In a dark, airless studio control room on the third floor of a downtown-Manhattan office building, Lady Gaga is clutching a toy unicorn and talking about Rocky IV. She's eight hours away from finishing vocals for her third album, Born This Way, which is supposed to be out in less than a month. But even with deadlines looming ("soon" is all anyone will say, ominously, about the final cutoff), even in the computer monitors' dim light, even while she sips from a can of Coke Zero through a bendy straw, she is resplendent in her Gaganess: Her blond hair extensions are in dual ponytails, rising up like her unicorn's horn; her bangs are a contrasting black; her dramatic cat-eye makeup extends well past the edges of her lids. She's wearing tights with a small rip in the left thigh, a bra top, knee-high "stripper boots" and a hugely oversize denim jacket with the cross-and-heart cover art of her current single, "Judas," painted on it – a present from a fan. Until a moment ago, she was wearing a beret that made her resemble a particularly fashion-forward Guardian Angel.
"Whenever I get sad, I think of little monsters and go like this," Gaga coos, making the unicorn's tiny horn light up. "Fight on, little pony, fight on!" Her admirers call themselves little monsters; in the oft-heartbreaking letters they pass up to the stage, they call her Mother Monster. In three years of fame, Gaga has amassed 34 million Facebook friends and 1 billion YouTube clicks; hip teens in China express surprise by saying, "Oh, my Lady Gaga." She's reshaped pop in her image, telling kids it's cool to be gay or freaky or unpopular, that they're born that way: a message that's largely been absent from the charts since Nineties alt-rock's outcast chic. Gaga may, on occasion, draw heavily from the music and iconography of her heroes, but her influence on her own peers is even more obvious: Miley Cyrus and Christina Aguilera practically destroyed their careers trying to copy her; Rihanna and Katy Perry keep getting weirder (see Perry's "E.T." video); Ke$ha is allowed to be famous.
Not to mention the now-inescapable four-on-the-floor dance beats that Gaga reintroduced to pop radio – a sound she's now trying to reinvent. "Step away from the formula!" says Gaga, who's infused the new album with her passion for vintage rock. "If I could get those epic choruses on the dance floor, that for me is the triumph of the album."
But Gaga still feels like an underdog – so she's been watching the Rocky movies. Rocky is a lot like Gaga, minus the meat dress, giant egg and 10-and-counting hit singles: small, scrappy, Italian-American, always in competition with more flawless physical specimens. Last night, she saw the fourth film for the first time, crying when Rocky triumphed over the evil Soviet Ivan Drago. "My favorite part," Gaga says with rapt enthusiasm, "is when Apollo's ex-trainer says to Rocky, 'He is not a machine. He's a man. Cut him, and once he feels his own blood, he will fear you.'" (She actually invented at least half of this quote, but whatever.)
"I know it sounds crazy, but I was thinking about the machine of the music industry," she continues. "I started to think about how I have to make the music industry bleed to remind it that it's human, it's not a machine. I kept saying to myself today, 'No pain, no pain, I feel nothing.'" She punches the air. "Left hook, right hook. I've been through so much worse in my life before I became a pop singer that I can feel no pain in the journey of the fight to the top." She pauses, and quotes AC/DC: "'It's a long way to the top if you want to rock & roll.' It is! But at the end of the day, everything has a heart, everything has a soul – sometimes we forget that."
She squeezes her unicorn – Gagacorn, she's named it – and makes it light up again. "Only men would put the most phallic symbol on a mythical creature meant to rejuvenate the joy of every little girl," she says. Gaga turned 25 in March, but often seems much older or younger. When she's working, she's the most serious adult in the room, unquestionably the Monster in Chief. But in unguarded moments, she comes off as pleasantly stuck at around 19, the age she abandoned normal life, dropping out of NYU to become a superstar: "I just can't wait for my record to come out so that we can all get smashed and go pick it up," she says.
Even as she speaks, Gaga is working out vocal harmonies in her head for the song of the moment, a pulsing electro-rock Eighties thing called "Electric Chapel." Without fanfare or warm-up, she wheels her chair over to a microphone in the corner, pops on headphones and begins singing an endless series of variations on the chorus. "That's kind of Duran Duran, isn't it?" she says after one take. "Duran Duran is my major harmony inspiration – all signs point to Duran Duran." Then she tries another one at the sexy, Cher-like bottom register of her voice. "I like that one better, it's more Billy Idol."
A few minutes ago, she asked if the EQ on'a single line had been altered. It had, and they change it back. Consulting an extensive to-do list she's scrawled in a notebook, Gaga turns her attention to the placement of one of the song's many hooks, where she roars a bluesy "meet me, meet me" over pounding drums – should that part come in earlier? They tweak it, and she's pleased. "Now it feels more like Seventies rock. It's Janis Joplin all night."
"No, it's Lady Gaga," says one of her producers, Paul Blair, a.k.a. DJ White Shadow, a lanky dude from Chicago wearing a hoodie advertising the downtown bar Angels & Kings.
"I know," she says. "But I can't reference myself. Not yet."
She starts musing about meeting a bunch of Disney princesses during an Orlando tour stop. "I had a visceral fan reaction when I saw them, very similar to when I met Kiss for the first time," she says with a giggle. (Some of Born This Way's retro R&B-pop moments were inspired by, of all things, Kiss' 1977 cover of "Then She Kissed Me.") "A Disney princess has the same emotional quality for me as a rock legend. What's so magical about a band like Kiss or someone like Elton John is their otherworldly feeling. When I met Kiss, they could have all floated off the ground and it wouldn't have surprised me. In a Kiss concert, Paul Stanley flies across the arena, and it's oddly normal. It's just, like, 'But of course.' I want to do that. But I don't want it to be in a stage moment, I need to re-create it in an everyday situation. I need to be in the supermarket and fly across. That needs to happen! I'm a sucker for theatrics – what do you want from me?"
What her producers and engineer actually want is a break. They haven't slept in days, and that's after traveling the world for a year with Gaga to get this album done in the middle of a 200-plus-date arena tour. She's proud of being harder to work with than a typical pop singer. "I am a real artist, and I'm so involved," says Gaga. "Usually the artist comes in, cuts a vocal and leaves, and these guys do their business and send it back."
"We weren't used to having an artist be so in control," says her other producer, Fernando Garibay – small and unassuming, also in a hoodie. "It's not in our repertoire, in this generation of producers, to have an artist that comes in and knows exactly what she wants."
"I don't know if I can speak for everybody else," says Blair. "But there's no other artist in the world I would put this much effort into."
"Cough-Britney-cough," engineer Dave Russell, a stubbly British guy in a knit cap, says into his hand. Gaga gives him a gentle, un-Rocky-like punch. Fight on, little pony.
Lady Gaga has a fortress of solitude, of Gaga-tude, set up backstage at every stop of her Monster Ball Tour – a curtained, candlelit sanctuary. Two days earlier in a Nashville arena, she's curled up on a backstage couch in that room, beneath pictures of her heroes: Jimmy Page, Debbie Harry, the Sex Pistols, John Lennon and the Ramones, plus an Andy Warhol triptych of Elvis Presley, which serves double duty. There's also a smaller framed picture of Gaga with Elton John, who's become such a close friend that she's godmother to his son ("It's quite a job to fill," she says). Today, she's wearing the same $30 Penthouse boots and a leather motorcycle jacket over another tights-and-bra combo; she's sipping coffee from a mug decorated with cartoons from Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland, which she makes a point of showing off – she went down the rabbit hole long ago, and has no intention of coming out.
Why the rock-icon photos? "I just like to keep people around me that remind me of what I think is going to be, ultimately, part of my greater legacy," she says, "as opposed to committing myself to a trend or to an idea of what the public perceives my music or my artistry or personality to be. It reminds me to be myself." When Gaga enters interview mode, her syntax becomes self-consciously formal, and she sits up straighter – this is a new twist, a Mother Monster thing, that wasn't quite there when we spent time together two years ago.
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