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America responded with a collective “Well, of course!” when Lady Gaga formally announced herself in 2008. Overnight success is a myth, but then again, Gaga’s first two singles, “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” both hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Since then, she’s worn red latex to meet Queen Elizabeth, possibly dethroned a queen of a different sort (Madonna), collaborated twice with Beyoncé, compelled Barbara Walters to say “bluffin’ with my muffin” on prime-time television, reminded the post-MTV generation how videos crucially enrich pop music (the eye-popping “Bad Romance” clip netted an average of two million views per day in its first month on YouTube), was declared “more powerful than Anna Wintour” by BlackBook, and got sentenced to hell by the Westboro Baptist Church.
Fred Phelps may think she’s doomed, but Gaga’s ascent to superstardom reads more like divine providence, prophesized right on the cover of her debut album (The Fame, duh). Before that, her first major press attention resulted not from her music, but from her serving as stylistic inspiration for Christina Aguilera’s brief electro-glam phase. Gaga was established before she was established—her ascent seemed like nothing short of a goddess assuming her rightful position in celebrity’s ever-renewing pantheon, like something that sprung from Myra Breckinridge’s head, or maybe from her likewise ambiguous genitalia. (Incidentally, “Is Lady Gaga a man?” was AskJeeves.com‘s third-most-asked question of 2009. You haven’t made it till they’ve questioned your sexuality; you haven’t been deified until they’ve questioned your gender.)
Our collective ass has been pinched by sexy cupid, yes, but there’s more than the cosmos behind Gaga’s sharp ascent to mass adoration. Her voice is much stronger than your average disco floozy (at her best, she resembles Aguilera, actually, subtracting a few octaves and adding a lot of taste). The strength of her songwriting is never obscured by the ear- and/or stadium-filling synth layers, grinding and zapped with static as they’re piled on by RedOne and her other producers. (Nevertheless, she readily offers live “acoustic” versions of her otherwise electronic tracks, just to make clear she really can play these durable little ditties.) Her hooks thrust themselves at you like little aspiring superstars themselves, desperate to be loved. In fact, indelible as her writing is, her music’s quality is just about the least interesting component of her career to dissect. It’s enjoyable on such a fundamental level that it rebukes a message she’s broadcasted via LCD display on one pair (out of what must be hundreds) of her distinctive sunglasses: “Pop music will never be low brow.” No intellect is necessary to enjoy these tunes.
Moreover, you can detect Gaga’s hard work when she’s merely existing: Just standing upright in one of her wardrobe monstrosities (like the giant rotating orb, or Alexander McQueen’s 12-inch stiletto claws) is an accomplishment. But setting aside whatever Gaga’s shocking people with at any given moment—be it involving batwings, bone, or blood—she has filled a musical void as well. The still-thriving disco/house revival in pop music incubated by Timbaland, Rihanna, Janet, Britney, and the Great Daft Punk Infatuation of 2007 needed a singular face. Hers is not an unfamiliar one, either, as Gaga’s Eurodisco tendencies and open fame fixation mimic the not-so-great Electroclash fizzle of the early ’00s, which if nothing else proves that something can be both stupid and ahead of its time. That combination works much better now that blogs have inextricably linked fame examination to technology. What better love theme for this cultural climate of high scrutiny than one that proclaims, “I’m your biggest fan/I’ll follow you until you love me/Papa-paparazzi”?
Gaga is prone to vocal repetition (“Puh-puh-puh-poker face,” “Muh-muh-muh-monster”), which has the simple, hypnotic effect of an animated gif. This woman is her own loop-making machine, much like she serves as her own interpreter. In interviews, she consistently supplies crystalline meanings for her opaque lyrics, playing along with the kids on the playground who ascribe head-scratching readings to pop songs (like when people decided Cassie’s “Me & U” was about giving head). Because it isn’t otherwise evident, she’s had to explain that “Poker Face” is about fantasizing about a chick while she’s with her dude, that “Dance in the Dark” is about a woman with such low self-esteem that she only fucks with the lights off, that “Speechless” is a plea to her father to undergo open-heart surgery. You like self-sufficiency with your multi-hyphenation? This singer-songwriter-disco-goddess-clotheshorse will give you self-sufficiency! You barely need to listen at all: She’s like a self-cleaning oven who’ll eat the food and then burp for you.
Last year’s constant chatter both from and about Gaga has introduced so many contradictions, her rhetoric is less “fake it till you make it” than “make it till you have to fake it.” Besides some weird stuff about feminism and her conflicting views on aiming for hits even though her career is allegedly “not about record sales,” her least coherent thoughts concern what she talks about the most: celebrity. Andy Warhol she ain’t. She speaks of “inner fame” as if celebrity isn’t entirely determined by external forces. She claimed on Barbara Walters’s The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009 special that the biggest misconception about her is that she is “artificial and attention-seeking,” as if we’re supposed to look away when she enters a room wearing Muppets. She says Lady Gaga is not a persona and has gone so far as to claim she sleeps in wigs, as if that’s comfortable. She talks about “liberating” her fans, and, as a former outcast, wanting them to feel less alone, as if anyone without star power (or a trust fund) could live up to her standards of fabulousness. It’s surprising that someone who heartily waves a freak flag could transition so easily into standard superstar-speak (Diddy: “My mission, first and foremost, is to inspire people”). It’s as if she took to heart the “You’re a superstar/Yes, that’s what you are” line in Madonna’s “Vogue” and decided it was worthy of evangelism.
Gaga recently told MTV that she mocks fame to make it “more tangible” and “something that my fans can have for themselves.” But then, of course, she’d be out of a job, and her pantheon would have to adopt an open-door policy. She inadvertently said it best when she told Entertainment Weekly, “There’s nothing to understand about what I do. . . . The point is to make a point.” That sounds like a big bunch of because-I-said-so, which works as doctrine, not as philosophy. Gaga has yet to truly wrap her head around herself. When she drops the shtick and gets serious, she proves to be not very good at not performing. (Her act is too precise for her to get away with calling her sloppy rhetoric part of it.) Maybe she’s too self-starstruck for levity. Maybe we should be happy that she excels where she does, tune out her musings, and leave the cultural criticism for the critics. We can’t expect too much from her. After all, she’s just a pop star.
Lady Gaga plays Radio City Music Hall January 20–21 and 23–24