Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

In the Context of No Content

Heeding Lady Gaga's strangely empty song of herself

Heather Havrilesky


We know by now that pop dominatrix Lady Gaga is the ultimate brand for the new millennium. She dresses and moves like an alien whore from a Bob Fosse film. She sings and dances like Madonna 3.0. She Tweets, updates her Facebook page, appears in the gossip pages, make odd short films for YouTube, and never strays far from the headlines. She is a vocal supporter of everything all the kids already love: pop music, art, fashion, men, "sexual, strong women," homosexuality, David Bowie, Judy Garland, Andy Warhol, Led Zeppelin. But most of all, Lady Gaga loves, loves, loves her fans—to the point where she seems to consider herself some cross between a therapist, a mommy, and an imaginary friend to the masses. "I want women—and men—to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they're always trying desperately to hide," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I want that to become something that they cherish."

After one gives more than a passing glance at Lady Gaga's ability to translate loneliness into belonging, anonymity into fame, perversity into empowerment, it's not that tough to understand why she's so popular. Her willingness to commodify herself completely, to dish up one provocative statement or outfit after another, to speak in sound bites and teeter through the airport in gigantic shoes, has transformed her into an international star overnight. She keeps the breakneck schedule of a visiting dignitary no matter where she goes, ever anxious to celebrate the delirious contagion of her so-called Haus of Gaga with her subjects. The Haus—a battalion of talented and widely known stylists, choreographers, music-video directors, and fashion designers—collaborates tirelessly on this one, towering, magnificent product: Gaga. "When you are lonely, I will be lonely, too," she told a screaming crowd on the second stop of her Monster Ball tour, which featured snarling dogs, guns, muzzles, fog, aliens, dentist chairs, poisons, and every provocative image in the known universe. A flood of other, less-mentioned cultural references comes to mind: Leni Riefenstahl, Jim Jones, Jeffrey Dahmer.

Our notions of a truly soulful backstory for a megapop phenomenon veer distinctly toward the cartoonish, informed by the plots of fairy tales and Little Orphan Annie. And our prejudices about the character of a genuine artist are arguably no less realistic—some deep emotional scars, some compulsion to create at all costs. But both narratives are hard to shake when faced with Lady Gaga's curiously inert real story: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta grew up a self-proclaimed "ham," according to Emily Herbert's Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame, a rather breathless account of all things Gaga that typifies the budding genre. Stefani was the daughter of a well-connected businessman. She went to the same prestigious Manhattan Catholic girl's school as Paris Hilton. After she graduated from high school, she courted the underground club scene in the East Village with the naive enthusiasm of a puppy trussed up in a leather corset: First she sang indie-rock ballads that struck some as a little too earnest, then she participated in burlesque shows, lit hairspray on fire, and allegedly had a coke habit. But even then, little Stefani had a vision: She wanted to be a big, big, big star.

And while we probably shouldn't long for something authentic or gritty or tragic in the tale of a human being whose true self has always placed a distant second to her bulletproof global branding strategy, every single thing about Lady Gaga appears to be disappointingly constructed, even her moniker. As Maureen Callahan asserts in her sharp, thorough bio of Gaga, Poker Face, the name Gaga didn't, as Gaga herself claims, spontaneously arise when the producer Rob Fusari told Stefani, "You're so Gaga!" (alluding to the 1984 Queen hit "Radio Ga Ga," it seems). Instead, the handle came about as the result of a particularly productive marketing meeting.

Yes, there were plenty of bumps in the road on the way to becoming a pop demigod. Her parents didn't always approve of her act or her costumes. Gaga allegedly stiffed former mentor Wendy Starland after Starland had invested much of her time shaping Gaga's sound and look and hooking her up with Fusari. According to Callahan, Gaga allegedly worked with Fusari partially because rejecting him could have damaged her career. These rough spots feel like rites of passage for an ambitious young hopeful whose determination to break wide, for better or for worse, overshadows everything else in her life.

Of course, most accounts of Gaga's will to power are designed to please her millions of devoted fans and are therefore so fawning that they can be pretty tough to stomach. Every few pages, Herbert reminds us how earth-shattering Gaga's entrance onto the pop scene was, proclaiming her "one of the most charismatic entertainers of the early twenty-first century" and encountering every aspect of the pop star's background with unrestrained awe. Gaga's classical training and appreciation of Bach's chord progressions mean she's a true wunderkind. For Herbert, even Gaga's alleged recreational substance abuse is inspiring: "She was, after all, carrying on the grand tradition of the tortured artist as drug user, an association that had existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years." For Lizzy Goodman, meanwhile, it's Gaga's costume choices that set the world on fire. "Fashion was the medium that allowed Gaga to stop intellectualizing her vision and start living it," she writes in Lady Gaga: Critical Mass Fashion.

In fact, Goodman's book is crack for the Gaga lover's soul, with absurd overstatements about even the most trivial of style choices. To Goodman, Gaga wears sunglasses because "she needs protection from being seen as anything other than whatever walking, talking art installation she's turned herself into." Gaga "uses blood, exposed bones, and gore to represent both what she's willing to give to be famous and what the pop world expects from its icons." And of course, Gaga wears no pants because pantslessness means freedom. Gaga also embraces freedom by "subverting traditional values"—sartorially, "through bondage dress"; physically, "through extreme makeup"; and behaviorally, through all her "sexual provocation." Yes, look a little too closely at the costume changes of a pop star who sings about partying, bad boyfriends, and crappy cell-phone reception, and you wind up in an undergraduate seminar full of semidelusional comp-lit students.

But then, Lady Gaga herself has offered up such a steady stream of nonsense about her rise to fame that entire books have been cobbled together from these quotes alone. "I'm like Tinker Bell," she is quoted as saying at the start of Goodman's book. "You know how she dies if you don't clap for her? Scream for me! Do you want me to die?!" Not that she won't applaud herself: "I inspire shock in people, and it's fascinating to me." "I believe in the power of propaganda, of repetition," she says—and apparently so do the countless biographers rushing to document her significance for the masses. After a few pages of either Goodman's or Herbert's book, the onslaught of self-referential emptiness becomes too tedious to bear. We get it, kid. You're re-inventing everything. Next!

But there really is something head spinning about ambition this extreme, as Callahan lays out in her far more skeptical and comprehensive book. Apparently, Lady Gaga made alliances with anyone and everyone who seemed positioned to push her career forward. Most of her former associates and collaborators, many of whom spoke to Callahan, remain in awe of how hardworking and driven the woman is. The rapper Cazwell is surprised by her "professionalism and decisiveness." Club promoters are impressed with how she sticks to her commitments, even if it means getting off a plane from Europe and performing the same day (as she did for a gig on Fire Island, New York). Most of the record executives who spoke with Callahan mention Gaga's tireless devotion to self-promotion, whether it means making extra appearances or rerecording the intro to a hit so that she can give a shout-out to a specific radio station—according to Callahan, Gaga did this for "every single radio outlet in the United States."

There's something at once transfixing and unsavory about this woman's vision quest, about her determination to become the ultimate shiny, exquisitely manufactured cipher. Even the most skeptical takes on her play into her act, since they present another opportunity for her to spew more of her trademark Warholian mumbo jumbo: "The idea is to make things—videos, fashion, performance art—which are innately significant and insignificant, that will cause argument: 'Is Lady Gaga valid or invalid?'" But in an age when the Dalai Lama himself has a Twitter feed, is there really any difference between an organic, authentic human being and a strategically designed product? Is it important to distinguish between a particularly inspired conversation two people had while listening to a Queen album and a brainstorming session at a marketing meeting in some high-rise conference room?

When you watch the video for "Bad Romance" or "Alejandro," or when you take in the perfectly creepy images and the inspired choreography and the deliriously lavish, disturbing costumes, all set to the catchiest, most polished pop imaginable, you don't think of Stefani Germanotta or the army of talented professionals who work for her, nor do you analyze the cultural precedents or the subtext or the dueling dichotomies of this creation. You simply say to yourself, "This Lady Gaga, she really is something else. This woman was born to be a star." And valid or invalid, empty or not, you're right about that.

Heather Havrilesky's memoir will be published this winter by Riverhead.

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