A glittering journey of shattered expectations in the endlessly surprising world of pop.

The audience, no matter how surprised or how stunned, always feel as if they know better. We tend to believe we have seen all and have heard all; we tend to believe that we can decipher any twists coming their way or perceive any truth ready to be bent. Nothing is new, nothing is sacred, we seem to be saying, everything has been done before. And we take these platitudes to the depths of our souls, imagining that our knowledge of the shape of things is paramount—is, above all, right.

But what happens when something unexpected occurs? When you are so wrapped up in your cynicism and your complacencies that you are knocked sideways from a rush of a comet, of a meteor, of a colorful starchild wanting to make you dance? Gone are the silly notions of superiority, gone are the ideas of cracking the code to life’s greatest mysteries. You are, instead, taken away by the plundering thuds of massive electronic beats against the robotic sleazy drawl of someone whose name evokes that of comic book villains and whorehouse madams, swallowed whole by the pop mania exploding around you until there is nothing left.

That was the storm, in which we now call “Lady Gaga,” that had awakened a nation too sure of themselves and pop culture. Reality television was forcing its way onto every channel, the hard-partying heiresses that fueled TMZ culture were being locked up, and the radio was still buzzing out the most run-of-the-mill club jams companies could produce. Naturally, there were still hits and still the random crossover jam that would unite all factions of the music world for a moment. But there felt, in pop, to be this gaping hole that was waiting to be filled. No one was addressing it, no one was vocalizing it, but it was permeating the air, slowly creeping up until there was a new club song gnawing in our ears.

“Just Dance” was not your typical club song, but its streamlined production made it sound as such and that was what fooled me. I was playing the role of the audience member, knowing too well of what I was dealing with—some faux, beautiful, brainless pop starlet that would have this one mega hit and then disappear never to be heard from again. I had seen this too many times before with songs so familiarly accessible that it seems inevitable; this Lady Gaga person was, indeed, doomed. But that was where I, as the audience member, failed to see what was obviously unfolding in front of me. Because not only was this not your typical club song that actually sounded as if it were, but it was a brilliantly coronated Trojan horse of a song—a marvelous debut for a pop star hell-bent on world domination.

But I didn’t know that.

No, I didn’t know that until 2010 when they showed a rerun of a promotional interview for her brilliant colossus The Fame Monster on Fuse, wearing her trademark blonde bot-bob with heavy dark makeup and a black strapless dress that tugged on her thinned, but healthy body. As she spoke so eloquently and so carefully to the host Touré, Gaga seemed to radiate an unbelievable confidence and magnetism that exceeded that of any pop star I had witnessed thus far.

Her theories on protecting your art, the progression of music, and the importance of peace and tranquility seemed to be transmissions from another planet—some kind of clue as to where we as humanity should go if we wanted to survive in this decadent new millennium. She seemed to be giving us codes—me, especially—and as she spoke of crying in front of an early Warhol painting because it didn’t “look like a Warhol,” I knew that I was in the presence of someone so incredibly beautiful and challenging, someone so new, that I had no other choice but to submit to her.

And I had, for quite some time, resisted the urge to that submission. After all, she had, of course, scored several hits between my first grasp of “Just Dance” to that interview. But I was still so confused about her—being a stubborn audience member—that I couldn’t tell if she was joking or if she was serious, if she was being an artist or being a puppet. And the more I realized how blurred those lines were, the more I realized how important Lady Gaga truly was. She was obsessed with fame but seemed to find it horrid. She was marvelously fashionable yet craved ugliness. She was the queen of the charts however identified as an outsider. There were all of these complexities, paradoxes, and inconsistencies that made her that more fascinating and enticing to watch and indulge in. She was a product created by herself and easily marketed with a sour aftertaste. Needless to say, she’d stolen my heart.

And what a thief she’d turn out to be.

© David LaChapelle

By only being out for a good two years, Gaga seemed to already fit into a rarefied stratosphere that very few stars ever inhabit—where the influence is so pervasive that one immediately knows by one glance. She was the first pop star of the century to utilize both the internet and its fetish for imagery with the most astute and cunning tactics. Her plush, hedonistic lyrics so melodic and breathtaking they seemed to double as propaganda tools, Lady Gaga was a master of manipulation in the style of wild dictators or Hollywood moguls, digging us into her artificial world of sex and violence with a coy finger wagging inward as a bloody grin crossed her face.

In retrospect, one has to ask: who else could’ve charmed their way into the hearts of mothers, fathers, and grandparents with such vile, often disturbing visuals all the while writing the most delicious pop songs to have come out in the last twenty years? Who else could’ve revealed an American culture that had been corrupted and distorted for centuries and sell it back to the people who embraced this lifestyle the most? Who else could’ve topped the charts while remaining firmly addicted and devoted to activism and political causes? Lady Gaga was not just another pop star and not even just another superstar. She truly represented something that no one had ever seen before—a Manhattan private school piano prodigy who stripped her way to Lollapalooza and hustled her way into the record industry, who did not adhere to the typical sex-kitten persona, who did not allow anyone to create better harmonies than she, who was both charming and alienating, who wanted world peace but wanted to rule the world at the same time. Lady Gaga, for a lack of a better term, was mythical.

And like all mythological beings, Lady Gaga needed to deliver us with some otherworldly masterwork to prove just how legendary she truly was in such a short span of time. Born This Way, her darkly personal fantasia of epic proportions, not only exceeded expectations but set a bar for pop in the millennium. Drenched in politics as much as in memories, it is something of a Proustian journey through Gaga’s childhood and adolescence, magnified by a modern, raw, forward-looking lens. She’d connected her obsessions with arena rock and its younger sibling, metal, to her affinity for diva pop and eighties glamour, crafting chaotic pieces that felt futuristic and remarkably current all at once. She had completely locked the world into her electronic wonderland, forcing many of her contemporaries to dress extravagantly and embrace their strangest impulses. She had set the pace, the trend, and the standard. But as any audience member knows, even the greatest must have their challenges, and this began with the end of the Born This Way campaign.

We often use the word “campaign” to describe pop eras, and in return use the term “era” to describe a period of time in which an artist promotes their record. But there are, in fact, no falsehoods in the use of these terms. These “campaigns” and “eras” for albums are just as important and valiant as what those words are originally defined as meaning, reminding us of the sheer power of which pop stars have in our society. One must realize that musicians in past cultures and in past civilizations were never afforded the privileges and aura of royalty as they do in modern times. They were seen as paid entertainment—there to give the people some amusement and then sent on their way, forced to save their pennies until the next big performance. They did not live in mansions nor throw fundraisers for politicians. They did not have millions of followers at their fingertips, awaiting the next command. Only in the nineteenth century did this truly change and only in the twentieth century did it became an absolution.

As our pop stars carry on campaigns in these eras, they must be like the rulers of the past who proved their worth by the result of their last great battle. If that battle was a defeat, then the next campaign could be marred by ignorance and a lack of trust. And this is what happened with Gaga.

© Steven Klein

To be fair, blame is quite a fickle thing to entirely impose upon anyone and I could never truly blame an artist for anything creatively, as always in their mind what they have done is right and true and worthy and there is nothing more pure than such a feeling. With Lady Gaga, however, there grew a general fatigue amongst the public, who had first embraced her weirdness but then became skeptical of it. Her music, at the same time, did not sway them as it seemed not to be as avant-garde as she portrayed herself. Yet, what was overlooked during this period of “betrayal” was the brilliance of Gaga’s seemingly innate skill to be so mainstream yet also be so odd at the same time and how such a jarring mixture felt remarkably satisfying. Unfortunately, this mindset would elude the public and as they passively watched the album’s last single—the transcendent masterpiece “Marry the Night”—barely crack the top 40, it seemed her moment of godliness was tarnished.

But it seemed not that way to me.

Almost immediately, I adored that magnificent video of that last single from Born This Way, primarily due to its sheer reach, scope, and breadth of drama. Reflecting the day when Gaga went crazy after she found out her deal with a label got fucked, it was a combination of psych ward daydreams, classic dance-film tropes, and total pop ebullience, showing a fearless artist barring her soul, even if no one was truly paying attention. And, sadly, it was indeed that kind of confessional, tell-all spirit that seemed to make that knowing audience lose faith in the superstar they had loved so much not too long ago, and in return, this, sadly, casted a sense of doubt in that artist who prided herself on appealing to people and changing their lives. This also would set the wheels in motion for the next campaign, which came after a most unfortunate hip injury that brought her whirlwind Born This Way campaign to a sudden halt. Yet as awful as it sounded, this injury would bring Lady Gaga some kind of clarity in her art and force her to look back into what made her excited to be a pop star in the first place; it would bring her back to her roots.

From inception, ARTPOP, this fantastically-conceptualized new album/lifestyle, presented itself as a movement not unlike her previous campaign. Only this time, it seemed more inclusive and inviting, more colorful and acceptant; it did not have any political connections—at least outwardly—and it did not seem obsessed with convincing you to join. It was more in tune with the streamlined, stark-white aesthetic of our fresh, new century, like an Apple product or an application on one’s phone—you were allowed access, if you pleased, but you didn’t have to sign a membership.

And it was obvious by Gaga’s passion and energy that she was pleased with what she was achieving and wanted everything to start off as smoothly as imagined, also not unlike her previous campaign. However, this time the hype machine had clipped the wings of the goddess and altered her vision completely. Business relationships died whilst the public rolled their eyes at her desire to bring art into pop—something she arguably had been doing since her first number one—and, suddenly, the walls seemed to be closing in. Although the spectacle remained, the emptiness reigned and Gaga faded within the confines of her own creation, allowing it to spread across the world as it was picked and torn apart by anyone who felt superior.

As someone who had not felt so much adoration for a pop star since Britney’s first three campaigns, it was hard to watch such a reversal of fortune for someone so immensely talented and gifted. How, I thought, could these foolish people not see the brilliance in galactic experiments like “Venus” or the progressive tropical wonder that is “Do What U Want”? How could they deny the malt shop motorcycle beauty of “MANiCURE” or psychedelic sawdust hypnosis of “Mary Jane Holland”? How could they ignore the psychosexual intrigue of “Sexxx Dreams” or the blissful disco chill of “Fashion!”? It seemed quite ridiculous that many could’ve easily passed over something as glorious as ARTPOP, which—although not having truly lived up to its lofty expectations—had unmistakably defined itself as one of the most luxuriously contented pop albums ever recorded, unabashedly comfortable in its own skin and perhaps even more charming because of it. One had to, at least, marvel at its confidence and its freedom; at its uncompromising marriage of pop messiness.

Yet the campaign had already done its worst: ARTPOP would be Gaga’s last album of original pieces for quite some time.

© Interscope / Steven Klein

As if realizing her own necessity for reinvention—as if becoming her own audience member — Gaga finally teamed up with jazz legend Tony Bennett in order to create a rather odd yet most purely pleasant duet albums of pop standards and lounge classics that magically aligned the artists, despite their sixty-year age difference. This was something different and new, as most things are with Gaga—a pop star at the height of her powers and at the apex of her youth, deciding to record a series of covers with someone who could be her grandfather—and such things could be considered damaging or suicidal for such a gloriously mainstream artist. But instead of disaster, as predicted by many, it brought a completely different array of fans into Gaga’s world while bringing a completely different array of fans into Tony’s world, seamlessly bridging generations that spanned over decades with a single spotlight.

As her young pop followers began blasting tunes by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, Lady Gaga managed to bring her own childhood spirit of jazz into that of her loyal courtiers—doing something that most artists could never dream of doing with such success. And with this transformation into a chanteuse lounge lizard, suddenly appeared a stripping-down of style which accentuated not the extravagance of Lady Gaga but her unbelievable talent. She was showing people that there was something beyond the fantasy and clever commentary—behind the aura—that there was indeed an artist who could blow you away by the sheer range of her voice. Floating against the live instruments and accompanied by the smooth clipped delivery of Mr. Bennett, Lady Gaga hinted at what could explode from someone who manages to mix all of that of which makes her unique with all that of which makes her gifted, setting the potential pace for her next highly-anticipated campaign.

And so has come her reversal of fortune, again.

Teaming up with Tony and winning a Grammy was merely the tip of the iceberg. But after her phenomenal performance at the Oscars in which she performed a masterful medley of songs from The Sound of Music, it’s become quite clear that Lady Gaga has wormed her way back into the public consciousness, giving her much more praise and respect than possibly ever before. Although it was obvious to me and many, many others, it is now obvious to anyone left in the dark, who had ever doubted her abilities as a singer, performer, and superstar.

I remember watching her that night in February. She looked quite elegant in a flowing gown, yet there was still that Gaganess whispering through from the proudly-displayed tattoos on her arms as she shuffled and glided across the stage with perfect dictation and harmony. Gaga had always seemed in control on stage but there was something refreshing and different about this performance—as if she had been transformed into this entirely new being, someone so excitably theatrical and addicted to such theatrics that she seemed as if she had written the words herself and couldn’t have waited any longer to share them with us all. A marvelously captivating moment, it felt so instantly iconic, instantly life-altering, instantly transcendent. And afterwards, once the stunning Julie Andrews came out onto the stage and hugged Gaga, I got chills, as it felt a passing of a torch or a gesture of total acceptance. Not only from such a legendary actress, but from the entire world—that same world that had once given up on her.

Such riches and fortune seemed only a stepping stone, however, to Gaga’s next phase: consummate television actress. Speculation arose immediately as it was announced that she would star in the next installment of Ryan Murphy’s ultra-schlocky and ultra-hip anthology series, American Horror Story. Although her acting past has been heavily chronicled (mostly by the Lady herself), much of her actual contemporary work has been resigned to parts in campy action films that didn’t quite prove much to anyone who’d already had their nails fully sharpened. Yet as the show premiered and Gaga debuted as the mysterious and venomous Countess, there was certainly no doubt that she was meant to play that role. Each week, as her complex, oft-misunderstood character unraveled and revealed more of herself, Gaga seemed to unravel and reveal more about herself also, showing us this incredibly innate disappearance of personality and committing herself so dearly to the craft that the two seemed to merge together and become one. Although reception remained mixed throughout the show’s run, Gaga’s win at the Golden Globes for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film proved not only that she was a fantastic chameleon, able to morph and transform into whatever she desired, but also proved that any leftover ill-will or boredom elicited from that ever-fickle audience had been abolished. The Lady had officially returned.

And as we await this next campaign and this next era, as we watch this dreamy awkward spacechild continually mutate into an incomparable business monolith, I think of our utter fascination with Lady Gaga and it is hard to imagine her not coming in when she did to awake us from the doldrums of the rickety Bush administration and all the debris left in its escape. It is hard to imagine her not perfectly fitting well into a world seeking change and seeking peace, a world scared of its own shadow and needing to be reminded to embrace it, a world wanting to be free and wanting to feel as if it would last forever, a world that wanted to just dance.

It is hard to imagine that Lady Gaga has not been in our lives for decades but merely only eight years, merely a fragment of a lifespan. Her influence, her music, her visuals, her power have become so engrained in our lives—so much a part of our cultural, social, and political fabric—that it is hard to imagine her not being the perennial pop supergiant that she has become.

And yet we can leave that to the imagination for those who have not awaken yet from their grayed existences, for those audience members who are still relying on their knowledge, stuck in constant intermission. The truth, as it were, speaks for itself and that truth is that nothing is ever expected when it comes to Gaga—she is full of surprises, and that is why the audience never right.

Strange how precious fate and destiny wield their hands toward the body. Moments once felt tense and full of life then gone and no more. As we lost David Bowie, one of the greatest artists of ours and or any other time, sadness and confusion exploded through us all but there must have been a particular darkness felt inside of Lady Gaga. Her entire career had been indebted to his rebellion and freedom—his desire to shake and move us with clarity and intelligence—and from the girl who donned his infamous lightning bolt in her first video, such a blow could not have been harder. Yet through that sadness, during the Grammys following his untimely pass, Gaga delivered one of the most alluring and frenetic tributes one has ever seen, embodying the great pop king with beauty, strength, and courage, reminding us why we loved him so much and in return, reminded us why we were lucky to witness his legacy continue through this unbelievable young superstar.

Impact as a pop star remains the most important factor; one wants to attract and wield as much power as they can muster not only for obvious monetary reasons but also to convey a message that will be heard, processed, analyzed, and understood. For Gaga, this has been the main objective of everything in which she’s done, but after recording the harrowing ballad “Till It Happens To You” for The Hunting Ground, the 2015 documentary which focused on rape on college campuses, these combined efforts were applauded and appreciated in ways previously unseen for the pop star. The Oscar nomination felt exciting and urgent but it was the performance that truly annihilated all whom witnessed it. As she stood on stage with dozens of survivors, Gaga felt ethereal, saintly, and, more than anything, comforting—bearing her own tortured and bruised soul for all to see with those whom understood her struggle most. It was a beautiful, poignant, dignified moment that still gives one chills whenever thoughts drift upon it.

Perhaps we will be saying that for the rest of her career.

written by marsalis