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Growing Up Gaga

One year later, the transformation is complete: With six No. 1 hits in the last year, Lady Gaga is the biggest pop star in the world. By definition, a pop star is manufactured—rock stars weren’t, at least not until well into the seventies, and that may be part of why rock became pop—and in some ways she has benefited from a very traditional star-making model, one of the last purviews of corporate music labels. But success can have a thousand authors. Several different people have claimed credit for discovering Gaga, 24, shaping her, naming her, making her who she is: Rob Fusari, who co-wrote and produced her early songs, sued her two weeks ago for $30 million, claiming among other grievances that he had a contract for 15 percent of her merchandising. And Gaga, of course, takes the credit herself. “I went through a great deal of creative and artistic revelation, learning, and marination to become who I am,” she explains. “Tiny little lie? I wanted to become the artist I am today, and it took years.”

All of them are partly right. But in another sense, she was an accident, a phenomenon that happened in New York in the first decade of a new century.

And what a happening. At a time when you wouldn’t recognize the faces of the people who make most of the music we listen to (who are those guys in Vampire Weekend, again?), Gaga is visually iconic; in an age of Twitter, the remoteness she has cultivated since her first moment in the spotlight has made her an even bigger star. She completely turns the page on the last decade’s era of bimbodom, taking back the limelight from women who made their careers by admitting that they had nothing to say, like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. She also closes a strange era in female pop stardom, with rising talents unable to push through to superstardom (Katy Perry, Rihanna), American Idol contestants (Kelly Clarkson), older stars (Gwen, Fergie), tween stars (Miley and posse), and hugely popular musicians who aren’t pop in their hearts, like Taylor Swift (country crossover) and Beyoncé (urban crossover). She’s riveting in any language, with lyrics that compose their own Esperanto—she’s effortlessly global.

Gaga’s presence also introduces the formerly unthinkable idea that Madonna, another voracious Italian girl, may really, truly, finally be on her way out. Her new look is an appropriation of Madonna’s circa “The Girlie Show” and “Blonde Ambition” (the darkened brows, the platinum-blonde hair, the red lips), and her music-video director, Jonas Åkerlund, is a major latter-day collaborator of Madonna’s. But the two are very different: Madonna hasn’t had a sense of humor about herself since the nineties, where Gaga is all fun and play. At her core, she’s a young art-school student, full of optimism and kindness, childlike wonder at the bubble world. Though she may not be bisexual herself—of the many friends of hers interviewed for this article, not one of them recalls her ever having a girlfriend or being sexually interested in any woman offstage—her politics are inclusive, and she wants to promote images of as many sexual combinations as are possible on this Earth. Gaga says she’s a girl who likes boys who look like girls, but she’s also a girl who likes to look like a boy herself—or, rather, a drag queen, a boy pretending to be a girl. There’s little that gives her more pleasure than the persistent rumor that she is a hermaphrodite, an Internet rumor based on scrutinizing a grainy video. That’s not Madonna. Madonna wouldn’t pretend she has a penis.

But that’s the genius of Gaga: her willingness to be a mutant, a cartoon. She’s got an awesome sense of humor, beaming tiny surreal moments across the world for our pleasure every day—like the gigantic bow made of hair she popped on her head last year. “One day, I said to my creative team, ‘Gaultier did bows, let’s do it in a new way,’ ” she says. “We were going back and forth with ideas, and then I said”—snaps finger—“hair-bow.” She giggles. “We all fucking died, we died. It never cost a penny, and it looked so brilliant. It’s just one of those things. I’m very arrogant about it.” Her videos are global epiphenomena, like the Tarantino-flavored “Telephone,” with its lesbian prison themes and Beyoncé guest appearance. “Gaga doesn’t care so much about the technical part, but she’s involved in every creative aspect,” says Åkerlund. “We just allow ourselves to be very stupid with each other, and then you get ideas like sunglasses made of cigarettes.”

Gaga also throws in our face something we’ve known all along but numbly decided to ignore: American celebrities have become very, very boring. (The fact that she has done this at the same time that much of the actual music she makes herself is somewhat boring is another feat.) One of her essential points is that celebrity should be the province of weirdos, like Grace Jones circa Jean-Paul Goude and her pet idol, eighties opera–meets–New Wave cult figure Klaus Nomi, who died of AIDS at 39. To Gaga, our video-game-playing, social-networking, cell-phone-obsessed culture has made all of us smaller, more normal, less interesting—and, except for odd lightning strikes like the Jersey Shore cast and Conan O’Brien’s anointment of one Twitter fan—famous to no one, after all. “Kudos on MySpace? What is that?” she says, spitting out the words. “That’s not emblematic about what I’m talking about. I’m talking about creating a genuine, memorable space for yourself in the world.”