Before her stunning tribute to the Sound of Music at the 2015 Oscars, a lot of people might have equated Lady Gaga with nothing more than some catchy pop tunes and publicity stunts. And no doubt about it, her decision to sport a dress made of meat will go down in history as one of the most controversial and talked about wardrobe choices in history.
But that night at the Academy Awards, she stepped out on stage and gave a simple, understated performance that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that she has more than gimmicks and an over-the-top personality – she’s got talent. Loads of it.
Of course, her fans – the Little Monsters to her Mother Monster – have known that since she dropped her first album in 2008.
Her parents, Joseph and Cynthia Germanotta, were her first fans, and the people who instilled a work ethic that serves their daughter well today. They themselves were hardworking, middle class Italian Americans living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and even though it must have stretched their budget, their devotion to education inspired them to enroll their daughter in an Upper East Side private Catholic school.
She’s known to this day for her dedication and willingness to go the extra mile for her art, but according to Gaga, relentless bullying made school a struggle.
She was, even then, her own person. Despite the fact that she was taking hits on all sides, she continued to try different looks, like “really big Evita brows” or self-tanning. According to an interview she gave to Rolling Stone magazine in 2011, the other kids were merciless.
“…people would say, ‘Why the fuck are you so orange, why do you do your hair that way, are you a dyke? Why do you have to look like that for school?’ I used to be called a slut, be called this, be called that. I didn’t even want to go to school sometimes.”
A rough experience that’s all too relatable for many, but in it we glimpse the planted and growing seeds of individualism that would serve Stefani Germanotta – the future Lady Gaga – well in the years to come.
After being trained in classical piano as a child and taking voice lessons from age 11, Gaga knew she had the foundation to take on the world. Or at least, write a kick ass pop song.
“I was classically trained as a pianist and that innately teaches you how to write a pop song. Because when you learn Bach inversions, it has the same sort of modulations between the chords. It’s all about tension and release.”
Of course, little Stefani Germanotta didn’t become Lady Gaga by following all of the old school rules. Quite the opposite. At 18, she enrolled in the NYU Tisch School of the Arts only to drop out to chase her dreams of becoming a rock star.
Now, perhaps the next part of her story doesn’t sound so different from most young artists determined to make it – Gaga lived in a crappy apartment and subsisted on coffee, Ramen, and takeout while spending the tiny amount of cash she made burlesque dancing on a new cocaine habit.
All that aside, things had gone well at first; Def Jam records signed her at 19… but the deal lasted only 3 months and ended without a record release. It wasn’t until 2o08 that things started to turn around, first when her then-boyfriend Rob Fusari brought her on as a songwriter at Interscope Records (she composed hits for New Kids on the Block, Fergie, The Pussycat Dolls, and Britney Spears), and then when she caught the ear of R&B songwriter Akon (he signed her to his label), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Except this isn’t a fairytale; it’s real life. Remember that.
Her first album, The Fame, was released the same year she signed with Akon’s label. It received massive popular success as well as critical acclaim, with even Billboard sounding a bit shocked to find themselves in love with it:
“It’d be easy to dismiss a 22-year-old debut artist sporting a blonde Cher wig, hooded Catwoman suit and glowing staff she calls the ‘disco stick’ – but not if she delivers an album full of hits.”
The Fame sold more than 4 million records, and made her a legend in the music industry.
It also earned her legions of fans, which she soon dubbed the Little Monsters- and, despite ups and downs as far as Gaga’s commercial successes, they’ve only grown in numbers and adoration over the past nine years.
But I mentioned this wasn’t a happily-ever-after, right?