Lady Gaga and Madonna on "Saturday Night Live."

Dana Edelson, NBC Universal Inc.

The cover of "Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame," by Emily Herbert


Goo-goo for Gaga, but how long?

  • Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2010 - 5:03 PM

Lady Gaga, now in 3-D -- of course.

The 23-year-old pop star who shot from wannabe to international idol in about 18 months is jumping on the "Avatar"/"Alice in Wonderland" train with plans for a 3-D concert and DVD -- as if watching her weren't already intense enough. As her "Monster Ball" tour continues whipping up fan hysteria worldwide, you have to wonder how she can possibly keep up the momentum that's been key to her popularity.

In England, ticket prices for her Monster Ball tour recently jumped to more than $110, double what they were a few months ago. The double Grammy winner has gained admirers ranging from Helen Mirren to Perez Hilton. But if she doesn't keep pumping up the volume on more than her hairdos, will her ball of fame be prematurely doused? Might be time to take a cue from her fellow "SNL" performer, Madonna.

Despite her sustained drawing power, Madonna's taken an image beating lately. If she's not slammed for having overly sinewy arms, she's damned for consorting with male models half her age. Hip young bloggers turn into 1950s fishwives when it comes to the Material Girl of a Certain Age.

Except when they're Gaga-ing in the same breath. Everyone's calling Lady Gaga the next Madonna, and this time they mean it as a compliment. Understandably so -- same career trajectory, blonde ambition and determination to control their own destinies. Same image-finessing instincts, drag-queen adulation, and expertise at blending sound and style. For Madonna, fingerless gloves and hair bandannas gave way to cone-bra and glamour-girl phases. For Lady Gaga, giant bows made out of her own hair have led to ever more outrageous makeup and architectural costumes (including cone bras).

She chose a blood-red ensemble with outsized Elizabethan collar and disturbing eye patches for her performance get-up on the night she was to meet Queen Elizabeth. Curtsy and minimal flesh exposure notwithstanding, she looked more like Anne Boleyn post-gallows than pop royalty meeting real royalty. Madonna would have opted for less freakish ostentation and revealed her whole face.

That's the thing about her Royal Gah-ness. She may writhe onstage in glorified panties, but she's always wearing a mask. To catch a glimpse of the pre-shellacked Gaga, you have to reach into YouTube's vault and check out her cover of Led Zeppelin's reggae hit "D'yer Maker." Her videos, concert footage and even still images always look more scary than sexy. Madonna has had her share of fearsome moments, but with her it's never been a constant freak show.

Madonna has been the subject of pop-culture college classes. Gaga isn't there yet, so we just have Emily Herbert's quickie, predictably vapid bio, "Behind the Fame" (Overlook Press, $15), one of at least nine to be published this year.

Gaga's musical education was far superior to Madonna's. Born Stefani Germanotta to Internet-entrepreneur parents Joe and Cynthia, Gaga began playing piano at age 4, studied classical composers, played New York jazz clubs on open-mike nights at 14 (accompanied by her mother), and at 17 was admitted to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

Memorable quotes include:

• "I see things in a fragmented, psychotic manner."

• "We would wear matching bikinis and go-go dance to Black Sabbath records and Metallica and Pentagram, whatever it was that we were into at the time. And light hair spray on fire!" -- on her early performance art with mentor Lady Starlight.

• "Good evening, Blackpool. Let me hear you rattle your jewelry!" (No word on whether the Queen of England, who was in attendance, complied.)

• "If you're on an island, stranded, and all you have is sticks and leaves and pineapples, you're going to make a boat out of sticks and leaves and pineapples. I view glamour and celebrity life and these plastic assumptions as the pineapples. And I spend my career harvesting pineapples, and making pies and outfits and lipsticks that will free my fans from their stranded islands." (This quote, taken in full from a Los Angeles Times article by Ann Powers, is shortened to even greater incomprehensibility in the book.)

Gaga has a wordy tattoo -- in German -- by Rilke about the love of writing, hardly one of his best. If she's as smart as she seems, she shouldn't try so hard. The lady doth etch too much. She also might be the first pop star to offer a lock of her own hair for sale, as part of a special "Fame Monster" bundle ($110). Madonna may be an unabashed capitalist, but she would never be so gauche, or creepy.

In her book, Herbert predicts that Gaga's future "is going to be massive." But the shock of the new fades cruelly and quickly in the age of viral videos and instant global information access. Huge fan bases get restless sooner. For now, Gaga's diehard fans, her "Little Monsters," love to repeat her name, as she does herself in her hit "Bad Romance," reveling in its slightly obscene sound. But for how long?

In terms of endurance and sheer number of identity shifts, Madonna still reigns as the queen of pop reinvention. If Gaga's next phase is more about provoking thought than shock, she could be on her way there herself.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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