If Freddie Mercury were alive today, he would lovingly embrace Lady GaGa, who bears the name of one of Queen's greatest hits, "Radio GaGa." Like Queen, Lady GaGa has a knack for theatrical performance, and at the age of 17, her talents gained her early admission to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Five years later, after gaining notoriety on New York's club circuit, Lady GaGa has burst onto the international scene, with her provocative debut: The Fame.
The Fame's innovative blend of rock, electronica, disco, and pop is a refreshing alternative in the current musical landscape, and Lady GaGa's presence assuredly guarantees that pop performance art will never be the same.
Upon review of The Fame, Lady GaGa managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry— reflecting on Andy Warhol, the paparazzi, and her "trash-sophisticated" style.
You have a very unique sense of style. Along with Donatella Versace, you also list Peggy Bundy as one of your fashion icons. How would you define your style, and what inspiration do you draw from those particular women?
I would say that it is trash-sophisticated. I would say that it's futuristic, but still classic. I take a lot of my references from the '70s and from European fashion mostly because they're ahead of us. I try to stay in tune with what's going on over there. So, my style is fashion-forward.
What led you to incorporate the theatrical part of your performance instead of just being a singer?
It just kind of happened. I did theater in high school and I did theater in college. I went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Whenever I would do pop performances, people would say I should do theater. When I would audition for musicals, they'd tell me I was too pop. I dropped out of college and got frustrated. I said, "F**k it. I will do whatever I want to do". I started playing at the Lower East Side, then all over New York, really.
It's funny: when I started playing in New York, when I was 14, it was more folk, songwriter-y kind of show – just me and the piano. Then when I got downtown, there were so many f**king songwriters. Everybody did the same s**t, super-boring. I wanted to do something that was original and fresh. Well, there's nothing more provocative than doing pop music in the underground, instead of doing underground music that would pass as pop. I'm talking about real pop music that would pass in the underground – the reverse. So I did that.
The show is just me doing what I feel comfortable doing onstage. It's just like my raw energy. Before I knew it, I was known as an exhibitionist, theatrical performer. That's just kind of what happened. I never really tried to do that. If anything, I tried not to do that and gave up on trying to stop being myself.
What influence did your classical training, as a pianist, have on your musical style?
A lot. Bach and most of the classical stuff that I played when I was younger – the chord progression is the same as in pop music. It's ingrained in your sensibility about structure and discipline.
Having the name from the Queen's hit "Radio Ga Ga," if Freddie Mercury were alive today what would you tell him?
Alright… [laughing] Plain and simple. Since your namesake refers to a song that is pretty much a slam against radio – at least at the type of music that was being played at the time. What's your opinion of the current musical landscape? In what way do you want to push the musical envelope?
I think music is lazy, and I want to make something important. Not all music is lazy but right now, it's pretty lazy. Not lousy – lazy.
Cool distinction. Earlier, you referenced your time spent around the New York club scene, before landing your deal with Interscope Records. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you don't think you would have been able to gain elsewhere?
You have to give every performance your best, whether it's 50,000 people or 5. You have to work very hard; nothing is handed to you. If you can't handle it in downtown New York, you can't handle it out in the world. If you're interested in making a life in art, you better be ready for the struggle – there's a lot of it.
On the club circuit, "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich" has become one of your signature performances.
Yeah, that was my claim to fame.
What life events inspired the song's lyrics?
I was just heavily immersed in that life. I was a f**king scenester. I was partying in a particular lifestyle that everybody lived. It inspired me to try to understand what fame was really all about because we all felt so famous. None of us were. It was because of our love for our work, my love for the music, my love for the fashion, art, culture. Through that, you create an inner fame and I duped a lot of people into thinking I was somebody that I wasn't. What I mean to say is I wasn't born into royalty, I had to earn it. I figured out a way to earn it.
When did you put everything down and really focus on your work?
I got really sick. When you're sick, you can't do anything. There was fear of death.
How did you take that moment?
My father – I never told him what I was doing and he knew. He looked at me and just said, "You're f**king up, kid." I was so mortified that my father would see that weakness in me. That's what happened. As an artist, I'm fascinated with the nostalgia and what it meant in the '70s and how artists went on creative journeys using narcotics. That's why I did it. I didn't do it because I wanted to get high. I did it because I wanted to find my creativity.
It wasn't until I discovered it was a weakness… I loved it. I'm not saying that we should do drugs or shouldn't do drugs. It is what it is. You have experiences in your life and depending on the day of the week, you change the way you look at that s**t. One day I just said, "The hell with it."
I completely understand. Since you're known for your extravagant performances, what challenges do you find moving from the club scene to the television screen?
Probably the biggest challenge is the performances – you're not connecting with the live audience, you're connecting with the camera. So, I try to do good sense memory and recreate the live audience in situations for myself when I don't have them. In another way, I don't have a struggle because I have designed my club shows to feel like a tour. So, when you come see me at a night club, you're seeing the same show that I do on So You Think You Can Dance. You're never going to get a different version.
So how, exactly, did you end up on Interscope Records?
I really worked for a long time. I never gave up. I never expected anything. I just worked really hard. I was signed but then got dropped. I was only there for 3 months, and I got dropped. It's interesting, because they signed me on the spot after I performed live in the office.
How did it feel to get that instant validation?
Well, it didn't feel instant only because I've been performing for so long, it felt like it was time. But it was one of those moments – I was humbled. I used to wait outside the office for hours. They'd say, "Oh, it's going to be another 10 minutes, etc." So, I'd sit and sit and sit and we never had a meeting. So when I got dropped, I was so devastated. I went back to my apartment. I played a show once a week. I started collaborating with my friend, Lady Starlight, and we would play show after show after. I started getting prepped for a performance. Then Interscope found me. I remember when I met Jimmy Iovine, he told me, "I really get you."
Having been involved in music for so long, when did it crystallize that this is what you wanted to do? When did it just click for you?
It never actually clicked for me in terms of art. I always knew I'd have a life in art. On my 19th birthday, I had gone to college for a year in musical theater. I think I was a little nervous about going out on my own after high school. It was like my family wouldn't let me take off. I was frowned upon in school to not go to college. Like I said, I was in theater training and I got a lot of "You're too pop," or, "You're too rock," or, "You're too brunette." "You're a character, you're not an artist." "It's like you're not white, but you're a stale cracker." I'm a weird chick, you know?
I like what I like. I don't like what I don't like. I remember on my 19th birthday, I just said, "I'm going to get an apartment and a job." My mother started crying. My father was like, "If you don't make something happen within a year, you have to go back to school." A year later, my production deal was signed, so I kept my word. I worked really hard.
Now that you're in the spotlight, it's inevitable that fame has a great deal of pros and cons. What led you to make the title of your project The Fame?
It was the fame that got me here. It's so strange because I'm not famous. It's something I channeled from within. It's me really looking at pop culture – what it is right now and what it is we're obsessed with. It helped me to try to get positive. That's just kind of what happened. I used to walk into places where nobody had a clue to who I was, and they say, "Do I know you from somewhere? Are you on TV?" and I wasn't.
It's very inspirational to hear—especially from a young artist—that all things are possible, if you dream big and work hard.
It is possible.
You have a song on your album called "Paparazzi." Interestingly enough, you reversed the roles and you do the chasing. How did you come up with that concept?
I just thought that it was turning into a constant problem, so what's more important thing to write about than the absolute hugest part of media culture? The paparazzi. What am I really trying to say here? What will the act of me writing this song really do? Me making a conscious decision to write about the paparazzi – I thought about performance art and shock art and how Paris Hilton and her sister and Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie are shock artists in their own way. They're not necessarily doing fine arts – something they put in the museums – but it's an art form. That's what this song is trying to say.
At the same time, the lyrics are very confusing. It says, "I'm your biggest fan. I'll follow you until you love me, paparazzi. There's no other superstar you know that I'll be. You're Papa-paparazzi." The thing is, I will chase you because I'm a star but I'm going to chase you if you're the star. It's very twisted. When you have love, when you have fame, when you have both, it's all of those issues in one record. It's my favorite song in the album.
It's a very interesting concept. Speaking of the paparazzi, what's your most interesting paparazzi moment?
It happened in Berlin… [laughing] A designer saw me on the internet and "Paparazzi" was his favorite song, so he asked me to come fly out there and sing it. Before the runway show, there was a red carpet that they asked me to walk. He asked me to be in the front row in the show. Anyone who knows fashion, that's like the biggest honor. It's funny. When I arrived, I was just wearing what I usually wear but the idea is the same. I think about the way that I embody the clothing. When I stepped out of the limo, there was a rush of 30 photographers – no joke – crowding around me. They said "Bella, bella, who are you?" "Lady GaGa." "Lady GaGa, turn over here!"
They were screaming. I'm thinking, "They don't even know who I am. They think I'm Britney Spears in 2001." They don't know but because of the same, they wondered if they should. "Am I supposed to know who she is?" If she's famous and I don't know about her, then it becomes "Oh yeah, I saw Lady GaGa." I'm really not shy about how slick it is. It's very slick but to me. It's an art form. If Andy Warhol did it, I can do it too.
Yes, indeed. So, when people say your name, what do you think will be your defining trademark?
When you think of performance, who do you respect now and say, "I'll have you in 5 or 10 years?"
I don't really want to top anybody. I want to be original more than anything. I don't really want to be like anyone. I want to be myself. I appreciate Madonna being provocative and not always about sex. It's not with me either. The "Just Dance" video is provocative and sexy, but it's also about a party. That's my performance of that record. I could've done a delicious video in a dance club sandwiched between two boys wearing a designer gown, but that's not what I do. I interpret the music in a different kind of way. I'm pumping away in my video.
For more information on Lady GaGa, visit her official website.