Lady Gaga, My Monster Mama

Pop Culture

Lady Gaga, My Monster Mama

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I first discovered Lady Gaga, I was on the singular path of turning into a morbidly screeching, air-guitaring metalhead. In pursuit of some classic teenage subversion (which is the reason why most people take to metal to begin with), I thought that all popular music was some mass-produced drivel for the consumption of lowbrow rabble whose idea of fine art was a cover of Champak.

Long story short, I was a stereotypical teenage arsehole and musically speaking, I preferred the company of other arseholes such as myself who’d sing songs about alien invasions and glorify the destruction of property. One day, while I was sorting out my books, VH1 was playing the pop hits of 2009. I heard someone say, “I want your psycho/Your vertigo shtick/Want you in my rear window/Baby you’re sick.”

I looked up, expecting to see an all-girl emo-punk band with its members looking like cheap Gwen Stefani knock-offs. Instead, I saw a woman dressed in latex, morphing into a woman in a bejewelled corset – getting roughed up by her entourage, turning into a wide-eyed hentai sex doll, wailing about being caught in a bad romance. If I hadn’t been watching as closely as I was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell that these different forms were born of the same person.

I was riveted. Who was this woman who fused Alice Cooper’s shock-rock aesthetic with unapologetic feminine sexuality, set to a background that seemed straight out of Jodorowsky’s Dune.

That insane explosion of themes and music was Lady Gaga, who turns 32 today – the aspired-to figure of my early adulthood, who taught me that violent subversion is born of nuanced disses to the machine. Watching her in motion was a crash course in visual irony. She falls to her death from a ledge and lets the paparazzi click the bolus of blood and guts she becomes, just so they can proclaim sedately that she’s over while she spends the remainder of the song giving this parasitic institution the proverbial middle finger. She will let herself be stripped, slapped, and contorted into any form as long as it functions as a plot device in her storytelling. And so committed was Stefani Germanotta in the complete overhaul of her life as performance art, that the real Upper East Side Italian Catholic girl disappeared behind the meat dresses and 16-inch heels that intimidated even Barack Obama.

Here is a woman who understands repression and shame. Who’s been a practising Catholic for a majority of her life and been told that singing makes you a harlot.

But that is Lady Gaga’s modus operandi: She thrives on the art that is bred by darkness. Her imagery is inherently violent, but her lyrics have the staid quality of polite conversation. It’s the content and the volumes of subtext behind it that has made Little Monsters out of men. Whether it’s her sadistic, masochistic purview of love or her jaded assessment of fame and its accompanying fiends, the bottom line of all her music is indulging our depravity. We would all love to be sick and selfish in love, we’d all enjoy being the one to withhold sex as a weapon, or to let our bodies squirm like beasts in a couture-clad orgy.

But we can’t. We cannot even acknowledge these baser desires in public. It sounds too crazy. And when we can’t go gaga for ourselves, she goes Gaga in our stead.

There’s also a consistent, underlying theme of evolution that is enough to be reeled into the Lady Gaga universe. Here is a woman who understands repression and shame. Who’s been a practising Catholic for a majority of her life and been told that singing makes you a harlot. She has gone from being a cosseted child to a go-go dancer, immersed herself in boas and burlesques to cope with her struggles as a musician, spoken about being raped at 19, won six Grammys, and broke 12 Guinness World Records by turning her life into her most ambitious artwork. She has gyrated to electro-sleaze riffs and sung jazz, because she believes that all good music can be set to a piano. You cannot predict her life, no more than you can predict the art that imitates it.

But now the Mother of Monsters has had too many masks and masquerading personas. With Joanne, her latest album, based on her aunt who succumbed to lupus a while before Lady Gaga was born, she is going back to the Stefani she left behind. That’s not to say that she will not explore the debauchery of the human condition a bit more, but she will do it with the poignancy and self-reference that her completely outlandish years have afforded her.

But whether she’s Joanne or Lady Gaga, for me, she will always be the one who saved me from turning into a pretentious snob, who eschews pop culture for kicks and dreams about moving to Norway and joining a cult. Instead, she helped me embrace my inner weirdo and turned me into a woman who walks into parties and makes dick jokes about the host, who chugs champagne publicly at a function chock-full of disapproving parents and their aghast relatives and friends, someone who doesn’t understand the point of passive-aggressiveness in a situation where a simple “fuck you” would suffice.

So what if it’s strange and disconcerting? I wasn’t put on this earth to please anyone. And Lady Gaga is the reason I know that.