Pop singer GaGa redefines Fame and Feminism!

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BOSTON -- Almost immediately after she deposited herself in a corner booth at L'Espalier, the restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Lady Gaga made a confounding statement. "I don't see myself as ever being like anybody else," said the New York native, 23, known to her mother -- eating lunch nearby -- as Stefani Germanotta. "I don't see myself as an heir." Yet there she was, in a blond Hollywood bob and black tuxedo-bra combo similar to the costumes that Madonna wore 20 years ago. She was discussing the "Monster Ball" tour -- which evokes the spirits of Michael Jackson, David Bowie and the punk-rock drag queens of New York -- and promoting music (an expanded edition of her 2008 debut, The Fame, enriched by eight new songs and repackaged as The Fame Monster) that pays homage to ABBA, Queen, Euro-disco and Marilyn Manson. Gaga doesn't care. She wants you to trace her references. "John Lennon talked about how, with every song he wrote, he was thinking of another artist," she said. In the ever-accelerating pop cycle, Gaga is a top sensation. The Fame has sold almost 2 million copies in the United States and reportedly double that internationally; her album and the single Poker Face both made the top three on the year-end tally of top iTunes downloads.
The Fame Monster continues this sales sweep, but it also advances Gaga's artistic project with some of her strongest songs yet, including the ear-worm-infested Bad Romance and the sumptuously emotional ballad Speechless. The world is responding. She has made friends with Madonna, been interviewed by Barbara Walters and met the queen of England at the annual Royal Variety Performance. The "Monster Ball" tour, which continues through Jan. 21, has sold out multiple nights in major cities. This is all happening not because Gaga is cute or takes off her clothes but because -- to use one of her favorite words -- she is a monster talent with a serious brain. She not only reiterates her assertion of total originality but also finesses it until it's both a philosophical stance about how constructing a persona from pop-cultural sources can be an expression of a person's truth -- a la the drag queens Gaga sincerely admires -- and a bit of a feminist act. "I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little," she said. "In my opinion, women need and want someone to look up to that they feel has the full sense of who she is and says, 'I'm great.' " Gaga's new songs address serious themes, including women's shame about their bodies and the need for open communication in relationships; her often physically distorting costumes show that the pursuit of the feminine ideal is far from natural. Her frank talk about how female artists aren't expected to write their own songs or about how young women are afraid to ask for what they need from their sexual partners inches her toward a new articulation of feminism. "If you ask somebody where you see sexism in your life, all they think of is the old stuff," said Nona Willis Aronowitz, co-author of the new book Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. "Equal pay, that's not really on their radar. Domestic violence and rape aren't necessarily in the forefront. "But you ask about double standards or restrictive gender roles, they don't think of that as sexism; they think of that as the way it is. That's kind of like what Lady Gaga is talking about." Gaga does view her music as a liberating force. "When I say to you, 'There is nobody like me, and there never was,' that is a statement I want every woman to feel and make about themselves," she said. Gaga's real language, though, is visual -- and, of course, musical. Discussing videos such as the one for Bad Romance ("about how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking: products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity) or the Ace bandage-adorned costume she wore at the American Music Awards ("meant to be feminine, healing, bondage gothic"), she sounds more like an art critic than an evolving club kid. "It's a feeling," she said of the way she builds these little horror musicals. "There is a narrative, but the narrative isn't nearly as important as the images are, sewn together." As for the songs that serve as the foundation for her many other forms of expression,
Gaga says she never wanted them to be anything but massive hits. It's arguable that Gaga could realize her artistic vision only in the center of the pop mainstream. Her critical supporters laud her for reconnecting pop to other cultural forms and for revitalizing the stream of art-into-pop first opened up by bands such as Roxy Music and the Patti Smith Group. Yet she isn't alone in that effort. Kanye West played a gala at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art before she did; Beyonce referred to Bob Fosse. Gaga, though, has done something more specific: She has tapped into one of the primary obsessions of our age -- the changing nature of the self in relation to technology, the ever-expanding media sphere, and that sense of always being in character and publicly visible that Gaga calls "the fame" -- and made it her own obsession, the subject of her songs and the basis of her persona. "Celebrity life and media culture are probably the most overbearing pop-cultural conditions that we as young people have to deal with because it forces us to judge ourselves," she said. "I guess what I am trying to do is take the monster and turn the monster into a fairy tale." BY ANN POWERS Los Angeles Times

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