Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a little girl named Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who loved to sing and dance. She played piano and took voice lessons; she acted in high school musicals and ate meatballs on Sundays with her big Italian family. By 14, she was performing at open-mic nights around town. One night at a club called the Bitter End, she played for a roomful of people who weren’t paying attention. So the Catholic schoolgirl from the Upper West Side shut them up the best way she knew how: She stripped down to her bra and fishnets.
Now 22, Ms. Germanotta is no more. In her place is Lady GaGa, an alter ego with a fondness for hot pants and Bowie-style face paint. GaGa’s first single, ”Just Dance,” was recently the No. 1 song in the country for three straight weeks, pushing her debut album, The Fame, into Billboard‘s top 20. Her moniker comes from Queen’s 1984 hit ”Radio Ga Ga,” and like the song says, the girl is pure radio goo goo, radio blah blah…which suits her fine. ”I don’t make underground music that’s passing for pop music,” she says. ”I make unabashed pop music. I sit at the piano and think to myself, ‘Find it, GaGa. What’s that killer chorus?’ It’s not about what I’m feeeeeling.”
Given to proclamations like ”I am a brilliant musician,” GaGa says that, even as a child, she was ”a very provocative young lady.” Signed and dropped by Def Jam at 19, she was rediscovered on MySpace by Destiny’s Child producer Vincent Herbert, who brought her to Interscope two years ago as a songwriter for acts like Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls. When she wrote ”Just Dance,” she says her bosses declared, ”Nobody can do that record but you.” Her current oeuvre tends toward lyrics like ”I wanna take a ride on your disco stick.” But don’t bother to scoff. ”I’m not overly concerned with the way people receive my work,” GaGa says. ”More than anything, I want to do something important.” So what’s important about, say, riding someone’s disco stick? ”It’s sexually empowering women.”
But Lady GaGa is not a feminist. ”I think it’s great to be a sexy, beautiful woman who can f— her man after she makes him dinner,” she says. ”There’s a stigma around feminism that’s a little bit man-hating. And I don’t promote hatred, ever. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate women who feel that way. I’ve got a lot of gay women friends that are like, ‘Put your clothes on.’ People just have different views about it. I’m not wrong. I’m free. And if it’s wrong to be free, then I don’t want to be right. Things are changing. We’ve got a black president, people.”
Clearly GaGa is a lady with a lot to say, and there is no word she uses more than art. As in, ”God doesn’t make you good at everything. He makes you good at one thing. And I am great at art.” She operates a design collective called Haus of GaGa, through which she hand-makes the extravagant performance-art props — disco sticks and LED-screen sunglasses and light-up microphone glove thingies — that have become a staple of her live shows. Lately, she’s been shooting short abstract films with titles like Pop Ate My Heart. She is not unaware of how all this must sound. ”Nothing I say is really that new,” she says. ”I mean, it’s Andy Warhol. I’m not claiming to be the newest innovative thinker. But I do think the execution is very different.”
And there’s an enviable, endearing romanticism about anyone who still believes in the once-upon-a-time magic of Manhattan, where a girl can find the fame just by being herself. ”When you’re 16 and there’s a line of people down the block at a nightclub, and you have the audacity to walk right in? That’s my gift,” says GaGa. ”My gift is that people see something artistic and special about me. And you’re gonna f—ing watch.”