By all rights, Lady Gaga should be exhausted. She has just spent a whirlwind weekend in Toronto at the MuchMusic Video Awards where she turned in an elaborate performance that culminated in fire shooting from her breasts, and afterwards was present for at least part of an ugly postshow confrontation between her pal Perez Hilton and members of the Black Eyed Peas; it was all over the tabloids. “We haven’t slept”, admits Gaga. “We just got off the plane and came here. It’s like, 'Get some orange juice and coffee, motherfuckers! Let’s get to work!' It’s not every day you get to shoot with Testino”.
Quite. Mario Testino, the man at whose altar the world’s most glamorous fairly genuflect, spends five hours with his lens trained on the years, decade's most outré pop star. Some might expect Testino would get the famously pants-less wonder to, well, class things up a bit. “It’s funny you should think that”, says Gaga, in a voice just raspy enough to make it clear she knows her way around a party. “Actually, Mario wanted me naked all day long. It was my stylist, Nicola, who kept sneaking in the designer stuff. He was like, ‘Put this Fendi belt on right now!’ We love clothes. But Mario, he really understands me, and he said, ‘I want this to be about you. I don’t want it to be about the clothes’”.
“The concept was really shooting the essence of Gaga, who she is”, explains best friend Matthew Williams, creative director of the Haus of Gaga, the singer’s design collective. Gaga adds, “You know, the glasses, the hair, the tan—I’m known for that. So we just made me übertan”. And pumping through the speakers all the while? Naturally, “Poker Face.”
It is the year’s most inescapable song. From the “Mum mum mum mah” robo-Gregorian chant of the opening to the slinky verse to the singsong hook—it’s 2009’s “I Kissed a Girl”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and “Womanizer” rolled into one, at once sillier and smarter than all three. It’s one of those tunes against which resistance is futile. Even rockers like the Arctic Monkeys, Weezer, and Faith No More have busted out their own versions this year, much to Gaga’s delight.
“I looove Faith No More! Their song ‘Epic’ was my burlesque number at the bar I used to work at! I used to fog myself and dance to it. When I found out they did ‘Poker Face’, I was like, shit!” Of course, it’s not Faith No More, nor influences David Bowie, Queen, or the Cure to whom Gaga is most often compared. Rather, it’s to the goddesses of platinum pop: Madonna, Britney, Christina, and Gwen—comparisons the singer finds a bit lazy. “Look, when I was a brunette, they called me Amy Winehouse. When I was a blonde, they called me Madonna. Then they called me Christina, then Gwen. I just don’t think most people’s reference points go back very far”. While she does share a name with Gwen (Gaga’s given name is Stefani Germanotta), while she once engaged in a bitchy back-and-forth in the press with Aguilera, and while she wrote a song for Spears (“Quicksand”), it’s Madge who seems closest to the mark: both are Italian-American girls who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps in the big, bad city, both are given to spectacle, both are sartorially adventurous and driven, and neither one apologizes for being pop.
All interesting, you might say, but will we be talking about Gaga in thirty years? That, of course, is a much bigger question. Decades-spanning superstars may well be a thing of the past. But those who predicted Gaga would be a one-and-done dance-pop footnote have already had to eat their words. And as for her being branded trashy? We’ve all heard that before. “I remember the cover of Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ single and the lingerie and her hair—my mother was like, ‘Ucch’”, laughs Gaga. “But I used to play it over and over”. And now, all these years later, Queen Madge herself is attending Lady Gaga shows, or one last spring at least, at New York’s Terminal 5. That night, as Gaga recalls, there was a show on and off stage. “My sister texted me and she was like, ‘Madonna is 15 feet away from me. And there are two guys having sex in the audience. This is awesome!’ I just remember thinking, Wow, this is exactly what I wanted. I’ve got Madonna and I’ve got gay sex!”
Gaga herself has copped to a certain degree of bisexuality, but says she never played it up because “I didn’t want my gay fans to think I was using their community for edginess. You know, Ooh, she’s edgy!” She considers her song “Future Love” to be in part an endorsement of same-sex marriage, and vows to never stop playing gay clubs, no matter how big things get. “With the exception of God, my family, and Matthew, and the Haus, and Vincent Herbert [who signed and discovered her], the gay community is the single reason that I am here today. I started out playing gay clubs in America, then I went to London to play G-A-Y, where I didn’t think anyone knew who I was, and there were thousands of people there. How could I ever turn my back on those people who really fought for me? And besides the loyalty factor, playing in gay clubs is fun”.
And yet, Gaga says what she does is not camp. “See, we don’t see it that way. To us, it’s just beautiful”, she says. “The idea that Gaga is just kooky for the sake of being kooky is so wrong”. Hmm, where would people get that impression? The cone-head hair she sports on occasion? Or the stilettos-on-the-shoulders outfit she wore recently? Or the moment at this shoot when Gaga, lying on the floor in shimmering blue Balenciaga, hikes up the dress’s hem far enough that the stylist feels the need to place down there a platinum blonde tuft that perfectly matches her hair? Tsk-tsk.
But say what you will—and plenty have—Gaga goes for it. Whether with a lightning bolt painted on her face, big bows in her hair, space-age cat suits, or that Chalayan-inspired bubble dress with matching piano, she can evoke David Bowie, Grace Jones, Björk, Stacey Q, Klaus Nomi, or Suzanne Bartsch. Throw in some Sprouse here and Margiela there and it’s like hip fashion’s greatest hits. Well, some might say misses, but what the checkout aisle arbiters of taste have to say won’t keep Gaga up at night. “Us Weekly putting me on a worst-dressed list? I couldn’t care less”. On the other hand, she adds, “If Karl Lagerfeld called me an ugly hag, then I’d be upset. Because it’s Karl Lagerfeld”.
Whatever his opinion, Lagerfeld might want to stand back from Gaga’s latest creation—the aforementioned fire bra unveiled in Toronto. As with most of her ideas, its execution fell on the shoulders of Matthew Williams, part tailor, part craftsman. He says of the bra, “It’s really just sparklers—the old sparklers on the tits trick”. But Gaga accuses him of modesty. “I called him from Hawaii and I was like, Matty, we need to make my tits blow up!” And he made it happen.
No word yet on whether the bra will make an appearance on Gaga’s upcoming fall tour with Kanye West, another artist fond of outsized shows that spare no expense. But she does admit that the two are “exploring aesthetics and new technology that neither of us have traveled, and we are attempting an epic story”. Gaga talks a lot about her art, her work, the technology, the Haus, her creativity—and she knows it. “I’m sure to some people in the press it’s like to a nauseating degree”, she concedes. “There’s Lady Gaga again, yakking about her art”.
But all that yakking is just part of Gaga fighting the good fight. She insists time and again that pop is not lowbrow, dance music is not soulless, and that she is not playing a character but creating something with meaning. Her sincerity of purpose is admirable. Considering the well of blank R&B ciphers and Disney eunuchs into which 21st-century pop has thrown itself, maybe a performer who talks about creative vision, aspires to be avant-garde, counts among her circle of creative people designer Benjamin Cho and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, and sings the praises of drag queens—just maybe that’s a good thing. Roll your eyes if you like—and yes, maybe she ought to wear her heart and art a little less on her sleeve—but Gaga truly believes in all this.
For the day’s final tableau, the Lady slips into a brown leather Fendi bustier and boots; her Haus of Gaga circuit-board glasses lend her a savage, vaguely Aztec look. Mario Testino snaps away—the woman with an album (and song) called The Fame and a single called “Paparazzi” shot by a fashion photographer known for his images of that ultimate victim of fame, Princess Diana. “Yes, Diana was the most iconic martyr of fame”, says Gaga. “She died because of it”. But Gaga adds—and this is no small point in a world of YouTube, Octomom, and Real Housewives—her album should not be seen as a glorification of celebrity. Rather it’s about “the dream of wanting to make something of yourself”, a dream that Gaga is undoubtedly realizing. “I took off those circuit-board glasses and looked at the computer monitor and I cried. I thought, We did that! We’re doing something right!”