Lady Gaga: Heart of an Activist
Lady Gaga has just touched down in Los Angeles after a red-eye flight from New York City, following a meet-and-greet with fans at a Best Buy store—a crowded event that lasted until 2 a.m. The 25-year-old musician, who since the release of her debut studio album, The Fame, in 2008 has seen her celebrity rocket to stratospheric heights, is riding in a car on her way to rehearse for a performance she’ll give the next evening on American Idol.
Most entertainers with her schedule would be exhausted. Gaga feels euphoric. “I’m so, so happy,” she tells me. “I got to spend all night with the fans last night, and it was so much fun.” She sounds genuine. The inflection in her voice when she says the word “fans” is saturated with affection.
Gaga is a very busy lady, and consequently our interview has been postponed four times. Her wildly hyped, hugely anticipated album Born This Way was released the day before. First-week sales of the album have defied even the most optimistic estimates by her record label, and everyone from David Letterman to The Wall Street Journal wants a piece of her. I just want her to describe what she’s wearing.
An enormous part of Gaga’s appeal comes from her avant-garde fashion sense—from her surreal Alexander McQueen footwear to the facial spurs she sports in the Born This Way artwork. I tell her that I don’t want to sound like a pervert, but I want the details on today’s ensemble. Gaga laughs at this. “That’s OK, pervy is fine,” she says before describing her entire outfit down to her bra and panties (Calvin Klein), the dance tights, and the leather jacket with the new album artwork hand-drawn on the back. The jacket is a gift from one of the fans she met the previous night.
“My love for my gay fans is just pure, authentic love for them as supporters of me from the beginning, and me feeling connected to their struggles as someone who is a part of their fight,” she says.
The mutual love affair between Gaga and her intensely devoted — and largely gay — disciples has come into the conversation a second time within a few minutes. She has declared numerous times that, like many of her “little monsters,” she was bullied. In one instance, as a young girl in Manhattan, she was literally tossed into a trash can by classmates. It’s not just sympathy she feels, though. Her connection to her fans goes deeper, to the point of identification. She says she is one of them.
Though she’s recently ended an on-off relationship with musician Luc Carl, Gaga has discussed her attraction to other women in the past. As to whether she also considers herself an actual member of the LGBT community — “yes” is her response after a brief pause. Gaga draws the word out, perhaps steeling herself for the follow-up question, wondering if she’ll be forced to address the rumor that she has a penis. “The b letter,” Gaga answers, and lets out a giggle. She really is in good spirits today.
Is this declared affinity for LGBTs, the championing of equality, just pandering, so much lip service to an album-buying public, all in the service of promoting a new release? It would be easy to be skeptical of her enthusiasm, of her rainbow flag–waving. She’s been accused of not being gay enough to claim a letter in the acronym, and it’s been said that her activism for marriage equality, against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and for AIDS awareness (she once appeared on Good Morning America dressed as a condom) is as superficial as her outré fashion.
“To say that I would use the gay community to sell records is probably one of the most ridiculous statements anyone can make about me as a person,” Gaga states. The timbre of her voice changes, deepening with frustration. “I would say the top thing I think about every single day of my life, other than my fans, loving the music, and my family being healthy, is social justice and equality.” Her conviction is convincing.
“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.”
She knows that with her outrageous fame come slings and arrows from cynics. Her pulpit makes her an easy target, and as a rite of passage and badge of honor for the musician, she’s been dissed in a song by Eminem, and the antigay Westboro Baptist Church picketed her St. Louis concert in July 2010. She addresses all the skeptics in “Bloody Mary,” one of several songs on the new album that references Jesus, in which Gaga sings, “I’m ready for their stones.” But is she really? “The nature of what I create is very polarizing. Public perception of me is the least important thing on my list,” she says. “Rumors, shots at me as a human being, that’s what comes with the territory of being a musician and being someone who is a public figure. I care only about what I can change. What can I push forward? How can I be a part of the fight for modern social issues? How can I change young people’s lives? How can I create a show and an album that is a portal to surreality, to free ourselves of all of our insecurities and to be proud of who we are? I’m a fucking hippie in that way, and that’s just who I am.”
In the actions-speak-louder-than-words category, one could solidly place Lady Gaga’s dealings with retailer Target. Many people expressed indignation this past February when it was announced that a special edition of Gaga’s album would be sold exclusively by the company after Target had come under fire by LGBT activists. The company’s corporate political action committee made campaign contributions to support antigay candidate Tom Emmer in his failed 2010 run for governor of Minnesota. The company apologized and promised to look more closely at its donations, but it later emerged that three fourths of the PAC’s money had gone to anti–gay rights politicians. There were calls for a boycott of the retail giant. Over these concerns Gaga met with “the entire executive staff,” and soon afterward, she canceled the deal.
“You’re either going to try and change or you’re not,” Gaga recalls of the meeting, in which she had insisted that Target ally itself with LGBT charities and organizations. While the details were not made public, the terms did not satisfy the singer. “Taking an ambiguous stance is not what I’m about, obviously. I like to go right for the ass-kicker. You’re either in or you’re out. I’m from New York. I know bullshit. I can smell it from a mile away.”
She wants to make it clear that stepping away from the potentially lucrative partnership was in no way a concession to score points with her intended audience. “I was very unhappy with the ambiguity and the way Target was holding their position,” she says. “I believe that monopolies, in terms of the music industry and artists having guns held to their heads for where they have to sell their albums, I think it’s unfair. It’s unfair to us, it’s unfair to the public, it’s unfair to the communities that are affected by it. And I wanted to take a stand.”
The stand Gaga has already taken is undeniable. She’s taped PSAs against DADT and been escorted by a group of gay servicemen to awards shows. In 2009 she delivered a rousing speech before throngs assembled at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. Is energizing a political crowd a different sensation from performing? “Yes, it’s electrifying in a completely different way,” she says. “As much as I love the fantasy of the Monster Ball, it is a fantasy; it’s a place to escape to. Whereas when I’m working as a political activist, we’re rooted in reality. We’re rooted in the reality of the fight.”
While Gaga was being interviewed for a February segment on 60 Minutes, she took control of the lighting and camera setup. Anderson Cooper remarked that he’d never seen anyone do that before, but he’d heard Barbra Streisand and Madonna had done the same. Gaga laughed and called the two performers her “sisters.”
More so than any of the female entertainers in her peer group (it’s doubtful Gaga will ever need a conservatorship), she merits comparison to these decades-older “sisters.” All have legendary iron wills, legions of devout gay followers since their earliest public performances, and folklore surrounding their prefame existences, and all have been defiant, outspoken advocates for equality. Also like the other two, Gaga has transcended unconventional, ethnic looks to redefine a new standard of beauty. Sex appeal sells, but longevity requires passion and chutzpah. Gaga understands that. “There’s no drama, there’s no jealousy, there’s no competition,” she says about the females she admires. “They’re just happy to see other women winning.”
“I just feel so connected to Madonna in a lot of ways, and I feel connected to Barbra, and I feel connected to Cher and Blondie and all of the women who came before me,” Gaga adds. “I worshipped them my whole life, and I would never be where I am today without all of them to inspire me. I feel so grateful that I have such strong women to look up to.”
Considering the flair for comedy she demonstrated during her two guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, perhaps Gaga is ready to follow the lead of her “sisters” and launch an acting career. She shrugs off the suggestion. “I don’t know,” she tells me. “Maybe someday. Right now I’m just really focused on this record. I really love making music. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m obsessed…obsessed with music. I’m just really enjoying making albums right now.”
Gaga doesn’t take the accompanying fame for granted. She knows that with it comes an equal measure of responsibility. “I believe I was destined to be an artist,” she says. “At the end of the day I could be rolling around in Rolls-Royces, buying mansions for myself, making records, and dancing around in my underwear. But to be honest, I’m not interested in doing that at all. I’d rather be at rallies with the fans, being a part of their voice, helping to mobilize and enforce change. If people don’t believe me, they don’t have to be a part of it.”