated by popular kids. She once described her audience as an “army of outsiders”—the artistic kids, the weird kids, the gay kids, the kids everyone laughs at. “And I love that,” she told MTV.com, “because that’s who I was. We’re all together and they get it. It’s our own little world.”
But despite all of her outcast pretensions, Lady Gaga’s path to success could not have been more conventional. Her songs are catchy and accessible, with colourful, silly, sexual euphemisms (among the most often repeated: “I want to take a ride on your disco stick” and “I’m bluffin’ with my muffin”). But there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the music itself. “Take out all the outward trappings of fashion and performance art,” says Max Valiquette, president of the Toronto youth marketing firm Youthography, “and her rise is not terribly different from Britney Spears’s: get discovered at a relatively young age because you’ve got some musical talent; have someone who’s got some credibility take an interest in you; work behind the scenes or with someone for a little while and then platform to your own album, hopping on the backs of other people’s success until finally you’re pushed to No. 1 on the charts. That describes 100 different pop stars. What’s different for her are only the outward trappings.” Of course, for Lady Gaga, outward trappings are the whole point. Her MO is pop star as illusionist. To see beyond the image is to kill the effect.