For a profile in Arts & Leisure, Jon Pareles sat down with Lady Gaga as she prepares for the release of Born This Way, her second studio album. The album is as catchy and euphorically overblown as the music that made her a sensation, Pareles writes about the pop superstar. It also adds an additional dimension to her songs: her cherished relationship with a mass audience fans who call themselves Little Monsters and dress up with a gender-bending zeal to whom she is a goddess, a big sister, a mouthpiece, a counsellor and a cheerleader.
Excerpts from her conversation with Jon Pareles...
In the press and on TV, theres always a lot of emphasis on your visual side, more than on you as a musician...
In the 70s or in the 80s, if we were talking about the artistes that were big then, image and music always went hand in hand and there was really no need to sort of posit one as more important than the other. Its just show business. Im in show business, and I love creating beautiful visuals. And Im a performance artiste. The music is part of that, and they live off each other.
Whenever Im creating music I imagine how it will look and then if I want to create a song based on a visual Ill just sort of start with an idea and Ill just build off of that and I always like to twist things. I always like there to be a little adversity. I dont like it to be so literal all the time. Its much more figurative. And I think sometimes in that way my work goes over peoples heads a little bit and they just think its I dont know what they think it is, but I know what it is. Its meant to be an avant-garde symbolic representation of how my music relates, and how I relate and my fans relate to modern culture.
For example, the meat dress. I did a speech in Maine about equality, against dont ask dont tell, and in the speech I called equality the prime rib of the American constitution. And then when I went out with the soldiers who had been discharged at the Grammys Im sorry, at the MTV awards I wore prime rib, I wore meat, so that was a performance piece. But some people focused more on the humour and the hilarity of me wearing meat than they did on the message.
When I originally wore meat in Vogue, thats what it meant. When I wore meat on the cover of Japanese Vogue, it was meant to be Im a piece of meat, I was naked except for the meat. The idea of all this, I began to work as a political activist.
A lot of my work is that way. I sort of start with one idea and it grows and changes as people begin to interpret it for themselves.
Tell me whats behind Government Hooker.
I originally wrote the song for fun, and as I was writing it I thought about the idea that the most fabulous and the most upper echelon of the hooker or the prostitute are the ones that would be sleeping with politicians, the government hooker.
And then I started to think about how there were lots of women in history who were having affairs with very important men and how those women affected politics, and also affected those mens decisions, as sort of the other woman behind the man.
It was meant to be a song of sort of reverse empowerment. Instead of being called a hooker you call yourself one and assume the power for yourself. I guess, I imagine in my mind a huge political figure in a back room with a beautiful woman and she somehow influences him to vote yea or nay in the Senate.
Its pretty clear seeing you rehearse that you arent taking orders from anyone...
Ive been privileged in the way that I have never had to work with people, mostly recently, with anyone that had a tremendous ego, and that has been a blessing to me. Because I was always that girl as a writer who would be in the studio with a producer who was, you know, trying to get me to go out and have a drink with him, and I was like, are we gonna (expletive) write this song or am I gonna leave? Because Im only here to be a writer, to be a superstar. I dont need your California sushi roll, you know what I mean?
Its been really, really exciting for me to be respected by people that I respect, as a musician. Above all things with this album it was important to me that I evolved, evolved musically.
What kind of evolution?
It was natural and it grew out of the show. What would make this show better and bigger. I knew I wanted it to be epic, I wanted there to be some 80s rock influence. I wanted it to have this sort of, I call Highway Unicorn sound, where theres a fantasy element, this mythological creature, this beautiful black unicorn with a long blonde mane running down the highway with Bruce Springsteen playing in the background. That was the sort of visual I had in my head.
The first image people will see for Born This Way is the album cover.
Thats with me half woman, half motorcycle. That was meant to be a testament to liberation through transformation. I am endlessly transforming and riding, and I am the vehicle for the voice of my fans, my creativity, and Im always on a freedom ride to myself. And for anyone that needs to or wants to fight blood, sweat and tears for their identity. Thats what Im all about you better know who you are before you go into that ring to fight.
her early years
You think a lot about the fans, the Little Monsters...
The fans keep it alive, and thats why I am so in love with my fans and worship them so much, because they really exist outside of pop music. They dont (expletive) care what the public perception is of me. They just love the show, the freedom of it, the show business, the fantasy of life and they live it every single day. And that is how Im able to push forward, knowing they will carry the torch of magic with me.
Those boots youre wearing; it cant be easy to dance on those high heels...
These are Penthouse stripper heels from a store on 8th street (in the West Village). I always wore them. When we did the show they brought me all these fancy shoes and I said, I dont want them, I want my heels. I wore them regularly for over a year and then, eventually, I think someone tried them on to see if they would slip on a floor somewhere, and they said, there is no (expletive) support in your shoes how are you doing this every night? And I just shrugged my shoulders.
My success has happened so quickly that I sometimes dont remember to ask questions like, could we get some support in these shoes and have them rebuilt? So now they have insoles put in them for me.
So youre playing arenas in discount shoes?
I think at some point people imagined that after selling 20 million albums, god bless, knock on wood, I would suddenly just comb my hair out, put on a ball gown and become a princess. Its just not going to happen. Im just going to continue to be myself.
The perception is that you scrub up and change once you hit a certain point. While my fan base continues to expand I also am reminded every day by myself that I dont want to change in order to build my fan base. I want to just continue to make the fans feel loved and happy.
I did not get into this business, or into music, to be worshipped. I do it because I love it and now that I have fans, the drive and the ambition have steered me into a new place, into doing everything that I possibly can to inspire them to love themselves.
But you are worshiped too...
I appreciate the adoration of my fans. Just now I sent a Twitter message to them. I was crying for 30 minutes today because we put The Edge of Glory on iTunes and it got magical reviews. I just thanked them for all the nice things they had to say.
Can you tell me more about The Edge of Glory?
I wrote that song about my grandpa when he passed away, and it means a lot to me. Clarence Clemons played the saxophone, and I listened to him growing up so it represents my youth. The song was about how when my grandma was standing over my grandfather while he was dying. There was this moment where I felt like he had sort of looked at her and reckoned that he had won in life. Like, Im a champion. We won. Our love made us a winner. They were married 60 years. I thought about that idea, that the glorious moment of your life is when you decide that its okay to go, you dont have any more words to say, more business, more mountains to climb. Youre on the cliff, you tip your hat to yourself and you go. Thats what it was for me in that moment when I witnessed it.
And then, as I began to write the song, I thought about living on the edge of your life in a way that when you reach that moment, it is glorious. The lyric is about feeling the rush, to brush the dangerous, being unafraid to fall deeply in love, being unafraid to go out all the way to the brink of your imagination.
It has a long, long coda (concluding section)...
The coda is full-out. Its so sexy, and its like the sax is singing for me, I dont need to sing, I just need to throw on an emerald green dress and twirl around on a street corner.
Does touring make you feel isolated, since youre with the same group for so long?
I play for an arena every night, and I get to meet 50,000 people or 20,000. It really depends on the way that you approach your life when this happens. I could be in nightclubs hanging out with celebrities but Im not. Im in the studio, Im working, I go back to New York, I hang out with my dad, he makes me meatballs.
after the fame
10 things you should know about Lady Gaga
♠ Lady Gagas real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.
♠ Her star sign is Aries and she is 25 years old.
♠ Gaga learnt to play the piano when she was four years old. By 13 she had written her first song and started performing at open mic nights from 14.
♠ She got her stage name Lady Gaga from her producer Rob Fusari, inspired by Queens hit Radio Ga Ga, because he could compare her vocals to Freddie Mercury.
♠ She once sent out for $1000 worth of pizza for her fans waiting for her outside a record shop where she was doing a signing.
♠ She went to an all girls Catholic school, Convent of the Sacred Heart, that Paris and Nicky Hilton went to.
♠ She would perform as a duo with Lady Stardust and be billed as Lady Gaga And The Starlight Revenue.
♠ She started out with a job at Interscope Records writing and co-writing songs for The Pussycat Dolls, Fergie and New Kids On The Block. She recently wrote two tracks for Jennifer Lopezs new album Love?.
♠ She is godmother to Elton John and David Furnishs baby Zachary.
♠ Peter Cacioppo, a butcher from New York, analysed the meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards and said that there were no expensive cuts or real steaks. The best part, he felt was the flank steak on top of her head!