Unpredictable, spectacular, bold and contentious — Lady Gaga is the perfect pop star for the 21st century, says Luke Coppen
In 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a letter to a young man who yearned to be a great artist. ‘In the deepest hour of the night,’ the German poet advised, ‘confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself: must I write?’
It’s fair to say that Rilke never imagined his words would end up tattooed on the arm of a pop star with a penchant for porcelain bikinis and flamethrower bras. Lady Gaga, who has sold eight million records in the last 18 months, claims to read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet every day. And I believe her. But should people who know their Rilke, people who have read The Road and seen all five seasons of The Wire — in other words, serious people — pay her any attention?
For Christopher Walken, the answer is clearly no. On Friday Night with Jonathan Ross the actor read the lyrics of her hit ‘Poker Face’ with a mocking solemnity (‘Oh ee oh! Puh puh puh poker face’) that had the audience in hysterics. And the internet is heaving with Gaga parodies like ‘Butterface’, in which a swarthy man in a blonde wig sings: ‘Before I turned around you were thinking I’m a 10/ But my body’s like a Barbie/ And my face is like a Ken.’
It’s safe to say that, as the greying editor of a conservative Catholic newspaper who dislikes most music composed after 1820, I don’t belong to Lady Gaga’s target demographic. You might expect me to see her as a decadent airhead, a threat to morals or a sign of the End Times. But I don’t.
Four years ago Gaga was a struggling singer known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. A grainy YouTube video from the time shows her pounding a keyboard in the Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. She is barely recognisable: a nerdy, drably dressed brunette in a pop rock band. You wouldn’t guess from her performance that she was a classical music prodigy who learnt piano by ear at four and got into the Juilliard School at 11. She decided instead to go the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive Manhattan Catholic girls’ school that produced the equally shy and retiring Paris Hilton. From there she went to the coveted Tisch School of the Arts, but she dropped out in order to play the clubs, her initially staid shows becoming ever more avant-garde. Soon enough, she was jumping around in an Indian headdress and leopard-print bikini. When a music producer suggested a stage name based on the Queen song ‘Radio Ga Ga’, she said farewell to rock chick Stefani. Lady Gaga, futuristic blonde diva, was born.
My introduction to her came through my 13-year-old niece, who showed me the ‘Poker Face’ video, in which Gaga rises out of a swimming pool in a mirrored mask and black body-suit between two Great Danes with lightning cracking overhead. It was awe-inspiring: the image (and insanely catchy Eighties video-game melody) lodged in my head for weeks.
OK, so lines like ‘Cherry cherry boom boom/ All I can say is eh-eh’ (from her best-selling album The Fame) wouldn’t have made it into Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but that misses the point: it’s not what her lyrics say that matters, but rather what her spectacular arrival says about our celebrity-obsessed times.
It’s a cliché to note that our culture teaches girls like my niece that the quickest and surest route to self-worth is fame. But to become famous you must be physically perfect, so the road is blocked for most, sowing a subtle sense of worthlessness. Then along comes Lady Gaga, crashing through the roadblock at 100 miles an hour in a diamante-encrusted juggernaut. She sees herself as a ‘fame Robin Hood’, stealing gold dust from the few and sprinkling it over the masses. As she told one interviewer: ‘The Fame is about how anyone can feel famous… It’s a sharable fame. I want to invite you all to the party. I want people to feel a part of this lifestyle.’
The idea of democratising fame is not, of course, original. Gaga owes a lot to Andy Warhol and his belief that anyone could become famous if he pointed a camera at them and called them a ‘superstar’. When Warhol said, ‘I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real begins,’ he could have been describing Gaga. Her desire for pop music to be taken seriously as fine art is straight out of the Factory. And there’s something pretty Warholian about her persona, too: the peroxide fright wig conceals a shy, polite and disciplined character. Gaga will not, however, be content with 15 minutes of fame. Her aim is ‘to be the next 25 years of pop music’.
Superstardom for all is a nice conceit, but what if fame is, in fact, a poison? Gaga has a song about that, ‘Paparazzi’, which suggests that love and fame cannot coexist, that she must choose between the depersonalised love of fans and real human intimacy. When she performed the song at the MTV Video Music Awards, fake blood gushed out of her chest and her lifeless body was hoisted into the air on a rope. It was a truly disturbing allusion to our enjoyment of celebrity self-destruction (though the nuns who educated her were apparently not amused).
Lady Gaga is already being compared to two other women who rapidly colonised the popular imagination: Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. Unlike Monroe, Gaga is no conventional beauty (she’s no John Prescott either). And unlike the Material Girl, who celebrated conspicuous consumption in the Eighties, Gaga is pursuing something less tangible. She’s the immaterial girl: a shape-shifter who commands the attention of our distracted internet age with her ever-changing appearance.
Which brings us to that Rilke tattoo. What the poet was getting at was that all great art springs from necessity. It simply has to exist. In our era of austerity we need pop culture to transport us to another world. We need someone who performs in a giant bath, meets the Queen dressed as Elizabeth I and pops out for fish and chips in a neon leotard. And teenage girls need someone to lead the fight against face fascism. As Voltaire might have said: if Lady Gaga didn’t exist, it would be necessary for someone to invent her.
Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.