IT'S DIFFICULT TO REMEMBER, but once upon a time, there was a long stretch of history when humanity went days, weeks, even lifetimes without hearing the words "Lady Gaga." It was nice. People read books and invented cotton gins. Baby talk was left to babies, and human consciousness was uncluttered with narcotically addictive retardo-hooks suggesting Teutonic chants shouted from a K-hole in Ibiza circa 1988. This time is gone, decimated by the hard work, good timing, and brilliant luck of a musical talent determined to carpe the shit out of her diems and succeeding beyond her wildest dreams.
The rise of Lady Gaga is a historical event I will never forget having witnessed. I say this as someone who lived through both the Apollo 11 moon landing and Madonna's wedding-dress-soiling performance of "Like a Virgin" at the 1984 Video Music Awards, two events that resonate richly with rise of Gaga. Like Madonna, Lady Gaga is exploding the boundaries of what a female artist can accomplish in the world of pop. Like the moon landing, grumpy nutjobs swear it's all just an elaborate hoax.
As with many non-diva-worshipping, non-dance-pop-obsessed music fans who nevertheless became interested in Lady Gaga, my interest came in two stages: noticing that Lady Gaga existed, and caring that Lady Gaga existed. Noticing came in the fall of 2008, with her performance at Seattle's the Last Supper Club, which coincided with the carpet-bomb rotation of her debut hit, "Just Dance." The Last Supper Club show was a notorious disaster, with Gaga arriving late from her earlier gig as opening act for the reunited New Kids on the Block at the Tacoma Dome and getting through just three songs before collapsing onstage amid rumors of excessive coke-iness. "Just Dance," however, proved beyond durable, staying in high rotation for half a year and ushering in a series of gigantaur follow-up hits. Any fledgling disco dolly would give a boob for a hit the size of "Just Dance" or "Poker Face" or "LoveGame" or "Paparazzi"; Lady Gaga cowrote and released all four, one after another, with the last of the group finally causing me to care.
I first met "Paparazzi" through its video, a seven-minute, Jonas Åkerlund–directed melodrama featuring Italian subtitles and an unlucky Gaga taking a near-fatal plunge off a second-story balcony. The scene of her post-hospital return made me officially love her: Upon being wheeled into her villa, grimacing in high-fashion makeup and neck brace, Gaga stands to lurch garishly forward on a pair of bejeweled forearm crutches. It's hideous—Madonna's haute couture spiked with Morrissey's "November Spawned a Monster"—and coming from a radio-ready pop star, it's daring as fuck.
Then there's the song, a prime slab of state-of-the-art Gaga pop that hits the ground running and crams enough hooks for five hits into its lithe three and a half minutes, even simulating lyrical depth by drawing an explicit connection between the drive to please Daddy and the hunger for fame. Like all of Gaga's strongest songs—"Just Dance," "LoveGame," "Paper Gangsta," the epic "Bad Romance"—"Paparazzi" seems to be composed of nothing but hooks: some melodic, some rhythmic, all freakishly effective at hijacking human brains. A clue to what's behind Gaga's facility with bionic earworms comes from her recent Rolling Stone cover story, which reveals that Gaga's synth-pop was largely inspired by concerns of the marketplace: After her Tori Amos–y piano balladry went nowhere, she replaced her singer/songwriter soul with a disco ball and got to work with a drum machine, ready and willing to make whatever music would speed her fastest toward fame.
In contrast to her outlandish visuals, Lady Gaga's music is deeply conventional, but ingeniously so, marrying hooky verses to hooky bridges to hooky choruses (which are often split into two increasingly hooky parts), with one-off bonus hooks thrown in here and there for kicks, all of it produced with a consistency that's positively ABBA-esque. Just as Stephin Merritt (himself a die-hard ABBA fan) has made a career out of studious distillations of the Great American Songbook, Gaga's doing the same with dance pop, identifying the genre's most effective intoxicants and boiling them down into unprecedentedly effective pop crack.
Blessed with the power to craft of-the-moment pop, young Stefani Germanotta could've kept her old nose and fleshy guidette figure and stayed behind the scenes à la Linda Perry, supplying megahits to pop stars who can't do for themselves and getting richer than God. But that wasn't enough for Lady Gaga, the Warhol-inspired persona Germanotta created to carry her songs to the world and secure her rightful portion of "The Fame." Even more than her gold-plated hits, Lady Gaga's extravagant, exhausting persona has become her best-known creation, with each week bringing another Gaga-shaped tornado of Halloween fashion, shameless product placement, and impassioned pro-gay proselytizing.
As anyone with an internet connection can attest, Lady Gaga's been wrestling with near-fatal levels of overexposure for at least a year, but somehow she's always come out on top, and watching the fight remains way more fun than not. Case in point #1: Gaga's week of hell-raising this summer in New York City, during which she wore a studded bra to a baseball game, flipped off photographers for paying attention to her instead of the game, and pissed off a stodgy Jerry Seinfeld just by existing. "Of course I got drunk at Yankee Stadium," Gaga told Vanity Fair, making it clear that, despite the continual costume changes and ceaseless touring, she's taking time to enjoy the shit out of her once-in-a-lifetime position. Case in point #2: the recent viral video of Gaga denouncing Arizona's immigration law from a Phoenix stage she refused to boycott because "we have to activate protests," as she puts it in her fiery minute-long sermon, throughout which she emphasizes her political points by gesturing with a hand clad in an enormous papier-mâché claw. Vive la Gaga!
Much is made of Gaga's extensive plundering of Madonna, but not enough is made of the speed and intensity with which this plundering has occurred. It took Madonna six years to get from dance-floor diva to international hit-maker to high-art pop icon; it took Gaga four singles, all culled from her debut album. Much like Bo Diddley sped up the blues to make rock and roll, Stefani Germanotta sped up the pop machine that made Madonna to make Lady Gaga. And unlike anyone who's come before or since, she's harnessing this riotous cultural moment—of contemporaneous online living, copyright anarchy, and insta-viral everything—to her complete advantage, repeatedly snagging our fractured attention spans with shameless aesthetic piracy that feels, as it glosses over our oversaturated minds, like art.