For me, the artist who Lady Gaga first brought to mind wasn’t her obvious precursor. It was gloomy ol’ Marilyn Manson. From her earliest photo ops, Gaga auditioned for the role of Iconic Cultural Figure with a singlemindedness that Madonna, driven and image-conscious as she was, didn’t wholly acquire until she’d heard academics carelessly bandying about words like “bricolage.” As with Manson, though, it’s possible to imagine Gaga, had musical success eluded her, deploying her visual aesthetic in some alternate route to showbiz notoriety.
But if Brian Warner was a fraud with a philosophy, Stefani Germanotta was a hack with a dream, and the latter make for sturdier pop stars, or at least peddle snazzier soundtracks to their hype. Gaga may never love disco as unconditionally as the young Madonna so obviously did (and probably still does). Still there’s still an audible affection for second-hand shtick she peddles — even if, in her enthusiasm, she sometimes forgets to separate the recyclables from the trash.
The lyrical conceit of Gaga’s debut single, “Just Dance” — disoriented club dolly hides out on the dancefloor til she figures out where she is — is funnier than its aggressively generic vocal fully conveys. Which brings us to Gaga’s greatest weakness: Though her voice is notably heartier (go ahead and call it “better”) than Madonna’s, sharing the Cher-ier side of Xtina, her chops don’t always translate into personality.
So she overcompensates—not just visually, but, on the single entendre “LoveGame” and the sexually opaque “Poker Face” lyrically and melodically as well. And yet, though its hint at the Grand Statement could’ve been a real turnoff, “Paparazzi” showcased her voice was at its most vulnerable—maybe because she seems to care so much more about celebrity (or, to put a kinder spin on that, her fans) than she does about sex.
“Bad Romance” was no less willing to irritate than what came before, but it was doubly eager to please. The “Gaga/ Ooh la-la” fanfare and the untransliterable, tortured faux-francais “r” of “I don’t wanna be friends” indicate Gaga in full try-anything, I’m-gonna-make-you-love-me effect. Correspondingly, her emotional range expands, veering from the down-low swagger of the verses to the transcendent ecstasy of the “Ohs.” Sure “I want your psycho/ Your vertigo stick [shtick?]/ Want you in my rear window” reads like cocktail napkin rough draft scribble. But Gaga’s lyrics, like her outfits, don’t jumble together signifiers in the hope that meaning will accrue from the overkill. She’s just out to show you that she’s beyond embarrassment.