This is one of Gaga's gifts, maybe the one that most distinguishes her from the other talented women directing the pop zeitgeist right now, such as her recent collaborator Beyoncé, her fellow couture hound Rihanna or her rival in redefining blondness, Taylor Swift. Gaga makes outrageous declarations -- which, when you break them down, actually make sense. And then she backs them up, not only through her now famously provocative interviews but in her videos, her collaborations with designers and artists, her live performances and those infernally catchy hits.
As good a game as she talks, Gaga's real language is visual and, of course, musical. Discussing videos like the one for “Bad Romance,” which she says is about "how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking -- products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity," or the Ace Bandage-adorned costume she wore at the American Music Awards, which she said was "meant to be feminine, healing, bondage gothic," she sounds more like an art critic than an evolving club kid.
"It's a feeling," she says of the way she builds these little horror musicals. "There is a narrative, but the narrative isn't nearly as important as the images are, sewn together."
As for the songs that serve as the foundation for all of her other forms of expression, Gaga says she never wanted them to be anything but massive hits. "I don't want to make niche-oriented music," said the songwriter, who entered the music business writing hits for other artists, including Britney Spears. "I don't like it! I don't mean that to be in a rude way. But my taste is not there."
At a time when pop genres are colliding and collapsing, Gaga is contributing to their downfall. She notes that "Boys Boys Boys," the first song that she wrote with her main producer RedOne, is a club track that borrows its "gang chorus" from the hard rock of AC/DC. "I told him, I want to make pop music that my heavy metal friends will listen to," she explained.
"Aside from her few piano ballads, which are like early 1970s Elton John, her dance music is pretty much on-the-money current Euro dance," said her recent collaborator Adam Lambert in a separate interview. "But she's a rock star in her mentality. [Her attitude is] like, 'I hope this makes you look. I'm going to be subversive and out there because it makes me feel good and liberated to be that way.' "
It's arguable that Gaga could only realize her artistic vision in the center of the pop mainstream. Her critical supporters laud her for reconnecting pop to other cultural forms and for revitalizing the stream of art-into-pop first opened up by bands like Roxy Music and the Patti Smith Group.
But she's not alone in that effort. Kanye West played a gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art before she did; Beyoncé referenced Bob Fosse. Go a notch lower in visibility, as Gaga's critics point out, and examples abound of rock and club kids with art connections, from Karen O to Alison Goldfrapp.
Gaga has done something more specific: She's tapped into one of the primary obsessions of our age -- the changing nature of the self in relation to technology, the ever-expanding media sphere, and that sense of always being in character and publicly visible that Gaga calls "the fame" -- and made it her own obsession, the subject of her songs and the basis of her persona.
"Celebrity life and media culture are probably the most overbearing pop-cultural conditions that we as young people have to deal with, because it forces us to judge ourselves," she said. "I guess what I am trying to do is take the monster and turn the monster into a fairy tale."
That stars embody the social concerns of their age is a pop-culture truism. But only rarely does an artist dig beneath the dermis of our shared anxieties, exposing the liquid matter that runs through the shared fantasies and delusions of a particular moment.
"It's kind of like a crusade in its own way," she said. "Me embodying the position that I'm analyzing is the very thing that makes it so powerful."
Owning her image
Since the release of "The Fame," Lady Gaga has been uncovering new layers within her basic themes. At first she just seemed like the most pop savvy of the clever young people using club beats as a basis for music that could be both cerebral and cathartic -- the way indie rockers used heavy guitars a generation before. It was easy to dismiss her as no more than a well-educated New York girl with a gift for pop hooks and self-marketing.
But then her public appearances began to not simply provoke but disturb. She made a video for her song "Paparazzi" that had her in gilded crutches and a leg brace. She turned that vision of crippled glamour even bloodier on the MTV Video Music Awards, an appearance she described as "my first truly original moment."