By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lady Gaga isn't known for subtlety or subdued performances, and when she headlines the first night of Lollapalooza 2010 next weekend, she'll no doubt deliver an earful and an eyeful.
Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell already has admitted to spending up to $150,000 for the production of this single, two-hour performance. Lady Gaga's current Monster Ball tour features 15 over-the-top costume changes, plus a giant gyrosphere, a flaming piano, a neon car, a series of skits and an enormous squid attacking her onstage.
It's a long way from a clunky synthesizer and a disco-ball bra.
Lady Gaga performed three years ago on a side stage at Lollapalooza, long before she conquered the pop-culture world. She wasn't even blond yet.
It was Aug. 4, 2007, day two of the festival in Chicago's Grant Park. A small crowd of about 500 gathered to watch a brunette Lady Gaga, then 20, take the BMI Stage with her partner, DJ Lady Starlight, in the middle of the afternoon. During a 45-minute set, the Ladies played synth-driven dance-pop, including the songs "Boys Boys Boys," "Dirty Ice Cream" and "Disco Heaven."
Lady Gaga strutted across the small stage, singing, dancing, occasionally jabbing at a synthesizer, which she had set up just low enough so she'd have to lean over — flashing her cleavage — to operate it. She wore a black bikini, the top of which was adorned with chains (which she made herself), with high black stockings and heels. Her one costume change consisted of swapping the black bikini top for a mirrored one that turned her breasts into disco balls.
"I wouldn't say she was terrible," says Jake Malooley, now an editor at Time Out Chicago, who wrote a short review of Lady Gaga's appearance for the magazine's blog. (Critics from the Sun-Times and other local papers did not mention the performance.) "It just didn't seem like a Lollapalooza-worthy performance. She was doing this dance-pop sort of thing where she had a DJ, and she would poke a keyboard every now and then. ... It didn't seem very well put together, more about the spectacle than the music itself — dancing and being silly. She didn't seem to know how to play her synthesizer. She had to stop a song and get the engineer to show her how to program a certain sound."
His review that weekend concluded: "But no one's going to accuse Gaga of being a musician, and I think she's aware of that. 'In my day job, I'm a go-go dancer,' she said jokingly. Well, at least I thought it was a joke until midway through the next song she shimmied over to stage left, wrapped her legs around the scaffolding and began twirling while giving the metal pole a few aggressive pelvic thrusts. Very ladylike, indeed."
The revealing clothes even earned Lady Gaga some hassle by The Man. While later strolling the park offstage, wearing very short shorts, Lady Gaga was cited by a Chicago police officer for indecent exposure.
"I was wearing very short hot pants and a police officer told me to put my ass up against the fence because I was not appropriately attired to be seen by children," she told the New York Post last year. "I told him I was an artist, but he didn't care. Where I come from, they were just normal hot pants, but in Chicago they were indecent."
The outfit got Farrell's attention, though.
"I remember ... she's got dark-brown hair, she's in a bikini and she's wearing thigh-highs, and she's sweating because she was on at around 3 o'clock," he told MTV in June. "Her music was cool, her show was kind of cool."
The Lady in waiting
From that Lollapalooza to this one — from a few hundred bucks for a stage show to $150,000 — Lady Gaga's career trajectory has defined "meteoric rise."
Before she began turning heads in 2007, she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, daughter of two technology executives and a student at an Upper West Side private Catholic school, with classmates Paris and Nicky Hilton. (In classic, Bowie-esque coyness, she now refuses to acknowledge her real name. "She's not here anymore," she said of her birth name in an interview a week after Lollapalooza 2007. "She's covered in sequins.") Her stage name was derived, she claims, from the Queen hit in 1984, years before she was born.
She grew up playing piano and began writing songs as a teenager, even sneaking out at night to perform at coffeehouses — more Fiona Apple or Tori Amos than the flashy vixen she is now — but 2007 was the year folks began to take notice.
Performing as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue, with DJ Lady Starlight (aka Gaga pal and makeup artist Colleen Martin), the duo attracted the attention of producer Rob Fusari, a music-biz svengali who has worked with Destiny's Child and Whitney Houston. He had some advice. "I had read an article about women in rock," Fusari told the New York Post in January, "and how it was getting very difficult for women to break through in the rock genre, how Nelly Furtado had moved into more of a dance thing." The Starlight Revue, he said, wasn't "going in the right direction. It wasn't something kids could relate to." (Earlier this year, Fusari filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against Lady Gaga, claiming she shut him out of proper compensation for crafting her persona and music.)
So Lady Gaga and Lady Starlight began weaving dance beats and Europop into their songs. The gambit worked, sort of. Lady Gaga landed a recording contract with hip-hop label Def Jam. But nothing happened. A debut album was scheduled for May 2007, but the label dropped her after three months.
Enter up-and-coming R&B darling Akon, who took Lady Gaga under his wing and signed her to his own Kon Live imprint at Interscope Records. "I was like, 'Yo, I want to sign that right there. She needs to be under my umbrella,'" Akon told the Huffington Post earlier this year. "She just blossomed into a super megastar, man." And made Akon very rich, he admits. "She's pretty much retired me."
Initially, Lady Gaga worked for Interscope as an in-house songwriter. She crafted songs for the Pussycat Dolls and New Kids on the Block (with whom she toured). Two months ago, a recording made the gossip rounds on the Internet — allegedly of Britney Spears' singing a demo of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which Spears declined to record for her "Circus" album. Lady Gaga recorded it herself, teamed with Beyonce, and made it a No. 1 hit this spring.
Fame comes quickly
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga was creating her own music and trying it out on any audience she could find. Her first major single, "Just Dance," was released in April 2008. By June, she returned to Chicago, not yet at the arena level; she performed at the finals of the Windy City Gay Idol talent contest at Circuit on North Halsted.
This was also the time when she began experimenting with outlandish stage antics to get a wavering audience's attention. "I remember one show I played where nobody was paying attention to me," she told the New York Post in April 2009. "It was really late, so I took my clothes off. I started playing in my underwear at the piano and I remember everyone was all of a sudden like 'Whoa!' And I said, 'Yeah, you're looking at me now, huh?'"
The natural brunette also bleached her hair blond, allegedly because she was weary of being mistaken for Amy Winehouse.
One of her best friends wrote a piece about Lady Gaga for the May 2010 edition of Esquire. He recalled: "Back in the summer of 2007, there was a night when she popped out of a cake and sang 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' for my then boss, the owner of Beauty Bar in Manhattan. It was fitting, somehow — the Marilyn reference. I'll quote something she said to me one day around that time as directly as I can: 'No one in the world knows who I am, but they are going to want to know who I am. My first time ever on TV I want to be on a huge show where I play one song. I'm going to come out onstage in my underwear and show the world that here I am and I don't give a f--- what anyone thinks of me."
That same month, Time magazine listed Lady Gaga in its annual run-down of the world's 100 most influential people.
"The Fame," her debut album, finally appeared in the fall of 2008. Over the course of the next year and a half, Lady Gaga would score six consecutive No. 1 singles and sell 8 million records — 35 million singles worldwide.
"Just Dance" was a big hit in the clubs, and it reached No. 1 in January 2009. The next single, "Poker Face," was even bigger, topping charts around the world. "The Fame" earned six Grammy nominations, and won for best electronic/dance album and best dance recording. A pattern was set. The follow-up album wasn't even supposed to be an album. "The Fame Monster" was supposed to be a bonus disc for the debut, but a few extra tracks made it a full-fledged new album last November, just to feed the hungry masses.
The center of attention
Lady Gaga is such a spectacle now, not only is she one of two headliners this Friday (the Strokes are scheduled on the opposite stage at 8:30 p.m.), Farrell says she's the evening's "centerpiece." He just hopes the elaborate theatrics don't overshadow her songs.
"Her presentation is so overwhelming that some may overlook the music," Farrell told MTV Radio two weeks ago. "But the truth is, her music to me is right where music should be. It's on the cutting edge, but it's [also] in the crosshairs of where every musician is aiming these days. She's this hybrid of Yoko Ono, sort of the Plastic Ono Band meets Madonna meets Elton John. She's this beautiful crossing of those things every musician is looking to find. Everyone's looking for that sound, and I think she really hits it.
"The production of her music, the people she's surrounded herself with, the development of her stage show — it's something that, when I think about Lollapalooza, in that gorgeous setting of Grant Park, with the amazing buildings all around us, lit up, I see her and her show as being a centerpiece to the evening."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.