When we last met, in May 2009, Gaga had yet to headline a single arena show, and offered only a vague hint of what became her second record, The Fame Monster ("It's monster-inspired," she told me. "I watch monster movies when I have any alone time"). She felt misunderstood – even more so than now. "You remember, when I met you, it was a completely different time in my career," she says. "Being myself in public was very difficult. I was being poked and probed, and people would actually touch me and touch my clothes and be like, 'What the fuck is that,' just so awful. It was like I was being bullied by music lovers, because they couldn't possibly believe that I was genuine. I was too different or too eccentric to be considered sincere."
What's changed most about Gaga is a newfound sense of mission, coupled with a symbiotic, almost unnervingly intense connection with her fans. "We have this umbilical cord that I don't want to cut, ever," she says. "I don't feel that they suck me dry. It would be so mean, wouldn't it, to say, 'For the next month, I'm going to cut myself off from my fans so I can be a person.' What does that mean? They are part of my person, they are so much of my person. They're at least 50 percent, if not more."
She's crowd-sourced her offstage wardrobe, mostly wearing clothes her fans give her; she decorates her dressing room with their art and gifts (there has been an endless parade of unicorns ever since fans found out about a Born This Way track called "Highway Unicorn [Road to Love]" – a white one in her dressing room has a heart pinned on it with the words "You changed my life forever"). Asked what she's read lately that inspired her, she only mentions her fans' letters: "There are all kinds of stories, all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of journeys," she says. (An unauthorized peek at a random letter from a 15-year-old boy, handwritten in heart-wrenchingly neat print on lined school paper: "I am an extremely devoted little monster, and I'll be a little monster for life . . . At every concert you've said that you want to liberate us, and that is what you've done. Your songs have taught me to not listen to haters and be who I am, because, baby, I was born this way!")
She truly believes she's been reborn as Mother Monster – hence the giant egg she arrived in at the Grammys, emerging only for her performance. (What if she had to pee? "I don't pee. I don't have waste organs. I was born without them," she says primly, not quite suppressing a giggle.) "I actually have become a better artist because of my fans," Gaga says. "The Monster Ball has been one of the most critical moments of my life, where I've realized that my purpose on the Earth is so much greater than writing hit songs. There's something about my relationship with my fans that's so pure and genuine. During the show, I say, 'I don't lip-sync, and I never will, because it is in my authenticity that you can know the sincerity of my love for you. I love you so much that I sweat blood and tears in the mirror every day, dancing, writing music, to become better for you to be a leader, to be strong and brave, not to follow.'
"Someone said to me, 'If you have revolutionary potential, you have a moral imperative to make the world a better place.' And my fans are a revolution. They are living proof that you don't have to conform to anything to change the world."
She doesn't blink much during this monologue, and her eyes take on a messianic glow underneath their flamboyant fake lashes. I suddenly wonder, is she doing human things these days – eating and sleeping, for instance? "No," she says, sounding proud. "Only music and coffee."
She's been looking differently at her pre-Gaga days, when she was Stefani Germanotta, attending the upscale, all-girls Catholic school Convent of the Sacred Heart on the Upper East Side. "It wasn't until I put my music out in the world that I was able to look into myself," she says, "and honor my own misfit and honor the reality of how I was treated when I was a kid, not by my family, but by peers in school, and how it affected me."
Her tone softens. She blinks. She's not being interviewed. She's just talking. "Being teased for being ugly, having a big nose, being annoying, right?" She narrows her eyes and assumes the voice of long-ago mean girls: '"Your laugh is funny, you're weird, why do you always sing, why are you so into theater, why do you do your makeup like that, what's with your eyebrows?' I used to do these really big Evita brows. I used to self-tan, and I had this really intense tan in school, and people would say, Why the fuck are you so orange, why do you do your hair that way, are you a dyke? Why do you have to look like that for school?' I used to be called a slut, be called this, be called that. I didn't even want to go to school sometimes."
Gaga is well aware that reporters have found former classmates who say Stef was actually popular. "I've seen all of those quotes," she says, "and all of those people were bullies! Perhaps it's their way of trying to redeem themselves."
She's convinced that the bullying was what drove her to emotionally abusive relationships when she was younger, and led to what she's described as a period of cocaine binges after she left NYU and moved to the Lower East Side. "It was something so painful," she says. "This huge wound that had been inside of me for so long that I had buried in drugs and alcohol and older men and over and over in a cycle of just unhappiness with myself and looking outward to fix it, to numb it. My fans forced me to respond to it."
Hours later, after the show, there's a tornado warning in Nashville, but Gaga's private plane is going to take off anyway. The crew is jittery, and no one finds it particularly amusing that Gaga's makeup artist is wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan T-shirt. But as she rides to the airport, Gaga is serene, cracking Wizard of Oz jokes: "New York City," she sighs, still splattered in stage blood underneath her leather jacket. "There's no place like home."
The cosmos, she believes, simply won't allow a plane crash. "I have way too much at stake," she says, back in messiah mode. "God wants Born This Way to come out – that plane's going straight to New York." I can't help pointing out that even if the plane went down, the album would come out. She nods – point taken – and laughs, unafraid.
The clock is still ticking in the New York studio, but Gaga has yet another Eighties-ish idea for "Electric Chapel" – she wants to add a campy, "Rock Lobster"-style spoken-word bit. It's all about emphasizing the chorus: "When I say 'electric chapel,' something needs to occur," she says. "It needs to be more fantasy. You should see the empress of the Vatican unicorn planet appear and soar across the nightclub." I half-jokingly suggest that she actually enlist the B-52s' Fred Schneider for the part, and she appears to consider it for a second. A similar whim, inspired by the album's anthemic bent, convinced the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons to hop onto a plane from Miami on literally five minutes' notice. "It was, 'We need Clarence,' and he was here," says Russell. "It was like in Bewitched."
"I don't like to see it like a queen summoning her court," Gaga adds later. "I don't attribute those moments in my life to me because of any sort of power. I believe it to be destiny – that it was Clarence's destiny and my destiny for Clarence to be on my record." Clemons, who describes himself as a "Gaga-ite," played on two of the album's most arena-ready tracks, "The Edge of Glory" and "Hair" – Gaga asked him to play on the title track as well, but, according to her dad, Clemons told her it didn't need him. "I don't think I can do anything with that one," he said.
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