(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Boston — Almost immediately after she deposited herself in a corner booth at L'Espalier, the restaurant at Boston's Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the December afternoon after the first American date of her Monster Ball tour, Lady Gaga made a confounding statement.
"I don't see myself as ever being like anybody else," said the 23-year-old known to her mom (eating lunch nearby) as Stefani Germanotta. "I don't see myself as an heir."
Yet there she was, in a blond Hollywood bob and black tuxedo-bra combo much like the costumes Madonna wore 20 years ago, discussing a show that conjures the spirits of Michael Jackson, David Bowie and the punk-rock drag queens of downtown New York and promoting music -- the newly expanded edition of her 2008 debut album, "The Fame," greatly enriched by eight new songs and repackaged as "The Fame Monster" -- that pays blatant homage to ABBA, Queen, Eurodisco and Marilyn Manson.
Gaga doesn't care. She wants you to trace her references. " John Lennon talked about how with every song he wrote, he was thinking of another artist," she said, making a less expected connection to a pop deity.
She's yet to attain the status of the Beatles, but in the ever-accelerating pop cycle, Gaga is a top sensation, and many people's vote for the most exciting artist of 2009. "The Fame" has sold nearly 2 million copies in the U.S. and reportedly double that internationally; her album and the single "Poker Face" both made the top three on the year-end tally of top iTunes downloads.
"The Fame Monster" continues this sales sweep, but it also considerably advances Gaga's artistic project with some of her strongest songs yet, including the earworm-infested "Bad Romance" and the sumptuously emotional ballad "Speechless."
The world is responding. She's made friends with Madonna, been interviewed by Barbara Walters and met the Queen of England at the annual Royal Variety Performance. The Monster Ball has sold out multiple nights in major cities including Los Angeles, where it comes to the Nokia Theater at L.A. Live for shows Dec. 21-23.
This is all happening not because Gaga is cute or takes off her clothes but because (to use one of her favorite words) she is a monster -- a monster talent, that is, with a serious brain.
During nearly two hours of conversation, she not only reiterates her assertion of total originality but also finesses it until it's both a philosophical stance about how constructing a persona from pop-cultural sources can be an expression of a person's truth -- à la those drag queens Gaga sincerely admires -- and a bit of a feminist act.
"I'm getting the sense that you're a little bit of a feminist, like I am, which is good," she said. "I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little . . . In my opinion, women need and want someone to look up to that they feel have the full sense of who they are, and says, 'I'm great.' "
Gaga's casual use of the term "feminist" was interesting; like many female pop stars, she's rejected the term in the past. But she's evolving. She is growing "more compassionate," she says, and focusing more on ideas of community, especially the one formed by her core fan base, a mix of gay men, bohemian kids and young women attracted by Gaga's style and her singable melodies.
Her new songs address serious themes like women's shame about their bodies and the need for open communication in relationships; her often physically distorting costumes show that the pursuit of the feminine ideal is far from natural. Her commitment to confront the changing notion of what's "natural" puts Gaga on the same road traveled by artists she admires, such as the photographer Cindy Sherman. Her frank talk about how female artists aren't expected to write their own songs or about how young women are afraid to ask for what they need from their sexual partners inches her toward a new articulation of feminism.
"If you ask somebody where you see sexism in your life, all they think of is the old stuff," said Nona Willis Aronowitz, co-author of the new book "Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism," by phone. "Equal pay, that's not really on their radar. Domestic violence and rape aren't necessarily in the forefront. But you ask about double standards or restrictive gender roles, they don't think of that as sexism; they think of that as the way it is. That's kind of like what Lady Gaga is talking about."
Gaga does view her music as a liberating force. "When I say to you, there is nobody like me, and there never was, that is a statement I want every woman to feel and make about themselves," she continued. "I don't make it as a defense. I make it as, OK, guys, it's been two years, and I've made a lot of music, and I know my greatness is individual. And I want every woman to be able to say that."