In the seemingly endless lists published by Forbes magazine, chronicling details and rankings of the world's wealthiest, most powerful and influential people, one name has been cropping up rather a lot in the past four years: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Never heard of her? You'll have heard at least some of her music and, when she lands in the UAE to perform under her stage name of Lady Gaga next week at Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, you'll probably hear nothing else on the country's airwaves.
Grandstand seat tickets cost a whopping Dh750 each, but Gaga has at least promised, in a conversation with Karl Lagerfeld published in Harper's Bazaar, to give her fans a decent performance. "I'm very excited to go there," she told the Chanel design boss, "see my fans, give them the show of a lifetime. And, of course, I must explore the local designers and go shopping."
Gaga is rarely (if ever) away from the world’s headlines. Whether she’s busy posting her own take on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on her Instagram feed (jet-black lipstick, motionless expression, no words spoken), turning up to perform at events dressed in clothes made from Muppets or dead animal flesh, jumping head first into arguments about human rights and equality, enraging interviewers for not removing her sunglasses or being photographed arriving at the gym wearing black fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, she’s a one-woman headline generator and shows no signs of slowing down.
“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” sang Paul Simon on his 1986 single, The Boy in the Bubble, and Gaga has widely been hailed as the first pop sensation of the digital age – an androgynous, aggressive performer who appeals equally to the rebellious, the disenfranchised and those who simply want to dance their socks off in a nightclub on a Friday night. But where did she come from and, apart from Dubai, where is she heading?
She attracts as many detractors as she does fans. The veritable army of devoted obsessives that she calls her “Little Monsters” hang off her every word, pore over every photograph and engage on the social media website Gaga set up (seriously), called LittleMonsters, while those who couldn’t care less dismiss her as an unoriginal attention-seeker with zero creativity, controlled by an invisible team of manipulators whose sole aim is to keep her on the covers of magazines and newspapers the world over.
Whatever your take on Gaga, there’s no denying the woman’s phenomenal popularity. Seemingly arriving out of nowhere in late 2008, she’s since gone on to sell 125 million singles and about 27 million albums, which makes her one of the biggest artists of the past five years. She has constantly reinvented herself, so much so that she could probably walk past you in Satwa and you’d never notice. A chameleon, a visual icon and controversially outspoken, media-savvy celebrity – her music will no doubt date faster than most, but, to her Little Monsters, she’s an inspiration.
Despite all her appeal to those who feel like they're marginalised, this is not a woman who ever had to fight for survival or acceptance. In a scathing, no-holds-barred character assassination published in the UK's Sunday Times four years ago, Camille Paglia noted: "Her upbringing was comfortable and eventually affluent, and she attended the same upscale Manhattan private school as Paris and Nicky Hilton. There is a monumental disconnect between Gaga's melodramatic self-portrayal as a lonely, rebellious, marginalised artist and the powerful corporate apparatus that bankrolled her makeover and has steamrollered her songs into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere."
Paglia isn’t a fan, but she did raise some valid points. “Gaga is in way over her head,” she ranted, “with her avant-garde pretensions … She wants to have it both ways – to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal, a practitioner of gung-ho ‘show biz’. Most of her worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion. Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.”
But this, perhaps, is what a new generation of digital-era fans want from a star. Today’s youth is, by and large, quite content to live life in electronic tablet form, to consume all sorts of media without ever owning it as a physical entity. The entire musical landscape has experienced a paradigm shift in the past five years and Gaga arrived just at the start of it all.
Gaga was born into a Catholic New York family on March 28, 1986. She’s the elder daughter of Cynthia Louise and Joe Germanotta, a successful internet entrepreneur. Contradicting evidence that her family enjoyed an affluence at odds with her later anarchistic persona (they lived in Manhattan’s Upper West Side), she’s gone on record to say that her parents “both came from lower-class families, so we’ve worked for everything – my mother worked 8am to 8pm out of the house, in telecommunications, and so did my father”.
Whatever the truth, both Gaga and her younger sister, Natali, proved to be academically gifted. She was also musically gifted and began playing the piano when she was just 4 years old. When she was 13, she wrote her first piano ballad and, a year later, she started performing at some of Manhattan's open-mic nights. She dabbled in acting, too, appearing in lead roles in school plays and was given a small role in an episode of The Sopranos – all of which helped her mother encourage her to pursue a career in the performing arts.
At the age of 17, she was granted early admission to the Collaborative Arts Project 21 (also known as CAP21) at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and she moved away from home to live in a university dormitory. She spent two years diligently studying and honing her songwriting skills, before quitting her course to concentrate full-time on her music. Her father agreed to pay her rent for a year on the understanding that, if it didn’t work out, she’d resume her studies.
"I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate [terrible food] until somebody would listen," she recalled in a 2010 interview with New York magazine. Rolling Stone, documenting her rise to stardom, noted how much work she put into getting noticed. "She trained with Christina Aguilera's vocal coach," the magazine said in its Gaga biography, "learnt classical piano, and studied her father's classic-rock albums. She joined a band in her freshman year at an upscale New York prep school, doing covers of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin oldies. At New York University, she became obsessed with glam-rock artists like Queen and Elton John. She worked the downtown cabaret clubs as a singer-pianist, and began developing the visual side of her act during early shows with New York scenester Lady Starlight."
Her efforts paid off with an early record deal with Island Def Jam, but she became bored and switched to writing dance-orientated pop material – something that didn’t sit well with her paymasters, who dropped her after just three months. Their loss was the gain of the hip-hop artist Akon, who joint-signed her with the chief executive of Interscope Geffen A&M, Jimmy Iovine.
Gaga spent most of 2007 recording her debut album, The Fame, but recalls that there was still some nervousness from record-company executives about their new signing and her potential to cause outrage for being "too racy" and "underground". Her response? "My name is Lady Gaga, I've been on the music scene for years, and I'm telling you, this is what's next." She was absolutely right.
The Fame, released in 2008, was a sleeper hit, eventually taking off in early 2009. Once the airplay began in earnest (helped by her constant touring), there was no stopping it – the album racked up No 1 singles in the form of Just Dance and Poker Face. While the world went gaga, the lady herself started being nominated for pretty much every industry award going. A star was born.
The singles, the albums, the tours, and controversies – they’ve been relentlessly unleashed ever since. Predictably, Gaga has been hailed as the new Madonna and the new “princess of pop”, as if she needed any more labels. Madonna herself seems irked by the inevitable comparisons. One British newspaper recently reported that “leaked lyrics” from Madonna’s forthcoming album take shots at Gaga, accusing her of being, at best, a poor imitator.
Lady Gaga is unlikely to be fazed by such nonsense. She’ll be far too busy honing her act, coming up with ever-more-outrageous costume designs, planning her next hit (her latest collaboration is with the veteran crooner Tony Bennett) and counting her money. She’s a fame monster, all right – a new kind of pop star for a new kind of audience.
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