Anyone who saw those pictures of her last week, dressed in what one might describe as a miniature glitter-clad Empire State building being hit by lightning, will agree — there ain’t no one in pop music as bold, brash and beguiling as Lady Gaga right now.
And every time you read about another bemused onlooker carping at Gaga for ‘attention-seeking’ — it is the most common criticism of her — you’ll know you’ve found another consumer of pop culture who just doesn’t get it. (The last person seen shaking his head censoriously was the intellectually adrift Jeremy Kyle, who didn’t approve of her unashamed ‘showing off’, thus rather beautifully illustrating the point.)
Perfect or ‘pure’ pop is very much in vogue these days, regularly championed even by those who once derided it as throwaway candyfloss, such as the too cool NME, the beardy Q and the academia-soaked broadsheets. As a genre, it is increasingly held up as the pinnacle of achievement in a transient bubblegum musical universe. But while it’s true that most of us enjoy a bit of snappy, crackly pop in our lives — whether it’s The Undertones, Phil Spector, Britney or Girls Aloud — the truth is that, in terms of big exciting personalities, the pop world has been pretty bereft for a good while. Lady Gaga couldn’t have come at a better time.
The best thing about Gaga is that her strangeness, like that of all the truly great eccentrics, is genuine. In that sense, she is a type not often observed in mainstream pop since the heady days when the beautiful freaks ruled the world. Right at the beginning, when the West was starting to put itself back together after a World War-imposed decade of austerity and propriety, and before the music industry was controlled by managers, PR people, and corporate bankers, pop music was the opposite of what it is now — it was a magnet for the kind of kids who get bullied at school for being ugly, geeky or just plain creepy. The awkward, speccy Buddy Holly, the flamboyantly effeminate Little Richard, the debauched (repeat) offender Chuck Berry — not exactly a PR’s dream any of them, but in the still experimental wild west of early pop music, they were kings.
The landscape has never been quite so heavily populated with outcasts since. The Beatles made mainstream pop the natural habitat for beautiful young people who made the opposite sex scream with lust, and not much has changed since. There have been sporadic oddities — Bowie and Marc Bolan in the ’70s, Freddie Mercury and Grace Jones in the ’80s — but in general, those artists caught the imagination precisely because they stood against a background of very attractive, or, at the very least, relatively normal folk.
The last 20 years in particular have overseen a cull of wonderful weirdos in the music business. As TV talent shows came to dominate, fans of the unorthodox began to accept that the only in music’s shadowy underbelly, where snarling counter-culturalists like Marilyn Manson and My Chemical Romance lurked, would they find a real alternative to the white-teethed, shiny haired, expensively dressed gym bunnies who governed the charts. So when Lady Gaga burst onto centre stage in 2008, as worshipful of top billing and the limelight as Manson was contemptuous, the idea that pop music could again provide the perfect platform for the most bizarre of nature’s creatures sprang hopefully to life.
It isn’t just that Lady Gaga looks like a clubbing transvestite who’s stumbled around Jean Paul Gaultier’s cutting room covered in glue. Or that she clearly sees make-up primarily as a means to alter her image from powdered, spider-lashed porcelain doll to S&M gimpess in 24 hours (rather than to, say, look pretty). Yes, her appearance is arresting, and shows signs of imagination, artistry and humour, but what’s most appealing of all is her total lack of vanity in the face of creativity.
Gaga has said she is an ‘art installation’, and while many have attacked her for pretentiousness, it’s fair to say that she has the visuals to back up her claim. She doesn’t merely choose the most outlandish outfits she can find, she gives serious thought to the way that PVC cloak moves when she dances onstage, how the light will catch the painstakingly angled tiny mirrors on her Robocop-inspired headgear.
Her attention to that kind of detail is both inspiring and abnormal — both ideal qualities for the perfect pop star.
Gaga also combines two crucial and oxymoronic elements which make for a compelling icon. She is drawn to the spotlight like Madonna to the cross, and has become famous for her flesh-flashing stagewear, but she also conveys an intense vulnerability. Sometimes she actually gives the impression of being afraid to look her audience, or her interviewer, directly in the eye.
These contradictory impulses were evident from an early age — we know that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, reportedly the apple of her father’s eye, began playing the piano aged four, and was accepted into the prestigious Julliard performing arts school in Manhattan.
However, despite her obvious penchant for performance and exhibitionism, she has said she was very insecure as a schoolgirl and worried so much about fitting in at her convent school that she made attempts to tone down those aspects of her personality and dress which were marking her out from her peers.
Equally, she has expressed some sadness that her drug-taking and stints as a go-go dancer in New York burlesque clubs in her early twenties shocked her father so much he “couldn’t look at me for a few months”.
Her father might not have approved of those early moves, but Gaga’s routine has since been honed to perfection.
She has been compared to numerous acts, including Freddie Mercury, Gwen Stefani and Madonna, but her strong, dominatrix vocal and hypnotic, semi-robotic dance style — as well as those breathtaking outfits — give her a unique edge for a female artist, and reveal a far more natural gift than the pathologically hard-working Madonna has ever exhibited.
She is no great beauty, but instead celebrates her unusual features by highlighting them with exaggerated make-up, often exploiting them to enhance her androgyny. It is this quality, along with her own suggestion that she may be bisexual (she said her number 1 hit Poker Face is about being with a man while fantasising about a woman) which has given her a huge following in the gay community and even led to rumours that she is in fact a hermaphrodite.
Ludicrous nonsense of course, but it’s no surprise that it was the ambiguous, intriguing Lady Gaga, rather than humdrum unit-shifters like Leona Lewis or Taylor Swift, who attracted such an off-the-wall piece of gossip.
In crude figures, Lady Gaga is one of the biggest stars of our times; she has sold eight million albums and 35m singles. She’s one of the hottest live acts on the circuit, and with the likes of Poker Face, Paparazzi, Let’s Dance and Bad Romance, has added some sharp and witty disco chutzpah to the classic pop pantheon.
Even her interviews are fascinating; there she sits, cradling a tiny china teacup, discussing her latest G-string and leather eye-mask combo with an eye-avoiding coyness, occasionally spirited into a short passionate treatise about the philosophy of fashion or the responsibility of fame.
In almost every significant aspect of modern pop music, she is way ahead of her peers. And best of all, there’s no knowing what she’ll do next. In other words, for the foreseeable, the future is Gaga.