The woman who beat the bullies and conquered the style world
I’m not interested in people positioning me next to other artists,’ announces the icon, sitting in a recording studio with Time Out. ‘I just want to make my music.’A bold claim from someone who has appeared in public dressed in numerous decapitated Kermits, a gas mask, a lampshade, a massive egg and a dress made of meat.
And these looks have been hard to miss, because for the last three years, 25-year-old New Yorker Lady Gaga (or real name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has dominated pop and fashion’s field of vision in a way other artists with comparable sales have not.
She is the internet age’s first true pop phenomenon, but mo’ Twitter followers (she recently hit the 13.3 million mark), mo’ problems. While no megastar in history has been able to connect with their audience so easily, nor has any been quite this easy to heckle.
In February, Lady G’s much-trumpeted big comeback single, ‘Born This Way’, was loudly criticised for sounding too much like Madonna; its successor, ‘Judas’, was rounded upon for being too much like, er, Lady Gaga. ‘It’s part of the whole internet culture,’ she declares. ‘People want you to fail. People want to tear me down, they were going to knife me anyway. The good news is that when they look back they’ll all remember how brave I was: “She put out a record about being yourself, and we crucified her for it, but she soared on and sat at Number One for six weeks and told everyone to [BACK] OFF!”. ’
It wasn’t ‘Born This Way’ that told everyone to back off. In May this year, with an album release looming, ‘Judas’ tumbling down the charts and the album’s artwork being widely derided, a miniature backlash seemed to be gathering pace.
Then with little fanfare and no over-hyped video, a song called ‘The Edge of Glory’ appeared on iTunes. It was supposed to be an album teaser, and Gaga’s label didn’t even take it to radio.
It hit Number One on iTunes around the world. It was a reminder that all those outfits may have counted for nothing if her first single, ‘Just Dance’, hadn’t been a little bit special, or if subsequent releases such as ‘Bad Romance’ hadn’t been pretty listenable to boot.
What did you find out about yourself in writing the songs for Born This Way? That being bullied stays with you your whole life, and no matter how many people are screaming your name or how many Number One hits you have, you can still wake up and feel like a loser.
Don’t you consider your success a massive ‘get lost!’ to the bullies? Well, in order for me to be successful; in order to be a great artist – musician, actor, painter, whatever – you must be able to be private in public at all times. That is what we do.
Okay… I mean, I could elaborate… [miniature pause while she pretends she might not elaborate]… Unless I am both capable of and willing to reopen the wound every time I write a song, if I choose to not look inside myself to write music, I’m really not worth being called an artist at all.
Who was your worst bully at school? [Looks a bit wobbly.] I… see… her… in my head. [Stops looking wobbly.] There were a lot of bullies. You have to open the wound and pour salt and arsenic and poison in that wound and you must get out a needle and poke and prod then sew it back up again. And when I’m handed a beat that sounds amazing, that beat is the scissors, and then I cut the wound I’ve just sewn up, and I go back in. I go back in and I ask myself the same questions again and again and again: why am I here?
And the answer is? Because I MUST be here. Because I know it is my purpose to be an artist, but I have to go back over and over that wound, being bullied, feeling insecure, all things that recurred in my childhood and continue to recur through my career. You can’t look me in the eye and tell me I’m one of them: I know I’m not. I never will be.
One of ‘them’? Who are ‘they’? The in-crowd. Right? I don’t really want to be one of them, yet it [the bullying] affected me so deeply that I have to go in over and over and over again to write music.
‘If you were not bullied in high school I can imagine that it might be a bit difficult to be around us, because we kind of flock together,’ she says. ‘But there’s no discrimination. I mean if you were a cool kid at school, that doesn’t mean you’re not welcome. I’m not trying to further divisiveness. Those people who feel bullied or like nerds, I’m trying to make them feel like winners, but I’m not trying to make them hate all of the cool kids more. It’s all about closing the gap and bringing people closer together. And that’s what the pop end of my music is all about.’
Most Lady Gaga interviews go to great lengths to explain how what you are reading is a glimpse of what Lady Gaga is really like to meet, but one thing they rarely grasp – because she rarely reveals it – is her sense of humour. It’s dark and dry, and it makes you realise that not only does she fully grasp the ridiculousness of the situation she is in, but half of what she says is with her tongue firmly in cheek.
Chat with Gaga and she’ll also talk about relationships, and she’ll talk about her experiences meeting other artists. If you’re lucky, she’ll act out the time Liza Minnelli appeared in her dressing room, threw her jacket on the floor, froze in profile and demanded, ‘Shoot me from THE LEFT!’. (Gaga as Gaga: ‘That’s quite an entrance’. Gaga as Minnelli: ‘I KNOW!’).
Turn on a tape recorder and Lady Gaga has a habit of becoming quite serious. Conscious of the media’s relentless cynicism, she will end up protesting too much. It must be hard for her to make sense of critics who slam most pop stars for thinking too little, then criticise this one for thinking too much.
Aware, as she is, that anything she says is a potential headline, she won’t go on record talking about many other female artists; mention of one act prompts an unhappy grimace that hovers somewhere between ‘I am going to punch you’ and ‘I am going to be sick’. She also insists that the tape recorder is turned off before she talks us through one theory she has about a conspiracy against her. An unnecessary measure, as it turns out, since the claims would have been unrepeatable in print.
If in doubt, she’ll talk about how everything she does is for her army of fans. Of critical acclaim, she says at one point that she’d ‘rather be critically acclaimed by my fans’. It’s interesting that she thinks her fans could, and should, be critical (they’re not), and it explains her slightly obsessive approach to that fanbase. Many acts take their fans for granted; Lady Gaga is worried they might start booing.
‘I never cancelled a single date,’ she says of the 201-date ‘Monster Ball’ tour that finished in May this year. ‘Anything that was ever cancelled was down to the weather, or in Paris when the government wouldn’t let us into the city. [Pulls a face] I had food poisoning during my whole last O2 show in London. It was a nightmare. I was so sick.’
I asked her if there were any close calls? ‘There were a lot of close calls.’ I explain that the question I was trying not to ask, but must, is: ‘Did you go to the toilet on stage?’ Lady Gaga laughs at this question in a way her peers probably would not. ‘I was only vomiting!’ she says. And then she leans forward, her voice dropping to a whisper. ‘I don’t have a colon.’ There’s a lot of religious imagery on your album. Who or what do you think God is? I see God in my fans. I worship my fans. I don’t believe we know what God looks like, but you have faith in what He, or She, or It looks like. I have no scores to settle. That’s not at all what this is about.
What is it about? It’s more about my relationship to being taught something pretty vigilantly for years – being taught that God looked a certain way and did certain things and should either be loved or feared.
What don’t you like about your work? I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much.
What’s wrong with it? Beyoncé and I are great together. But there are so many ideas in that video and all I see is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more. It’s funny because I know a lot of kids on the Popjustice [the interviewer’s music website] forum didn’t like the ‘Alejandro’ video, but that was my favourite of all my videos.
Because there’s a lot less going on in it? [Nods] It’s not busy. But maybe that’s my own monster. People love the chaos in my brain, but I’m terrified of it.
Perhaps you’re not the best judge of your own work. I’m certainly not the best judge. I know when I do my best, though. ‘Born This Way’ is available at all good record stores.
Lady Gaga in the Middle East
Her relationship with our region has been love-hate so far…
Video banned In June 2009, Gaga’s video for single ‘Love Game’ is banned in the UAE – a very unusual move. ‘We represent the young generation’s mentality and culture so we can’t play something that conflicts with that. If they can’t watch something comfortably with their brother, sisters or friends then we will not play it,’ Samer al Marzouki, channel head of MTV Arabia, said at the time.
Fans campaign for her presence here Go online and you’ll find myriad Facebook groups campaigning for her to play here. A week doesn’t go by without a fresh rumour circulating that she’s coming to Abu Dhabi to perform.
Gaga-inspired abayas are launched in Dubai New local design label Paxon has taken traditional UAE dress and created avant-garde outfits inspired by the current obsession with celebrity culture – namely, Lady Gaga. With a sprinkle of shoulder pads, some Grecian draping and a whole lot of embellishment, these outfits are definite statement pieces. ‘Mother Monster’ would be very proud indeed. Prices [at time of print] from Dh360. www.paxononline.com.