Portrait of a Lady
BY Jeremy Kinser
July 05 2011 6:50 AM ET
“I don’t know exactly,” she says simply. For a woman so frequently called upon to explain her looks, her videos, her sensibilities, her response is surprisingly unselfconscious. But a flair for the dramatic takes over. Rather than answer, she tells a story about a 20-something gay serviceman she met at Best Buy last night. “He was afraid that he would be discharged and that he would be judged or found out. [He said] that the fight in America against ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the fight for equality made him feel stronger and made him feel safe, and he gave me his service jacket.” Gaga is silent for a moment. “And we just held each other and cried. Anyone who says that I’m not genuine is not interested in overcoming this fight. That was such a pure and wonderful moment that we shared, and I remember thinking, There’s no album sale, no number 1, that could compete with this moment. That is what the fuck it’s all about. What the fuck it’s all about is if I can write one song that could change one person’s life.”
“Born This Way,” the single she released in February, plainly desires to be that kind of song. It’s a pulsating dance track with a message meant to empower the lonely, the disaffected, the discriminated against. No less than Elton John predicted it would surpass “I Will Survive” as the great gay anthem. The song immediately shot to the top of the charts, where it remained for six weeks, making it the first number 1 with a shout-out to transgender people. The single also received a fair amount of criticism. It was maligned in some quarters for borrowing too heavily from Madonna, and in other quarters for the lyric “Don’t be a drag / Just be a queen,” which some said alienated gay people who don’t do drag or consider themselves queens.
The first signs of another b word — backlash — began to surface. To have become this powerful so quickly, Gaga has surely insulated herself with an invisible armor. Her friend Mario Lavandeira (a.k.a. blogger Perez Hilton) says the criticism still gets to her, but she still chooses to face it. “She likes to be two steps ahead of everyone else,” he says. “The only way to do that is to be plugged in and aware of what everyone else is doing and what people are thinking and what they’re responding to.” Makeup artist Billy Brasfield, a member of Gaga’s glam squad, says she reads everything written about her, no matter how mean-spirited. He suggests that this ultimately serves to strengthen Gaga’s resolve to succeed for her fans, to show them that if she can, so can they. “By facing your haters, you educate yourself about what people are saying,” Billy B says. “You take what you can learn from it, and fuck the rest of it.”
While it would be impossible for any record to live up to the hyperbole and sheer anticipation that attended Born This Way — Gaga herself described it as “the greatest album of the decade” — reviews were mostly respectable, and sales were spectacular. The album is loud, huge, meticulously produced, an eclectic auditory assault. The lyrics are filled with metaphors, messages about acceptance and empowerment, and there’s an abundance of references to religious figures as well as dead presidents and their mistresses. Yet, for such a progressive artist, the sound is surprisingly retro — equally rooted in mid-’80s Bruce Springsteen and late-’80s techno. Like its creator, it’s all over the place.
“I would say that’s precisely what Born This Way is all about. It’s not about just being born in one moment; it’s about being reborn over and over again until you find and become that unique and special person inside of you that is the most brave and the most sure and the most ready to take on the world,” she says. “And I was born this way. And that’s who I am. Some people weren’t born to wear masks, but I was. I was born to wear masks and wigs and fashion. To express myself through my clothing and my performance art, and that’s who I am. And the song is meant to be liberating not only from an individual perspective but from a creative perspective.”