Lady Gaga: The ghost in the fame machine

No pop star so vividly embodies the values of the internet age. But what lies behind the catchy tunes and outrageous outfits?

Tim Walker
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:52
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Stefani Germanotta did a decent impression of shock as she collected each of her eight MTV video music awards this week, though her revolving selection of dresses suggests she wasn't entirely surprised to be taking the stage so often. Germanotta, familiar to a bemused world as Lady Gaga, walked the red carpet in Alexander McQueen, accessorised by a four-strong military escort in full dress uniform. During the ceremony, she changed into a black rubber ballroom gown, which required two tuxedoed attendants to haul it up the stairs to the podium. And for her final turn, as by now you're surely aware, she trussed her 5ft 2in frame with slabs of prime beef.

The animal rights lobby chose to take offence, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) founder Ingrid Newkirk complaining that "meat is the decomposing flesh of an abused animal who didn't want to die, and after time spent under the TV lights, it would smell like the rotting flesh that it is". Commentators argued feverishly about what the "meat dress" meant. Maybe it was a comment on the treatment of women in the music industry. Maybe it was just to provide journalists with the "offal" headlines for their inevitable coverage. Or maybe it was an elaborate set-up for Germanotta's own punch line. Accepting the award for video of the year from Cher (herself wearing a see-through leotard) the 24-year-old handed the 64-year-old her beef clutch bag. "I never thought I'd be asking Cher to hold my meat purse," she quipped.

The outfit pulled focus from the night's other big story, that of Kanye West and Taylor Swift's highly-publicised reconciliation. And it did so just in time for Germanotta to plug her forthcoming third LP with characteristic shamelessness: clutching the astronaut-shaped award, a solitary tear of joy crawling down her cheek, she revealed the new album's name, Born This Way, then sang its title track's refrain, unquivering and a cappella.

What is the point of Lady Gaga? And why, if we care, do we care? Why is she here, staring dead-eyed from the pages of yet another newspaper? Clogging your glossy weeklies (and monthlies) with her her cigarette specs and her Kermit the Frog frocks? Is she a feminist icon? A living, breathing treatise on celebrity? Or is she just some tedious poser in a stupid outfit, a marketing trick devised to promote unremarkable pop tat? Gaga's singles can be catchy, but are they really a patch on Beyonce's back catalogue?

As cultural critic Camille Paglia argued in last week's Sunday Times, Germanotta employs every tool in the modern media box (and exploits her fans' dependency on it) in her quest for global notoriety. In the face of bland, modern celebrity, she has become famous for the mildly unexpected, the gently shocking – but won't that novelty soon wear off like the slow-fading stench of her dress? Paglia condemns Gaga as a mere magpie, filching poses from Grace Jones, David Bowie and Madonna: "How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?"

And an icon Gaga is, by any objective measure. She has more followers than any other person on Twitter (6,343, 012 as of 3.15pm yesterday) and features in the 2011 Guinness Book of Records as the year's most-Googled female. Her singles have collectively spent 154 weeks in the Top 75 over the past 12 months. She has sold 15 million albums and 40 million singles globally. Forbes magazine recently named her the fourth most powerful and influential celebrity in the world.

Despite her song's claim, Lady Gaga was not "born this way". She entered the world in March 1986, as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and was brought up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her father's firm installed Wi-Fi in hotels, her mother was an executive for a telecommunications company. Middle-class and comfortable, they sent Stefani and her younger sister Natali (now 18) to the same New York private school attended by Paris Hilton. There she learned to play piano, and always won the lead roles in school musicals.

After graduating, she landed a place at New York's Tisch School of the Arts but, feeling that she was ahead of her peers creatively, decided to drop out and pursue her preferred career as a rock star. Her band, the perfunctorily-named Stefani Germanotta Band, began playing small gigs and recorded a demo of her compositions.

Rock obscurity beckoned until the entry of Rob Fusari, a producer in search of a female vocalist, who persuaded his protégé to try writing dance music. The pair became lovers for a time, though their relationship ended acrimoniously; Fusari recently dropped a $30m lawsuit against her over recording and merchandise fees. One legend goes that the name Lady Gaga was created when Fusari mistyped a text about the Queen song "Radio Gaga". But here truth is muddled by the Gaga myth: Germanotta claims she invented the moniker herself, while her sometime associate Wendy Starland says it emerged from a brainstorming meeting.

However she came by her name, Lady Gaga finally signed with Universal in 2007. At first, she was hired as a songwriter for the likes of Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears. Without their conventional popstar looks, Germanotta needed an edge to become a performer herself. That edge was the Gaga persona, drawn initially from New York's 1980s-inflected electroclash scene, whose synth sounds and American Apparel style had given birth to Scissor Sisters, Peaches and other artists. Its power was proved as soon as Gaga's 12 million-selling first album, The Fame, was released in 2008.

Despite her stated aim to "revolutionise pop music," Gaga's songs in isolation aren't vastly unlike those of her rivals. As critic Simon Reynolds writes, "Everything about Gaga came from electroclash, except the music, which wasn't particularly 1980s, just ruthlessly catchy Noughties pop glazed with Auto-Tune and undergirded with R&B-ish beats."

Her USP, then, is that infallible façade. "Lady Gaga is my name," she told New York magazine. "If you know me and you call me Stefani, you don't really know me at all." The image is maintained by Germanotta's creative production team, House of Gaga. Its product – her songs, her videos, her live shows, her outfits – is pure pop art: alluring at first, but ultimately hollow and heartless.

Gaga herself is given to vague and preposterous pronouncements, such as: "My fans have related to me as a human being and as a non-human being – as a super-human person that I truly am," and, "In art, as in music, there's a lot of truth – and then there's a lie ... The tiny little lie is the moment I live for, my moment. It's the moment that the audience falls in love."

Among the possible lies perpetuated about Germanotta are an internet rumour that she's a hermaphrodite (which she relishes), her own claims of bisexuality, and her assertion that she avoids sex because she loses creativity through her vagina. Whatever her true sexual preference, she has become a loud advocate for gay rights. The phalanx of ex-servicepeople who accompanied her on the red carpet, it emerged, were all victims of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy towards gay people in the US military, which she opposes.

It's a rare discernible expression of opinion from a star whose power has previously been in the willingness of others to thrust meaning upon her. Perhaps there's really nothing but a vacuum at the heart of the Gaga phenomenon. But whether she's copying Madonna or not, she's the only artist of the moment to have fostered such a captivating cult of personality.

A life in brief

Born Stefani Germanotta, 28 March 1986, New York.

Family Eldest daughter of Joseph, an internet entrepreneur, and Cynthia Germanotta. She has one sister, Natalia.

Career Attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private school in Manhattan, and was awarded early admission to Tisch School of the Arts, aged 17. At 20, she had dropped out of university and began working at Interscope Records as a songwriter, before rapper Akon signed her to his record label Kon Live. Her first album, The Fame, was released in 2008, featuring four UK number 1 singles. 15 million albums and 51 million singles have been sold worldwide. Her next album, Born This Way, will be released in 2011.

She says "The biggest misconception about me is that I am not a real person. The assumption is that my eccentricity is not who I really am, but it is. I've lost my mind."

They say "She's Lady Gaga all the time. It's not an act. This is not somebody who puts make up on like Kiss to go on stage. She lives, breathes this all the time. She feels it's an outlet for her creativity and the expression of her art." Lisa Robinson, contributing editor for Vanity Fair

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