For a young woman who's dressed like an alien empress, Lady Gaga is acting strangely human. She's curled up with her ex-model boyfriend, Speedy, on a tour-van seat, looking as cozy as anyone in a sparkly, curve-clutching cat suit with spiked, winglike shoulders could possibly get. "He thinks I'm pretty," Gaga purrs, batting huge false eyelashes as she rests her platinum-blond head on Speedy's shoulder, nearly poking his eye out with a shoulder spike.
As the van cruises along California's 405 freeway, heading from an Irvine amphitheater to a Burbank soundstage, fireworks bloom in the distant sky over Disneyland. Gaga, who's been munching handfuls of kettle corn and sipping from a can of Diet Coke, turns pensive. "What am I doing right now?" she asks, sounding sleepy and uncharacteristically vulnerable. "Who am I?"
With theatrical timing, an interloper chirps an answer from the back seat: "You're the new princess of pop!"
The voice belongs to the gossip blogger Perez Hilton, an early and fervent Gaga supporter. He's been hanging around all day in his leopard-print Adidas T-shirt, offering compliments and toothy smiles. Gaga laughs, shocked at the near-scripted perfection of the moment. "You are," Hilton drawls, flashing the teeth.
Less than an hour ago, in front of 15,000 shrieking teens at the radio concert Wango Tango, Gaga sang a set that included both "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" — the synthed-up, Eighties-flavored dance-pop hits that, along with her art-damaged, Euro-futuristic fashion sense, have made her the defining pop star of 2009: She reigns over a self-created, plasticized aesthetic universe with Madonna-esque assurance — and offsets her oddness with shamelessly ingratiating pop hooks. With its refrain of "Just dance/Gonna be OK" (the narrator is so wasted at the club that she's lost her keys and phone), Gaga's first hit could be heard as a keep-on-pushing anthem or an endorsement of total denial — either way, perfect recession fodder. "Poker Face," in its way, has more layers — it's about Gaga wanting to sleep with a woman while she's dating a guy (hence the line "I'm bluffin' with my muffin"). The two hits have led to a platinum album — an increasingly rare feat — and nearly 10 million digital singles sold, per Nielsen SoundScan.
A few days earlier, the 23-year-old singer played a concert in New York that felt like a coronation: Madonna (with daughter Lourdes in tow) and Cyndi Lauper both turned up. And on tonight's new episode of Saturday Night Live, Justin Timberlake gives his own endorsement, singing loving, dead-on parody versions of both singles. (A week later, Rivers Cuomo will sing part of "Poker Face" at a Weezer show.)
In the face of tween pop's relentless cuteness assault, Gaga — who worships Andy Warhol and Grace Jones, and thanks David Bowie and Madonna for inspiration in her liner notes — is a pop star for misfits and outcasts. She would rather look interesting than pretty. "I don't feel that I look like the other perfect little pop singers," says Gaga, who has a still-unreleased song called "Ugly Sexy." "I think I look new. I think I'm changing what people think is sexy."
In the van, Gaga laughs as she watches for the first time a video for "Butterface," a vicious "Poker Face" parody (sample lyric: "You were thinking that I'm a 10/But my body's like a Barbie/And my face is like a Ken"). In truth, Gaga's attractive, slightly off-kilter features — ethnic nose, prominent front teeth — seem almost infinitely mutable: One day she looks like Debbie Harry, the next, Donatella Versace. But up close, she's always softer, prettier and younger-looking than her ultrastylized photos might suggest.
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