The Last Pop Star

Lady Gaga is simultaneously embodying and eviscerating Pop.

Sean McCabe

At the heart of Pop, real Pop, is a white-hot blank. It sizzles into materiality in the form of this body or that body, this voice or that voice; it drapes itself in allusions, symbols, trinkets, scraps of dazzlement. It can enter the world in triumph, with a bang, in a flash of beauty; or sordidly and crappily, filtering from the ceiling speakers of a Taco Bell or glimpsed on a screen through somebody’s lonely apartment window, a dismal flickering. It seeps into conversations, your everyday chitchat—“Did you hear …?” “Have you seen …?”—and you talk about it as if under a compulsion, like a sleepwalker, the syllables strange on your tongue. Plenty to say about Pop (although it repels intelligent commentary)—about its shapes and styles and so on. But always, always, at the core, an ecstatic and superheated Nothing.

Kurt Cobain got close to it with “A mulatto / An albino / A mosquito / My libido / Yeah!” Marc Bolan, one of the most perfect Pop stars of the last century, lived in it, which is why at the height of his power, riding waves of electrified delirium with his band T. Rex, he sang things like “I drive a Rolls-Royce / ’cause it’s good for my voice” and “Rockin’ in the nude / I’m feelin’ such a dude / It’s a rip-off!”

Video: James Parker studies Lady Gaga’s mystique and finds her exact antithesis in the celebrity kingdom

Have you heard of Lady Gaga? Type L into Google. She is the multiplatinum alpha and omega of Pop, and she’s burning out its circuits. She adores Bolan. Glam rock, the strutting, sequined, sexually equivocal noise of which he was the avatar, is one of her reference points. (So is Cobain, but we’ll come to that later.) She adores Bowie; she adores Queen. Her name, in fact, derives from a Queen song. Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, in New York City, she was baptized Gaga by her former songwriting partner Rob Fusari. “We were working one day in the studio,” he told an interviewer, “and Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’ came on, and I was like, ‘You are so Radio Ga Ga.’ So Gaga became her nickname.” “Radio Ga Ga,” released in 1984 (two years before Germanotta’s birth), was a reactionary lament at the dawn of the video age: “We watch the shows, we watch the stars / On videos for hours and hours / We hardly need to use our ears / How music changes through the years.” Oh dear! Pop being Pop, though, the only thing anyone remembers is the futuristically inane chorus: “All we hear is Radio ga ga / Radio goo goo / Radio ga ga / All we hear is Radio ga ga / Radio blah blah …” Lady Blah Blah would have been pretty good, but ga ga, gaga, gaga: a monstrous orality, a tyranny of infantile desire, with the added suggestion of surfeit, overkill, something being gagged on. Perfect.

Her assault on the culture has been meticulous. Pre-Gaga, she wrote songs for Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block, a line of work she pursued while immersing herself in burlesque, performance art, and all-round club madness. As Lady Gaga she has made two albums, of which more than 12 million copies have been sold. Her music is top-quality revenge-of-the-machines dance-stomp with beefy, unforgettable choruses: “Can’t read my, can’t read my / No he can’t read my POKER FACE!” “I want your love and I want your revenge / You and me could write a BAD ROMANCE!” (“I usually write the choruses first,” she has said, “because without a good chorus, who really gives a fuck?”) It’s Pop music, but Gaga-dom is the thing: a persona, something like the incarnation of Pop stardom itself, that she has foisted upon the world. In wigs and avant-garde getups she appears, strange-eyed, her large, high-bridged nose giving a hieroglyphic otherness to her face. On red carpets the presence manifests, where Gaga, like a dome of many-colored glass, refracts the white radiance of Pop.

Remember Debbie Allen in her leotard, haranguing the kids from Fame? “You got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start payin’!” Not Lady Gaga. For Gaga and her tribe, fame—or more precisely “the fame”—is gratuitous, ubiquitous, a sort of cultural precipitation that can be snatched or skimmed out of the air by anyone with the balls to do it. “The music is intended to inspire people to feel a certain way about themselves,” she told MTV, “so they’ll be able to encompass, in their own lives, a sense of inner fame that they can project to the world.” Or to put it another way: “All we care about is pornographic girls / On film and body plastic / Give me something I wanna see / Television and hot blondes in odd positions / FAME! Doin’ it for the FAME!”

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.

Madonna, the Madonna of the conical bras and the dancing myrmidons, had a similar thing going for a while, but tempered always with her rather frigid sense of self-importance. Gaga is post-Madonna and therefore freer: bandaged in yellow police tape or pounding at the piano with one leg up on the keyboard, she fears no trespass on her dignity. There’s nothing in Madonna’s videography comparable to the John Waters–esque sequence at the end of Telephone, in which a mass poisoning is perpetrated and fried food falls in lumps from people’s mouths. What does it mean, the image of an aproned Gaga turning a diner into a vomitorium? It means gaga, it means gagging, it means nothing. Or rather, right now, somehow, it means Pop. And who will be post-Gaga? Nobody. She’s finishing it off, each of her productions gleefully laying waste to another area of possibility. So let’s just say it: she’s the last Pop star. Après Gaga, the void.