Deep Inside the Unreal World of Lady Gaga

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Schneider wasn't fated to appear on a Gaga album, so she makes do with the resources on hand, bringing to the microphone her makeup artist, Tara Savelo, a pretty blonde, and her hairstylist, Frederic Aspiras, who looks and acts much like a younger Jay Manuel from America's Next Top Model. She calls me over, too, and with a wave of her hand, cues us to yelp "Ooooh, electric!" in unison, twice. A producer hits playback, and for a moment, we hear our voices as part of a Gaga hook. It's catchy but ridiculous. "I love it!" she says, adding almost without pause, "Let's take it out." Destiny can be harsh.

She turns her attention to "Black Jesus † Amen Fashion," an autobiographical tune about her post-NYU year on the Lower East Side – which sounds like Deee-Lite as produced by Trent Reznor. There's a heavy industrial vibe to much of the album, a thread largely abandoned in pop since Michael Jackson's Blood on the Dance Floor: "It has a peaceful, joyful spirit with these sledgehammering, dark beats underneath," she says. "It's this really interesting dichotomy that I think represents the internal struggle and emotional state of a lot of my generation." "Fashion on the runway/ Work it, black Jesus," she sings in the chorus, over buzzy synth bass. As it finishes, she decides to add a chanted part: "Black, black, black, I wear black. Jesus is the new black, Jesus is the new black," plus a Jackson-esque "Ow!" "Isn't that fresh?" she says. "That's fresh as fuck! That's fresh like a Subway sandwich. Eat fresh, bitch!"

Exclusive Photos: Lady Gaga's Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

"This song is about moving down to the Lower East Side," she says, "and leaving behind all the old ways of thinking, whether it was what I should be when I grow up or what religion is," she says. "You can un-brainwash yourself – and it's as simple as putting on a dress. Or, for me, putting on leather." She pauses. "The album is sort of saying pop culture is the new religion."

As "Black Jesus" plays, Gaga whispers, "I'm gonna get in so much trouble." Then she smiles. "It couldn't possibly be more intense than it already is." She's embroiled in multiple controversies at the moment: She had to apologize for calling the idea that "Born This Way" is a Madonna rip-off "retarded" and publicly reverse her manager's decision to prevent Weird Al from releasing a parody; plus, the Catholic League is condemning her current single, "Judas."

Just as Gaga finishes with "Black Jesus," she gets an e-mail on her BlackBerry (no adornments, not even a pink case) informing her that a new edit of the "Judas" video is ready. Her assistant brings over her MacBook Air, and Gaga watches the clip – which recasts the 12 apostles as a sexy motorcycle gang, with Gaga as Mary Magdalene. As some particularly lush shots pops up, she lets out near-orgasmic moans. "Do you understand it?" she keeps asking me. "Hopefully, my fans will watch it hundreds of times to figure it out." Among the ideas she's trying to get across is that Judas' betrayal of Jesus could have been part of a divine plan, that Mary Magdalene should be seen as "apostle to the apostles," and also, that she looks supercute in an indigo cape.

She's bracing herself for criticism of the video – which turns out to be muted, largely because it's so arty that potential haters can't even figure it out. "I find most of the time I'm less criticized for what I'm saying and more criticized for saying anything at all," she says.

But the most annoying critique is the idea that she's just looking for attention. "I have attention," she says, and begins addressing her critics directly. "Is it that you believe that I am attention-seeking or shock for shock's sake, or is it just that it's been a long time since someone has embraced the art form the way that I have? Perhaps it's been a couple of decades since there's been an artist that's been as vocal about their opinions, as vocal about culture, religion, human rights, politics. I'm so passionate about what I do, every bass line, every drum fill, every EQ. Why is it that you don't want more from the artist, why is it that you expect so little, so when I give and give, you assume it's narcissistic?"

Later, she says the whole thing more succinctly: "I'm a real artist, a real musician, who happened to become a pop singer, who always wanted to be a pop star."

Photos: Lady Gaga's Fashion Evolution

Gaga wraps up vocals for Born This Way around five in the morning. She's driven home to her outer-borough hideaway ("a shimmy masterpiece," she calls the place); relaxes by watching part of Rocky IV again; falls asleep around six; snaps awake at 10; lies in bed watching an episode of Cops and eating a big egg sandwich ordered from a nearby deli ("I haven't been eating enough lately, I've been really busy"); falls asleep again at noon, has a pleasantly vivid sex dream ("I've been working very hard and feeling malnourished in some areas, oh, yes. Not entirely malnourished, though. Maybe I'm just greedy"); wakes up at four, showers, puts on her hair bow and a black bandanna from the "Judas" video; dances to Iron Maiden in her underwear; does her own makeup, slightly messily, including a fake beauty mark she calls "a fantasy mole"; throws a leather vest over a black tank top and skirt, pulls on her high-heeled stripper boots and spiked, fan-made sunglasses; and heads out to Newark, New Jersey, to play one of the final shows of the Monster Ball Tour.

We meet up on her way there, in midtown Manhattan. Her SUV stops in the middle of the block to let me in, and with Gaga visible on the passenger side, the car is surrounded by little monsters of various ages and ethnicities. "They're really sweet," she says. "It was only one person, and then all of a sudden there were a lot of people." They're all wearing smiles of pure wonder, like they're meeting Kiss, or princesses at Disney World. Gaga's security guys – especially a Dutch one who's so grimly efficient that he may actually be a Terminator – watch closely, but stay back. After she signs her last autograph and poses for her last picture, she climbs into the back seat next to me, and the car heads off to the Lincoln Tunnel.

"Do you want a cigarette?" she says, pulling two American Spirits from a pack. "I don't smoke," she says, lighting up. "I just pretend to."

She leaves her window open as we drive through midtown, resulting in some dropped jaws from pedestrians. Ashing the cigarette out the window after a theatrical puff, she talks about a recurring dream she just got over. "I had something evil inside of me, or something that was negative, and there was this white wall, and in order to get it out of me, I had to stand against the wall and hit it and I'd see it – like an essence would fly out of my soul center, and then it would be gone."

The dream, she thinks, "is just a quest for bravery, that's all." You're so self-confident, I say, but is there anxiety about moving onto the next project? She looks aghast. "Self-confident?" she says. Her eyes are open wide, the lids smeared with makeup, and the pupils don't have that charismatic, crazy glow – they just look sad and tired and very human. "What are you talking about? Part of me is confident, part of me is just like anyone."

Anyway, discussing this stuff is making her uncomfortable. "I don't know if I delve so deeply into my psychology," she says. "I fear that will drive me crazy, so maybe we should stop. I don't see a shrink, I've never seen a shrink. Inevitably, the question is always, 'Let's talk about the real you,' and I'm like . . . who? What are you looking for?"

As we head onto a Newark side street, Gaga spots a sign on a brick building that reads APOSTLES' HOUSE FOOD PANTRY. She gasps – with the video coming out, it's an omen – and makes the car pull over. She wants to go in, but it's closed, so she settles for taking a picture on the steps of the building.

In the arena, everything is ready for her. Her band is onstage, working up a version of "Judas," which will debut on Ellen in a few days. But first we're led to her huge dressing room, its mirror festooned with unicorns. In a box in one corner is her traveling vinyl collection, all classic rock and metal: Ziggy Stardust, Born in the U.S.A., Glass Houses, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Appetite for Destruction. In the same box is a Family Guy DVD.

After she rehearses "Judas" – standing in the middle of the empty arena, mic in hand – her parents show up: her dad, Joseph, tall and burly in khakis and a button-down shirt; her mom, Cynthia, petite and blond in flowing silk. They're clearly used to all this by now, each wearing backstage passes with their pictures on them. They plop down on dressing-room couches like it's their living room.

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