Falling In and Out of Love (and In Again) with Lady Gaga
Falling in and out of love (and in again) with Lady Gaga
By Kaitlin Konecke
“I want your ugly, I want your disease.”
For me, it all started with Bad Romance.
Though she had already been on the scene for a year with highly successful singles, Lady Gaga absolutely slayed with her powerfully danceable song about seeking out the darkest parts of someone’s soul. She wanted your ugly. Your disease. She wanted your Psycho, wanted you in her Rear Window. I was obsessed with the lyrics and with the choreography of her video, and how beautifully weird she was, with her metallic costumes, Evil Queen-in-Sleeping-Beauty crowns, and the way she sang through gritted teeth, posing in awkward positions with a stone cold look of defiance and then, later, vulnerable heartbreak. It was kind of magical.
Spoken word interludes, razor blade glasses, Hitchcock and Kubrick references, Princess Diana adoration–who was this chick that put all of these things into millennial pop music? At the turn of the century, the question we were asking ourselves about pop music was: Where was the value? The meaning in lyrics? Pop was fun, sure, but also vapid. Pop was lowbrow.
But not with Lady Gaga.
With her glam rock David Bowie vibes, endless costume changes, and high production value performances, Gaga infused pop music with true, high-quality entertainment. She straddled the line between lowbrow and highbrow and took pop music beyond the superficial sameness it had turned into.
Lady Gaga’s debut album, The Fame, was an ode to her desire to be rich and famous and adored by everyone. With simple dance tracks like “Just Dance,” about getting drunk in a club, and “Boys, Boys, Boys” about, well, liking boys, she also presented songs that quite cleverly used fame as a metaphor for love and relationships, both good and bad. And while “Lovegame” had sick beats with Gaga wanting to take a ride on a “disco stick, (read: penis), and “Poker Face” was all about having sex with a man while really fantasizing about a women instead, the real message of the album was that love is better than money or fame. Plus, sex is great.
One of her earlier singles, “Paparazzi,” had Gaga crooning, “I’m your biggest fan / I’ll follow you until you love me.” A later track, “Money Honey” has Gaga exclaiming that she loves the expensive life, but when she’s “your lover and your mistress / that’s money honey.” And the insurmountably dance-able “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” highlights Gaga and her friends, with perfect hair, on top of the world even though they “got no money.”
Commercially, the album was a hit, topping the charts. Every song was a club-ready dance track, but some you could look at a little deeper than that. And her honesty was kind of refreshing–Lady Gaga wanted you to love her, and she didn’t care if you knew that. And the reason it worked was because, at the time, people didn’t really know who Lady Gaga was. She was determined to be mysterious, just Lady Gaga, and not her given name, Stefani Germanotta. Every public appearance was an act of performance art, wearing clothing and costumes that were out-there and attention grabbing. Her stage costumes became iconic–the bubble dress, the disco stick–and her interview outfits turned heads and ensured she always made the morning news.
She was an enigma that took herself so seriously that you almost couldn’t laugh at her. This was a woman who believed in herself, and had an artistic vision, strange and weird and wonderful, and she wanted you to dance to it. Her performances at award shows set the bar higher and, during a time when almost all female pop stars were accused of being talent-less lip-syncing hacks, Lady Gaga proved that not only was she very talented (vocally and instrumentally) but she would absolutely commit to every single performance and perform her ass off.
“Licked his lips, said to me, ‘girl, you look good enough to eat.”
In 2009, she released an EP to The Fame called The Fame Monster, an album consisting of eight songs, all exploring the darker side of fame. Again she combined lowbrow and highbrow in her pop songs–in the album’s third track, “Monster,” Lady Gaga sings about a seemingly dangerous man who consumes her, “We french kissed on the subway train / he tore my clothes right off / he ate my heart and then he ate my brain.” And in “Speechless,” a powerful piano ballad, Gaga describes the utter brokenness of her heart, “I’ll never talk again / And I’ll never love again / I’ll never write a song / won’t even sing along / I’ll never love again.” The songs were musically and lyrically fantastic. She opened songs shouting “Gaga, ooh la la,” or speaking in her version of a Latina accent, or laughing that she’s, “never seen one like that before.” She entranced me.
Lady Gaga developed a fan base of millions. At one point, she had the most Twitter followers of all time. She gave her fans a culture and identity, dubbing them “Little Monsters” and referring to herself as their fearless leader, “Mother Monster.” Her massive stage show and world tour for albums The Fame and The Fame Monster, The Monster Ball, was huge. Her core fan base–the most die hard fans–were predominantly gay men and young teenagers who felt marginalized. Lady Gaga spoke openly and at length during every performance of The Monster Ball about how she was tormented and bullied in her youth, and how she rose above it and now sold out Madison Square Garden. It was a story that bullied and depressed teens latched onto intensely. Her fans saw her as their voice. Lady Gaga convinced her audience to never give up and to follow their dreams, swearing that she believed in them even if no one else did. It’s a nice sentiment, though admittedly taken to emotional extremes, and fans would leave The Monster Ball feeling like they’d just had a religious experience.
I greatly enjoyed The Monster Ball. But watching the show, I’ve always been a little perplexed by the oddness of how she delivers her message. The anti-bullying spiel became tired and uninspired. We are talking about a privileged white woman who achieved fame very quickly in her career. And while she unquestionably worked hard to get to selling out shows at Madison Square Garden and beyond, her trials seemed a bit over-exaggerated. She would get very real with her audience, sort of baring her heart on the stage, but then she would go into a whole Tinkerbell bit where she needed you to clap for her or she couldn’t survive. And I feel like she couldn’t be both–because the more human she became, the more insufferable it was that she begged you for fame, begged you to love her. But damn, did she dance her ass off while she did it.
“I’m just a holy fool…”
Her next album, Born This Way, released in 2011. The 17-track album capitalized on the messages Gaga preached in her stage shows–equality, self-love, acceptance, and anti-bullying. It took a very literal route, with the lead track, “Born This Way,” proclaiming, “No matter gay, straight, or bi / lesbian, transgender life / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born to survive / No matter black, white, or beige / chola, or orient made, I’m on the right track, baby / I was born to be brave.” This song was problematic, and not just because she used the very politically incorrect slurs of “chola” or “orient.” People were annoyed that this rich white girl was declaring herself their representative or savior. And I personally was bothered by how literal and weak the lyrics were. Plus, Gaga was slammed with criticism for the track sounding way too much like Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
Most of the album Born This Way was inspired by Gaga’s teenage years. Themes throughout of her parents not understanding her, her relationship with Christianity, and the ways she was bullied, were all punctuated with distinct undercurrents of 80’s musical influence. Her look changed, opting for a more heavy metal appearance instead of the glam rock of The Fame/Fame Monster era. She also often wore prosthetics to appear like an alien, which tied-in with the video for her titular track, “Born This Way,” in which she declared she wished to make an entirely new race of man, one that was free from prejudice or hate. She showed up to the Grammy’s in an egg, was “birthed” on stage, and debuted the lead single, “Born This Way” wearing clothes that looked like they were made from condoms, and prosthetics that gave her pointy cheeks.It was certainly different. And the album had astronomical sales. To be sure, Born This Way had some great songs. “Marry the Night” is an epic manifesto of the moment she decided to devote her life to the pursuit of fame and art. And “Yoü and I” is easily the best song she ever wrote, chronicling how she won back the love of Lüc Carl, her ex-boyfriend, when she returned to New York City after her Monster Ball tour: “Been a long time but I’m back in town / and this time I’m not leaving without you.” Her second single off the album, “Judas,” used the biblical betrayer of Jesus as a metaphor for how she’s always drawn to the man that is bad for her. (And “Amen Fashion/Black Jesus” is just an amazing song in every way.) But then there are also songs like “The Queen,” that, while musically is great, had Gaga declaring that she can be “the queen you need me to be” and how she is willing to essentially be the lord and savior for her fans. What started to become annoying with Gaga was that her message outran her music–it started to feel like it was more about sort of pandering to her fans’ emotional needs than it did about any kind of artistic vision–her music and her fans were so intrinsically intertwined, the interest in her increasingly tired message was waning.
Lady Gaga’s world tour, The Born This Way Ball, had to be abruptly cancelled when it was revealed that she had broken her hip and needed immediate surgery. She disappeared from the public eye for quite some time, to heal and rehabilitate. The time out of the spotlight, unfortunately, did her no favors. People had moved on from her out-there outfits and persona to more straight-cut, simply fun pop music–Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Rihanna. Taylor Swift was making her transition from country pop to full pop, and took the throne as the reigning queen, along with Katy Perry.
“Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.”
Gaga returned with her third studio album, ARTPOP. Released at the end of 2013, the album was a critical disappointment and widely unsuccessful.
Again a high concept album, Lady Gaga went from being the queen and savior of her fans, to proclaiming she had transcended art and popular culture. Positioning herself as an evolved, modern-day Worholian figure, and teaming up with pop artist Jeff Koons (“one second I’m a Koons then suddenly the Koons is me”) she came across as incredibly pretentious. Lady Gaga was innovative in 2008, but five years later, in ARTPOP, she created an ode to how great she knew she was. And no one was all that interested in that.
Her first single from the album, “Applause,” was met with critics saying it was repetitive and uninspired. One wonders, however, if “Applause” had been released on The Fame Monster, if it would have been a critical success? “Applause” would certainly belong on that album. With lyrics lamenting, “If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear / Being away from you / I’ve found the vein, put it in here,” it would have fit perfectly as another song detailing the dark side of fame–needing approval and validation; existing solely as a figure for your entertainment pleasure. But on ARTPOP, everyone was over that message, while Lady Gaga seemed to be stuck artistically in all of her previous albums.
No one felt particularly shocked by Gaga anymore, which was a huge part of her early success. She came out on the scene wearing a dress made out of meat, but by the time she was riding a mechanical bull on stage, while another artist was vomiting paint on her, no one really cared anymore. The music wasn’t enough to back up the spectacle that perhaps had no place in pop to begin with.
It feels a little unfair to criticize Gaga so harshly. The attempt to make high concept albums is admirable, and she released three of them before she was even 30. She was very young and still growing as an artist. Dealing with chronic pain, a world-tour, and the almost transcendental adoration of her fans, her work became the result of a young woman thrust into such a magnificently bright spotlight that perhaps she became blind to the rest of popular culture at that time. Or absolutely sick of it.
So ARTPOP (an album Gaga referred to as very personal) flopped, and she disappeared from the spotlight again. When she came back, it was to record two jazz albums and go on tour with Tony Bennett. Lady Gaga spoke in interviews that there was something broken inside her at that time, something she was trying very hard to mend. She felt used and used up by the music industry. She said of Tony Bennett that he never wanted anything from her except her talent and friendship, and that was incredibly healing.
Lady Gaga’s moment of redemption came when she sang a Sound of Music medley at the 2015 Oscars. Looking positively glamorous and, well, normal, in a long gown, light makeup, and long blonde hair, she wowed the audience with her incredible vocal powers. She received a standing ovation.
She followed that performance up with a Golden Globe winning part in American Horror Story: Hotel, taking the lead from Jessica Lange after she left the show. She performed a tribute to David Bowie at the 2016 Grammy Awards, sang the national anthem at the 2016 Superbowl, and headlined the 2017 Superbowl Halftime Show in a performance that blew the roof off of the stadium and America. Through it all, she has impressed the hell out of everyone with her stripped down, powerful vocal talent.
She rather quietly released her most recent album, Joanne (named after her late aunt who died young, and from whom Gaga got her middle name), at the end of 2016. On this album, Gaga is unrecognizable from her former self. Gone are the crazy costumes, makeup, shoes, hair, prosthetics. The album sounds unlike anything we have heard from her before–country music, folk-vibes, even some doo-wop. She also toned down her political messages, her anti-bullying messages, her self-references, and her over-the-top, worshiping connection with her fans. Opting for more personal tracks that highlight her voice and musical talent on both the piano and guitar, standout songs on the album include, “Million Reasons,” (in which Gaga looks for one good reason to stick around in love); “Angel Down” (a slow, sad ballad about Trayvon Martin where she cries out, “Where are our leaders?” and laments that “people just turn away”); and an ode to masturbation in “Dancin’ in Circles” (where she croons “It’s good to be lonely”). In the title track, “Joanne,” Gaga sings to a late aunt she never met but who she feels she shares an incredible connection with, regardless.
There is certainly nothing on this album that is particularly groundbreaking. But Gaga has grown and changed so much as an artist in these past nine years, that “Joanne” almost feels like a prelude to her next venture. Gaga rescued her career in this way, transforming once again into another version of herself. Her maturity as an artist continues to grow. And though there were times when she seemed a little insufferable, who wasn’t insufferable in their 20’s? Gaga has grown and changed and we’ve watched and listened to that metamorphosis. We have watched her reinvent herself over and over and entertain us in the process. As she readies her two-year residency in Las Vegas, I await with bated breath over who she will become next. Love her or hate her or love her again, Lady Gaga will never let you ignore her. Or allow you to be bored. Applause. Applause.