Deep Inside the Unreal World of Lady Gaga

Unicorns, sex dreams and the freak revolution of the monster goddess

lady gaga 1132 cover rolling stone
Ryan McGinley
Lady Gaga on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

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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.

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."

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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.

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!"

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"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."

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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.

Gaga's dad underwent open-heart surgery in the fall of 2009, after initially refusing. "He was like, 'I'm gonna die . . . just let me die,'" Gaga recalls. Gaga wrote her song "Speechless" about it – but the tune wasn't enough to convince him to get the surgery. When she was staying at home one night, their dog, Alice, fell down the stairs – Gaga heard her mom scream and thought the worst. "I ran to the stairs, and my father was standing there holding Alice, and I just said, 'That's fucking it,' and I brought him into the office and I said, 'Pick up the phone and do it right now.' He made a full recovery – doctors said that he had the surgery just in time."

As if saving his life weren't enough, Gaga introduced him to his hero, Bruce Springsteen – the Germanottas and the Springsteens had a big dinner together. "That was like meeting the pope for me," says her dad. He seems mellowed by all these experiences, cracking up at a reminder of a brief encounter two years ago, when he poked me in the chest and told me to "keep it clean." We talk for a while about Springsteen, Clemons and his career selling Wi-Fi to hotels (Hotelchatter.com called him the "godfather of hotel Wi-Fi") – until Gaga spots us. "Da-ad, be careful what you say," she says.

"We're talking about Wi-Fi," he says.

"That's worse," she says, rolling her eyes in distinctly teenager-y fashion.

Easter is in two days, and Gaga's parents want to know if she's coming to church with them. "Father O'Connor would love to see you," her dad says.

"I bet," she says.

"Really! He asks for you all the time."

"You sure you want to take me to church on Easter? I just put out a single called 'Judas'! Should I wear a dress that says, 'Buy my new single, "Judas," on iTunes'?"

Gaga's garish blond wig has its own pre-show rituals; Aspiras styles and blow-dries it on a stand. Now it's firmly affixed to Gaga's head, and she's wearing a shiny leotard and fishnets. She joins her band and dancers – there are at least 20 people here – in the hallway, and everyone holds hands for a prayer, delivered by a nearly naked male dancer in a bathrobe. "Lord, as we bow our heads tonight, thank you for allowing us to come together safe and sound," he says in a rapid cadence. "Bless Gaga, bless her voice, her body, her stamina . . . bless the band and their instruments, the dancers and their feet, the background singers and their vocals, Lord."

Gaga's in-ear monitors are popped in, and she starts the long march down tiled halls toward the stage, flanked by her day-to-day manager, her security guys, her hairstylist, her makeup artist. She's due onstage in about two minutes, but you'd never know it – she's occupying herself on her stroll by spraying deodorant at members of her entourage.

"It's girl deodorant," she says when they protest. "It's like perfume! I use girl perfume even though I'm a man. Even though I have a penis. That's my favorite rumor about me."

Inside the arena, the lights go out, and the crowd is screaming – not cheering, screaming. (During the show, a steady stream of passed-out little monsters arrives over the barricade – it's like one of those Michael Jackson shows in Bucharest.) As she waits by the backstage entrance, Gaga bursts into the chorus of her new song "The Edge of Glory" in full, throaty voice, just for herself.

After practically every song, Gaga ducks into a tiny tent underneath the stage, where she changes outfits and is given sips of diet soda and coconut water. The show is sufficiently grueling that it's not unheard of for her to demurely puke a couple of times in there, too – though not tonight.

Hanging above Gaga's dressing-room mirror, in a pricey-looking jagged black frame, is a huge photo of a lean, long-haired guy in black leather. This is Luc Carl – her on-and-off boyfriend, and the inspiration for many of her songs. She told me two years ago that much of her debut, The Fame, was about their relationship ("I was his Sandy and he was my Danny, and I just broke," she said), and "Bad Romance" seems to be its theme song. "That story has been through all three of my albums," she says now. "Everyone has a muse." Her most personal and joyous song, the new power ballad "Yoü & I" – produced by Mutt Lange, with a guitar solo by Brian May – is explicitly about the pair resuming their relationship: She sings of returning to the bar where they met (St. Jerome's, on the Lower East Side): "Been two years since I let you go . . . This time I'm not leaving without you." It's so emotional that she wept uncontrollably while she recorded the vocal.

But despite singing about it every night, she doesn't want to talk about it anymore – she wants to protect it, to keep it for the two of them. I encounter Carl backstage, but she asks me to keep the details off the record. She used to say that she would have to choose between music and love. But her relationship with Carl – a drummer, bartender and marathoner who has a blog and a book-in-progress about a fitness program he calls the Drunk Diet – suggests otherwise.

She gently addresses that topic. "Yes, but it's not quite that simple," she says, sitting in a Chicago hotel suite the week after Newark. She's just finished an Oprah performance of "Yoü & I," and still has a flesh-colored horn attached to each side of her forehead.

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"But my life is not as black and white as my hair," she continues. "It's much more complicated than that." The relationship is "very intense," she says, so "you have both, but each lives off of and suffers off of each other, and you just have to commit to what you believe in and fight for what you love, and that's it." So the problem is balancing it all? She shakes her head. "I'm not terribly interested in balance, and to be honest, anyone that loves me knows that about me and accepts that about me."

It'd be nice to think that Gaga could find some happiness – especially because she says some disturbing things. Back in Nashville, we discussed the twin fates of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, the strange consequences of extreme fame in America. "You think I'm at that level?" she asks. It's within sight, I suggest. "That's more terrifying than anything, that you think that."

She ponders the idea for a moment. "If it is my destiny to end up that way, then it shall be so," she says, not blinking.

In Chicago, she dips into the darkness again. "Here's what I will say to you. What I will say to you is that when I am not onstage, I feel dead, and when I'm onstage, I feel alive," she says. "Whether that is healthy or not to you, or healthy or not to anyone, or a doctor, is really of no concern to me. I don't feel alive unless I'm performing, and that's just the way I was born."

It should be worrisome, this kind of talk – but I can't help thinking about a moment in Newark as she headed offstage. She'd taken her bows, the crowd was streaming up the arena stairs. But as the recorded version of "Judas" blared over the sound system, Lady Gaga began to move again. On the far-right side of the stage, in view of only a dozen or so straggling fans, she kicked up her stripper boots, dancing harder than she had all night. The show was over, but the performance hadn't ended. It didn't look like it would ever stop.

This is a story from the June 9th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1132: June 9, 2011