Lady GaGa is a sassy, straight-talking New Yorker who is bringing theatre and subversion back to pop.
Lady GaGa: Lady stardust
As we predicted at the start of the year, Lady GaGa is one of the biggest new stars of 2009. Michael Odell meets the sassy, straight-talking New Yorker who, with her glam-rock sensibilities and coat made of bubbles, is bringing theatre and subversion back to pop. It is a rainy Friday afternoon in New York City. Lady GaGa surveys the water droplets running down the windscreen of the car taking her to her next appointment. Where others might see a meteorological inconvenience, Lady GaGa resolutely sees it as a challenge. The 23-year-old dance/pop sensation is en route to a fitting at the appropriately named Haus of GaGa, her own 15-strong design team ("Everyone is under 26. None of them knows the meaning of 'over the top' or 'outrageous'.")
Her designers have been assigned the task of producing an outfit for her appearance at the forthcoming Glastonbury festival, the UK's biggest summer rock event famous for pitting its stars against huge quantities of rain and mud. She is due to appear on Friday June 26 and she is unperturbed by weather. "Hey, I'm from New York," she says with a pregnant pause, as though this biographical detail gives her special dispensation against getting wet. "Give me rain. Give me snow," she continues with faint echoes of King Lear, "any type of weather is just a backdrop to me. My show cannot be stopped by this. If Glastonbury turns into a mud bath, then I'll make it the most glamorous mud bath there ever was."
There is no shortage of surly, sultry women out there in pop at the moment. Lily Allen, Beth Ditto. And, of course, the mother of all female attitude - Madonna - is still touring. But none of them quite has the "out there" bonkersness of Lady GaGa. In the space of a few months, her singles Just Dance and Poker Face have established her as a global star. Her debut album The Fame has been number one in countries across the world and to date has sold 2.2 million copies.
"I didn't exactly sit down and think about it, but to me there looked like there was a vacancy," she explains. "Music needs someone who brings together theatre and pop music in a way which used to happen back in the day. I mean, if I could have been around in the Seventies I think I would have been in heaven. People knew how to entertain then. What was in the water in the UK, especially in the Seventies? Whatever they had it certainly did something wonderful to the imagination of their musicians and artists."
She means, of course, her favourite British icons David Bowie and Queen. Lady GaGa even appears on the inner artwork of her album in tribute to Bowie with an Aladdin Sane lightning mark on her cheek. Taking her name from the Queen song Radio GaGa, she has also borrowed heavily from the high-camp showmanship of Freddie Mercury. "I love all kinds of music but Queen and Bowie especially, that was music that you could watch, pop you could see," she says. "There was so much theatre and so much look that went into it. And hearing it changed my life. I'm not saying I had a plan right there and then but the idea of a music and a look that were both part of something that added up to art was planted in me. Those guys are gods. You cannot touch them."
She was born Stefani Joanne Germanotta to a well-off Italian-American family. Indeed, the early GaGa CV rolls along nicely before she encounters her glam pop epiphany. Thereafter, it takes a few turns that would bring horror to many a protective middle-class mother. A bright girl with a musical talent, she attended the prestigious Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. By her late teens she was a drug-taking go-go dancer in the clubs of the Lower East Side.
"Everyone has to rebel, everyone has to find themselves. I'm not saying it's great for everyone around you. The family have concerns but… who would I be without my adventures? I knew what I wanted was a bit different and I've had to hustle on the street for it since I was 15." The exact magnitude of the street "hustle" has been questioned. After all, Convent of the Sacred Heart is the oldest private girls' school in Manhattan - and one of the most select: Paris Hilton was among her peers.
"I think people make too much of that. People say that Beautiful, Dirty Rich [a GaGa song] was about her, and it was not. I didn't know her or people like her and there is absolutely no bad blood between us… I was already on the arty side of things and at a school like that you make enemies quickly if you stand out too much. And I did. I was obsessed with Warhol and his whole Factory set-up and finding a common ground between that art and popular culture.
"But also my whole aesthetic is very brash and bold. If you know what you want and you are not scared to go for it, people get scared. And people who are scared can turn on you." Warhol's Factory was, of course, his Manhattan production line for silk screens but also the epicentre of landmark 1960s dissolution: it was where Warhol and bands such as the Stones, the Velvet Underground and writers such as Truman Capote and William Burroughs invented the 1960s via free love and drugs.
"But out of that came the art of the day," retorts GaGa. "Challenging things. Shaping the way we think today. Warhol foresaw so much of what we take for granted. But it isn't just him. When I look like an artist like Grace Jones I think, 'There is my signpost to the future.' I am not going to knock other female artists. I just think it is so cheap and pointless to do that. But why follow some cute starlet with nothing to say when you have a leader of our gender like Grace Jones?"
subverting the traditional and orthodox with wild theatricality seems to underpin her whole life. In her late teens she became one of just 20 students in the world to be granted early admission to the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, where she studied piano. After graduating, she worked in the music industry's "back room", writing songs for artists as Britney Spears, the Pussycat Dolls and New Kids On The Block.
Those days must have been difficult, I suggest. After all, she was supplying ideas for Britney - the high-school prom queen turned tabloid train wreck. And for New Kids On The Block, with whom she recently toured - square-jawed all-American boys got up as "street" kids. Not exactly edgy or arty in the GaGa sense. Didn't she feel with either of these challenges: "I could do better?" "I don't parcel up my joy like that," she says obliquely. "I don't think having the limelight is better than writing a great song in the privacy of a room with just you and a piano. And I never compared myself to those artists who… are great artists. It's just that my interests are broad and they are different and I needed to find a way of getting my own personal craziness out there."
She was signed to Def Jam when she was 20, by the company's influential boss, LA "Babyface" Reid. He has a long track record both as artist and producer, but the match was not made in heaven and GaGa was shown the door three months later. Alongside her orthodox writing career she was developing the lavish and controversial theatrical side via a traffic-stopping collaboration with fellow burlesque act Lady Starlight. Together they created the now semi-legendary Starlight Revue. It wasn't long before people took notice and by 2007 she was taking "the ultimate pop burlesque rock show" on tour.
"Perry Farrell [the former Jane's Addiction frontman] invited us to go on tour with Lollapalooza [a travelling US rock festival] and that was a great experience for me. A festival is full of great bands playing at maximum volume. But we were bringing something else to the table: a certain freak value. Rock fans like to see a real freak." What's striking is her commitment to something beyond mere entertainment. GaGa is not there simply to provide titillation and tunes to hum along to in the manner of most pop artists. She wants to change us.
"When I get out there at a show I don't see an audience. I see a bunch of people that I want to… take over. I want them to stop thinking what they were thinking, I want them to forget about their boyfriend or their girlfriend and I want them to focus on Lady GaGa. It's not an ego thing. It's not that I lack attention. It's just that I want to get my music and my art into their minds and I want fuses to blow."
There will be little problem with that. Anyone who has seen the amazing jacket made entirely of bubbles that she wore at the start of her US tour will know that GaGa is pushing the envelope in terms of evening wear and then some. Interestingly, she credits her mother - a woman habitually swathed in Armani - with her taste for multidirectional skirts and hair styles that sometimes look as though someone has randomly stacked plumbing materials on her head.
"Oh, she just totally has the fashion gene," she enthuses. "I just went some place else with it. I totally look up to my mother in terms of how a lady should look. She used to wear a lot of classic Italian designer stuff. I think what I have done is inherit a sense of fashion but my mind has flipped it. I don't think I want to look classic and classy just yet. One day. For now I want people to think, 'Is that a woman or a piece of art?' And always I want them to think, 'That blows my mind! How does she do that?'"
Her album The Fame has been critically well-received. What she has done is take the hard edge of dance and electronica and given it an irresistible pop sheen. Music that could possibly have been the preserve of poker-faced fashionistas actually sounds fun and accessible. There is a contradiction with the way Lady GaGa views "fame" and that of her peers though. At Glastonbury she will share the bill with another self-possessed modern woman: Lily Allen. The two share a love of fashion and an undisputed attitude but they diverge radically in their view of celebrity.
While Allen's album is sickened by celebrity culture, GaGa's tries to bring listeners into the party and enjoy it. Tracks such as The Fame, Money Honey, Paparazzi and Starstruck suggest an unchallenging view of things reminiscent of Madonna in her Material Girl era. Rather than being a radical, GaGa can sound like a wannabe brat - albeit one in a rubber dress who plays the piano rather well. "I'm not asking people to put me up on a pedestal. I'm not asking people to worship me. That's not me at all. I'm trying to say that you can find something of yourself that's wild and undiscovered through my music and enjoy it. I do think there are aspects of fame which are… crazy and even damaging. But I think Lily Allen's different to me. You can enjoy the ride and not be overwhelmed by it."
Like Madonna before her, Lady GaGa is ensuring that her career path is illuminated by the torchlight of outraged censors. Despite enjoying her first number one in Australia with Just Dance, in April it became the first country to ban the video for her follow-up single Love Game. And last week MTV Arabia followed suit. Not only do the lyrics contain references to a male partner's "disco stick" but the video was deemed too lewd and beyond the help of editing by broadcasters. As the dust settled on that, GaGa then announced that she was bisexual in Rolling Stone magazine. And if she wanted the ultimate controversy endorsement then she got it with Marilyn Manson, the goth freak-rocker, announcing: "She knows exactly what she's doing… and she's laughing when she's doing it, the same way I am."
Of course, Madonna started out as a dominatrix seemingly driven by a powerful core of charisma and sexuality. Eventually, her Italian-American Catholic upbringing did explain some of the preoccupation with power and sex. Is there a Madonna-style emotional deficit to explain Lady GaGa's rampant desire for exhibitionism? "No. I'm not saying my father totally gets what I do all the time. If you listen to Bruce Springsteen - which is his thing - then you're in a blue-collar world of gritty realism. In my world it's different. It's not realism. It's art."
Does she regret anything about the days on the go-go/burlesque circuit? "Well, I messed around taking acid and that doesn't really work for me. You cannot perform at your best if the walls are melting in front of your eyes," she says reasonably. "I want to be aware at the point when I lose all my inhibitions." No inhibitions at all? You can't help feeling there is a quieter, more traditional figure lurking, that she is not totally GaGa. On the inside sleeve of The Fame, comes this homely dedication: "Thank you for teaching me the importance of family and showing me the value of always sitting down to dinner together - and never taking a bite till everyone was present," she notes virtuously. But everyone, even in her own family, calls her GaGa.
"GaGa is a state of mind which works in the realm of my art," she explains. "When I'm at home, yes, I am more traditional. I cannot perform 24 hours a day. A good meal. Family. Friends. I'm not crazy at the dinner table. I know how to behave."