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?
Though her second album, Born This Way, was a success, her third, Artpop, pretty much flopped. Though her Little Monsters stood by their Mother, others were quick to dismiss her career, figuring that the act that had launched her had finally grown stale and assuming she had nothing else to offer. Not only that, but Lady Gaga herself started to wonder whether the life of fame and role-modeling was really something she wanted to do long term.
“At the end of 2014, my stylist asked, ‘Do you even want to be a pop star anymore?’ I looked at him and I go, ‘You know, if I could just stop this train right now, today, I would. I just can’t. I need to get off now because I’m going to die.”
In 2015, she announced plans to retire from singing.
She did not, however, consider abandoning the two causes she’s thrown the full weight of her influence behind – the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and her Born This Way Foundation.
Her influence, in case you were wondering, knows no bounds.
Lady Gaga has the most Twitter followers of anyone on the platform – 65 million and counting (enough people to populate Texas 3 times over!) – and she knows how to mobilize those Monsters when she needs to get something done.
In 2010, she encouraged her Facebook and Twitter fans, as well as everyone watching the fall VMAs, to call Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to bring Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to a vote. They responded with enthusiasm, crashing the Senate switchboard and earning a personal (Twitter) response from Reid himself. The policy was repealed.
Her Born This Way Foundation shines a light on the pervasive, growing problem of bullying, an issue near and dear to her heart after her own struggles as a teenager. It also focuses on LGBT acceptance, and mental health awareness. The website for her fans – littlemonsters.com, has a Monster Code that forbids any kind of inappropriate interactions.
Mother Monster is now back in the music game and better than ever. Her 2014 album of jazz standards, recorded with Tony Bennett, earned them a Grammy.
Her Sound of Music performance at the Oscars shut up plenty of naysayers, she dropped a 5th studio album, Joanne, in October of 2016, which many critics agree is a reminder of why she’s so vital as an artist, and she absolutely slayed this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show – where her Little Monsters once again proved their undying loyalty by taking on the body shamers who called her out for having an alleged “belly” at the performance.
That’s a ‘belly’? Really??
I’m not sure what’s next for her musically, but I can honestly say that I can’t wait to find out. If anything, her history of hard work and getting up after being knocked down should tell the world that Lady Gaga not only does what she wants, she does it very well. In this day and age, that also includes inspiring millions to make a difference alongside her, and her social media reach alone is testament to her ability to make things happen.
I think it’s safe to say that whether she’s putting out killer pop albums or not, Lady Gaga is here to stay. And based on the way she works and the smart, thoughtful ways she wields her influence worldwide, I don’t see how that can be a bad thing. So… maybe I was wrong about that whole ‘this is not a happily-ever-after ending’ scenario. Only time will tell, but I’m pretty sure no one can bring this Angel Down.