As you fly in, Las Vegas appears, from nowhere, in the middle of the desert. Take a cab into the heart of the city and the intoxicating neon glow of Las Vegas Boulevard is pierced by a ludicrous, skyscraping replica of the Eiffel Tower. Streets are lined by huge boulders and palm trees. Get closer and its personality changes: the neon lights just advertise casinos where you'll spend your money and always lose. The Eiffel Tower is half the size of the real one; the rocks are plastic. The closer you get, the more you look beneath the surface, the more fake the whole thing is.
Hear, NME meets the world's biggest pop star at the Odds On Recording Studios, half an hour outside Vegas. In a dimly lit studio behind three sets of doors, at the end of a very long, gold disc-ined corridor, we find Lady Gaga. She's sipping Coke Zero through a pink straw; at 4pm it's hard to tell whether the bottle of Patron tequila resting on the mixing desk is a temptation or a warning. She is dressed, as one would hope, as Lady Gaga: a tiny skirt, stockings, bra top. She's weraing a pair of Noritaka Tatehana shoes, those black creations that look like six-inch platform heels without any actual heels. She'll spend the rest of our time together - into the early hours of tomorrow morning - balanced on her toes. The outfit is completed by a black leather jacket she picked up in a vintage Tokyo punk shop, customized with chains that jingle and tinkle whenever she waves her arms around a lot. That's a noisily impractical garment to wear when recording vocals, NME notes. "Maybe it's most practical," she says, "because it makes me feel like a star."
Tomorrow she'll play to 20,000 at the Vegas MGM Grand, but today she's with producers Fernando Garibay and DJ White Shadow recording the vocals for a country version of single 'Born This Way', which today celebrates its sixth week at Number One in the States. It is fascinating to watch her work: each vocal take sounds perfect, but she's dismissing almost every one. Suddenly a mobile is thrust into her hands and she's on the phone to talk show host Ellen Degeneres, who's pre-recording one of next week's shows. What does Gaga want for her 25th birthday on Monday, Ellen asks. "I'd like a day off, but that probably won't happen," Gaga says. Later in the conversation, she performs a complete about-turn: "I don't want any time off! I'm a beast in her cage, I wanna be set free so I can bring all this music to all of you!"
She is talking about her new album, which also goes by the name 'Born This Way'. It's widely expected, not least by Gaga herself, to smash the records set by its predecessors 'The Fame' and 'The Fame Monster'. Gaga first played NME rough demos from the last album over a backstage glass or three of wine last spring, then again just before Christmas, when the tunes were more polished and the accompanying drink had progressed to Jameson's. NME experiences today's listening session sober, but it's just as surreal and electrifying as before: Gaga jumping to her feet, pumping the air, singing along at the top of her voice. The effect of hearing the whole thing at once, at earsplitting volume, is like being hit by a truck. There's 'Government Hooker', which recks of Berlin sex clubs; 'Bloody Mary' - sung from the perspective of Mary Magdalene - is a spooky rave ballad; 'Americano' sounds most fun, but is really a politicised song about immigration. Death, life and the bits in between are all here. The tunes are as good as 'Bad Romance'. and this time the words mean something.
"I thought I was the cultural shitstorm," she admits. "I walk into a room, people write about me. It wasn't until I released [the single] 'Born This Way' that I realised how completely vacuous everything had been. I realise now what a small impact I've really had, and how massive the impact is that I'm about to have."
The next step forward is the release 'Judas', which Gaga describes today as "Bad Romance Version 7". By the time you read this, the song will be on sale and, if the success of its predecessor is any indication, it should be number one on iTunes stores around the planet. It's a bold single - the video, she says, will involve motorbikes, death and, in the final seconds, a strong spoken word sequence about Gaga being "beyond repentance".
"People say I am trashy or pretentious or this and that," she explains after blasting the song twice at NME. "This was my way of saying, 'I've already crossed the line. I won't even try to repent'. Nor should I."
She then explains the song will be released the day after Easter Sunday. So is this Gaga reborn, or is this latest album little more then a guadily wrapped, hollow egg? To Gaga's critics, she is a quasi-messianic businesswomen whose fanbase is just a carefuly cultivated revenue stream. She'll put a sausage in her head, critics say, then spin a pseudo-intellectual explanation afterward. She is the self-appointed spokesperson for subcultures who never asked her to wade in. She is a Madonna plagiarist. All mouth and no trousers, she celebrates the outsider with a gym-toned body. Never mind her upcoming perfume smelling of blood and semen: Gaga takes the piss. Well, that would be the easy explanation. the chances that Lady Gaga is somehow for real would be a million to one.
NME: Have you made any mistakes recently?
Gaga: "I don't know, I guess we'll find out. What defines a mistake?"
Something that, with hindsight, you'd choose to do differently.
"The worst mistake I could have made was not putting out 'Born This Way' as the first record. it's completely balls-to-the-wall, love-it-or-hate-it. Get in or get off the fucking boat. I gained a lot of new fans."
Really? What did people didn't like about this that they didn't like before?
"Young kids have got into it. They love the message."
The young kids really want music with a message? Message-free stuff like Ke$ha songs sell loads.'
"Kids do want a message, yes. The message is seated inside this super-forward production... so, it's very forward, it's got this sort of hard techno electo rock thing underneath it, but the wordsare so pop that everyone knows what it is about. But immediately everyone raises their plagiarism hands up. 'Oh', they say, 'it's from something else.'"
A bit of it does sound quite a lot like ‘Express Yourself’, though, doesn’t it?
“I don’t think so… I swear to you. I am not stupid enough to put out a record and be that moronic.”
The reference seemed so obvious that it had to be intentional because, as you say, you’re not stupid…
“No. Listen to me. Why the fuck…? I’m a songwriter. I’ve written loads of music. Why would I try to put out a song and think I’m getting one over on everybody? That’s retarded. What a completely ridiculous thing to even question me about. I will look you in your eyes and tell you that I am not dumb enough or moronic enough to think that you are dumb enough or moronic enough not to see that I would have stolen a melody. If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progressions. It’s the same one that’s been in disco music for the last 50 years. Just because I’m the first fucking artist in 25 years to think of putting it on Top 40 radio, it doesn’t mean I’m a plagiarist, it means that I’m fucking smart. Sorry.”
The criticism did seem to take the wind out of the song’s sails.
“There’s a lot of people who want to see me fail. The minute they see something to shoot at, they shoot, and the bigger I become the bigger target I am. Nobody in this room at any point looked around and said ‘Oh my God, it’s ‘Express Yourself’'. Not once. Listen. I swear to you. I can only be honest with you about it.”
What will people say about ‘Judas’?
“I dunno… I think they will really love it. (Starting to well up) I just don’t want my fans… I don’t know. This is exhausting. I just don’t wanna perpetuate that shit. I’m sure you want to address it but it’s just so ridiculous. I was just fucking shellshocked by it. It’s so funny to hear you say, ‘It must have been a homage’, I’m like, NO. When I homage, I fucking homage with a big sign saying I’ve done it. Why would I not do that now? (Sighs) I just like… I just have to say… (Starts crying) I feel like honestly that God sent me those lyrics and that melody. When you feel a message to give to the world and people are shooting arrows at it… there’s no way for something that pure to be wrong. (Reaches for Marilyn Monroe lighter) I need a cigarette.”
By 8pm, the Country Road version of 'Born This Way' is finished, and we head outside to take a photo that'll accompany the tune when she uploads it to YouTube at midnight. The recording session had overun, and we're in pitch darkness. Gaga finds a stop sign and poses in the headlights of her black 4x4. She hands NME her BlackBerry and tells us to take her picture. She tells us to stand on a boulder. "From above is more flattering," she says, although th boulder is hardly necessary, as even in those invisible six-inch heels she is still rather miniature. It only takes five attempts before she seems happy with our work.
We jump in the car and head back to her hotel. In the last few hours she's also decided that, at 1am, she'll appear on stage at Krave, a vegas club, to perform 'Born This Way' with dancers and a drag queen. As we hurtle down the freeway, NME senses that Gaga has now recovered her composure from the earlier tears so asks, with trademark tact and diplomacy, what would happen if our car were to swerve across the road and kill us all. There is a lengthy pause. "If i was to die in the next five seconds?" She looks a little upset. What is there, we ask, in her album that the world would otherwise never out about Lady Gaga? An even longer pause. "I suppose people would listen to the album and say, 'She was really fearless. And she was very brave. She was unafraid of what people thought about her. She was always herself and she always created the kind of music and said the kind of things that she truly believed in.'"
Gaga goes on to talk about how people will refuse to believe she writes her own songs. Writers continue to submit songs to her label, expecting she'll want to record them. "If you want me to be a manufactured act," she states, "you can fuck off."
For someone so plugged in, Gaga can be naive about how she is perceived. NME tries to explain that people are suspicious of pop acts who purport to write their own material because such claims are almost always bullshit. It doesn't seem to sink in, and then it becomes obvious that Gaga does not see herself as a pop act. She exists, in her own mind, outside the pop cosmos. List her qualities on paper and she's certainly more Courtney than Britney, more Janis than Cheryl. When we talk influences she says that one track on the album directly references a Kiss song, while, for another, called 'Edge of Glory', she called in E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons for the feel of 'Thunder Road', the one song guaranteed to make her cry.
By the time we're in her suite at the MGM Grand, we're asking her to recommend some music and she goes for noisy Australian act Airbourne, because "I swear to you they sound just like AC/DC and the songwriting is just as fucking good".
"I won't churn out what you expect," she says. "If you're looking for me to be something that isn't there, STOP LOOKING. I'm not that. I'm not created."
Gaga's publicist overhears our conversation and adds that, every day, he is deluged with requests from the media. Everyone, he says, intends to show the world "the 'real' Lady Gaga". The assumptionis that the Lady Gaga we see in public cannot be everything she seems. "What are you looking for?" Gaga asks, waving her hands at NME like we're the representative of all media. Food has arrived; she picks at a plate of carb-free shirataki noodles with cauliflower sauce and mushrooms. She's ordered NME a plate too. It is, frankly, not very nice.
People want proof that you are fake, we say, becuase if you are fake it backs up traditional ideas of what divides a plastic, manufactured pop star from an authentic alt.rocher. Having spent five hours in Gaga's company today, NME has been seduced into saying exactly what Gaga wants to hear. It's partly because we don't want her to burst into tears. Maybe this is why nobody prepared her for the 'Born This Way' backlash. But the point does stand: if you like to put your musicians into little boxes, Gaga must be deeply troubled. "That's RIGHT!" she roars. "They want me to admit to something that isn't real, to a fucking artifice. Gosh that would be fucking exhausting. Let me tell you something. If you fucking rip my hairbow and my wig off my fucking head, my shoes, my bra, every single thing on my body, and you throw me on a piano with a microphone, I will fucking make you cry. Nobody knows the fucking bravery it took for me to be me with this fucking media. All of these interviews. All of these questions. I could have just woken up one day and put out my music in T-shirts and jeans and I never did that once. I endlessly found myself shouting, 'I am not full of shit! Are you?'."
If she's so committed to her art, NME asks, why aren't she's sporting for the 'Born This Way' campaign real implants? "I did look into having them done permanently." she admits, "but decided against it." She laughs. "Mostly because of my boyfriend, if you want to know the truth."
NME wonders - thinking of the other homages she says she signposts so clearly, like the Ziggy-esque flash across her face when she first appeared in 2008 - if Gaga has heard of Orlan, the French artist whose permanent, surgically implanted facial modifications are very similar to Gaga's 'Born This Way' look. "Who's Orlan?" Gaga asks, grabbing her MacBook. "Do people think that's where I got it from?"
After the debacle earlier, NME decides to let Google do the talking. Gaga hits the search button. "Oh my gosh. (Gasps) What is that? It's quite beautiful. That's weird! (Thinks) It's very fabulous. Well, i'm going to be inspired by her now, thank you!"
If Gaga had been influenced by Orlan, as some do claim, this is a very good performance but, as Gaga later says, her whole life's a performance. There are too many layers of bluff and double bluff to consider, but to NME's eyes she seems genuinely - and fascinated - by the existence of Orlan.
One thing is certain: NME has never encountered a pop personality quite like Gaga. In terms of both ambition and the scale of her success, she is taking things to another level. Her obsession is almost psychotic, and she admits that she has trouble letting go. After a disagreement over the artwork for 'The Fame Monster' her label, she says, don't tell her what to do ("well, not any more"), and she'll only listen to input from her manaager, Troy. "He'll say for example, 'Are you sure you want to give birth to a new race in your next video?' And I'll say, 'Yes'." She's still thinking of adding songs to her new album and it's out in six weeks. It will only be finished, she half-jokes, "when you pry it from my cold dead hands". She might not get everything right, but Gaga certainly seems to call her own shots.
You're keen for people to take your work seriously. Do you regret any of the product placement in your videos?
"No! But actually, people thought things were product placement in the 'Telephone' video that weren't. They were me making a Warholian comment on commercialism in America in relation to the telephone, communications and the internet, and being inundated with information."
Sometimes it seems like you make stuff up as you go along, or make sense of stuff after it's happened then claim it was always the plan.
"I swear to you... The Coke cans, the Wonder Bread, I could name like five things from the video that I was not paid to put in. But I can, with hindsight, see... Like Plentyoffish.com. I can see that it was so overly product-placed. I don't regret it. I didn't have the money, but I won't do it again. There's no product placement happening ever on this album unless I'm going to shoot a movie for $355 million."
This morning's USA Today has a Liz Taylor obituary headlined "the biggest star ever". Is the fame you have the same sort as her?
"I have no idea, objectively, what kind of attention I have. I would like you to explain it to me if you can."
Well, in the most basic sense, you understand that people you've never met are interested in you?
"Like interested in a flower booming?"
A lot of people see it chopped down.
"I think back in those times the internet and the press and the paparazzi were not privy to the demise of the celebrity and now they are. I did a performance piece on this at the VMAs. I died and bled to death in front of everyone, because I suppose I thought if I died on stage and showed everyone what it looked like, they wouldn't look for it. But they're still looking for it."
That wasn't ever really going to work, was it?
"I feel I have been probed endlessly about who the fuck I am, and I have been quite open about it, and still nobody seems to have a clue."
What about people who call you an icon?
"I can't prove to anyone that I am a legend after two albums. It's ridiculous. It's very kind and very sweet, but I don't need to be called an icon right now. I'm quite happy just making music. I'm way more concerned with cracking some massive historic moment when I put this record out. I get pitted against people who have been around for decades, and the expectation is for me to be as culturally important and successful as them. I have to keep that in mind and not rush things or age myself as an artist.
So do the Little Monsters who demand that you're treated like an icon damage you're reputation more than your critics do?
"I don't analyse it so heavily. You can't run towards or away from another artist. I just need to make brilliant music that will be fun and memorable and culturally relevant for a long time. I just have to have faith in me."
You say it's ridiculous for people to call you an icon or a legend, but you think it's reasonable to aim for a 'massive historic moment' or being culturally memorabble... These are hardly modest aims.
"I think an album is one moment in time, whereas an icon is someone who has been around for decades. When you talk about an icon you're referring to an entire catalogue of music. But, like with iTunes, the fact that 'Born This Way' is the most sold song ever, those thing mean something to me."
At midnight we're upstairs in Gaga's split-level suite. It is quite large, in the same way that your average meat dress is quite meaty. In the office Gaga looks like a caricature of the modern multitasking celebrity: siting at her desk on her laptop, she is picking her outfit for tonight's club performance (one pair of the stockings is dismissed - "BURN THEM!" - because a UK singer recently wore them in a video), plotting the promo for 'Judas' (she plans to get her finger pierced beforehand), co-ordinating the YouTube upload of this afternoon's country tune, and tweeting NME's impromptu photo shoot to nine million people. All the while, two members of the Haus of Gaga attend to her hair and makeup.
NME asks if, like many other artists, she has a fear that one day she will wake up and have no ideas left - especially as she already seems to have burned through a career's worth of reinventions in less than three years. She says that she doesn't have any such worries, but later tells us about a recurring nightmare. "The dream's occuring in the house I lived in until I was six," she says. "I have to find something or complete something before a monster comes to the door. It's weird that I'm saying this right now because I've never thought about it in reference to my album ['The Fame Monster']. I have to have something finished, or the monster will come for me."
She had the dream years ago, she says, before she was Lady Gaga. Does the dream suggest a panic that she has too much to do before she dies? "That would be a wonderfully Freudian review of me. Maybe I am afraid of that. I think it has something to do with my creativity and delivering things to the world... I am perpetually unhappy with what I create. Even though I might tell you 'Edge of Glory' is a pop masterpiece, when it's all said and finished there will be things I dread, and every time I listen to I'll hear them."
It must be depressing, we say, knowing that however hard you work you'll never be happy. Gaga nods. “In John Lennon’s Playboy interview he talked about how he hated certain songs because of the way they were finished. And they might be my favourite songs, but Lennon couldn’t listen to them.”
Is it a problem that you're so involved?
"Yes, it's a big problem."
Earlier, you told Ellen Degeneres you wanted a day off, and the said, 'Gaga doesn't take days off'... What's the truth?
"I'm a little bit tired. And I miss my family. But my fans are my family."
Do you get time off?
"Today's a day off."
But you've recorded a song, done this interview, done a phone interview for a TV show, had a photo taken, now you're plammomg a club show, then performing at 1am.
Well yes. I work myself into the ground. I've just got so many ideas, I just... Sometimes it's better for me to keep working."
NME asks whether, like other people who work too hard, she runs the risk of nervouse exhaustion - or worse. She doesn't answer. Has it, perhaps, already happened? "I don't know if it's happening," she says. "Is it happening? (Nervous laugh) I don't believe in releasing a single and then just watching it."
With that, we're off to Krave for the 1am show. NME is jetlagged, a bit drunk, and exhuasted by an eight-hour audience with Lady Gaga, but she shows no sign of flagging. The surprise performance, which causes a minor stampede at the club, appears on YouTube almost as soon as it's over. The fan videos show as it's over. The fan videos show a Gaga who's in her element: relaxed, but focused. It's a full live vocal.
The following night's Vegas show - one of the last of 200-date Monster Ball world tour - is most peculiar. When NME has seen the show in Manchester and London the crowd has been formed of a pleasingly deranged array of Little Monsters dressed up for a big night out - meat outfits, rotating orbs, the lot. Here in Vegas nobody is dressed up, and the audience seems completely straight. The enviornment should be Kryptonite to Gaga's schtick, particualrly when she reels off her speeches about liberation (nobody in this audience seems to require validation) and how it doesn't matter if you have no money (cash seems no issue here). But the show still works. The performance is still breathtaking, the tunes - these multi-platinum international airplay hits - the sound of pop in the digital age hitting its stride.
In contrast to this city we've hung out in, the closer you get to Gaga, the more she genuinely starts to make sense. Granted, sometimes she talks nonsense so persuasively that that you don't quite notice, but other times her words seem ridiculous on the first listen and turn out to be completely rational. She sometimes seems in control, other times lost; her strength of character is breathtaking, but so is the ease with which criticism will send her into a tailspin of gloom and introspection, She hates being questioned about her integrity, but accepts that it's a necessary evil. "The minute people stop poking," she admits, "is the minute I'm not interesting anymore." She has a sharp business mind, for sure, but the commitment to her fans does feel genuine. Maybe the biggest contradiction at the heart of the Haus of Gaga is that she will be taken more seriously when she takes herself less seriously.
Completely confusing but never less than fascinating, Gaga will continue to baffle critics just as much as she inspres devotion in fans, but if pop, rock - whatever you want to call this noise she makes - is about meaning what you do, feeling it, living it, being prepared to die for your art, she's as real as they come.
"If you look at every interview, every single television appearance, every single performance of my life, it's been devoted to who I am," she says. "Devoted to my identity, devoted to my craft. And if that isn't fucking art I don't know what is. END QUOTE."