Billboard is a weekly American magazine devoted to the music industry, and is one of the oldest trade magazines in the world. It maintains several internationally recognized music charts that track the most popular songs and albums in various categories on a weekly basis. The two most notable charts are the Billboard Hot 100, which ranks the top 100 songs regardless of genre and is based on physical sales, digital sales and radio airplay. Meanwhile, the Billboard 200 survey is the corresponding chart for album sales.
Sprawled on her bed in an Amsterdam hotel, Lady GaGa is channeling Lady Godiva-sans the horse. While the 23-year-old has famously worn everything from Kermit the Frog to a hat made to resemble the solar system, today she's rocking the one constant in her ever shifting wardrobe-underpants. And nothing more.
But despite her dominance on the Billboard Hot 100 and bleached blonde hair, GaGa is not the average pop tart. She's an accomplished songwriter and performer who seems to have come out of nowhere, bursting from the corner of Ludlow and Rivington fully formed and fabulous. In conversation, she's chatty and articulate, but gives off the distinct sense she's 10 steps ahead of everyone else-while the Internet is still buzzing about the lampshade she wore over her face in a TV interview, she's plotting her next move.
Of course, if she invests wisely, she may never need to work again: Her debut album, "The Fame," which was released on Interscope, has sold nearly 1.3 million copies, and her biggest digital single, "Just Dance," has sold 4.4 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In addition to writing all the tracks on her album, GaGa has previously written for Fergie, the Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block.
"Getting into writing for others happened naturally, because at the time, I didn't have a record deal," GaGa says. "I had a deal with IDJ that came and went, but that was it. I don't have an ego about other people singing my songs."
And-as surprising as it may seem amid her outre outfits and the nudge-nudge-wink-wink lyrics-GaGa's path from behind-the-scenes songwriter to cultural phenomenon was a smart, regimented plan. Before she was Lady GaGa, she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, an Italian Catholic schoolgirl from Yonkers, N.Y. She played piano and studied music as a child, but it wasn't until she hit her early 20s that her songwriting and performance style clicked. l "She wrote almost all her hits in a week," says Vince Herbert, who signed GaGa to his Streamline Records label, a joint venture with Interscope. "She flew to L.A. and sat in a studio with RedOne and just cranked it out."
Martin Kierszenbaum, who co-wrote four tracks on "The Fame," says she is "very focused and very fast. She doesn't like to sit around and waste time. When we tracked 'The Fame,' she sang everything in one take and spent about five hours on the harmony."
GaGa writes mostly at the piano, and to her, if a song doesn't come easily, it isn't meant to come at all. "A hit record writes itself," she says. "If you have to wait, maybe the song isn't there. Once you tap into the soul, the song begins to write itself. And I usually write the choruses first, because without a good chorus, who really gives a f*ck?"
But before she had hit records, she was an apprentice songwriter, working with a number of producers and trying to build a name for herself. Jody Gerson, who signed GaGa's publishing deal with Sony/ATV, points out that she was driven to understand the publishing business from a young age. "She interned at Famous Music Publishing before any of this," Gerson says. "And even back then, she was famous for showing up for work in her undies."
GaGa says she doesn't want to be underestimated or written of as merely a pop songwriter. "I think most music is pop music," she says. "The mark of a great song is how many genres it can embody. It's about honesty and connection-look at a song like 'I Will Always Love You.' Whitney killed it as a pop song, but it works as a country song, a gospel song, everything. If I can play a song acoustic, or just on the piano, and it still works, I know it's good."
Gerson says that she and GaGa are both particular about who the artist will work with, especially with her current touring schedule. "She's swamped right now," Gerson says. "There is a lot of interest; we're talking to Adam Lambert right now, for instance. But it has to be a good match for her to spend the time."
She also says that she had faith GaGa would break out and become an in-demand writer and star. "She blew me away from the moment I met her," Gerson says. "She was already signed to Interscope, and we are so lucky to all be on the same page and have a great working relationship."
Gerson says the label agreed to shopping tracks to film and TV supervisors before the album was released. "We had over 25 placements before we had a hit. The networks and supervisors just loved her."
At this point, Gerson estimates songs from "The Fame" have been placed more than 100 times. "I'd say 'Just Dance' is the most requested, followed by 'Poker Face' and then 'The Fame,' " she says. "We've also had success with promo spots; 'Beautiful, Dirty, Rich' was the song in all the promos for the show 'Dirty Sexy Money.' "
GaGa's crowning TV moment came in April, when she performed "Poker Face" on the "American Idol" results show. While the show helped boost her album sales (according to Nielsen SoundScan, "The Fame" sold 45,000 copies the week before the show aired, 51,000 the week it aired and 56,000 the week after), more important, it showed middle America that she was a bona fide pop star.
While placing GaGa's songs in a movie or TV is generally fairly simple, deciding whether to align her with big brands has been trickier. "She has such strong visuals and a sense of who she is," Gerson says. "We have to make sure any brand fits really, really well with her image."
Steve Stoute, head of the branding agency Translation, thinks GaGa herself is a brand. To that end, he has signed a deal with her and says he will treat her just like he does such clients as McDonald's or State Farm. "I don't just want to do deals for a check with her," he says. "She's at the point where she's bigger than life. She's transcended music."
Stoute says the deal is too new to reveal any specifics, but he plans to develop products as part of the GaGa brand. "We're going to bring new products to market and create magic. This isn't a matter of doing a fragrance deal or something. But whatever we do will be innovative and authentic, like her."
A few months ago, Lady GaGa decided to try a little experiment. "I was talking to the members of the Haus [her creative team] about the power of image and the camera, and I wanted to say something on a real level about fame," she says. "I drink a lot of tea, and I decided to take a purple teacup out of my china collection and take it to London and make it famous. I put it in videos and had fans pose with it and put it on TV-at one point, the teacup had a call time." It became the most famous teacup since Meret Oppenheim covered one in fur.
Not surprisingly, GaGa has a background in art history, which she studied for a while at New York University before leaving to pursue music and performance full time. "There is certainly a performance art element to all of this," she says. "I get challenged in interviews all the time, people asking me whether the clothes distract from the music. They're not separate; it's not one or the other. I dress the way I do to demonstrate my commitment to show business."
Though she doesn't speak to it directly, there is a sense that GaGa also is canny about using her wardrobe to keep her in the public eye. In the month of July alone, Perez Hilton's Web site mentioned her 13 times, almost always for her outrageous outfits. That rate is usually reserved for starlets going through rehab, involved in public breakups or falling drunkenly out of limos-and GaGa does none of this. Though she's admitted to using cocaine in the past, she seems to have realized that she can get just as much attention by slapping on a hat made of hair, without all the nasty side effects.
Herbert says that GaGa's image taps into something pop audiences were starving for. "She breathes, eats and sleeps being Lady GaGa," he says. "She gives the kids something new, and it's fun and healthy and positive. She does these epic videos and really great stage sets, and people appreciate that. You come to the show and see all these girls dressed like her."
Her manager, Troy Carter, says she's a throwback to "the days when artists were artists. She's an iconic figure, and it's not like she ever takes a day off and put on khakis and a T-shirt. She's in showbiz, and fans have been missing people like that."
GaGa says the whole identity stems from her belief in glamour. "I want to live the glam life, and my material is heavily rooted in that," she says. "There are all these places where art and self-expression and clothing can intersect. When I wore the Kermit outfit [called a "froschbluse" by German TV], it was a commentary on wearing fur. I also have a theme of monsters running through the rerelease, and I wanted to promote that."
"The Fame" will be rereleased in the fourth quarter, a year after it originally debuted. It originally arrived Sept. 9, 2008, to a mostly positive critical reception, but didn't appear on the Billboard 200 until November. It bounced around the charts for the early part of 2009, but then cracked the top 10 in March upon the strength of her first U.S. hit, "Just Dance," and only built from there.
GaGa recently became the third artist in the history of the Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart to have three No. 1 singles from a debut album. She has the Nos. 3, 4 and 26 top-selling digital songs of the year, with "Poker Face"selling 3.6 million, "Just Dance" moving 2.6 million and "LoveGame" selling 1.4 million. In total, she has sold more than 10.7 million tracks.
She also has the Nos. 2 and 8 best-selling digital songs of all time: "Just Dance" (4.4 million) and "Poker Face" (3.8 million), respectively. "The Fame" is also the fifth-best-selling album (1.1 million) for the year and the best-selling set from a debut artist for 2009.
"We always just assumed we were going to sell records," GaGa says. "I have a sense of optimism and liberation, despite the state of the industry and the economy. We function like the industry is in full bloom, and that audacity works for us."
GaGa had to wait to hit those sales records in the United States, though, breaking first in Canada and then in Australia. "She had the theme song for 'Australia's Next Top Model,' which helped her over there," Gerson says. "But in America, we had to let her percolate for a while. 'Just Dance' was the big hit here and in the U.K., and the momentum hasn't slowed since."
She has also toured nonstop, starting off opening for labelmates New Kids on the Block, then headlining her own Fame Ball tour. And while the term is usually gleefully pejorative, Herbert explains that in this case, it has nothing to do with publicity-seeking media wannabes.
"We wanted it to look like a prom, with photo booths and a theme," he says. "We wanted people to think they were coming to a ball and to have an experience rather than just passively watching a concert. When she played Terminal 5 in New York, Madonna came and brought her daughter, and they didn't take their eyes off her the entire time."
The emphasis on themes and over-the-top visual elements is also present in GaGa's videos, including the clip for "Paparazzi," which she herself describes as a "creative orgasm." She adds that her Haus of GaGa collective, which includes producer Ron Fair and creative director Matthew Williams, "art-direct me in my sleep."
GaGa names as her inspirations people like Klaus Nomi and Andy Warhol, who she says saw themselves as living their roles. "There is no sense of duality when it comes to who I am. It's not a play-acting thing for me. When I did the Rolling Stone cover shoot, I said I wanted to be shot as the rock goddess I know I'd eventually be."
GaGa will have a chance to prove her star power when she opens for Kanye West later this year. And she can guarantee one thing-her closet will remain locked to the infamously stylish and demanding star. "If Kanye tries to wear my clothes, I'll kick his ***," she says with a laugh.
Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" not only is the 20th song to debut at number 1, but it also became the 1000th song to reach number 1 within the list's 52 year history. (February 26, 2011)
"It is a tremendous honor," Gaga tells Billboard of the milestone. "To be the 1000th no. 1 on Billboard...I would be silly not to say this is the greatest honor of my career."
"I am so humbled and so honored and overwhelmed by the reception to 'Born This Way,'" Gaga adds. "[It] has been so life changing for me as an artist, and between Billboard and the international number ones and the radio numbers...I couldn't be more blessed to have the fans that I have."
Lady Gaga wasn't quite born when the Grammy Awards began on Sunday, Feb. 13--she was still in her egg while she "walked" the red carpet. Later that evening, Gaga was birthed, or perhaps more accurately, rebirthed as, well, Lady Gaga.
She emerged from a now-larger egg onstage, and you could see this wasn't the same Gaga. In case you didn't catch the subtle (not a word often used to describe any part of Gaga onstage) touches: Her hair was off-pink with amniotic remnants. Her bones had structurally changed. Her shoulders now had positively Vulcan protrusions.
"My bones have changed in my face and shoulders," she says. "I am now able to reveal to the universe that when I was wearing jackets that looked like I was wearing shoulder pads, it was really just my bones underneath."
If you're looking for a self-conscious wink in any of this, you'll probably be waiting for at least a few more Gaga life spans. There's no line between Stefani Germanotta, Gaga's birth name, and Lady Gaga. There's no onstage and offstage. There's only Gaga.
Gaga seemed in good spirits as we chatted, speaking in impassioned tones about her vision for the upcoming album, and just about anything else we asked. She even spoke for the first time about her new retail relationship with Target.
Lady Gaga is sitting in her “sanctuary” -- the sprawling, olive tree-dotted backyard of her Malibu home -- when a silent, tie-clad man arrives with cocktails on a tray. “Thank you”, she says, with the sort of silver-screen elegance that it’s surprising a “dahhhling” doesn’t follow. “I might have busted my ass on the Lower East Side, but there is something nice about a good dirty martini”.
There’s a chill in the air, and while she’s wearing only a tattered Springsteen tee tucked into high-waisted denim shorts, Gaga is intent on watching the sunset. These days, the woman born Stefani Germanotta seeks out serene moments -- although her admission that she “craves normalcy” is almost a revolutionary statement from someone who proudly declares that she deals in “the theater of the absurd.” As recently as 2014, the Grammy- and Guinness Record-stacking megastar, who has sold 10.4 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, considered quitting music altogether. She had parted ways with her longtime manager, Troy Carter, citing overwork, not long after 2013’s Artpop failed to resonate on the order of her earlier albums. She felt her image was threatening to eclipse her artistry.
Lady Gaga, Billboard's Woman of the Year 2015: The Cover Shoot
This year, though, the 29-year-old not only recommitted herself to her career, she reinvented it. The unlikely set of jazz standards she recorded with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in the fall of 2014, then won her a sixth Grammy (for best traditional pop vocal album) and spawned an international tour racking up rave reviews for much of 2015. “The audience goes crazy for the way she sings,” says Bennett, 89. “She has one of the great voices of all time, and it’s amazing how musically intelligent she is.” Pop fans the world over voiced a similar sentiment after Gaga’s masterful The Sound of Music medley at the Academy Awards in February, which earned her a warm congratulatory hug from Julie Andrews.
Days later, Gaga revealed that she would take a lead part in American Horror Story: Hotel, the TV show’s fifth season. She won her role as vampire matriarch The Countess after cold-calling series creator Ryan Murphy. “I told him I wanted a place to put all of my anguish and rage and that I was excited to play a killer”, she recalls with relish. “We relate to each other because we’re both transformers,” says Murphy. “We do something trying to work out shit in our personal life. And then the next year we put on a different costume and we’re somebody else”. AHS, the highest-rated series in FX’s history, has had its strongest season this year, with Gaga’s debut in the first episode drawing 12.2 million viewers.
Gaga’s biggest role this year, though, may have been that of the crusader. She released the song “Til It Happens to You,” co-written with Diane Warren, aimed at fostering empathy with victims of sexual assault; authored a Billboard op-ed with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about ending campus rape; and initiated a partnership between Her Born This Way Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. In October, after seeing Gaga receive an award from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, The New York Times’ David Brooks was inspired to write a column on the nature of passion and how Gaga’s “amplified life” embodies it.
Lady Gaga, Gov. Cuomo Pen Essay Urging Passage of 'Enough Is Enough' Bill: Exclusive
More than ever, Gaga’s efforts to end bullying and win support for gay and transgender people -- as well as those who have suffered abuse, depression or anxiety as a result of prejudice -- seem emblematic of millennials’ embrace of “outsiders” like Gaga herself. “Til It Happens to You”, says Warren, “speaks to her fans. That’s why it was so right to go to her”.
Gaga even managed to devote some attention to her personal life, getting engaged to actor Taylor Kinney on Valentine’s Day. (The 6-carat heart-shaped diamond flashes as she rubs the belly of her French bulldog, Asia.) In March, Billboard’s 2014 Woman of the Year Taylor Swift tweeted, “Is it just me or is Lady Gaga, like, fully LIVING right now?!?”
Says Matt Bomer, Gaga’s American Horror Story co-star: “She possesses the art spirit. I know that sounds esoteric, but it’s a distinct thing and very few people have it. Typically if they do, it comes with demons. She’s blessed enough to also have the help system and love in her life to be the beautiful soul she is.” Or as Warren says, “Because of the meat dresses or whatever, you forget that underneath is a super, ridiculously talented person.”
“It speaks volumes to me that I’m being recognized as Woman of the Year in 2015”, says Gaga. “This is the year I did what I wanted instead of trying to keep up with what I thought everyone else wanted from me.” Below, she explains in her own words just what following her instinct entails -- and how she hopes to show women and men, artists and industry executives alike how a “hard-core chick” can set about dismantling the status quo.
Billboard Cover: Lady Gaga Gets Personal About Saving Troubled Teens -- 'I've Suffered Through Depression and Anxiety My Whole Life'
‘I WANT TO EXPLODE INTO MY 30s’
“My birthday is in March, so these are the last moments of my 20s. I already mourned that in a way, and now I’m really excited about showing girls, and even men, what it can mean to be a woman in her 30s. Why is it that we’re disposing of people once they pass that mark? It’s suddenly, ‘You’re an old woman’. I’m not f---ing old. I’m more sexual and powerful and intelligent and on my shit than I’ve ever been. I’ve come a long way through a lot of heartache and pain, but none of it made me damaged goods. It made me a fighter. I want to show women they don’t need to try to keep up with the 19-year-olds and the 21-year-olds in order to have a hit. Women in music, they feel like they need to f---ing sell everything to be a star. It’s so sad. I want to explode as I go into my 30s.
“Once you start being mindful and really going, ‘Do I actually want that?,’ you start to feel empowered and you find your value. I love being the annoying girl. I was a theater kid. I was in jazz band. I went to the Renaissance Faire. I was that girl who got made fun of, that nerdy girl. I believe in that girl. I believe in the integrity, intelligence and power of people like her, and I want to ignite it”.
‘I TOOK A GAMBLE BECAUSE EVERYONE HAD WRITTEN ME OFF’
“As soon as the Oscars were over, [former chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M] Jimmy Iovine emailed me something like, ‘That was so f---ing fantastic, and it could’ve been such a disaster.’ He’s Italian and from Brooklyn, so we speak the same comedic language, but I knew he was right. The truth is you can either nail a performance like that or butcher some of the most classic songs sung by an all-time great. I took the gamble because everyone had written me off. It took me a long time to get those notes. I told my manager, ‘I need two months working with my vocal coach every day and to be sober, which means I can’t do other work at all.’ When I work I need to drink and smoke, and I have body pain [due to hip surgery]. But I’m just like any other girl -- there’s a human being in there, and if you can keep the human intact, that’s what you’re going to hear in the music.
“At the end of 2014, my stylist asked, ‘Do you even want to be a pop star anymore?’ I looked at him and I go, ‘You know, if I could just stop this train right now, today, I would. I just can’t. [But] I need to get off now because I’m going to die.’ When you’re going so fast you don’t feel safe anymore, you feel like you’re being slapped around and you can’t think straight. But then I felt hands lifting me. It was like everybody came together to try and put a star back in the sky, and they weren’t going to let me down”.
Billboard's Women of the Year: See the 2007-15 Covers
‘I WAS BORN TO SING WITH TONY’
“There is nobody more badass than Tony Bennett. That man is a part of the history of music in a way that is extremely powerful, and he taught me to stay true to who I am, to not let anybody exploit me. He is responsible in so many ways for making me happy, and I can say the same for Elton [John]. When the whole industry turned their back on me during Artpop, they were the ones who said, ‘Hey, this is a blip. It’s going to go away.’ On tour, I had people give me war medals and memorabilia just to thank me for exposing a younger generation to Tony Bennett because he changed their lives in such significant ways. I want to be a part of curating a culture where we don’t give credence to anyone who is rude or crass or not good for the world.
“After Cheek to Cheek, everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re Rod Stewart now.’ I love Rod Stewart, but I would also argue that I’m not doing an adult contemporary jazz album later in my career and I’m not just doing it because I like standards. I am an Italian-American girl from New York who won state jazz competitions in high school for my abilities. I was born to sing with Tony and for him to be like, ‘Yes, you were.’ And so was Ella [Fitzgerald] and so was Judy [Garland] -- we could go on and on listing the amazing women he sang with. It’s a party I’m thrilled to be invited to”.
‘I PUT ALL MY RAGE INTO THAT DARK ART’
“I’m not the type of girl who fits most molds. That’s why working on American Horror Story with Ryan [Murphy] is a destiny. I wanted to create something extremely meaningful by exploring the art of darkness. The reason I love watching horror films, mysteries and documentaries about crime is that it somehow numbs me from the pain I experience in my own life. You are watching something worse than whatever you think you’re going through. The terror of that suspends you, and you are able to forget about your own pain for a moment. It’s like a safe, psychological form of masochism.
“Ryan and I have both experienced the same sort of criticism over the intention of our work. My whole career has been built on this perception that I’m trying to evoke attention because of the things I’m interested in, when it’s not that way at all. If you don’t like to be disturbed, [American Horror Story] probably isn’t for you. If you don’t like absurdity, I’m probably not for you. I hung upside down for 45 minutes for [video artist] Robert Wilson and drained all the blood in my body, and I’ve stood in a freezing cold river naked for two hours with magnets on my head for Marina Abramovic. I’m a hard-core chick. I go there. I can put all my rage into that dark art, and then the rest of my life can be spent clearheaded, doing the things I know to be right, like philanthropy and sticking to my guns musically”.
‘WHEN DID YOU BECOME THE FASHIONABLE ROBOT?’
“You can’t sell your soul once you make it. It’s a big mistake to just go after the money to try to stay on top. I think that’s what everyone wanted me to do. But I’m a different kind of girl, and when being different is not in style it’s hard for me to function. People think, ‘You can just sit down at a piano whenever you want and write,’ but I couldn’t write for two f---ing years. For Artpop, I was doing beats instead. I didn’t want to be near that damn [piano]. It was too emotional. I would start to play and sing, and my mind would go, ‘You are way too talented for this shit. F---, your voice sounds good. F---, that’s a beautiful chord. F---, that’s an amazing lyric. Why are you letting these people run you into the ground? When did you become the fashionable robot?’ Can’t being an artist be enough? Is talent ever the thing? I think for Adele it is. I think for Bruno Mars it is. But that’s what I learned from working with Tony: If talent isn’t the thing, then you are way off-base.
“That’s why every up and down of my career was worth it -- it has led me to epiphanies. We can’t create without epiphanies. You could have one and not even know it because you’re so high or there are seven models sucking your dick or you’re so intoxicated by the lifestyle. I’m grateful for what I have, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the gift of life. Because while this house is beautiful, once I cross my property line I’m no longer free; it’s legal to stalk me all over the world. The thing that makes me happy is that piano”.
‘LET US PURIFY THIS INDUSTRY’
“I call on every artist to be kind to one another, and compassionate. Let us purify this industry again and put our finger in the face of every executive and say, ‘If you are spending money, is it on someone who can really sing? Is it on someone who has a perspective?’ It’s almost funny to see the look on Tony’s face, the way he shakes his head, when I tell him how the industry has become. This whole thing of remixes for the radio, I have to say: When it doesn’t feel like the two artists were in the room together, it really hurts me because it’s such an injustice to what it means for two artists to meet. It’s clever. But are we putting too many limits on the way things need to be on the radio for artists to feel free enough to create genuinely?
“We can blame the digital era forever, but music is a natural right of humankind. We’ve been singing in caves since the beginning and learning about reverb because of our voices echoing off mountainsides. That’s the thing that scares people the most about me -- of all of my contemporaries, I’m probably just the most romantic. Especially in a world where music education is not the biggest thing. Kids become depressed when they are born with a creative instinct but are not taught how to express it. Can you imagine having to come and someone says, ‘I’m so sorry, but you can never ejaculate in this life’? If you don’t teach someone how to release that energy, it gets blocked up, and it’s painful. Kids need to learn how to express who they are and seek value in it”.
HOW THE WOTY WAS WON 2015
From her jaw-dropping Julie Andrews tribute at the Oscars to her bloody (and convincing) American Horror Story role, how Lady Gaga redefined herself this year.
Article by Chris Martins published on December 3, 2015.
HOW LADY GAGA NAVIGATED A YEAR UNLIKE ANY OTHER Lady Gaga likes to joke that she has been quarantining since she was 21 years old — and like all The best jokes, it is funny and sad and a little too true.
She turned that age in 2007; the following year, she released her debut album, The Fame, and soon her songs about faking your way into the fabulous life and the allure of the paparazzi became self-fulfilling prophecies. Leaving the house started to feel about as much fun as flinging herself into the sun. So earlier this year, as the coronavirus started to upend the world, she felt scared but also oddly well-equipped to handle life under lockdown. Around the second week of March, she decided to become a den mother to members of her team, who until this year had probably never imagined what it would be like to fear going outside and being around other humans.
She took in a handful of people at her Hollywood Hills compound, mostly the young women in her immediate day-to-day orbit whose crowded living situations, she worried, made them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Many others from her team — her manager, Bobby Campbell; her creative squad, the Haus of Gaga; her cosmetics brand, Haus Laboratories; her mental health nonprofit, the Born This Way Foundation — were scattered in different places. So, like millions of other Americans this spring, Gaga entered the remote workforce and a life of video meetings while, offscreen, she and her new housemates created something like a hippie compound straight out of the 1960s.
“Somebody’d go grocery shopping, the rest of us would clean the vegetables, then somebody would cook,” Gaga, 34, says over Zoom one August afternoon, dressed in casual mermaid glam: turquoise hair, mintchip nails, a chartreuse sweatshirt from her own merchandise line — even the CBD cigarette she’s smoking is green. (She’s a little sore from her MTV Video Music Awards performance, which aired the previous day.) When they weren’t working, Gaga and company spent a lot of time praying, playing board games and having big conversations about the state of the world and all the good things they wished for. “I run my team like a family,” she says. “I don’t run it like a staff.”
This kind of communal living was probably not what she had pictured when, in February, she tweeted, “earth is cancelled,” as a way of teasing her sixth studio album, Chromatica, named for a cyberpunk planet where kindness and equality triumph. (“It’s not fake!” she says, pointing a finger at her webcam. “It’s real! It’s in my head!”) But with crisis comes a kind of clarity, and Gaga knew what she had to do. She pushed back Chromatica’s original April 10 release date — fans had been waiting seven years for her to return to the dance-pop sound that made her famous, and they could wait a little longer. She also started pulling 16-hour days curating Global Citizen’s One World: Together at Home TV special to support the World Health Organization, talking with producers and recruiting famous friends for performances. In conversation, Gaga is open and easygoing, but she has sudden moments of grave seriousness, particularly when discussing the ongoing pandemic. “It’s really wrong for us to go, ‘I’m uncomfortable [with wearing a mask] because I can’t breathe,’ ” she says. “Give me a break. Show some respect for the people who are there for us when we dial 911.”
If there is a pop star to lead us through this moment, it’s Lady Gaga, who, with her fondness for “I” statements and the vocabulary of self-help, radiates the energy of your hip cousin who’s training to be a life coach. (“Life is a series of skills, behaviors and emotions, strung together with thoughts,” she says at one point, unfurling her arms beyond the boundaries of the screen.) During this year’s surreal Video Music Awards, cobbled together via greenscreens and pretaped footage, Gaga performed a nine-minute medley that, despite involving what looked like alien S&M gear and a piano shaped like a human brain, still felt like pop culture’s most normal nine minutes in months. “That was the perfect example of how we wanted to execute art during a pandemic, which is: Let’s make art that, 10 years from now, you’ll forget it even happened during a pandemic, except for the fact that she’s wearing a mask,” says Campbell. “And even then, it’s Gaga. She’s been wearing masks her whole career.”
Chromatica is her most critically acclaimed album in years, a ballad-free survey of dance-music history that spans elastic house beats, Studio 54 drama and ’90s techno, with campy spoken-word breakdowns delivered in unclassifiable accents. But these songs are not purely escapism: With its message of resilience in the face of unrelenting blows, the Ariana Grande duet “Rain on Me” has become a theme song for a year that has seen a deadly pandemic, horrifying instances of police brutality, the erosion of democracy, new evidence of impending climate disasters and the arrival in the United States of something called murder hornets. “One of the many things I’ve always admired is her ability to inject soulful humanity into the dance-music oeuvre,” says friend and collaborator Elton John, who guests on the trancey “Sine From Above.” “You can feel the liberation in baring her soul so triumphantly on every track.”
That’s all bound to be reflected at the 2021 Grammys, where Chromatica and “Rain on Me” will likely receive nods in the Big Four categories. Gaga has 11 Grammys, though she has never won any of the general awards like song, record or album of the year. Since her last proper dance-pop album, 2013’s divisive ARTPOP, the genre has waned in popularity, with many of its brightest stars embracing moodier, chiller sounds as streaming opened the door for hip-hop to dominate the charts. In that time, Gaga has withstood the changing tides of pop culture by achieving a rare ubiquity: There’s 2014’s Cheek to Cheek, a jazz album she recorded with Tony Bennett that made her the kind of diva even your grandmother could love; 2016’s Joanne, a country-rock detour that she’s said sealed the deal for her 2017 Super Bowl halftime show performance; and the 2018 film A Star Is Born, a revelatory showcase for her acting skills that spawned the Academy Award-winning, Billboard Hot 100-topping Bradley Cooper duet, “Shallow.” (The film’s soundtrack has earned 2.7 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.)
Now, as dance-pop makes a gradual return to the charts — with the disco revivals of Dua Lipa and Doja Cat and the urgent synth-pop of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” — Gaga remains one of its most bankable and influential talents. Chromatica debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 274,000 equivalent album units in its first week, the seventh-best sales week this year so far. That figure includes 87.16 million on-demand streams — at the time the largest streaming week for a non-R&B, rap or Latin album in 2020.
With her chameleonic fashions, artfully freaky videos and transcendent hooks, Gaga has quite literally created a template for the next generation of global superstars. The members of Blackpink, the K-pop girl group she recruited for Chromatica’s “Sour Candy,” recall covering songs like “Poker Face” and “You and I” (two of Gaga’s 17 career top 10 hits on the Hot 100) during their time as pop-star trainees in Seoul. “I remember we used to say to each other, ‘Let’s make this kind of great music someday,’ ” the group’s Jisoo tells Billboard. Bandmate Jennie says she “cannot forget the feeling” of watching Gaga’s “Telephone” video, a 10-minute murder epic co-starring Beyoncé, for the first time as a teen — and you can see that maximalist aesthetic reverberating today in K-pop and beyond.
What pop spectacles should look like in 2020 is a question mark, as COVID-19 and the nation’s reckoning with systemic racism, sparked by more police killings of Black Americans this year, offer no easy answers for how artists should use their platforms. But if there’s a way to be of service, Gaga is up for the job. To make Chromatica, she had to pull herself out of one of the darkest places she has ever been, and she has a familiar message for anyone trying to do the same: Just dance — it’s going to be OK. “When I see people struggling like they are right now,” she says, “my brain goes, ‘Put on your superhero suit. Let’s go.’ ”
Before she could get To planet Chromatica, Lady Gaga first had to get off her porch.
After her Joanne world tour, “I used to wake up every day and remember I was Lady Gaga — and then I would get depressed,” she says. She was afraid of leaving the house. The idea of her every waking move being available for public consumption filled her with extreme dread. Gaga had, of course, been famous for some time, but she had never really dealt with these feelings. “I was peeling all the layers of the onion in therapy,” she says, “so as you dig deeper, you get closer to the core, and the core of the onion stinks.” Instead of working through the discomfort, she resisted it. She’d spend hours outside chain-smoking and crying, wondering why she couldn’t flip the switch inside of her back on. She was drinking a lot, too: The “Rain on Me” refrain of “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” she has said, is also about using alcohol to numb herself. “My existence in and of itself was a threat to me,” she explains. “I thought about really dark shit every single day.”
When people around her would try to help — suggesting a change of scenery or some basic self-care — she’d often pull what she calls the Lady Gaga card: “It’s the one where you go, ‘I’m Lady Gaga, you don’t understand what it feels like, I want to dress how I want and be who I am without people noticing, why does everybody have to notice, I’m so sad, I don’t even know why anymore, why are you making me talk about it?’ ” (She doesn’t do this anymore: “I gave that up in therapy.”)
The producer BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Madonna), whom Gaga had gotten to know while working together on Joanne, was also coming over and trying to help in his own way: by coaxing her to make music in her downstairs studio. “We were like, ‘Feeling creative always makes her happy, so let’s put some studio time on the calendar,’ ” says Campbell. Gaga was not always eager. She and BloodPop would often spend their first few hours together talking through what she was feeling. When she would finally march downstairs, the material came quickly and often drew directly from their conversations; as a result, the songs are more emotionally direct than almost anything in her catalog — snapshots of a pop star feeling her way through the fog. Even at her lowest, says Gaga, “I’m a savage when I want to write a pop song.”
Many songs started out as simple piano tracks. To flesh them out, BloodPop brought in a small circle of collaborators, including French producer Tchami (who had worked on a few ARTPOP songs) and U.K.-born BURNS (Britney Spears, Ellie Goulding), who was inspired by the demos’ raw sadness to reimagine them as thunderous dance anthems. “It’s the crying-in-the-club thing — it’s always the emotional dance records that connect the most,” says BURNS. Unlike how most megawatt pop albums are assembled, the team worked extremely collaboratively, passing tracks back and forth and sharing production credits as they tried to find a sound that was neither too retro nor too on-trend. “Rain on Me” went through about six different basslines before BURNS cracked the code by interpolating a 1979 Gwen McCrae song; they also used a vintage Korg M1 synth to capture the plastic-y piano sound of ’90s house records. “It felt almost like summer camp,” says BloodPop of the tinkering stage. “We had N64s in every room.”
Every time Gaga wrote a song, she would catch a glimpse of her old self. “I would cry and go, ‘There it is — hi! How’s it going? Why do you got to hide?’ ” she recalls. At times, it seemed like she was trying to summon that version of Gaga directly through songwriting. “She almost takes on these spirits for every album, and it’s very clear in the music,” says BloodPop, adding that the stuttering vocals and “ooh la la” flourishes of “Plastic Doll” were an intentional callback to records like “Bad Romance.” Throughout recording, BloodPop put up artwork around the studio — ’80s New York club night posters, sci-fi imagery like that of Alien artist H.R. Giger — in the hopes of inspiring her. If he could get her up and dancing by the end of the night, that was a good day.
Little by little, she found her way back. “If there’s one glimmer inside you, celebrate it,” says Gaga. “When you find another one, celebrate it. One more? Call a friend: ‘I did this today. I’m winning.’ ”
Bobby Campbell remembers when he realized that The Chromatica release was not going to go according to plan.
It was March 11, the day Gaga filmed a bunch of interviews with international journalists — and also the day Donald Trump announced widespread restrictions on travelers coming from Europe. Campbell, 35, is no stranger to chaos: He started managing Gaga in 2013, just after her split from ex-manager Troy Carter and mere days before she released ARTPOP. But this was something else. He had spent about 18 months putting together a campaign that Interscope Records chairman/CEO John Janick calls “one of the best rollouts planned for an album ever”; soon, Campbell remembers, “all these things were just evaporating before our eyes.”
There would be no iHeartRadio Music Awards performance, no surprise Coachella set. Plans to shoot more music videos had to wait, and some brand campaigns were postponed. The team converted billboard space meant to advertise the album into thank-you messages for essential workers. “It was going to feel like a blockbuster movie coming out,” says Campbell. Chucking an album out on the internet, surprise-release style, has never really appealed to an artist like Gaga, who always seemed to value reach above all else: 2011’s Born This Way sold over a million copies in its first week thanks in part to an Amazon promotion that offered digital album downloads for 99 cents, which Billboard estimated accounted for 440,000 albums sold. “[Our approach] is more conventional and traditional, but we still find it effective,” says Campbell.
Coming up with a Plan B proved challenging on multiple fronts. Safety was the top priority — the team hired its own COVID-19 compliance officers to supervise its efforts — but there was also the question of what felt right for Gaga and the music. “An album like Chromatica [is not] going to be promoted by her sitting behind a piano over Zoom in her house,” says Campbell, chuckling. Gaga had hoped to do a long-form live performance of songs from Chromatica in May, but once unions prohibited production crews from working, they couldn’t find a way to pull it off. In July, Gaga and Grande had planned a surprise performance of “Rain on Me” during a drive-through drag show in the Los Angeles area, but the appearance was canceled after the lack of social distancing at a Chainsmokers concert in New York’s Hamptons region days earlier raised concerns. As Campbell puts it, “Plan B became Plan C, became Plan D.”
At least one thing launched according to plan: the merchandise. Merch/album bundles are a part of many successful album campaigns in 2020, and they certainly aided Chromatica: 75% of its first-week unit total was in album sales, which included not only merch/album bundles sold through Gaga’s website but also concert ticket/album offers (for her now-postponed Chromatica Ball stadium shows), traditional retail sales and digital downloads. (Interscope did not provide a more detailed breakdown or any sales figures related to merch.) But slapping a logo on a T-shirt this was not: Gaga and her team of art directors have created rain boots, umbrellas, pillows, thongs, jockstraps, blankets, soap, face masks and chokers, all in an effort to make fashionable, on-brand items her fans would actually want — and also poke fun at the whole practice: “It was just those fun moments of playing into the absurdity of what we were doing,” says Campbell.
When Chromatica was eventually released on May 29, the timing felt serendipitous: Two months into stay-at-home life, songs like “Rain on Me” arrived like a balm. Earlier that week though, Minneapolis police had killed George Floyd, and by that weekend, protests against police brutality were taking place across the nation. Celebrating extravagant pop music suddenly didn’t feel so appropriate anymore, so Gaga canceled a Twitter listening party scheduled for release day. “Our kindness is needed for the world today,” she wrote.
There is no widely agreed-upon rulebook for what role entertainers, especially very famous white ladies, should take in conversations about systemic racism. Over the past few months, Gaga’s actions have including handing her Instagram over to different racial-justice nonprofits she has donated to; scrapping a speech she recorded for the Dear Class of 2020 virtual commencement event and filming a new one addressing the protests; and writing a handful of mini-essays on social media that condemned anti-Black violence and called out Trump for “fueling a system that is already rooted in racism.” But it’s not hard to find pop fans who have taken to social media to note they wish she would say more.
Right now, she’s trying to listen more than she talks while also trying to be clear about where she stands. “When you’re born in this country, we all drink the poison that is white supremacy,” she says. “I am in the process of learning and unlearning things I’ve been taught my whole life.” It’s a process she thinks benefits from time and care. “Social justice is not just a literacy, it’s a lifestyle,” she continues. “What do I think about [posting] a black square? I think everybody has a different feeling about a black square. Do I think there’s such a thing as performative activism? Yes. Do I think there’s been true activism that’s been very important and needed? Yes. Do I believe Black lives matter? Yes. Do I believe this is going to get louder? Yes. Do I believe it should? Yes.”
She’d like to bring some of these conversations into her art. House music was pioneered by queer people of color, and Gaga and her collaborators have tried to showcase its history: Ahead of Chromatica, BloodPop and Burns put together a “Welcome to Chromatica” playlist of songs that inspired the sound of the album, including tracks by queer house innovators like Frankie Knuckles. She also recently commissioned a remix of the Chromatica track “Free Woman” from producer and transgender activist Honey Dijon. “All music is Black music,” says Gaga. “That’s just a fact.”
She thinks these conversations will even inform her live show, too; she’d like to think they always have. What form that will take, Gaga isn’t sure. She is wary of hollow gestures and virtue signaling — “I call that the Lindseys: the girls that protest and are taking pictures of themselves like, ‘Look at me protesting!’ ” — but she is going to try to make her values even clearer: “To say that I would do it to make my show relevant? Absolutely not. I would do it to make my show right. I would do it to make my show good.”
Gaga hasn’t really started planning the Chromatica Ball. If 2020 has taught her anything, it’s not to get ahead of herself. “I’m going to learn so much from now until the day somebody tells me you can effectively social distance at a stadium,” she says, slipping into the slow, calm delivery of a Mister Rogers monologue. “When that day comes, I’m going to build a show that’s tailor-made with kindness. I’ve been through enough to tell you that even though we can’t go onstage now, I know we will. It’s painful, and it’s hard and scary, but I promise we won’t be six feet apart forever.”
In early June, “Rain on Me” debuted at the top of the Hot 100 and became Gaga’s fifth No. 1 single.
She notched her first, “Just Dance,” over 11 years ago. This kind of chart longevity is rare for women in pop, who face a set of expectations perhaps best summed up by Taylor Swift in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana. “The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists — they have to, or else you’re out of a job,” says Swift. “Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way, and only the way we want. And reinvent yourself, but only in the way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you.”
Maybe what has served Gaga well is the fact that she never bothered with fine-tuning her shape-shifting instincts in the first place. She has always taken them to the fullest and most extreme version of themselves, even at the risk of confounding the public. Yet Interscope’s Janick says it works out in the long run: You don’t get the hard reset of Cheek to Cheek without first getting the abrasive, over-the-top sounds of ARTPOP. And without Cheek to Cheek, you probably don’t get A Star Is Born. (Bradley Cooper sought her out for the role of Ally after seeing her perform “La Vie en Rose” at a fundraiser.) “It’s almost like she thought about all of this a decade in front of it,” says Janick. “It feels like it was all plotted out.”
Gaga herself says that courting audience expectations involves too much guesswork. “I have no idea what people think or don’t think,” she says, laughing. “I really don’t have an actual perfect grasp on how I’m viewed.” How will she know if she’s giving audiences what they want? How do they know what they want? (She challenges the idea that Joanne, with its acoustic arrangements and lyrics about family, is more “normal” than Chromatica: “What’s not kooky about wearing a pink hat and singing in a country accent and calling yourself another name?”) “If you’re an artist,” she says, “and there is something you got to give, and you don’t even know why, but you were born that way, focus on that. Because that thing can’t be wrong.”
DO I BELIEVE BLACK LIVES MATTER? YES. DO I BELIEVE THIS IS GOING TO GET LOUDER? YES.
She puts her hands on her head, fingers intertwined, and goes quiet for a moment. “I can’t tell you what a comfort Fiona Apple has been during this time,” she continues. Apple’s latest, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, has been Gaga’s constant soundtrack — when she’s cooking, when she’s alone — and it has provided her with another kind of artistic compass. She’s been moved by the way it feels like there’s no distance between Apple’s music and her life. “I just reveled in the way that girl is so herself,” she says. “Anybody that’s going to tell me somebody is more relevant than Fiona Apple right now because they’ve got more followers on Instagram — I don’t have their number.” She starts flicking her fingers across her palm, making it rain invisible dollars. “That right there? That’s culture.”
Gaga spends a lot of our interview doing this: trying to define her value system and seemingly prove — to whom, exactly, is unclear — her own artist bona fides. She describes her career-spanning preoccupation with the darker side of fame as something God perhaps assigned her: “Maybe it will be Picasso and Matisse for me: the duality of Lady and Gaga, back and forth for decades as we explore cubism, i.e., electronic pop music, in many different forms — and sometimes jazz.” (She says this calmly and sweetly, and in the moment it doesn’t sound at all pretentious.) She mentions several times that Instagram is a fantasy you can’t get too swept up in; how when she was starting out, she hustled to get shows in rooms with real people, not likes. (On the topic of Instagram vanity: “It’s OK to post selfies — it’s fun, I do it too — but make sure it’s not the whole pie. You got to leave much more of the pizza open for all of that beautiful culture.”)
At one point, Gaga spends about two minutes reciting and annotating the lyrics to “911,” a Chromatica song about her antipsychotic medication, as if she is worried I’m not appreciating it enough. She punctuates each line with a little hand choreography: spinning her index fingers around her head, pushing an invisible force field around. “I mean, that’s poetry!” she says, smiling. “That’s not, like, ‘I’m in the club, there’s lots of bottles/I’ll have another, then bring the models.’”
Following her fixations is not always fun. It can be heavy, even painful, she says. But what better proof of her artistry, her humanity, than something she feels so compelled to get out of her system? She throws her hands up ecstatically. “What a privilege!” she says. “To be an artist for the world in 2020. What a year for a heart that bleeds.”
Gaga shot a video for “911” in August and says she felt so alive making it, maybe more than at any other point during the making of Chromatica. It’s a song about when your brain and your body feel at war with each other, and filming required her to revisit the kind of dark hole she was in when she wrote it. But she didn’t slip back down; she shook it off and went back to work — back to pulling that thread as far as it could take her. “Freedom for me is when I can go to the darkest part of my heart, visit things that are hard and then leave them behind,” she says just before saying goodbye. “Give them to the world, and spin all the pain into a puddle of gold.”