But should the fame make you really-truly famous—well, then you’ve got problems. Glare and shutter-whizz, the fan’s gaze weaponized: hiss the word … paparazzi. “Amidst all of these flashing lights,” moaned Gaga operatically at last year’s Video Music Awards, sprawled upon the stage, “I pray the fame won’t take my liiiiiife.” It was a prelude to her song “Paparazzi,” and within a few minutes she was spurting fake blood from her chest and being hoisted aloft in a mock hanging. In 1992, Kurt Cobain, amid much speculation about his mental and physical health, had himself wheeled onstage for Nirvana’s set at the Reading Festival, a hunched, averted figure in a white lab coat and platinum wig. Very Gaga, in retrospect. She too, in performance, will take to her wheelchair, or stagger along with a crutch—she has appropriated the arsenal of debility, of meltdown, train wreck, and personal disaster, as part of her style.
The late British designer Alexander McQueen had something to do with it. High fashion, stratospheric fashion, where you go out for a pint of milk in Sydney Opera House shoulder pads and pterodactyl heels, is Gaga’s signature, and she and McQueen admired each other greatly. “Bad Romance” premiered at one of his runway shows, and when the song’s video was made, his bonkers outfits were all over it. Other things were all over it too: diamonds, razor blades, hairless cats … snarling, clawing dancers, and vodka forced down the throat … Image after image, like a fast-forward through the sex drive of a Bond villain. The video ends on a semi-incinerated bed, under buzzing lights, Gaga puffing at a post-coital cig while little after-sparks zip from her pyrotechnic bra. Beside her on the mattress, a fire-flayed corpse: the remains of her last lover. Which is, I suppose, us.
Telephone, released in March, was her next video outrage, a nine-minute epic that sees her dumped in a prison cell by burly guards, tottering onto the yard wearing a pair of sunglasses constructed from lit cigarettes, suffering a brief sexual mauling at the hands of female inmates, and then getting bailed out by Beyoncé. Quite properly, the hazy story line has nothing at all to do with the song, which is about being bothered on your cell phone while out at the club: “Just a second, it’s my favorite song they’re gonna play / And I cannot text you with a drink in my hand, eh.”
In the current generation of Pop divas—Ke$ha, Rihanna, Shakira, Britney, Katy Perry, Beyoncé herself—there’s no match for the alienness of Gaga. Pop in 2010 is thoroughly pornographized and tattoo-demented; the mainstream, as you may have noticed, is not very mainstream anymore. But there perches Lady Gaga, in paradoxical elegance, her plumage bristling, with an uncanny feel for just how much of her freakery we are prepared to absorb. She has successfully managed the rumor that she is a hermaphrodite. (She’s not.) Sweetly and demurely, she has ridden the couch of Ellen DeGeneres: “Who doesn’t love Ellen?” she cooed to the audience. The culture will not victimize her. Rather the reverse: with songs like “Paparazzi” she is, as English soccer commentators are fond of observing in the wake of a particularly jarring early tackle, “getting her retaliation in first.” Watching her stalk onstage with her retinue, one has a particular sensation—of aberrant sensibilities on the march, rive gauche visions, a whole underworld of transgression breaking the surface.