Recently, Lady Gaga took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards dressed in drag, her hair smoothed back into a greaser's coif and her mien recast into the swagger of a Sicilian tough. She was there to promote her new single, "Yoü and I," the country-flavored number on the recent album Born This Way, but viewers could be forgiven for missing the musical sales pitch. Lady Gaga used the first four minutes of her time onstage to descant on another subject entirely, which was Lady Gaga. "She's such a star, a big, beautiful star in the sky," her male persona ruminated. "She's f------g crazy, too, right?" He continued, a bit more insistently, "I mean, she's f-----g crazy!"
Since Lady Gaga first exploded into public consciousness with her 2008 album, The Fame, no other star has rivaled her enormous, flaming ball of industry and histrionic style. Mostly, this is because no other object in this galaxy has worked up a matching velocity. Gaga is by all evidence the proverbial hardest-working person in show business, following a punishing tour schedule; micromanaging her wardrobe and stage act; and singing so much, and with such gusto, her speaking voice has taken on a chronic huskiness. In return for these exertions, she's won tens of awards, legions of fans, and a reputation as the industry's foremost provocateur. It's the last of these pop-culture laurels, the outlandish notoriety, that's most crucial to her public standing. Yet it's also the role that she least deserves. For all of her attention-getting gambits, gnomic utterances ("People take me both too seriously and not seriously enough"), and innovations in Xena: Warrior Princess-type lingerie, Gaga is basically a totem of the cultural establishment, an agent of the reliable old forms more than radical new ones. She claims to be a "monster," but she's in fact pop's leading conservative talent.
People enjoy pointing out that before Lady Gaga was famous, she was unfamous. She was, in fact, a college act. Gaga grew up as Stefani Germanotta, the product of Manhattan prep schools, and was performing her own songs by the time she entered Tisch, NYU's art academy. She used to pretend to be her own publicist, calling up bookers and praising herself. In speaking of this period and the years that followed, Gaga and her procurators take up a story line dating from the era of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith. "On Saturdays we would sit on the floor of her bare Lower East Side apartment, drinking wine from pint glasses," wrote Brendan Sullivan, her DJ from this era. Gaga herself has elaborated: "They always used to tell me, 'You will never be the main star, because you're too ethnic.' " By this, she meant growing up with an Italian name in Giuliani-era New York. "I used to pray every night that God would make me crazy," she once toldVanity Fair, "that he would instill in me a creativity and a strangeness that all of those people that I loved and respected had."
That iconoclastic strangeness was not Germanotta's native mode. At the piano, she was ironic and coy, a small-scale entertainer given to sweet but relatively generic bluesy ballads and indie plaints—songs, essentially, in the mold of established hits. (This wistful, lyrical temper, as well as Germanotta's high-strung vocal style, carried into "Summerboy," a little parcel of sunshine on Gaga's debut album.) "I'm a true academic when it comes to music," Gaga once observed; and this academicism, far from showing up as high-concept distance or performative illusion, guided Germanotta toward an approach that was essentially nostalgic, conservative in the literal sense of the term: Before Gaga was Gaga, she was trying to honor and preserve a style of music recognized as having widespread public value.
It's a mission that she never totally moved past. Today, Gaga's sound is influenced most directly by the dance pop of the European clubs—which is to say, by an international music market straining back toward the American mainstream. As with many things Gaga, there's a charitable way and a less charitable way of looking at this tendency. The charitable interpretation says a message lies behind Gaga's Euro stylings: By quoting the sounds of the international airwaves, she's making reference to the strange pop-culture Esperanto of our time, the feedback loop by which American artists become international celebrities. The less charitable interpretation says Gaga is trying to lay claim to the widest-possible market by imitating the dilute, culturally nonspecific sounds that perform well in global distribution. Songs like "Scheiße," which quotes the soundscape of the Mitteleuropean dance floor and shuttles between languages like a Fellini film, seem custom-tailored to an international audience. Her lyrics at times adopt a strange, tin-eared unsuppleness, as if they'd been composed by a small focus group of Germans. "If you love me, we can marry on the West Coast," she pronounces in "Americano," one of the genre tracks on Born This Way. "I will fight for, I have fought for, how I love you." It's hard, at times, to shake the suspicion that Gaga is writing with an ear to the loudspeakers at your local H&M.
Why would an American with hipster-circuit credentials write in the electro-pop equivalent of Basic English? (Gaga's flat, off-kilter idiom isn't resigned to the foreignese of "Americano"; lines from the anthemic "The Edge of Glory," for example—"I got a reason that you're who should take me home tonight.// I need a man that thinks it's right when it's so wrong"—are a virtually illiterate pastiche of disco-era platitudes.) The general thinking is that by writing downward like this, Gaga is actually writing up. Rolling Stone, touting her creative innovations, described Gaga's music as being "constructed with the same cheeky verve as her outfits"; The New Yorker, lauding her shrewdness in proliferating an appealing style, pronounced Gaga "as smart as she repeatedly claims to be." In interviews, the singer cites Warhol and other touch points of celebrity self-knowledge. Praise for Gaga's work tends to assume that this artistic awareness runs all the way through, that Gaga's deliberate, highly controlled "performance art" exterior reflects conceptual control hard-wired into her music itself.
There's a problem with this line of thinking, though: For all of Gaga's stage-management and "academic" interest in pop music, her songcraft offers precious little evidence of creative fine-motor control. Gaga's melodies are straightforward, and her lyrics rarely turn a lot of cartwheels. Even so, her words tend to arrive awkwardly jammed—or, rather, awk-ward-ly jam-med—into their melodies like oversize packages in a mail slot: "When he comes to me I am rea-dy," begins the first verse of her recent single "Judas"; "gar-age gla-mo-rous" clunks an especially ill-fitting line in "Paparazzi." She regularly stutters words to make them work in time; she breaks past difficult transitions with short choruses of gibberish. Sometimes, her lyrical ambitions ascend high enough to let her drop allusions. Often, though, these arch references fall to earth like wet pillows. "I want your psycho, your vertigo shtick./ I want you in my rear window," she sings in "Bad Romance"—wordplay that would be clever if Hitchcock's films about middle-aged Eisenhower-era murder, guilt trauma, and infantilizing necrophilia were specially applicable to a song about messy erotic passion. As it is, all these references really tell us is that Gaga may possess a Netflix account.
This irritating sloppiness is not, it is worth noting, quite the same as provocation. But it's been to the advantage of the Haus of Gaga to elide the boundary between those two kinds of annoyance. Gaga's musical reputation demands that we assume her reliance on cliché and genre formula is what Stefani Germanotta's reliance on the same was not: deliberate, audacious, and informed by great ironic vision. Never mind the schlock and tired tropes that underlie her songs, we're told; Gaga could write more freshly (though there's little proof of this), but she is trying to fold high camp into her songcraft. Never mind that her chameleon hues (Gaga does the Berlin clubs, Gaga does country, Gaga does south-of-the-border) seem more imitative than inventive: Her eye for spectacle casts these old forms into new and daring light. Gaga touts "my eccentricity" at every opportunity and says she aims to "revolutionize" pop. That "revolution," spectacular provocation, and the wearing of outlandish costumes have been standard pop equity since the middle 1960s is not thought to be evidence that she is anything but an original. Viewing Gaga as a radical creator rather than a conservator means, on some level, accepting she has more dexterity than her work itself suggests.
Are we offering up too much benefit of the doubt? Or, put another way: What's really so provocative about Lady Gaga, past the flank-steak frock and gravity-defying hats? Answers to this question have a way of falling backward on themselves. None of Gaga's supposed transgressions—from the near-nudity onstage to the risqué-ish lyrics ("You've got me wondering why I/ I like it rough") to the ritual oversharing—had not already been made in 1972. She is touted for her boldness in becoming an outré bisexual icon, even though David Bowie, literally old enough to be her grandfather, carried that flag in more treacherous times. If anything, Gaga's idea of impudence is tame. "I love sex," she once taunted a reporter—not, in most contexts, a radical position. "I'm a free bitch, baby," she rhapsodizes, like a saucy 13-year-old padding out her Facebook bio. Lady Gaga references her own name more, and more annoyingly, than any other musician today, rubbing listeners' noses in its mild weirdness ("Gaga, ooh là là!"). She dwells, pointedly, on words that might have seemed scandalous in the era of iceboxes ("Hooker! Yeah, you're my hooker./ Hooker! Government hooker./ Hooker! Yeah, you're my hooker./ Hooker! Government hooker"). She reports reading Rilke "every day." Despite her premises of avant-garde audacity, her provocations seem perpetually mired in a ninth-grade idea of insolence and spunk.
In an adult world, there is nothing especially radical about saying bad words and reading moody poetry. Underneath her histrionic patina, in fact, Gaga's mettle shimmers sparkly clean. When she talks about her goals of increasing autonomous pride, community acceptance, and respect for personal industry—all praiseworthy objectives, needless to say—she is setting her compass by lodestars that are conservative in all but the political sense: Tend your garden proudly and let others tend theirs as they please, her gospel might go. When she uses mass-market sounds (like Euro disco), throwback sounds (like the long-lost sax solo), and old cultural symbols (like glam-rock raiment), she is following a preservationist's creative path. Gaga's credentials as a carrier of the '70s and '80s torch are impeccable. But this is 2011. What is she doing, really, besides reaching back in time to claim a safer, more old-fashioned template for pop-star success?
Gaga is clearly aware of her precursors, and she undeniably understands the strange, distorting mechanisms of modern celebrity. Yet self-awareness isn't, in itself, a mark of artistry; understanding of this kind reflects an education, not creative acumen. Too often, Gaga's proponents confuse sophistication with ingenuity, reference with postmodern innovation, bet-hedging with art. Gaga may be jumping through hoops better, and with more hard work, than almost any other pop star today. But the hoops are safe ones, taken from an old course. The most impressive feat for someone of her ambition would be the one thing she hasn't yet done as a musician: take a creative risk.