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.
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.
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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.
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"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.
Lady Gaga returns to South Florida for two concerts (one at the BankAtlantic Center this Tuesday and another at the American Airlines Arena the next day) almost exactly three years after her impromptu gig at Bill's Filling Station where she performed for perhaps 50 people. At the AAA, she will perform for nearly 20,000. And the show comes at a weird moment in Gaga's career. It's one of the final performances of the 18-month Monster Ball tour, and her new album, Born This Way, is still a month away. Its title track has come and gone from the airwaves. Unlike her previous work, it was earnest — a ready-made gay anthem meant to bolster the flagging egos of self-loathing gay kids in places like Nebraska and Tennessee. It contained no obvious artifice. Fame, it seems, has given Gaga a sufficiently monstrous ego to sing what's really on her mind, and what's on her mind is depressingly normal. "God makes no mistakes" is one of that track's many stacked banalities, and it's nice to hear if you're a closeted American eighth-grader, maybe. But growing up, Stefani Germanotta was never a closeted eighth-grader. Her whole life experience to this point seems to have made her an expert on precisely two things: a desire for stardom, and the construction of provocative art. (In college, Germanotta wrote an 80-page treatise on Damien Hirst.) When she sings about the former, or plays around with the latter, no one can touch her.
There is no surviving record of Gaga's appearance at Bill's Filling Station. But there is a video of her concert at Winter Music Conference a few days later. It's daytime and sunny, and there's Stefani Germanotta with her two dancers, backs to the camera, and a DJ cranking up the intro to "Filthy Dirty Rich." When Germanotta spins around, she's a pure pro, mugging like crazy, moving with an ease that would disappear temporarily when she graduated to bigger stages a few weeks later. Everything about her performance screams: I am a rock star!
But she's not. Near the end of the song, the camera pans to the right and we see the faces of the spectators. They're bemused. A woman in the foreground, not five feet from Germanotta, looks hostile. Germanotta must have noticed, but she gave no sign. She was not singing to this small crowd. She was singing to the cameras, to the millions of little monsters beyond the lens, who on that day in 2008 only she could see.