OK, you really don't have to love Lady Gaga.
It's optional, like everything else in pop culture. In fact, there's probably a 50-50 split, at best, on those who love her and those who rue the day she ever appeared on the cultural landscape.
But, to her credit, unlike so many bland pop stars of this generation, she provokes an intense reaction -- good or bad -- more with her outlandish wardrobe and over-the-top theatrics than her rather conventional dance-pop music.
She paid some dues to get to that point. A nice Italian girl from New York City, Stefani Angelina Germanotta started playing piano at age 4 and braved the open mikes as young as 14. Within a few years, she went from high school thespian to NYU music student to New York cabaret club performer.
Signed and dropped by Def Jam at 19, she got her break as a songwriter for Interscope, where her vocal talents couldn't be contained. In late 2008, she released "The Fame," which debuted at No. 17 on the charts and climbed, on the strength of singles "Just Dance," "Poker Face," LoveGame" and "Paparazzi," to peak at No. 2 after 62 weeks.
With exposure to her shocking award-show appearances, magazine covers and viral videos, the Lady Gaga audience was primed for the eight-song second release, "The Fame Monster," fueled by "Bad Romance," which went to No. 2 in the States and topped the charts in 18 countries.
More than just a video phenom, she's been able to back up the hype as a live performer, starting with opening slots on Pussycat Dolls and New Kids on the Block tours, and moving on to her first headlining tour in March 2009. That one didn't stop in Pittsburgh, but we get our first live look at her when she plays the Consol Energy Center Sunday as part of the Monster Ball Tour.
In honor of that -- and because she doesn't do many interviews -- we offer 10 Reasons to Love Lady Gaga:
"Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! Roma-ro-mamaaa! Ga-ga-ooh-la-la!" Ahhhhhh! Make it stop! No, give me more! Her chart-topping hit from "The Fame Monster" is the catchiest, sexiest, most grotesque, most grating and most irresistible song of the past who-knows-when. It burrows into your brain like a larvae and won't leave. It's Madonna meets Marilyn Manson on the Eurodisco floor. Just as infectious is the stylized sci-fi video that is one of the most-viewed YouTube clips of all time for good reason. One second she looks absolutely gorgeous crying into the camera, the next she's doing that horrific robotic twist or gazing at us with pupils the size of quarters. We hate this song. We love this song!
Something must have been happening in the stars on Sept. 12, 2009, because it was a crazy career-changing night in the music industry at the MTV Video Music Awards. Kanye West pulled his mike-stealing stunt on Taylor Swift, altering both careers. And Lady Gaga filled a scrapbook with images we'll never forget, starting with her funereal look on the red carpet, continuing with the red-laced dress that creepily covered her face and climaxing with her hideous, blood-soaked performance of "Paparazzi." If we didn't know it before, we knew then that Lady Gaga was as much Warholian performance artist as pop artist.
This one is a bit of a no-brainer. Even her biggest detractors, and they are many and loud, will state the various reasons they dislike her -- "style over substance" being the No. 1 -- but then come around to admit, "Yeah, but she can sing." Yes, she can. She's not Christina Aguilera, but she's in the ballpark. Lady Gaga doesn't need to lip-synch, doesn't need autotune, and has demonstrated that she can sit at the piano by herself and sing and play like the New York cabaret star she could have been. Furthermore, regardless of what you think of her songs, she has at least a hand in writing them all.
Imagine her trying to crack the mainstream fronting the Stefani Germanotta Band, as she did for a while around 2005. Not real sexy. The widely told story is that producer Rob Fusari, after comparing her vocal style to Queen's Freddie Mercury, made "Radio Gaga" her entrance song when she came into the studio. He's been quoted as saying "[Lady Gaga] was actually a glitch; I typed 'Radio Ga Ga' in a text and it did an autocorrect so somehow 'Radio' got changed to 'Lady.' She texted me back, 'That's it.' After that day, she was Lady Gaga. She's like, 'Don't ever call me Stefani again.' " She's also said that she "adored Freddie Mercury."
What would Madonna, Britney or Bon Jovi have done if it had started pouring down rain in the midst of their live TV show gig, their makeup starting running and their hair went to hell? They may have run for Al Roker's umbrella. Not Lady Gaga. She not only hung in there on that soaking, humid July 9 day in front of nearly 20,000 fans and millions at home, but also she rolled around on the wet stage in her white outfit, proving she can veer from the game plan and deal with whatever is thrown her way.
Remember when Joan Jett sang "Do you want to touch me there -- where?" She didn't really mean it. At a side stage at Lollapalooza on Aug. 7, Lady Gaga appeared in the wings during a set by her friends' band, Semi Precious Weapons, then walked out and executed a perfect backward stage dive, practically naked, in sheer lingerie. She let the crowd grope her for a minute or so, and then peaced. One of the gutsier maneuvers we've seen from a pop star, especially a female one.
"Haven't left the studio. Each song I write, I feel closer to you. Miss you little monsters, little inspirations. X" ... "Just emerged from studio bender to hear we won two teen choice awards. Thank you for believing in me little monsters! I'm your hooker. X" Lady Gaga isn't as chatty as John Mayer, Taylor Swift or OchoCinco on Twitter, but she has the most Twitter followers in the world with 5.7 million. Part of the reason is the overall fascination with Gaga. Another is that she uses the format not just to promote herself but to send the love out to her fans, her "little monsters." During a religious protest of one of her concerts in St. Louis, she tweeted, "Their message is of hatred and divisiveness, but inside at the Monsterball we preach love and unity."
Stefani Germanotta and her handlers did a remarkable job of creating the Lady Gaga character. But she's shown herself to be a real person underneath. In the recent Rolling Stone, she spills her guts about her fears, hang-ups and obsessions in as honest an interview as you'll ever read. Along with expressing concerns about her father's heart surgery, she talked about her fears of being susceptible to lupus -- not exactly sexy subject matter for a pop diva.
Lady Gaga borrows heavily from gay and drag fashion and music, and although the association may be taboo for a lot of pop stars and may turn off middle America, she embraces the community. She told MTV News, "The turning point for me was the gay community," she said. "I've got so many gay fans, and they're so loyal to me and they really lifted me up. They'll always stand by me, and I'll always stand by them. It's not an easy thing to create a fanbase. ... Being invited to play [the San Francisco Pride rally], that was a real turning point for me as an artist."
Away from the stage, she's created a few bizarre public spectacles, most notably at Mets and Yankees games. But for the most part, Lady Gaga hasn't been the drunken party animal that so many of her peers have become. During that "Today Show" appearance she told Matt Lauer that while on tour, she spends a lot of time in her hotel room writing. Explaining the song "Telephone," originally written for Britney Spears, she told MTV News, "I don't go to nightclubs. You don't see pictures of me falling out of a club drunk. I don't go -- and that's because I usually go and then, you know, a whiskey and a half into it, I got to get back to work. Because I love my work so much, I find it really hard to go out and have a good time." The proof might be in her production. She's already completed a third album -- something for the little monsters to look forward to next year.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-263-2676. First Published September 2, 2010 4:00 AM