(Published in thREAD, a supplement of The Hindu.) https://www.thehindu.com/thread/reflections/lady-gaga-grew-up-and-so-did-i/article25741811.ece
My relationship with Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta aka Lady Gaga follows the trajectory of every 90s Bollywood romance film. Girl meets boy, hates him instantly for his insufferable need to be liked. Not to mention, he’s an entitled brat with a larger-than-life persona. He tries to woo her friends to get into her good books but fails miserably. Until one day, in a bizarre twist of events, she gets to unmask his cocky exterior and falls in love with what she sees. The bizarre twist of events, in my case, happened to be an almost accidental viewing of A Star is born, and boy, did I go gaga over her, or did I?
As somebody who grew up listening to rock music with a newfound love for Indie Folk (like all pretentious high-browed sods), I never understood the music or the phenomenon of Lady G. At a time when most radio stations were belting out her hit numbers, such as ‘Poker face’, I put on my best cringe-face. ‘Bad romance’ to me was synonymous with bad music and bad aesthetics. How was I supposed to take a woman covered in studded latex from head-to-toe seriously? Imagine the horror of calling a walking condom your idol!
It’s not like I didn’t try engaging with her “gifted voice”, but somehow it always seemed to be overpowered by a schizoid concoction of synthesisers and techno beats. Her worn-to-shock glam-meets-androgyny-meets-goth attire stripped away my sincere desire to take her seriously. If her persona was solely reliant on her theatricality, it didn’t make her any different from hordes of attention-seeking self-proclaimed artists out there.
Besides, Gaga wasn’t the first one to introduce shock-rock aesthetics to mainstream music. She was creating a persona borrowed from her predecessors, such as Alice Cooper, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Was she unpredictable? Sure. Was she original? Highly debatable. But she’s a fiery package who can sing and dance with a devil-may-care attitude, argued her ‘little monsters’ both online and offline to which, my reply was, well, isn’t that a pre-requisite for all pop stars? What makes her earn the moniker of ‘Mother Monster’, I wondered.
The more famous she got, the more judgmental I became. In hindsight, I might have resented her for the same reasons I resent most extroverts — for their unabashed love for the limelight, their fetish for style over substance, their advocacy for putting on a mask in order to fit in — or, as in her case, a meat dress to stand out. Lady Gaga seemed like a textbook definition of a rebel without a cause. She seemed no different from post-modern artists like Damien Hirst who are known to provoke, for the sake of provacation, with no ideological moorings whatsoever. She meant little to me until the day I saw her on the big screen.
I still remember gasping when Ally first appeared in the trailer of A Star Is Born (2018). I found it hard to believe this was Lady Gaga until a friend confirmed it with an eye-roll and a violent nudge which could only be translated as “have you been living under the rocks, child?”. In all honestly, the only reason I went to watch the film was to drool at Bradley Cooper’s rustic country musician looks in high-definition. Ironically, I came out as a Lady Gaga fan. The moment in which she first companies Cooper on stage to sing Shallow gave me goosebumps so intense, I can still feel it in my bones. The entire soundtrack has an earworm quality to it and transcends the conventional definition of popular music.
Watching her candid interviews and listening to her recent albums, I realised what an epic journey she’s had in the last ten years. Many claim that Lady Gaga has evolved since her ‘The Fame Monster’ days. In her second act, sans glittery costumes, autotune, synthesisers, dancers, special effects and all the razzmatazz of a 21st-Century pop production, Lady Gaga emerges as a woman who’s born to sing. Entertainment can wait.
Come to think of it, Ally’s journey in the film is symbolic of Stefani’s, except, it’s portrayed in reverse. While Ally transforms from a no-make up wearing simpleton with a voice that can puncture holes in a wall to become a jazzed-up sell-out, Lady Gaga sheds her artifices to do what she does best — creating masterpieces on a piano.
In almost all her interviews, Lady Gaga tells her viewers that when she was auditioning for the role of Alley in A Star Is Born, Cooper walked up to her and wiped off the little traces of makeup she had on her face, so she could truly feel her character. He did a great deal of service to us by unmasking the fountain of unvarnished talent that she is both as a singer and as an actor. Lady Gaga might have stirred things up for a decade, but like Ally, Stefani Germanotta proved to be the newly-reborn star to look out for.
In Five Feet Two (2017), a Netflix documentary made by her close friends, we see a more grounded, more mature Gaga. You feel as though she has chosen to go back to being the woman she was before she became a pop sensation. During the making of Joanne (2016), a stark departure from rest of her albums, Gaga surfaces as an artist who’s not just a great singer but a thoughtful human being. She’s no longer interested in shocking us with stage stunts and garish costumes. She is less interested in how she’s perceived and that’s exactly what makes it hard to take your eyes off her. Her candidness is more illuminating than those luminous conical bras.
“Fame is the best drug that’s ever existed. But once you realise who you are and what you care about, that need for more, more, more, just goes away… I want to be somebody who is fighting for what’s true — not for more attention, more fame, more accolades”.
The Gaga in her thirties has come of age. The wisdom in her words is hard to miss. There are moments in Five Feet Two where she breaks down while struggling to meet her commitments because of her long-drawn battle against fibromyalgia, but she soldiers on. As somebody who’s lived with fibromyalgia pain in the past, I have to say, I was blown away by her perseverance. Here’s an artist who knows how to channelise her pain into art, who owes her existence to her fans, who’s determined to fight back and give it her all. The events that shaped her life have an invaluable effect on her music. ‘Joanne’ is a song about her late aunt who died of lupus. ‘A Million Reasons’ captures the poignancy of a heartbreak. It made me think of what Neil Gaiman once said, “Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.”
Her last few albums, including a mellifluous jazz collaboration with the legendary Tony Bennett, attest to the healing power of making good art.
Reflecting on her past choices, Gaga reveals in the documentary that her weird fashion was born out of a desire to assert control in an industry which is known to disarm their artists “What I’ve done is that when they wanted me to be sexy or they wanted me to be pop, I always [...] put some absurd spin on it that made me feel like I’m still in control.”
It’s not clear to me whether she’s saying this in order to justify the actions of her younger self with the hint of regret one usually feels when looking back at oneself in old photos or whether she’s lamenting by the unreal beauty standards that were imposed on her and define the male-dominated showbiz industry.
Although it’s well known that Lady Gaga has never been the one to mince her words on socially relevant issues. She represents a rare breed of mainstream artists who’ve managed to push their art form to articulate dissent. When Gaga joined hands with the survivors of sexual assault on the stage for the Oscars and sang ‘Til It Happens To You’ (2015), an entire audience was moved to pieces. When she spoke about equality at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, even ex-president Obama was left mesmerised. Her opinion piece on why mental health deserves more attention resonated with millions across the world.
As a fierce advocate of gay rights, she re-queered the mainstream through her music and her gestures. Her 2011 track ‘Born This Way’ took the world by storm because it celebrated the need for inclusivity in the then politically-sanitised world of pop culture.
When she chose to publicly identify as bisexual, she found a whole new level of respect among her fans. Unlike the female popstars that came before, her likeability among the gay community wasn’t incidental. It came from her own belief system and life experiences — of performing in drag bars in the early years of her artistic career. The drag aesthetics in her videos and live performances serve as a proverbial ode to her drag mothers. By convincing Cooper to introduce her character in a drag bar and getting a real-life drag queen to play the role of the bar manager, she did a phenomenal job of bringing the underground drag culture into mainstream cinema.
Admittedly, in my early years of knowing her and her work, my prejudice had got the better of me. I was too blinded by her theatrics to be able to see her humanitarian or artistic side. Clearly, her career offers a valuable lesson to me and and my tribe. Don’t judge a person by their choice of clothing. Don’t be hasty to label all pop music as trashy. Not all weird is bad. Perhaps, there’s merit in going beyond the familiar, both in our music preferences and in terms of the friends we make. For, if there’s one thing Gaga stands for, more than anything else, is to celebrate and respect our differences. Let’s embrace our individuality and flaunt it like it’s a million-dollar Alexander Mcqueen dress and when in doubt, raise your hands and listen to what Mother Monster once wrote: I am beautiful in my way, cause God made no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way.