It’s an intriguing sign of the times that the ‘we-can-do-anything’ millennial generation has chosen shape-shifting performance artist Lady Gaga as its pop princess. She presented herself as a half-human, half-motorcycle hybrid on the cover of her last album, Born This Way, hissing red-lipped at the lens like a vampire, while her provocative barrage of otherworldly costumes has included the notorious ‘meat dress’ she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) in 2010, crafted from flank steak. (Time named it the top fashion statement of that year; it has its own Wikipedia page.) How to up the ante? The following year, Gaga – real name Stefani Germanotta – performed in full drag at the VMAs as male alter-ego Jo Calderone and was carried down the red carpet at the Grammys in an egg from which she hatched, on stage, to perform Born This Way – the ludicrous lovechild of Björk and Spinal Tap. Other crazy outfits include a bodysuit honed from plastic bubbles and a voluminous head-to-toe outfit made from human hair.
While her closest contemporaries, Katy Perry and Rihanna, enact good girl/bad girl variations of male fantasies, 27-year-old Gaga scuppers all preconceptions of how a female pop star should look and act. As she states on the title track of her debut album The Fame, Gaga is “obsessively opposed to the typical.”
The musician has linked the first time she appreciated “the shock art potential of what [she] could create” to the time she stripped naked during a rowdy gig during her early days as a struggling singer in her native New York City. Attention-seeking aside, she defends her perma-morphing persona as an unchanging statement about discrimination. Behind every ensemble, she insists, is the message to fight for your beliefs, your right to be. “I like to liberate myself with my ability to change... That’s who I am and I will always be that way: relentless and fearless and vicious,” Gaga told fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier in an hour-long interview released as the documentary Gaga by Gaultier. “I like to feel that I can define my fame and define my beauty for myself, which is why I am so vigilant and relentless about my image and my music. I will not allow – no matter how successful I become – the public to define or indicate what it is that I create or what I believe is beautiful or what I believe is a hit pop record.”
Dressed for battle?
Using outlandish getup to cloak her true mission, Gaga has positioned herself as a figurehead for the outsider. A noted Aids and LGBT activist, Gaga has recently devoted efforts to eradicating bullying, claiming she was picked on for being different as a child – although fellow former pupils have described her as a friendly, suburban student who had no problem fitting in.
The 2011 ABC special A Very Gaga Thanksgiving saw Gaga perform the track Hair at a piano in the candlelit banquet hall of her Manhattan alma mater, the $37,000-a-year Convent of the Sacred Heart. “This song is about your identity being the most important thing to you, and no matter what anyone says or how much you have or how much you don’t, it’s what’s on the inside that matters,” Gaga tells the fans she’s nicknamed her “Little Monsters”. Throughout the performance she piles wigs on her head, in shades of ginger and spearmint, all the while maintaining her trademark Poker Face.
While Gaga claims her extravagant, 18-month Monster Ball world tour left her in debt, Forbes magazine says Gaga is the world’s second-most-powerful celebrity (Oprah Winfrey holds the top slot) and the top-earning celebrity under the age of 30, having generated an estimated $80m (£51m) between June 2012 and June 2013.
In addition to wealth, influence and column inches, Gaga also has credibility. She’s received five Grammys and three Brits to date, plus over 20 MTV awards, and fellow musicians rate her work. Tony Bennett, who duetted with her on the Thanksgiving special and at Obama’s 2013 inauguration, has described her as “very creative and very productive and I think, as time goes on, she might become America’s Picasso.” (Gaga was atypically modest about the accolade: “I don’t know if I’m the new Picasso, but I’m certainly twisted like many of his paintings.”) The ever-evolving Madonna, to whom Gaga is most often likened, staged a tongue-in-cheek catfight with her on Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago; when comparisons were made between Born This Way and Madonna’s Express Yourself, the grande dame of pop quipped, “I’m a really big fan of [Born This Way]... I’m glad that I helped Gaga write it.”
Detractors are, inevitably, plentiful. An indignant NME blog post entitled Lady Gaga – Freak or Fraud encapsulated the naysayers’ argument: “It’s kind of fitting that she’s named after a noise babies make because there’s something about Lady Gaga that turns otherwise intelligent adults into gurgling infants... It’s pop music, not a fancy dress party. But that’s the thing with Lady Gaga – she’s not really a pop star, she’s a fashion icon, with all the vanity, phoniness and hollow display that entails.” But pop is fashion, as any visitor to the recent David Bowie retrospective at London’s V&A museum can attest. (Bowie is a key influence on Gaga, along with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Queen, whose ‘Radio Gaga’ partly inspired her stage name.) “I love fashion and style so much [because] I feel the ability to create an alternate fantasy and reality for myself,” Gaga told Gaultier. “If I do it over and over again every single day of my life, falling asleep with my wigs and my jewellery and my dresses... somehow, the fantasy becomes my reality.”
This voracious appetite for dressing up has seen the world’s top fashion designers embrace Gaga with open arms, from Giorgio Armani to the late Alexander McQueen, to whom she played muse, as one of the few mortals able to pull off his notorious lobster claw shoes. Following McQueen’s death by suicide, the devoted singer in 2012 at a Christie’s London auction broke a world record for the highest price ever paid for a McQueen creation by shelling out £85,250 ($133,322) for a dress from the late designer from the personal collection of fashion collector Daphne Guinness.
After five fruitful years of collaboration, Gaga has parted ways with her visionary stylist Nicola Formichetti, who headed up Haus of Gaga – the singer’s Warholian Factory incubator for her wacky sartorial concepts and props. Haus inventions include the cigarette-encrusted shades from the Telephone promo, a metallic brassiere designed to shoot flames on command, the Grammy egg and, of course, the meat dress. It remains to be seen how Formichetti’s departure will affect Gaga’s appearance but, of late, she’s been demo-ing a (relatively) natural look, attending an arts event in the Hamptons with long raven locks, minimal make-up and a black leather dress with cut-outs. (Granted, her bra was on show.) “People have this conception – or misconception about me, rather – that I’m very provocative all the time,” she recently told Katie Couric. “I just love fashion and some fashion is very provocative.”
As promotion gears up for the launch of her third album, Artpop, the emphasis has been on the art. Gaga appeared nude in a video promoting performance artist Marina Abramović’s Kickstarter project, while the sleeve design for lead single Applause sees her clad in a monochrome costume but smeared in technicolour face paints – Pin-Ups meets Pierrot. A scheduled performance at the VMAs, again, will see the campaign fully unfurl, but will it be more au naturel antics or a rainbow confection? The one thing we can be assured of is that it will fill tabloid pages, Pinterest boards and Twitter for the foreseeable future – whether the pop empress is clad, or stripped down to her bare essentials.