I'm not sure exactly what makes someone a phenomenon, but anyone who has managed to win 62 music awards in two years and has produced a single "Feat. Beyoncé" must be something like one. Lady Gaga is adored by the gossip columns for her on-stage and off-stage antics: her ludicrously catchy music, her outrageous fashion sense and her absurdity. Last year Forbes listed her as the fourth most powerful celebrity in the world. If there was anyone left in Britain who, despite all of this, had managed to miss her, Mike Stock's comments propelled her onto the front pages once again in August.
Stock, the music mogul who launched the career of Kylie Minogue, claimed that Lady Gaga was one of a number of artists responsible for creating an 'anti-pop' genre which generates explicit lyrics and soft-porn videos that are unsuitable for children. He said: "The music industry has gone too far. It's not about me being old fashioned. It's about keeping values that are important in the modern world." But none of this seems to have prevented Lady Gaga from building up a huge world-wide fan base – her first album has gone four-times platinum in the UK alone.
Listening to her albums – she has already released two – the first thing that strikes you is that you know almost every track. There are no filler songs towards the end, every track is a possible hit and most of them have already been released. But although in this sense the album feels familiar, it is at the same time surprising because the songs are so varied. No two sound the same and Gaga herself sounds remarkably different in each. The single 'Speechless' is a perfect example of her chameleon-like ability to take on a new voice and a new character.
Picking up where Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' left off, Gaga's favourite characters are ghouls and monsters. In interviews she often refers to her fans as her "little monsters" and the monstrous theme often crops up in her lyrics and videos. Extending the metaphor "you look good enough to eat", her song 'Monster' describes a human-eating lover. His bedroom antics are not memorable. In fact, Gaga "don't quite recall" what had happened between them other than: "He ate my heart and then he ate my brain". But she doesn't seem to mind too much. After all, as she sings in 'Bad Romance': "I want your ugly, I want your disease. I want your everything, as long as it's free". (Oddly the interest in monsters seems to be spreading. NeYo recently released a coincidental counterpart, which speaks in a less literal sense about his girlfriend: "She's a monster, beautiful monster, beautiful monster, but I don't mind.")
Lady Gaga has also inherited from Michael Jackson the art of the long music video. It is her videos, more than anything, that have been causing outrage. 'Alejandro', which Gaga claimed was a celebration of the gay community, has offended almost everyone. Anna Pickard (The Guardian) listed the various groups who have a right to be upset. Many are tongue-in-cheek, but she claims, "There is certainly an argument that any offence taken by the Catholic church may be warranted, given the conflagration of imagery including; the burial of a heart surrounded by barbed wire, pierced with a nail, reminiscent of the sacred heart iconography; Gaga dressed as some kind of crusader; Gaga's crusader raised above head height to wear an inverted cross at penis level; and, of course, Gaga dressed as a red-rubber nun and deep-throating an entire rosary, which is not only irreligious, but also a possible choking hazard."
No-one seems clear what the video means. Nick Baxter-Moore wonders whether the rosary is "a symbol of her total absorption of religion, or of religion being rammed down her throat?" Klein, who made the video claims: "The religious symbolism is not meant to denote anything negative, but represents the character's battle between the dark forces of this world and the spiritual salvation of the Soul. Thus at the end of the film, she chooses to be a nun, and the reason her mouth and eyes disappear is because she is withdrawing her senses from the world of evil and going inward towards prayer and contemplation." No-one, apparently, is convinced. Popstar Katy Perry, also known for her sometimes lude lyrics, Tweeted: "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke". Besides, Gaga sings elsewhere "Got no salvation, got no religion" ('Teeth').
Another noteworthy video was 'Telephone', which featured Beyoncé. It was rumoured to have been banned on MTV due to its nudity and presentation of lesbian eroticism, along with an S&M scene so extreme that it's passé. Even Beyoncé gets in on the act, dressing like Gaga and lurching around in skimpy outfits and huge hats. None of it has much to do with the song itself, which is a clever, insightful reflection on the persistent demands of a technologically saturated culture in which everyone is "busy". If anyone understands this, it is surely an in-demand celebrity like Beyoncé, who sings "I am sick and tired of my phone ringing. Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station".
The theme of celebrity is further explored in 'Paparazzi':
We are the crowd we're c-comin' out
Got my flash on it's true
Need that picture of you
It so magical we'd be so fantastical
[…] this photo of us it don't have a price
Ready for those flashing lights
'Cause you know that baby I
I'm your biggest fan I'll follow you until you love me
Despite being painfully aware of the ludicrous nature of celebrity stalking and desperate fans, Gaga seems happy to be happy with her fame. 'The Fame' presents her desire to be a celebrity as seductive and unavoidable:
I can't help myself
I'm addicted to a life of material
It's some kind of joke
I'm obsessively opposed to the typical
All we care about is runway models
Cadillacs and liquor bottles
Give me something I wanna be
Retro glamour Hollywood, yes, we live for the
Fame, doin' it for the fame
'Cause we wanna live the life of the rich and famous
Fame, doin' it for the fame
'Cause we gotta taste for champagne and endless fortune.
Elsewhere, she claims "It's good to live expensively" (Money Honey), but that she doesn't need money from anyone else: "Don't want no money, just want your sex" ('Teeth').
'Teeth' is the final song on the second album and whilst it maintains many of the obsessions of earlier songs (monsters, bondage), Gaga confesses "I've got no direction", only "got my addiction". She calls out:
Tell me something that will save me,
I need a man who makes me alright.
Tell me something that'll change me.
Until someone does, she will presumably keep on changing her hairstyle daily, writing music and shooting shocking music videos. Stock certainly tried to suggest a few changes: "It only takes somebody to stand up and say, 'Excuse me can you think about this a bit more?' That's all I'm doing." But Gaga doesn't seem interested: "I don't wanna think anymore. I left my head and my heart on the dance floor" ('Telephone').
 #4, The Celebrity 100, Forbes
 'Children "at risk from pop charts porn": Top producer Mike Stock blasts his own industry', The Daily Mail, 11th August 2010
 'Lady Gaga dedicates her new "Little Monsters" tattoo to her fans', NY Daily News, 3rd February 2010
 'Who's most offended by Lady Gaga's Alejandro?', The Guardian, 9 June 2010
 'Parsing the new Lady Gaga video', The Mark, 11 June 2010
 'Lady Gaga's 'Alejandro' Director Defends Video's Religious Symbolism', MTV News, 9 June 2010
 Katy Perry's Twitter page, 8 June 2010
 Quoted in 'Kylie Minogue songwriter Mike Stock: "Lady Gaga is just a pole dancer"', NME, August 11th 2010
© 2010 Rachel Helen Smith