It’s been fascinating enough to watch Lady Gaga from afar, knocking out Bad Romance in a 20ft bathtub on The X Factor or appearing at a rally to lobby Congress on homophobic laws on gays in the US military.
It’s a whole different level of extraordinary to actually meet Gaga, as this Stylist correspondent has on various occasions over the last few years. The first time we spoke was near the end of 2008; she was 22, Just Dance was a few months away from release. The single was about getting drunk in clubs, but it was instantly clear that Gaga was unusually thoughtful. She explained that her Lady Gaga persona was born when she realised that the weird girl named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta from New York who everyone made fun of at school was the most interesting part of her personality. “I’ve always felt famous,” she added. “You can create your own fame if you’re committed to your work”.
Two years on, this commitment is already legendary, and her unique spirit is unwavering. Sometimes when you’re with her she will behave like an excited, wide-eyed kid then, in a split second, will switch personalities and speak with the authority and knowledge of a woman twice her age.
One woman twice Gaga’s age is, of course, Madonna, the last singer to have captivated the planet in this way while remaining firmly in the driving seat. But by the end of 2008, pop was crying out for someone who would shove a rocket up it, and as it turned out pop’s saviour came in the form of someone with rockets blasting out of her bra.
“She has a creative aesthetic that stretches beyond songwriting into the fashion and even technology fields,” says Jill Bradshaw, Trend Director at New York fashion-forecasting company Stylesight. “While other musicians may take style direction from others, such as their stylists, Gaga takes direction from herself.”
Pop style has always been one of fashion’s main routes from the catwalk to the high street and it seems ironic that an act so immersed in the world of style has not sparked high street trends. It’s easy to get a Lily Allen dress or hints of Marina & The Diamonds but with Gaga it’s less easy. At the end of the day, you’re either wearing a ham on your head or you’re not. “I don’t see Gaga as having a definable style because being undefinable is her style,” Bradshaw says. “She has an innate sense of what works.”
It would be easy to look at this as simple box ticking, yet Gaga’s passions actually stand up to some scrutiny. Sarah Thornton, cultural sociologist and author of books Seven Days In The Art World and Club Cultures: Music, Media And Subcultural Capital, says that the art world likes Lady Gaga, and she’s impressed by the breadth of Gaga’s inspiration. “She does draw inspiration from the art world,” Thornton says. “For instance I saw one video interview with her where she was praising Marina Abramović who’s one of the grand dames of performance art.”
That interview is online, as it happens. Search ‘gaga marina’ on YouTube and it’ll pop up – Gaga, overwhelmed by her passion for Abramavic’s “limitless” approach to art and life. While studying at New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts, meanwhile, she wrote an 80-page thesis on Damien Hirst and installation artist Spencer Tunick.
Sarah Thornton adds that, whatever the discipline, Gaga “is good at studying the complexity of different cultures around her. She is a complex cultural phenomenon: interesting from a music point of view, a fashion point of view, a performance point of view. Her cultural identity is interesting – I’d call her multi-subcultural, and there are many subcultures who identify her as a kindred spirit.”
She has, in fact, established a subculture of her own: her beloved Little Monsters, the community of superfans who hang on her every word. Naturally any pop phenomenon to arrive in the last three years would have broken social media boundaries, but Gaga’s engagement with her fans and her passion for digital media have nurtured a fascinating cross section of obsessives. Go backstage with enough bands and a sad truth tends to emerge: they hate their fans, and take those fans for granted. Gifts from fans are ridiculed, fan letters read out in stupid voices. Sit backstage with Gaga as she breathlessly reads out a fan letter and the experience is turned on its head: she has a strange awe of these people.
During her live shows, Gaga pauses to explain to the assembled audience that despite all the exclusion and name-calling they might have to put up with in life, tonight, “the freaks are on the outside”. The crowd tends to go a bit mad at this point. Then Gaga screams “AND I LOCKED THE F***IN’ DOORS!” and the place explodes.
Hers is a mindset that seems to say – so what if people laugh at you? Have the last laugh by having the first laugh. It’s exactly what she does with the press. Nowadays all celebrities are at war with the media, but Lady Gaga seems to be the one starting the fights. “She wins battles every day,” says PR expert Mark Borkowski. “Every so often the system produces a story virus, and right now, Lady Gaga is that virus. Through the history of pop culture there are people who get it – in PR we say that people have ‘the stuff’, and Lady Gaga has the stuff. She knows what it’s about. When people try to make sense of Lady Gaga they miss the point – she’s symbiotic with the system. At one level she’s out of control, on another level she’s totally in control and is messing with it.”
Read part 3 of Gaga here
Words: Peter Robinson
Picture credit: Josh Olins