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How new is she really?
Pretty new, for someone who’s had her level of fame, success, and cultural impact. Her first single, “Just Dance,” entered the charts in the summer of 2008, and hit the top in January 2009. That was only two years ago, but it feels a pop lifetime; there’s hardly anything weird at all about “Just Dance,” just Eurostomp and Colby O’Donis (remember him? Us either). She’s packed a lot into two years, jumping from the high-fashion campy dance of The Fame to the more thematically bizarre and fetishistic electro of The Fame Monster; and expectations are huge for the forthcoming Born This Way, which is generally not the case for third albums, which is when people start to figure they know what to expect from you. Gaga’s unpredictable, which makes her extremely valuable in a pop landscape which prizes novelty above all else.
How good is she really?
Really, she’s pretty good! “Just Dance” may have gotten her on the charts, but it’s the most generic-sounding thing she’s ever done. The follow-up “Poker Face” (which also hit No. 1) introduced her avant fashion sense and her penchant for being oddly violent about sex, or oddly sexual about violence (it’s not an accident that “puh-puh-puh-poker face” is often misheard); and the less-successful “LoveGame” went even further in the dance = sex = weirdness sweepstakes, with its disco sticks and martial Siouxsie Sioux chants.
How weird is she really?
On a scale of Debbie Boone to Klaus Nomi, she’s about a David Bowie: weird for sure, but with the talent, charisma and shrewd business sense to make the boundaries she pushes palatable to the broad pop audience. Also like Bowie, she likes dressing up in ways that will make people uncomfortable or at least talk about her, she plays with queerness and androgyny, and her music is less thrillingly new than it is highly specific and curated with excellent taste. Which is just to say that she’s good enough at picking sounds that “Alejandro” made Ace of Base sound relevant again.
How queer is she really?
Too queer for homophobes (i.e. she’s cool with gay people). Not a hermaphrodite, but also not panicky about denying it. She’s got a big lesbian/bisexual/gay/transgender/etc. fanbase, and unlike some people who have attracted similar crowds, she tends not to condescend to them. Although plenty of people have taken issue with the clumsy big-ups to her gay fans on “Born This Way," plenty of others have found it inspirational and moving the wider culture’s conversation forward.
How famous is she really?
We’ve called her the biggest pop star in the world, and we’re right: the former Stefani Germanotta (born in New York City, 1986) ranks in the stratospheric atmosphere occupied only by the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift in terms of units sold; and easily outranks both in terms of column inches, comments flamewars and click-through completion. And in terms of Halloween costumes there’s no contest. Which worked out well for her, since fame and its distorting effects was from the beginning her primary subject. See “Paparazzi” which draws a parallel between obsessive media hounding and obsessive romantic relationships, and “Telephone” with Beyoncé, which pushes back against the available-at-all-times culture of communication.
How monstrous is she really?
Well, that’s the thing. She likes to inject horror tropes into everything, so we get The Fame Monster and cigarette sunglasses, but that just means more people are talking. That ambiguous approach to (and conflation of) violence, sexuality, and physicality is something she has in common with alt-rockers like Tori Amos and PJ Harvey, which makes sense, since the first songs she performed publicly, still as Stefani Germanotta, were theatrical ballads in a Tori/Polly vein. There are still YouTube clips up. But it wasn’t until she began to follow in the dancefloor-friendly footsteps of the other great Italian-American pop star—Madonna—that she became Gaga.
How Madonna is she really?
Well, the comparison is probably mostly made because of the Italian-American thing (we music writers love our analogies). But also there’s the dance-pop-plus-ambition-plus-feminism-plus-massive-even-crushing-popularity thing. Obviously there’s no way of knowing whether she’ll sustain the sort of decades-long pop greatness that Madonna has, but it’s the very fact that she might that has us so excited about her.
How avant-garde is she really?
It kind of depends on what you mean by avant-garde. She pretty much sticks to the overcharged electro-pop which is the basic sound of modern radio, but she’s good at coloring with odd strokes within those boundaries. Press about her upcoming Born This Way album have suggested more variety is in the wings; she’s described it variously as being inspired by heavy metal, musical theater and classical music, but we’ll be surprised if there are many time signatures on it besides 4/4. Her costuming and videos tend to be more avant-garde than her music, but here again she’s not reinventing any wheels, just introducing out-there ideas from high fashion and performance art to the mainstream. Which, don’t get us wrong, is pretty cool.
How great is she really?
Greatness is hard to measure without the weight of history and a whole lot of people willing to say you’re great, but it’s pretty relatively indisputable (as far as anything is ever indisputable) that “Bad Romance” is a pop song for the ages, the cascading synths, rah-rah hook (dinosaurs or cheerleaders?) and verbal stew coalescing into something extraordinary that nearly matches the unhinged visual flair of her costuming and videos. And for listeners who need emotional catharsis along with their intellectual catharsis, “Dance in the Dark” weds '90s techno to ABBA heartbreak, both justifying the Madonna comparisons and giving us something to wail at karaoke.
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