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By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
The week before Memorial Day 2008, a girl wearing feathered blond hair, nude lipstick, and huge movie-star sunglasses took a seat at a dining table inside Georgie's Alibi, the venerable Wilton Manors gay bar. She asked to speak with a manager.
"I'm Stefani," she told Mark Negrete, one of Georgie's owners. "I'm a singer, and I'd love to perform for you guys."
That was Stefani Germanotta, a 22-year-old girl whom people in L.A. and New York already knew to call Lady Gaga. She was in South Florida to perform at a Miami rooftop party for Winter Music Conference. She had brought two back-up dancers, a DJ, and the instrumental tracks from her soon-to-be-released album, The Fame.
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She had "great energy," Mark says. So he told her about Bill's Filling Station, the bar he and his partner own across the street on Wilton Drive. "That's set up with a better sound system, a much bigger stage. She came out and blew everybody away."
That story began making the rounds in Wilton Manors in the summer of 2008, when it seemed like every gym in America had Gaga's debut single, "Just Dance," on a loop. Then Gaga was on television, performing at the NewNowNext Awards, guesting on So You Think You Can Dance, and providing a live soundtrack for the swimsuit competition at the Miss Universe Pageant.
At this point, some folks liked the songs. Some of them felt bad for the singer, whoever she was. ("Lady Gaga? What kind of name is that?") There was something uneasy about her, as if a demented record executive had shoved this unwitting girl into the pop star machine and the transformation didn't quite take. Was she supposed to be sexy? She had the trappings of sexiness. But they didn't quite fit. Her heels were too high, and tottering around on them looked painful. Gaga's blond do was straightened and fell heavily around her shoulders like a metal curtain. And her outfits didn't accentuate her breasts, but her shoulders, which seemed angular and alien.
Weird as she looked on television, "Just Dance" was a standard-issue paean to clubby drunkenness. However, Gaga's second single, "Poker Face," was tougher to pin down. The song had almost nothing in common with anything on pop radio, then or ever. Singing about deception as a means of romantic predation, Gaga stripped every last emotional tell from her voice. "I love it," she declared in each verse, but she sounded dead. Only in the chorus, when she sang, "Can't read my/Can't read my/No, he can't read my poker face," did her voice quicken, sounding anguished or celebratory, depending on your mood.
Which was the real Gaga? On The Fame, Gaga sang about the spiritual deadness of materialism and superficiality. But it was unclear whether she was praising it, surrendering to it, or lampooning it. One notably ugly track contained these lines: "Damn/I'd love a boat by the beach on the West Coast/And I'd enjoy some fine champagne while my girls toast." She didn't sound like she was kidding, though that might have been her poker face talking. When Gaga made a New Year's Eve appearance in Times Square, doing "Just Dance" and flying awkwardly through the air in the arms of her musclebound backups, it was still possible to believe she was an aberration — that all the dark ambiguity of her record was the result of some intriguing accident.
It wasn't, as we all learned sometime in early 2009. It's hard to pinpoint the precise moment when Gaga went from intriguing pop-factory misfire to next big thing. But her sartorially inspired performance of "Poker Face" on American Idol that spring (in which she made every other current pop star look boring before she even bothered getting up from the piano) didn't hurt. Regardless, by the time her Fame Ball tour hit Fort Lauderdale in April, Gaga's shows were attended by an increasingly devoted, polyglot fan base that she had already begun to refer to as "little monsters," and her public persona was cemented. The press called her "the new Madonna," but Gaga's real models were men. In her combination of bizarre outfits and pop hooks, she called to mind Elton John, and her lyrical obsessions with dissolution and grit were lightweight Lou Reed. When she released her debut album's final single, "Paparazzi," the consistency of her subject matter — the pathologies of identity, fame, and sex — suggested she was riffing on David Bowie.
"Poker Face," "Paparazzi," and the first single from Gaga's sophomore record, "Bad Romance," are the Grand Guignol love songs that Grace Jones wishes she'd written. As examples of dramatic singing, they have more in common with Elvis Costello's love-as-psychopathy horrorfest "I Want You" than with anything ever to emerge from Madonna's lips. And more little monsters cropped up following the "Bad Romance" video, in which Gaga morphs from wide-eyed virgin to sex slave to avenging goddess in less than four minutes. In the final frames, she strips off her top to reveal flamethrower breasts, which she uses to reduce a Russian mobster to bone and ash. Awkward little Gaga never looked so at ease as she did in that strange, fiery scene.