Lady Gaga is wearing a red dress with a 16-foot-long train. Her nipples, which would otherwise be visible through the dress's lace fabric, are X-ed over with black bandage tape. Her massive halo of white-blond hair is arranged (with the hel of extensions) into an extraordinary amplification of a 1930s bob.
She is performing on the stage of a gilt-encrusted 1849 former synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the onetime Jewish immigrant tenement neighborhood. This evening, it's serving as the setting for a private concert on Gossip Girl. To reestablish her high school status in college, Blair (Leighton Meester) has managed to nab Gaga as the performer. A year ago, this might have been an almost plausible plotline, since Lady G studied at Tisch School of Arts at New York University for a year in 2003. But by the time you read this, the likelihood of Lady Gaga playing a college mixes, after her first single, "Bad Romance." from last fall's The Fame Monster, became the No.1 iTunes download in two days, is about as slim as peace in the Middle East in our time.
Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah/ Roma Ro-ma-ma/Gaga: She mouths the beguiling hook of her latest hit, her head arched to the synagogue's ceiling, painted blue and dotted with clouds. Wan, milky spots of daylight penetrate high up through yellowed chicken wire glass windows; other than that, the cavelike dark is broken only by Gaga, bathed in that magical, singular aura of the spotlight. As she moves on stage in her "slightly fucked-up," as she describes it, signature stumble dance among three male backup dancers artfully juggling her train, she looks like a luminescent, deranged angel trying to dislodge Lucifer's voice calling in her ear--an angel beneath an artificial blue sky, very, very far from anything that might be called a state of nature.
A gaggle of lucky extras have been let in to watch her from their holding pen outside. "Oh my God, she's amazing!" says one young man from South Carolina, wearing a fedora.
"I love her soooo much!" says his female friend, another hopeful also from the South.
"Can you believe she's only 23?" he asks.
The second-to-last scenelet of this elaborately choreographed number requires that Lady Gaga step onto a pedestal, not easy with a train and megaplatforms. Her dancers pull her long skirt, rotating her on the life-size lazy susan, and it wraps around her feet until it looks like blood-red seafoam. She strikes a demure pose invoking Venus (Botticelli's and photographer David LaChapelle's, she later tells me).
It's an apt reference. Just as the goddess of love arose from the ocean a fully formed dewy beauty, married off by Jupiter to cheer up Vulcan, the depressed patron of ironwork and blacksmiths, so has Lady Gaga, our value-added new pop star, seemed to arrive from nowhere, not exactly dewy, but, to use one of her favorite words, shiny, to give a depressed, industrialized globe supercatchy, highly danceable songs plus a more-than-we-bargained-for arsenal of outrageous costumes; fixating, idea-laden videos; claims to performance art; and gay rights activism.
Lady Gaga is a phenomenon, a fame-nomenon. Her debut album, The Fame, came out on Interscope in 2008. The 14 songs are, with the exception of the ballad "Brown Eyes," beat-driven dance music. Their electroclash, '80s synth influences and looping drum machines are sounds you were more likely to hear on the European charts than on the hip-hop- and R&B-driven U.S. counterparts. But in Europe, those kinds if songs tend to be one-shot deals, whereas The Fame follows the '70 album-oriented rock model: It's a carefully composed whole; each song in its own tight event. So tight that single after single, "Just Dance," "Poker Face," "LoveGame," and "Paparazzi"-- all became international hits, producing more No.1 Billboard Pop Songs chart singles than any other album in history. And unlike many other young stars, Gaga is not just a cute singer with nice pipes at the front of a slick, hyperproduced packaging machine. She writes her own songs, plays her own keyboard, and--this is harder than it sounds--doesn't lip-synch her live concerts. The Fame has sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide; its new rerelease, The Fame Monster is on the verge of hitting stores as this article goes to press, and if the megareception for "Bad Romance," one of the CD's eight original bonus tracks, including the hilarious "Telephone," featuring Beyonce, about trying to escape cell phone calls, is any indication, it's going to be a monster. By bringing dance music to the mainstream pop scene, gaga "has changed the landscape of music on American radio," says media blogger and happily obsessed Gagalyte Perez Hilton. "When she released 'Just Dance' in April 2008, that kind of music wasn't played on the radio. Now it's everywhere." Hilton's was one of the first media vehicles to support her, by posting that single's video and later making accusations that Christina Aguilera was copying Gaga.
More than that, Hilton continues, "She made pop music exciting again, in a way that I, as an intent observer of pop culture, haven't experienced since Madonna. Exciting and dangerous. She plays by her own rules." What Hilton is referring to are the singer's nonstop feats of theater. Lady Gaga, christened Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in 1986, collaborates with a creative team called Haus of Gaga, a group of stylists, fashion designers, producers, and her choreographer, Laurieann Gibson, to remix art, fashion, modern dace, and musical references into her scandalous live shows and videos.
Some of the highlights include her performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (she won Best New Artist), for which she wore a dress that exploded fake blood, and the scenes in her videos in which she rises from a wheelchair to walk after removing her leg braces ("Paparazzi") and smokes in bed next to a skeleton ("Bad Romance"). Not to mention her always outlandish hairdos--extensions woven into a brown elephant atop her head, or a gold unicorn horn--or the sparkler cone bustier in which she ended her appearance on the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto.
Gaga often plays with gender roles, aping transvestites and toying with multiple boys, or wears extreme makeup and accessories (a poodle purse made of fake blond hair) to undercut the "I'm hot" message that her very revealing ensembles send. It's this quality of half showbiz, half art biz that has pushed her impact to the fashion realm (her "Bad Romance" video features Alexander McQueen designs) and the highbrown art world. Miuccia Prada made her dress for a recent performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; conceptual artist Damien Hirst of formaldehydeshark fame designed her piano. It's also why she has the literati debating questions such as: Just how smart is Lady Gaga? Her music fun candy, but her message is deeper. Or is it? Does she really do it all herself? Is she the next Madonna, the next Kylie Minogue, or the next David Bowie, whom she claims to aspire to be? Is she really only 23> Is she actually a hermaphrodite?
Clearly, with the whole globe delighting in her music, or at least scratching their heads and pausing, Lady Gaga has het the triple-cherry culture-jam jackpot. But, of course, she didn't spring from the ocean, fully formed. She's been working her ass (which, despite comments from herself and others about curves, is, these days, anyway, tiny) off for this since she was four years old and learning piano by ear.
One thing you need to know about Lady Gaga to understand her is that she grew up in Manhattan. Children brought up on that skyscraper-barnacled, 1.6-million-scurrying-people-populated, 13-mile-long island are different from you and me. For developing selves in those man-made steel-and-concrete canyons, a compression happens, of neurosis, of vision, of ambition, of cultural and carnal knowledge, of fashion information. There is often a concomitant value confusion that leads to a premature world-weariness. (Love? Money? Fame? Art? The right boots? It;s all so much closer to them but just as far as it is for anyone else. Crazy-making.)
Lady Gaga wants to meet me for Sunday breakfast at the Westside Restaurant on the 69th and Broadway to show me where she grew up. She lived with her first-generation Italian-American parents, and then a sister, younger by six years, in an apartment on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from here. She went to the all-girls Catholic school Convent of the Sacred Heart. She and her friends, when they weren't studying--the school is notoriously rigorous--hung out here. Westside Restaurant is a traditional Greek diner (New York institutions called Greek not because they serve much Mediterranean food--they serve primarily the same classic American food as truck-stop diners--but because they are owned by Greek immigrants). The place is teeming with old ladies, joggers, and dads with their kids, and they don't take reservations, so I have to order to keep my table. By the time I see the telltale chauffeured black Escalade SUV outside, I've already finished my food.
"Sorry, it's so impolite," I say to Lady Gaga, who has arrived in a relatively subdued and entirely of-the-moment outfit: men's vintage YSL overcoat, beneath which is an incredibly good vintage Thierry Mugler score, an early-'90s black peak-shouldered and lapelled coatdress, worn with gray suede YSL narrow-wedge-heeled platforms. Her only outre Gaga-isms are her wolf-spider false eyelashes, top and bottom, and perhaps her new puppy, a Shiba Inu, in a carrying case that must be hurriedly hidden under the table. She elicits barely a glance from the diners.
"Please, I'm Italian; I'm glad you ate," she replies, then leans over, scopes my almost-bare plate, and guesses, accurately, "Two poached eggs, hash browns, and whole-wheat toast."
Her early CV includes several waitressing gigs, and her easy camaraderie with the staff, who recognize her as a regular as well as a famous face, is not that of a star being faux down-to-earth, but someone who not all that long ago did her time at restaurant jobs. "I was really good at it. I always wore heels to work!" she says. "I told everybody stories, and for customers on dates, I kept it romantic. It's kind of like performing."
Lady Gaga has always wanted to be an entertainer. The enviornment her Catholic father and Methodist mother created was, she says, "traditional yet psychologically progressive." Her father is an entrepreneur who now runs a business selling Wi-Fi to hotels. Her mom also worked, in telecommunications. They were wealthy enough to afford Sacred Heart (alums include Caroline Kennedy and Nicky Hilton), but by New York standards, they were comfortable, not rich. Although she's always had and expressive, free spirit ("I'm left-handed!" she says), she was a focused student and a self-professed music geek, performing in school plays and practicing piano for two hours a day, with much parental encouragement.
At one point in our conversation, I ask if she ever experiences stress somatically. In a perfect New Yawk accent,, she sings, "Psychosomatic symptoms, difficult to endure..."--a lovely rendition of "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls as only a twentysomething with a history of Broadway-leading-lady yearning could.
She does, in fact, have bodily reactions. "I get all the symptoms of a pregnant woman," she says, explaining that it's as though she's always about to give birth. "I get headaches, I get tired, I get blurred vision sometimes during a really intense session with the Haus."
It took a while to find this fertile ground, though. She was accepted at 17 to the elite Tisch, but dropped out after a year to try to make it as an artist. Her father helped her with a couple months' rent for a Lower East Side walk-up while she got a job but then made her fend for herself. She floundered around in musical genres for awhile; she played in a hard-rock band, and there are YouTube clips of her doing a Fiona Apple-esque girl-and-her-keyboard number at the local club the Bitter End. Then she started hanging out with artists, and her persona began to gel. She met producer Rob Fusari (of Destiny's Child "Bootylicious" fame). who gave her her name: she reminded him of the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga." (The fact that Gaga saw the potential in this odd moniker, with its dual meaning of baby talk and adoration, and then actually brought it into a world of Taylors and Christinas, speaks to her confidence in her own indiosyncratic vision.) She played with a performance-art DJ named Lady Starlight and added burlesque elements to her stage show that included lighting her G-string on fire. At the 2007 Lollapalooza, she was hired as a side act and played her keyboard in a bikini.
She had a period of what she considers addictive cocaine use, but she stopped with help from her family. A deal between Gaga and Def Jame ended after six months, it seems because they didn't understand each other. Then Vincent Herbert, a producer who has worked with Stevie Wonder and Destiny's Child and whose Streamline label is distributed through Interscope, saw a video of Gaga performing "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich." He flew her to L.A., and in 24 hours, she was signed. The Fame was born.
At Interscope, she also wrote material for other artists, including the Pussycat Dolls, New Kids on the Block, and a song for Britney Spears that made it onto the European iTunes version of Circus.
"When Vincent Herbert walked her into my office,' recalls Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, "she still had brown hair. She played me a couple songs. Herbert said she wrote them and played the piano. I said, 'I know this girl!' I mean, I didn't know her, but I knew Jewish or Italian girls from Manhattan who wrote songs. She's like carole King and Cynthia Weil; she's as much a Brill Building songwriter as a pop icon. She's great live, great singer, a great songwriter, and a hard worker."
but, as Iovine points out, even with a well-produced, heavily promoted record, Lady Gaga still had to hustle. "Radio stations didn't want to play 'Just Dance.' The style of the beat wasn't what they were playing at the time. but she did a lot otftours, club promotion, we promoted her videos." As soon as New York's influential Z100 played her, it all came together. Hilton describes how only months before, he'd wanted her to play his Fourth of July party at Prive in Las Vegas, and the club almost refused because they'd never heard of her.
One of the most fascinating things about Lady Gaga is the way in which she's determined to mastermind or outwit the media forces that seem to eat young talent for breakfast and spit them out after lunch. Calling the album The Fame is a ballsy move, one that delivered in meta-spades, since what presupposed her fame accomplished it. A theme she revisits in her videos and songs is herself as somehow destroyed and resurrected. "I feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, i can somehow cure my own legend. I can show you so you're not looking for it. I'm dying for you on domestic television--here's what it looks like, so no one has to wonder." Of course we still will.
A salient memory at Sacred Heart for Lady Gaga was the day she was told to change her shirt. She and one of her best friends were wearing an approved white crewneck, but Gaga's chest was bigger. A teacher told her it was inappropriate. "We're wearing the same shirt! she says. "I was so angry. Why didn't she get in trouble but I did? Because I walk around with my shoulders back and head held high? If I was to slouch, would that be more appropriate?"
She uses her sexuality, she says, as part of her art and believes other women “should not be like me but be whoever they want to be. My album covers aren’t sexual at all, which was an issue at my record label. I fought for months, and I cried at meetings. They didn’t think the photos were commercial enough. ‘We can’t see your whole face, we can’t see your whole body, it’s too dark, it’s not pretty,’ ” she says. “But you know, I can be whoever the fuck I want to be. That’s what artists do. We choose what you see and we tell a story. And the last thing a young woman needs is another picture of a sexy pop star writhing in the sand, covered in grease, touching herself.”
The cover of The Fame shows her face in close-up, with a bleached blond bob and black ski-style sunglasses, but she looks like a beautiful starlet behind them. Her skin is glowing, and her lips are shiny in nude, Jennifer Lopez– esque lipstick. It’s hard to believe that this is what passes as noncommercial in female selfrepresentation for record-label executives. But there it is.
Let’s keep in mind that when Saturday Night Live was given the opportunity to write something funny for both Gaga and Madonna, two of the smartest and wittiest popular musicians around, what they came up with was an unfunny, demeaning had it not been so stupid, skit in which they catfight with each other in bustiers. This is the same media environment that, in all seriousness, took up the rumor that Lady Gaga was a hermaphrodite, ostensibly because of some puffy underwear under a minidress, but surely because she’s someone who uses transvestite idioms; speaks about her bisexuality; offered up her VMA award to “the gays”; and announced at the National Equality March in DC that she wouldn’t rest until there was no homophobia in the music industry. (“Well, I do have a really big donkey dick,” she told British TV host Jonathan Ross in response to a question about the tabloid speculation, while fellow guest Hugh Jackman cracked up in the background. “My beautiful vagina is very offended,” became her refreshing stock reply.)
When I ask about her attraction to women and try to get her to tell me which female performers would be her dream conquests, she says, “That’s difficult for me to answer. It trivializes being bisexual.” She’ll only mention her current nonsexual idol, Yoko Ono, who thrilled Gaga by sending her an appreciative message after hearing her perform “Imagine” before the rally.
Whatever claims to alternative sexual leanings Lady Gaga might make (her song “So Happy I Could Die” is about masturbating while thinking about a woman), her vision for her own romantic future is pretty straight right now. She’s currently single and says, “I’m married to my dad.” A few days before we meet, her father, Joe Germanotta, had successful heart surgery. He’s only 52, and his fairly sudden coronary problems have rocked her to the core. “I just wanted to have him walk me down the aisle and hold my babies,” she told me over the phone from the hospital the day after his operation.
Have babies? Given away by her father? The same Lady Gaga who said of a rumor about a boyfriend getting jealous when she necked with Swedish boy triplets in a video, “Then they shouldn’t be my boyfriend.”
“Of course, yeah. I mean, not tomorrow! But in eight to 10 years, I want to have babies for my Dad to hold, grandkids. And I want to have a husband who loves and supports me, just the way anyone else does,” she says. Though she adds, “I would never leave my career for a man right now, and I would never follow a man around.” When Gaga is in town from L.A., where (she oft laments) she’s had to relocate for work, she stays at the family apartment. Perhaps not coincidental for this self-professed daddy’s girl, Gaga’s righthand man in the Haus, and her best guy friend, Matthew Williams, is called Dada.
Lady Gaga’s father does sound lovingly supportive. But one anecdote seems telling. Gaga didn’t take a shower for days while she and her mom and sister took turns beside his hospital bed. In recovery he looked at her and said, “Hey, kid, you know, you got a reputation to uphold. Why don’t you go home, take a shower, brush your hair, and put some makeup on? I know it’ll make you feel better.” I wonder if maybe she wanted permission to be ungroomed while she processed this tumultuous episode. But she reads it as a sign of selfless love. “I went home and put some lipstick on, came back. And he said, ‘There she is, there’s my girl.’ ”
While undoubtedly she’s right, his consistency and her parents’ strong marriage, about which she says, “I’m just mesmerized,” is one great version of love, one that has given her the discipline and courage to develop the Gaga event. But it’s probably also part of her private struggle, as it always is for daughters brought up to think for themselves, who still want their father’s approval and love. “Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia,” she calls out in “Dance in the Dark.”