The tragic aunt who died at the age of 19 and an over-pro­tec­tive in­ter­net en­trepreneur fa­ther... as she signs up for Ve­gas res­i­dency, the fam­ily and in­flu­ences that shaped singer Lady Gaga

The star will put on two wildly dif­fer­ent shows in Las Ve­gas, the fu­tur­is­tic pop odyssey Enigma, and Jazz & Pi­ano, which will fea­ture stan­dards from the Great Amer­i­can Song­book. He­len Brown on the story be­hind the pop and screen sen­sa­tion

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE -

The au­thor Tom Wolfe said that Las Ve­gas “is the only town whose sky­line is made up nei­ther of build­ings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wil­bra­ham, Mas­sachusetts, but signs.” Now, the new­est of those signs is lit up with the name of Lady Gaga, an artist who has spent the last decade danc­ing and limp­ing by turns around the daz­zling mi­rage of her own su­per­star­dom. While sell­ing up­wards of 31 mil­lion pop al­bums, 32-year-old Ste­fani Ger­man­otta has dressed in meat, bro­ken down the lyrics of her hits into ro­botic syl­la­bles and ap­peared in the raw drag per­sona of a misog­y­nis­tic ex-lover at the 2011 MTV Awards, sneer­ing on this most pub­lic stage that a su­per­star like her was in­ca­pable of ex­press­ing real emo­tion, even in the bed­room.

As any­one who’s seen her live knows, the big re­veal comes when she steps aside from the lay­ers of de­tach­ment, irony and ex­treme the­atri­cal­ity to throw back her head to yell, “Sur­prise! A pop show, and the bitch can sing!”, right be­fore hurl­ing her mighty heart and lungs into one of her whop­ping pi­ano bal­lads.

It is a trick Gaga at­tempted to re­peat — with less suc­cess — in the stu­dio with her 2016 al­bum Joanne. In a coun­try in­creas­ingly un­sure about what is real and what is fake news, her shift away from wink­ingly ar­ti­fi­cial synth pop to­wards “mu­sic with the make-up off ” could have landed a real punch. But the im­pact was cush­ioned by bland pro­duc­tion, and the al­bum shifted fewer units than her pre­vi­ous records.

She was more suc­cess­ful on cel­lu­loid, reach­ing a more main­stream, mul­ti­plex au­di­ence in Bradley Cooper’s 2018 re­make of A Star is Born, in which she plays a strug­gling singer-song­writer who gets her break with the help of a sta­dium-fill­ing coun­try rocker on the wane. The film’s best scene sees a shy wait­ress make a re­luc­tant dash on to the stage at her new beau’s re­quest and belt out her own song Shal­low to rap­tur­ous ap­plause.

Else­where, the film sags un­der the weight of Cooper’s earnest mes­sage about the im­por­tance of mu­si­cal au­then­tic­ity, giv­ing it what New Yorker critic Richard Brody nailed as “the throw­back air of a fea­ture-length ‘disco sucks’ rally” with too much of Cooper’s char­ac­ter “art-splain­ing” to Gaga’s. But A Star is Born has al­ready grossed $382m (£302m) and the sound­track (co-writ­ten and per­formed by Gaga) has topped the charts in 15 coun­tries (in­clud­ing the UK and US). Gaga is now hotly tipped to win Best Ac­tress and Best Orig­i­nal Song Oscars at the Acad­emy Awards.

Those out of the Sin City loop may think it odd for a star on such a tra­jec­tory to sign up for Ve­gas. For decades, the Ne­vada city has been the place where Amer­ica put pop singers out to pas­ture. But the mood has been shift­ing since Brit­ney Spears be­gan draw­ing a younger, hip­per crowd with her 2013-2017 Piece of Me show, which earned the MGM Park casino ho­tel around $135m (£107m) in ticket sales alone. While that show was some­thing of a come­back — al­beit for a rel­a­tively young per­former — Bruno Mars signed up for his 2016 res­i­dency at the peak of his com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess and made 24K show­biz magic of it. Gaga has re­port­edly been given $100m rea­sons to de­liver a twoyear res­i­dency (also at the MGM Park). She’s an even bet­ter fit for Ve­gas than Spears or Mars. Ca­pa­ble of both vis­ually ex­ces­sive pop and el­e­gant old-school jazz (as show­cased on her 2014 al­bum with slick­ster Tony Ben­nett then in her 2015 Sound of Mu­sic med­ley at the 2015 Acad­emy Awards), Gaga will de­liver two shows. There’s Enigma: a giddy, fu­tur­is­tic “odyssey” through her wildest pop ad­ven­tures. Then there’s Jazz & Pi­ano, which will fea­ture stripped-down ver­sions of those hits along­side stan­dards from the Great Amer­i­can Song­book, a nod to her Rat Pack Ve­gas he­roes such as Frank Si­na­tra (whose sig­na­ture tune New York, New York she per­formed at a 2015 trib­ute).

It seems odd that, as an out­spo­ken cam­paigner for women’s rights (speak­ing openly about be­ing raped at the age of 19 and launch­ing a do­mes­tic abuse aware­ness cam­paign with for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den in 2017), Gaga is still keen to cel­e­brate the sound of a vi­o­lent nar­cis­sist like Si­na­tra (who once sent his body­guard to throw a plate of spare ribs at a woman who chal­lenged his pol­i­tics). But Gaga says she has al­ways been “aroused by dan­ger” and drawn to “wild men”, an is­sue she traces back to a child­hood dom­i­nated by a wild and over-pro­tec­tive fa­ther.

In re­cent in­ter­views, Gaga has been frank about how in­ter­net en­trepreneur Joseph Ger­man­otta was trau­ma­tised by the death of his sis­ter, Joanne, who died of com­pli­ca­tions from lu­pus aged 19. Joanne hoped to be­come an artist un­til she was di­ag­nosed with the au­toim­mune con­di­tion, which was pos­si­bly trig­gered by sex­ual as­sault. The 2017 Net­flix doc­u­men­tary Gaga: Five Foot Two re­veals the heart­break­ing story of how doc­tors hoped to save Joanne’s life by am­pu­tat­ing her hands. But her mother — Gaga’s grand­mother — could not bear her ta­lented child to be de­prived of her hands and did not al­low the op­er­a­tion. In­stead, she watched Joanna die.

There’s a ten­der mo­ment in the doc­u­men­tary when Gaga’s eyes well up as she plays her grand­mother the song she wrote about Joanne in 2016, hold­ing a mo­bile phone to the el­derly woman’s ear. The be­reaved mother smiles and re­mains steady, warn­ing her emo­tional grand­daugh­ter not to “get mor­bid” over events that oc­curred be­fore she was born.

Mu­si­cally gifted from the age of three, Gaga grew up in a com­fort­able New York home sur­rounded by pho­to­graphs of her “guardian an­gel” Joanne. The child felt a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­plore the cre­ative life her aunt never had the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence. As an adult, she would re­alise that grief drove both her fa­ther’s party life­style and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep his pre­cious daugh­ter safe. Joseph kept lit­tle Ste­fani in­doors as much as pos­si­ble; she says she bat­tered her rage into her pi­ano “un­til my fin­gers bled” and re­joiced

Doc­tors hoped to save her aunt’s life by am­pu­tat­ing her hands

in her free­dom when he fi­nally al­lowed her to move into a dorm to study at New York Uni­ver­sity’s Tisch School of the Arts. There she de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. You could see much of her ca­reer — with all her zom­bie moves and blood spat­ters — as a flip of his shark piece The Phys­i­cal Im­pos­si­bil­ity of Death in the Mind of Some­one Liv­ing. Gaga’s ver­sion is the pos­si­bil­ity of emo­tional life in the mind of a woman who plays dead.

Her early shows as “Lady Gaga” (with a name lifted from the Queen song Ra­dio Gaga) were per­for­mance art pieces, in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of bur­lesque and drag cul­ture. But she soon de­vel­oped a knack for catchy pop hooks that saw her break into the main­stream with hits such as Poker Face in 2008. Dressed as a va­ri­ety of freak­ish char­ac­ters, she called on her Lit­tle Mon­sters fans to cel­e­brate their in­di­vid­u­al­ity and unique sex­u­al­ity.

Some­times that mes­sage could seem a lit­tle rich com­ing from a beau­ti­ful, white, skinny, wealthy woman in a sparkly leo­tard. But Lit­tle Mon­sters of all shapes, sizes, eth­nic­i­ties and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions took it to heart. They loved her for her hon­est ac­count of her strug­gles with her men­tal and phys­i­cal health as she bat­tled — and some­times al­lowed her­self to give in to — the chronic pain of fi­bromyal­gia, which wors­ened af­ter she broke her hip on tour in 2013, and caused her to can­cel the Eu­ro­pean tour dates at the be­gin­ning of this year.

If her 2017 Texas Su­per­bowl show lacked the cul­ture-shak­ing fe­roc­ity of Beyonce’s black power moves the pre­ced­ing year, it still in­cluded an up­beat plea for in­clu­siv­ity in the LGBT+ an­them Born This Way. Per­form­ing it made her the first per­son to say the words les­bian, gay, bi and trans­gen­der at Amer­ica’s big­gest sport­ing event.

When she first re­leased the song in 2011, some crit­ics sniffed at the sim­i­lar­i­ties it shares with Madonna’s 1989 em­pow­er­ment an­them Ex­press Your­self, but Gaga re­fuses to be com­pared with Madonna. “She’s a nice lady and she’s had a fan­tas­tic huge ca­reer,” she said in 2016. “But I play a lot of my own in­stru­ments. I write my own mu­sic. There is spon­tane­ity in my mu­sic, I al­low my­self to fail, I al­low my­self to break.”

Iron­i­cally, I think the songs Gaga is so proud of writ­ing may be her weak­est spot. Her stan­dard chord pro­duc­tions and MOR pro­duc­tion have sel­dom matched the orig­i­nal­ity of her im­age and mes­sage. I doubt many of them will en­dure. But then, Ve­gas isn’t go­ing to be about the songs. It’s go­ing to be about the spec­ta­cle and spine-tin­gle of the live per­for­mances, at which Gaga ex­cels.

Like Bar­bra Streisand — who played the lead in the 1976 ver­sion of A Star is Born — she’s a glo­ri­ous diva. And one who, un­like Streisand, lives in a time when it’s pos­si­ble and em­pow­er­ing for a diva to ex­pose the hu­man flaws be­hind the façade. She’s go­ing to make a per­fect il­lu­sion and gut-wrench­ing re­al­ity of her res­i­dency there. Gaga? Oh, ya ya! Gaga? Oh, w Ve­gas!

POP QUEEN: Lady Gaga, with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born (in­set) and (be­low) with fa­ther Joseph Ger­man­otta

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