by Erin O’Brien
Before she had an audience, it was just Gaga and her mirror. And for a while, it got weird. Four years ago, she was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, after leaving school and her parents’ financial support. In her shitty little apartment, she would order a bag of cocaine from a delivery service, get high, and work on her hair and makeup for hours. She’d get it perfect, and then come down from the coke and do it all over again.
”The biggest misconception about me is that I’m a character or a persona. That when the lights and cameras turn off, I turn into a pumpkin. It’s simply not true. I make music and art and design all day long. Yes, I wash my face and go to sleep but when I wake up, I am always Lady Gaga.”
—-Sydney Morning Herald
“Lady Gaga has been sent to Earth to infiltrate human culture one sequin at a time.”
—-“Transmission: Gagavision” from the weblog at LadyGaga.com
Over the last two years, a small young woman has appeared in popular culture, asserting her riddling persona in ways that have nearly every critic engaged. I have scrutinized hundreds of photographs of her, and I am still not sure precisely what she looks like off-duty, as it were, such is the extremity of her disguises. Her plainness (she lives on the border of beauty and not) gives her viewers the satisfaction of serious feeling (since her appeal is not universal) and gives her an immediate passkey to the world of High Art (her appeal is exclusive). Her extraordinary costumes, so nutty and witheringly chic, so embarrassing and fascist, so meticulous and creative, transform a quick dash from the limo to the television studio into performance art. You never see her photographed in jeans and a tee-shirt, or bouncing through Central Park in a track suit. Only recently has she hired a permanent stylist. Instead, she has an obscure group of helpers and designers called the Haus of Gaga, a place where I imagine that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno mans the phones.
Lady Gaga is better than traditionally beautiful: she is genuinely riveting to look at. (As Karl Lagerfeld remarked about Anna Piaggi, elderly resident of the avant-garde and a revered editor at Vogue Italia: “She’s not pretty, she’s worse.”) It is a rare thing to get an unobstructed view of her face, which is covered in distracting makeup and decals, a collection of sunglasses of considerable antiquity or extraordinary construction, and scene-stealing hats and hairstyles (including hats made of hair). Appropriately, one of Gaga’s great heroes is the ultra-reclusive, ultra-fashionable Belgian designer Martin Margiela, a former assistant to Jean-Paul Gaultier, another Gaga icon. Maison Martin Margiela goes so far in its effacement of the perfect faces of its models that it often sends them down the runway veiled. Lately, the Maison has created the Islamic Revolution-esque censor bar sunglasses (“L’Incognito”), which cancel the eyes in a vaguely Star-Trekky way as much as they shield them. In the improbable setting of the 2009 Malta Music Week, Gaga met the press in a studded black dress, her face covered by a black S&M mask, which she called a “contemporary art piece”. Likewise, at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga sported a red Alexander McQueen crown with lace face mask.
“There is certainly a performance art element to all of this,” says Gaga. “I get challenged in interviews all the time, people asking me whether the clothes distract from the music. They’re not separate; it’s not one or the other. I dress the way I do to demonstrate my commitment to show business.”
In public appearances, Gaga never wears the same outfit twice, and never borrows from the Armani-Prada vocabulary of pre-fab good taste beloved of most public figures. Every detail, from hat to hair to shoes, is unlikely. For a modern-day celebrity, Gaga must produce at least one new outfit per day, and the most astonishing feat is the relentless good quality of her constructions. Gaga’s loony, wonderful outfits have become one of life’s few constants, like death and taxes. Some of her most famous ensembles have been constructed on the fly, literally within an hour of a photo shoot. As a marketing device, it works brilliantly, guaranteeing weekly Gaga coverage in all the magazines, and daily coverage from the bloggers. Gaga has achieved in only two years a kind of global ubiquitousness that would have taken half a decade at least in the 1990s.
Like Marilyn Manson, Gwen Stefani and even Boy George, Gaga is a fashion designer before she is a singer. Where other singers fuss over the personnel of backup bands, Gaga has costumers. Each outfit has clean lines and is well-organized: constructed, high-concept, not expressionist. The hard-edged work of Thierry Mugler is an acknowledged, obvious influence; she has lifted his entire syntax, consisting of legless leotards, crystalline growths, and a massively shouldered silhouette. In fact, he is the Ur-influence. His vocabulary (mirrors everywhere, crystals everywhere, robots and aliens) is the foundation for Gaga’s fashion. Often, subsidiary details to an ensemble will turn out to be Mugler, while she wears a dress by another designer as the focus.
Her importance is to fashion much more than to music: she transforms everything she touches. In her odd, riveting video for “Paparazzi”, directed by Jonas Akerlund, nearly every detail from a shoe to a ring (that conceals poison, like Lucrezia Borgia’s) is jarringly rare, engaging, special. This is the first work of Gaga’s sole official stylist, B. Akerlund (wife of the director), which results in an extraordinary Gaga Gesamtkunstwerk. Famously, she transforms herself into a sinister Minnie Mouse. The influence is surely Marilyn Manson’s “Golden Age of the Grotesque” images of 2003, made in collaboration with Viennese artist Gottfried Helnwein.
The strong influence of Helmut Newton in “Paparazzi” could be described as a weirdly effective “cripple chic”. Gaga’s broken form rises, covered in metal Thierry Mugler plating, from a souped-up wheelchair and does a dance with a cane. Some of these images of crumpled and crushed women verge on copies of a disturbing but brilliant series that ran in American Vogue with model Nadja Auermann as invalid with a spectacularly broken leg.
Gaga’s sexuality is notional and unconvincing because it is more schizy than sleazy. (Though she is loudly bisexual: of course, of course.) For one, she is as friendly and kind as Madonna is not. Lady Gaga wears fetish gear but gives hugs. Also, her costumes are too cerebral, even studious. (She talks fluently, like a fashion historian, about the Mugler and Gaultier archives.) She is an agreeable lunatic not much more cravenly seductive than Vogue Italia’s Anna Piaggi, Boy George or even Cyndi Lauper. Gaga is comfortable in public appearing unappealing, incomprehensible, unsexy. A woman happy to sport a Jean-Charles de Castelbajac “Kermit” jacket on German television (as a comment on the evils of wearing fur, as she explained on Oprah) is not interested in the conventional stylings of seduction.
Serious photographers flock to her, inspired by her commitment to self-effacement and her talent for unselfconsciousness. Considering that Gaga’s career is essentially only two years old, she has worked with a shocking number of top, even art photographers: Hedi Slimane did her “Fame Monster” (2009) album cover; Annie Leibovitz shot her in a montage for American Vogue (Gaga is the witch from the Hansel and Gretel story); and David LaChapelle shot the Rolling Stone cover (June 2009) on which she wore a copy of Hussein Chalayan’s celebrated bubble dress.
She was, of course, briefly and ironically a go-go dancer, which was obviously an excellent career move, in the vein of Madonna’s loss of her virginity. There is nothing like public exhibitionism to teach an unsentimental, cold-eyed evaluation of one’s assets. Gaga’s weird poise is surely informed by her mastery of a limit-experience (dancing nearly naked in front of a crowd of strangers) which is about as unusual as murder. She has recently graduated to posing topless in genuinely artistic venues from Vogue Hommes Japan to V Magazine, shot variously by Nobuyoshi Araki, Mario Testino and Ellen von Unwerth. While she is clearly uninhibited, Gaga’s fashion manifesto would not have allowed her to opt out of nudity, as a response to fashion, a continuation of fashion, and a strategy of fashion. Whether wearing shredded dresses or the famous Orbit hat by London milliner Nasir Mazhar, Gaga covers and uncovers body parts like squares on a fashion chessboard.
Gaga has no one resembling a Svengali in her career making either creative or business decisions. Even the identity of her ex-boyfriend is casually negated by reference to a dubious-sounding nickname: “Speedy”. She is certainly a knowledgeable collaborator in her own construction, a borrower of avant-garde fashion references that sometimes border on pedantic. A certain Matthew Williams, described as her best friend and Creative Director at the Haus of Gaga, is credited with overseeing the singer’s daily look, though he is not presented to the public. When Gaga calls him her Jean-Paul Goude, she is paying him extraordinary hipster tribute, for Goude, an exceptionally accomplished graphic designer, was once the lover and stylist of Grace Jones who transformed her into a disco-era living artwork. One might say that Goude had better material to work with in Jones with her awesome cheekbones, brutal beauty and perfect mannequin body. Jones was already Art just walking down the street, but Goude contributed the geometric frame that made her an essential magazine image of the 1970s and 80s. Jones consisted largely of a snarling mouth and an air of sexual menace, so much the better to turn her into a sculpture or even, in the remarkable “Slave to the Rhythm” video (1985), a piece of architecture (a garage).
Gaga is only 5’1”, usually a death sentence for a couture lover, and she is without a single show-stopping physical feature. What she lacks in external attributes, she makes up for in the kind of oblivious commitment to avant-gardism that seems to onlookers to be an obscure object lesson. In this, she is a spiritual sister of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dada artist, provocateur, and loon. Silliness is freedom, and Gaga is able to expand the limits of her fashion repertoire by disdaining any commitment to elegance or sexiness. This is not a woman who dresses to get laid or to please Best Dressed list-makers.
Gaga is a woman who travels in a bubble of her own making: it is Gaga all over the world. In television interviews, she has the vibrating, scattered air of a woman recovering from a shattering mental breakdown. Gaga mimics Warhol’s detached, alien habits of speech, sounding in recorded interviews often vague, confused, with a little bit of Marilyn Monroe dingbat thrown in for good measure. (In printed interviews, interestingly, her speech is much crisper and more complex.) The Gaga persona is fragile, even psychotic, a word she herself uses. (In her signature “Just Dance” song and first Number One hit, she calls herself “psychotic synch hypnotic”.) Her mid-Atlantic accent, a bit of self-improvement as phony as Madonna’s clipped Briticisms, is another bit of nuttiness.
In reality, No Drama Gaga is professional, stable, consistent. She seems much older than her 23 years. She is punctual and reliable, only getting criticism for the eminently sensible move of recently cancelling a concert (she cited illness) in order to perform on Oprah. Her Haus of Gaga parallels Warhol’s Factory, only apparently with less self-destruction and decidedly more efficiency.
For a time, Gaga appeared carrying an empty teacup and saucer everywhere she went. The gendered teacup (“She”) would be presented to Gaga by an underling on the sidewalk as she stepped out of a car and carried it into a television studio, as if by a mid-century English lady retreating to a drawing room. The whole mad production heightened Gaga’s air of fragility, and called to mind the British aristocrats in wild Gaga-esque hats who bubble to the surface every year at Royal Ascot. (Inevitably, the teacup also alludes to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.) Gaga claimed that she carried around her brilliant device, a sweet little vessel with an interior and matching saucer of peculiar acid purple, for comfort, like some pop stars did with their small dogs. Now the teacup has its own page on Facebook, and I received a greeting from it only yesterday. (In the ultimate meta-Gaga moment, the teacup liked this article and recommended it to others on her site.)
While Gaga’s fashion is strikingly well done, well fitting and well constructed, her attitude is not elitist. With a pretty teacup and a wacky wig, you too can be a Lady. You can recreate her preposterous outfits at a craft fair and fabric store, and Gaga your way through life. She still does her own hair and makeup. Even fame itself is democratic to Gaga: “the fame”, a quasi-mystical term, “comes from within” and is something that can be claimed or projected by anyone, despite actual obscurity. On Oprah and Barbara Walters, Gaga discusses her philosophy of individualism, feeling “like a freak” as a teenager, and hoping to “liberate” her audience. Madonna’s existence at the summit of the A-list, in a position of fame so privileged that she rightly sensed herself alone once Michael Jackson was dead, is something that the singer takes entirely seriously. Next to Gaga, her wardrobe of Versace-Prada is haute bourgeois. Tellingly, Madonna has been to see Gaga in concert not once but twice (in 2009 and 2010); Madonna’s anxiety of influence visits to trendy young artists have provided her own creative turning points.
Gaga is in excellent artistic shape if the point of comparison she unceasingly evokes, at age 23, is Madonna, even if she comes out shy of the mark on nearly every point. Madonna, at age 51, can be safely said to have reworked Western habits of mind regarding femininity and human sexuality, particularly for women. Madonna has spent over a quarter century consuming the finest, most exclusive cultural productions of humanity, usually at their source, from visual artists, fashion designers and film directors. Gaga only spent a semester at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, though she is significantly more learned than Madonna, veteran of a dance program at the University of Michigan, was at the same age. Gaga’s youthful frame of artistic reference is infinitely broader, showing a promising obsessive-compulsive, scholarly character. Madonna is every way an athlete (fitness, technique, crushing discipline). Gaga appears to be pure artist—a word she uses constantly along with terms like “art project” which are foreign to the music industry.
A naked body, a pair of handcuffs, and a crucifix are the central elements in Madonna’s symbolic vocabulary. Western culture does the work in providing pre-existing narratives and meaning. More recently, she has added the Kabbalistic hocus pocus that doomed Guy Ritchie’s film “Revolver” to obscurantism and obscurity; Kabbalah may be enormously rich in symbolic value, but only a handful of people on earth are qualified to decode it. Madonna began her career with Catholic symbolism worked out over a lifetime of a pretty girl’s hostile provocations, all set in motion at birth by the name “Madonna” itself. Madonna represents tranches of the body politic (women, gays, blacks, Latinos). Gaga represents only the individual, millions at a time. It is easy to imagine the program to unfold from Madonna’s attempts at liberation (women’s, gay, racial): indeed, one could campaign on it. Gaga’s iconography, unlike Madonna’s, is largely empty. While her black-painted lips, for example, refer to Geishas and to German opera singer Klaus Nomi, what does this fact actually mean? The danger with inventing a language of symbols is that, for a while, you may be the only one who speaks it. What is Gaga actually communicating? Is there content or is style the only content? Has Gaga mastered modes of communication without anything to communicate?
A quarter century ago, Cyndi Lauper, her wild fashion sense, and her Yonkers honk first faced a marketing challenge. In 30 seconds of song, Lauper was capable of blowing out your speakers with her awesome imposition of a voice. In her heyday, a displacement of focus was encouraged onto her kooky outfits, at the expense of her musical accomplishment. (Boy George, also possessed of an exceptional voice, was her male counterpart.) Her deliberately mismatched clothes gave her an appealing, Raggedy Ann quality. The emphasis on style over very considerable substance produced heavy media coverage in the short term, but contributed to an unnecessary shortening of their careers. Today, Lauper is a maternal figure for Gaga: they posed together for a MAC Viva Glam campaign for Fall 2009, and Lauper takes a close, friendly interest in her career. Lauper’s promotion (and management) was a mistake; Gaga may be the corrective. She shows every sign of being able to stay a few steps ahead of the media for some time to come. As designers reach out to collaborate with her, her task of constant metamorphosis becomes easier, allowing the focus to shift more decisively to the music, where Gaga’s career will ultimately live or die.
 Brian Hiatt, “New York Doll” in Rolling Stone. Issue 1080 (11 June 2009), 59.
 Andrew Murfett, “Lady Gaga” in Sydney Morning Herald (15 May 2009).
(c) Erin O’Brien 2010