Pop provocateur or classic crooner? Mother Monster or multigenre master? Edgy icon or elegant songstress? For those who have followed the electric career of Lady Gaga since her sensational breakout with 2008’s The Fame, the answer may be difficult to discern. Nobody since Madonna—on whom some say she has modeled her career—has reinvented herself, both musically and visually, with such astonishing variety and confidence.
She blazed to international notoriety with a string of megahits that defined the all-consuming celebrity-obsessed culture of the late 2000s: “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance.” Along with melodic hooks and contagious rhythms that became irresistibly lodged in the ear, these songs—which she co-wrote—were accompanied by startling videos that showcased a performer seemingly born of another world. Her Haus of Gaga—a soi-disant troupe of stylists and art directors—fashioned outré looks and devices that caught the public’s fancy, from the now legendary “meat dress” she donned for the 2010 MTV VMAs to the egg container she slithered from at the 2011 Grammys. Through it all, she steered attention to causes she embraced, from disaster relief to LGBT rights to disease awareness.
“Gaga is truly a trans-media icon,” says her good friend and producer Nicole Ehrlich, with whom she collaborated on award-winning videos including “Telephone” and specials such as the HBO Monster Ball documentary at Madison Square Garden. “She has broken down boundaries and walls within the construct of the music business, and her tentacles have hit every aspect of life, from social activism and fashion to art and entertainment. She transcends all media in a 360-degree way.”Ehrlich’s sentiment is reinforced by Gaga’s more recent career evolution. In 2014, after her genre-pushing album Artpop received critical plaudits but didn’t climb the charts as meteorically as previous efforts, she suddenly switched gears, surprising the industry by teaming with jazz legend Tony Bennett to record a series of gems from the Great American Songbook. A performer known for such milieux as the hard-edged, Tarantino-influenced grittiness of a woman’s prison in “Telephone,” or even the otherworldly dream vision of “G.U.Y.,” Gaga unexpectedly entered the shimmering world of the Rainbow Room circa 1935, where the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin play eternally in gossamer rotation.
New York Post writer Maureen Callahan, who in 2010 published the biography Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga (Hyperion), says she isn’t surprised by the performer’s shift, “I think Gaga realized there was nowhere else to go in terms of weirdness and shock value. The most unexpected thing she could do was to transform herself into an old-school torch singer and re-brand herself by aligning with Tony Bennett. His collaborations with her were also an endorsement—that this wasn’t just some frivolous pop star with a great marketing machine, but an artist with longevity and chops.”
Critics praised the album, Cheek to Cheek, which included not only Berlin’s title track but also such perennials as Porter’s “Anything Goes,” Billy Strayhorn’s cynical masterpiece “Lush Life” and the Duke Ellington jazz classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Fans of the singer’s electropop oeuvre may have been nonplussed by this development, but longtime Gaga watchers understood she always had a love for the material.
Born in New York in 1986, Stefani Germanotta was passionate about both music and a life on stage. She began playing piano at age four, and in high school had leading roles in productions of such Broadway staples as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Guys and Dolls. A stint studying musical theater at New York University and method acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute coincided with a growing interest in contemporary art and small roles in such shows as The Sopranos, among others—all of which would ultimately coalesce into her unique aesthetic and worldview. As Callahan says, “Acting was always a dream for her. Few people know this, but she’s a theater geek who made the rounds at Broadway auditions before pivoting to pop music.”
Ehrlich, who remembers sharing a childlike glee with Gaga—then at her first peak of fame—when they met Liza Minnelli, says the singer constantly draws on her vast resource of cultural knowledge. “We drove each other to this insanely amazing place of creation,” she says. “She’s unbelievably hands-on and always has so many ideas. In visualizing a video, she comes with references and sketches, including color suggestions and stylistic choices, and then we flush out that core concept and unify all these visuals.”
Lady Gaga’s work ethic is similarly all-encompassing, she adds, describing as an example the “flash flood” water sequence she oversaw for the “Judas” video. “We were adamant about getting the shot,” she says. “We were filming at Universal Studios with 10,000 gallons of water set to pour down on her from tanks like rapids. She just walked out there in heels, I said, ‘Roll,’ and we did it. The water steamrolled over her, sending her under, and everybody went crazy. Security was ready to jump in and I was screaming, ‘Do not ruin the shot!’ She emerged and gasped, ‘Did we get it?’ She didn’t have a scratch on her. That moment 100-percent defines her. She is up for and can do anything.”
Her triumph in a new genre with Bennett is another example of not only her range, but also her artistic fearlessness. “She’s as good as Ella Fitzgerald or anybody you want to come up with,” Bennett told Rolling Stone. “I know it sounds way out, but she could become America’s Picasso if they leave her alone and let her just do what she has to do.”
As she began embracing the standards, her standard of dress also underwent a metamorphosis, from the bizarrely fantastic to the pinnacle of A-list chic. In 2015, she donned a glittering gown by Azzedine Alaïa to perform a medley from The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary. She received a standing ovation and was warmly embraced by Julie Andrews at the number’s close. “She was auditioning, in a sense, for the most powerful people in that audience and she went very old-Hollywood glam,” says Callahan, also the author of Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the ’90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion (Touchstone). “It was a way of signaling that she’s interested in playing by their rules. And it worked: It was announced that she’ll star in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born—a part that first went to Beyoncé, who dropped out.”
Indeed, if there’s a sure way of signaling one’s interest in the movies, it’s to take the lead in an epic Tinseltown fable of talent, ambition, and tragedy. In accepting the role of a meteorically rising star who shoots to the top as her mentor and lover sinks to the bottom, Gaga is stepping into the iconic shoes of Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand, who essayed the part in various earlier incarnations of the story. The most recent version, in 1976, is regarded as an unqualified disaster, but it did snare Streisand an Oscar for “Evergreen,” the song she co-wrote with Paul Williams. Thus the question: With Gaga’s songwriter prowess, could a gold statuette be in her future?
Of course, she already has a Golden Globe for Best Actress to her credit, which she won for her delectably creepy portrayal of an undead glamour queen haunting a decrepit Los Angeles hostelry in FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, the 2015 iteration of the long-running fear anthology. Importantly, the role allowed her to re-embrace the dark qualities that first brought her notoriety, and she is reappearing in the following season.
And she was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016 for the song “Til It Happens to You,” an illumination of the plight of victims of campus rape that she co-wrote with veteran musician Diane Warren. Introduced by Joe Biden, Gaga performed the piece from the documentary The Hunting Ground to moving effect at the Oscars presentation. “She is super-conscious of the issues facing our society,” says Ehrlich, who served as producer on the video. “Whether it’s been issues of rape, sexual assault, LGBT rights, bullying, self-identity, she’s been able to take these ideas out of the box and make them acceptable to people, even popular.”
Gaga’s support of political causes is constantly on display. In June 2016, she read the names of each of the victims of the massacre at the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse during a memorial service at Los Angeles’ City Hall. The next month, during the Democratic National Convention, she headlined alongside Lenny Kravitz at the Camden Rising concert, whose purpose was not only to celebrate party unity but also bring awareness to a town that has struggled with poverty and education issues. Telling the rapturous crowd that New Jersey was where she fell in love with jazz, she sang Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental “Smile” and Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” along with her own pieces including “Bad Romance.”With the last selection, perhaps she was subtly referencing her own recent romantic travails. In July 2016, she broke off a five-year relationship with Chicago Fire actor Taylor Kinney, whom she met when he was cast by Ehrlich to appear opposite her in the Nebraska-set 2011 video for her song “Yoü and I.” The pair seemed to have ideally complemented one another, regularly appearing together on runways and professing mutual adoration via social media. A year after their Valentine’s engagement in 2015, they posed for the cover of the fashion-forward bible V, an issue Gaga guest-edited with proceeds going to her youth-empowering Born This Way Foundation. Still, fans worldwide continued to hope for the couple’s reunion, a possibility Gaga hinted at in an Instagram post, saying in part: “Taylor and I…are soulmates. Just like all couples we have ups and downs, and we have been taking a break. We are both ambitious artists, hoping to work through long-distance and complicated schedules to continue the simple love we have always shared. Please root us on.”
Through it all, Gaga has remained in the public eye, appearing with the Dalai Lama at the United States Conference of Mayors to speak out for worldwide compassion, working with Vice President Biden on his It’s On Us White House task force to protect students from sexual assault, and teaming with fan and fellow pop icon Elton John on a clothing line for Macy’s supporting their respective charities. February 2016 was particularly potent, with a trifecta of high-profile performances that sent her combined audience into the tens of billions: In addition to her Oscars gig, she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and powered through a dazzling tribute to a fellow shape-shifting, androgynous icon, the late David Bowie, at the Grammys.
So is pop again on the horizon in her ever evolving journey? It seems so, as Gaga is teaming with “Uptown Funk” hitmaker Mark Ronson to create “a very honest, authentic kind of analog record,” as he recently told Charlie Rose. In September 2016, the single “Perfect Illusion” dropped with a wave of plaudits from music critics anxious for the pop star’s return. With it came the promise of a new album, Joanne; a new multi-city tour playing small venues; and the announcement she would headline the Super Bowl LI halftime show.
All of which proves an eternal truth about the peripatetic pop diva: Expect the unexpected from Lady Gaga. As Post writer Callahan says, “I always thought the most shocking thing she could do would be to strip away all the avant-garde weirdness and let people see her as a human being rather than a walking anime character. It’s a very shrewd move, and she’s clearly thinking far ahead about both her career and her image.”