I can’t believe I’m writing about Lady Gaga, either, but there is a book involved.
Every impression I have of Lady Gaga comes from the TVs mounted at my gym, where I am helpless to change the channel. While I fall outside her demographic, I find myself watching with some small fascination. My conclusion: She’s a graduate of RuPaul’s Drag U.
Well, not really, of course, Lady Gaga having been famous before RuPaul’s Logo Channel reality show premiered last January, but still, the principles are the same. Take drag queen aesthetics, trowel them onto a “real” woman, shake well and — voila: A diva is born.
It helps, however, to have talent, charisma and the kind of drive toward fame that propelled Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest. And in the case of Lady Gaga, it’s driven her to such heights of pop fame and achievement, someone has written a full biography of her life. She’s 24.
In Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga, Maureen Callahan, a writer and editor for the New York Post, seeks to illuminate how a privileged Upper West Side private school girl who wanted to be a singer-songwriter became, among other things, Neo-Madonna.
I say “among other things” because while Gaga may owe Madge an unpayable debt for pioneering the pop queen-as-fetishized-chameleon shtick, she is more than a mimic. Not least, she’s a real musician and an accomplished pop songwriter–I don’t know the name of a single song, but sometimes I wake up with one playing in my head.
For another, she’s a brilliant synthesist of previous and current musical styles (just like the Beatles!). She takes familiar musical tropes, video images, dance moves and makes them seem fresh and original. I mean, she’s recycling the entirety of Madonna’s first 10 years (thrift shop waif/man eater/virgin/goldigger Marilyn/omnisexual Vogueist) and people are buying it as something new!
But more than anything, Gaga is a goddess (a word not chosen lightly) of charisma. Even though she’s not conventionally beautiful, unlike Beyonce or Shakira or Nicole Sherzinger, she is, like Madonna, compulsively watchable — whether she’s striding purposefully around a pool (where would music videos be without the crossover?!), or miming some S&M fantasy, or showing up at the VMAs in a dress made of raw meat.
Her plainness, in fact, makes her much more interesting. A girl who looks like this (intelligent eyes, chipmunky cheeks) is not supposed to dress like this, act like this, act out like this. Um…can we see some more, please?
I have to pause here to ask: Don’t you find Gaga’s sexual provocations oddly harmless? I mean, if I had tween daughters I’d keep them as far from Gaga’s influence as possible.
But still, no matter what strenuously weird leathered-up bisexual fantasy she enacts in her videos, the whole thing always seems tame, like she’s a precocious little girl playing dress up. When Madonna did this kind of thing in the ’80s, it was invariably dangerous and threatening.
In fact, Gaga was prettier when she was plain little Stefani Germanotta and her main ambition was to become the next Fiona Apple or Nora Jones. Here’s a link to a pre-Gaga performance so accomplished I can only conclude she would have become famous no matter what musical genre she chose.
Alas, though Callahan combs through Stefani’s transmogrification into Gaga as best she can, she cannot quite identify how it took place, according to this USA Today review. Missing from the 50 interviews Callahan conducted for this book: any contact with Gaga.
This leaves Callahan with no recourse but to say that seeking the answer is to “search fruitlessly for the cracks between” the sensitive schoolgirl “and the glorious, demented art-freak performer on stage.”
A bit of hubris, that: I didn’t find the answer, Callahan is trying to persuade us, therefore there must not be one. That’s not to dismiss her book as unworthy of attention. It may brim with all manner of insights into Gaga’s background, personality and motivation. But it does seem to fail its own title.
Whatever the secret is, Lady Gaga is a genius at gauging the temperature of the zeitgeist and bending it in her direction. She’s so good at this, she displays such a deep, possibly instinctive understanding of all things media, I wonder if she could be persuaded to take over, say, the Tribune Co.? If anyone can save old media, I’d say it’s her.