In music, they say that “legends never die.” For quick proof of this maxim, just look to recent album and song titles from seminal artists like Juice WRLD and Orville Peck. The idea, of course, is that some artists are so accomplished, so groundbreaking, inspiring and unique, their work will live on long past their last breath. And all of that may be true. Legends may never really leave us. But that doesn’t mean they don’t experience a lot of pain on their way to cementing mythical status.
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Take, for example, the fabled musician Lady Gaga. Her work, including her most recent LP, Chromatica, has traveled the world billions of times over. Yet, that doesn’t always make the days and weeks easy for the platinum-selling, 11-time Grammy Award-winning artist.
“I made (Chromatica) and as complicated as I thought it was, it was actually quite simple,” Gaga says. “If you go through very difficult things, sometimes you feel very painful things. It can be that simple. It doesn’t mean there’s something complicated going on inside of you necessarily. It just means that something very real is going on inside of you, and it really hurts. What you need most is someone — anyone — to validate that feeling. And when that feeling gets validated, then you fully validate it for yourself.”
In order to assuage the pain that can come from a long career and a deeply empathetic and sensitive constitution, Gaga has become supremely adept at personal change. In many ways, she is a creative shape-shifter, using her varied personas like safe houses. As an artist, Gaga is an amalgamation of Broadway theatrics, compassionate vocals, precise poetics, dance music and Americana rock, and a mashup of platinum blonde pinup, actress, advocate, meat-suit model and musical royalty. Indeed, Gaga embodies the phrase, “The only constant in life is change.”
But, at the same time, the immensely popular performer knows she must stay composed between all the physical and mental changes.
“I’m trying to make sure I stay centered, focused on my art, on my work,” Gaga says. “For me, I always want to feel like I’m giving something to the world. If not, I don’t feel like myself.”
Born in New York City in 1986, Gaga’s path to writing and to legendary status began at 11 years old. That’s when the artist, born Stefani Germanotta, wrote her very first pop song, entitled “To Love Again.” The artist laughs as she thinks about it, wondering what she thought she knew of love at such a young age. “Other than, I guess, family love,” Gaga says.
She remembers penning the R&B song. It was the first time she combined her penchant for writing poetry with her propensity for playing the piano. At the time, her teacher — with whom Gaga still works nearly 24 years later — asked if she’d ever written her own song. She hadn’t, but thanks to him, she soon began.
“It’s interesting,” Gaga says. “Writing music, for me, is never one single process. It’s never one system. But there is a system. It’s just a system that’s ever-changing.”
Despite undergoing many creative evolutions, Gaga has never shied away from difficult topics. In her work and in conversation, she’s an open book when it comes to the more dramatic aspects of her still-young life. She readily sings about heartbreak, PTSD, depression and loneliness. For someone at the top of the music food chain, it may surprise new fans how forthcoming and transparent Gaga can be. But it doesn’t surprise her. Not one bit.
“I’m unable to talk about anything else,” she says. “I think that’s part of the blessings that I count and the curses that I count as an artist. I’m allergic to artifice that’s not intentional. If the artifice is intentional, I like it. If the artifice is actually just pure artifice, I strongly dislike it. I am viciously authentic and raw. And I don’t mean that in a way where I mean to signal my virtue. It’s actually just that I find myself allergic to a lack of truth.”
Gaga craves organic relationships, experiences, songs, paintings. They buoy her. She discards any notion of living a plastic life. She craves exciting, tangible moments with authentic people, she says. To fake an experience or to tell a fraudulent tale would feel unbecoming, disconnected. She rejects the very notion. She would much rather indulge her most honest sensibilities in, say, an effervescent flower garden than live cooped up in a stuffy building without the opportunity to smell the proverbial roses.
“A garden is nature,” Gaga says. “A house is something you construct. I want to make nature in my music. However the genesis, the seed of my rose garden must be that intention to create nature. This album (Chromatica) was my nature at the time. It still is, but I’ve also evolved. I can listen to what I sang and feel catharsis. I feel at peace with myself, and I feel strong and I feel powerful. Sometimes when you don’t feel great, you have to create it.”
Since 2001, Gaga has been in the public eye. It began with a small role that year in an episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, titled “The Telltale Moozadell.” Gaga’s music career began in earnest in 2008, though, with the release of her debut LP, The Fame Monster, which featured hits like “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi.” Other major releases include the 2014 duet album, Cheek to Cheek, with the famed crooner Tony Bennett, and 2016’s rocker, Joanne, which in many ways caused Gaga more harm than good. Producing Joanne brought the artist face-to-face with some difficult personal issues from her past. It took working on Chromatica, which features artists like Ariana Grande and Elton John and song titles like “Free Woman,” “Rain on Me” and “Stupid Love,” to heal.
“I’d like to socialize the idea that mental health issues can be astonishing,” Gaga says. “Mental health issues at times for many people can be very confusing. But I’d like to make it simpler. One of the most wonderful things that I’ve ever experienced was having a doctor not wear their white coat and share with me their life and what they’ve been through. To hear them say, ‘I know that you’re in pain and that makes sense because you’ve been through some very difficult things.’ In a way, it frees me.”
When Gaga writes new music or lyrics, she says she picks up on the “portal” — or, “the other realm,” as she sometimes calls it. That’s the location where her ideas, melodies, thoughts, emotions, feelings and artistic expressions lie in wait. She accesses them through the portal, she says. Once they begin to flood into her creative consciousness, the writing process commences. It’s then time to make music. And the music Gaga makes is highlighted with color, illumination, joy, respect, appreciation and togetherness. Think positive thoughts.
“I chose ‘Stupid Love’ as the first single off Chromatica and ‘Rain on Me’ as the second because those two songs are about vital things,” Gaga says. “Love in the world, kindness in the world. Rid yourself of shame. Open the door to faith. Accept your pain and embrace the rainfall of those tears. Accept that you’re wet from crying but that you’re still alive. That must be good enough for now.”
Despite success beyond her wildest dreams, the artist-celebrity that she’s become requires Gaga to endure a great deal at times. Often, it can be too much. Gaga, who suffers from chronic pain issues, says she’s been told repeatedly that she’s over-complicated or an eruption of femininity — a crazy woman — rather than a nuanced, thoughtful person.
“I believe men have overly-complicated women’s problems,” Gaga says. “That somehow we’re ‘complicated’ when we have big feelings. I wish we could take that blanket off of all women, and we could simply say that we have feelings just like any other human. I don’t like labels, and gender roles should be tossed away with an old sandwich. I can quite simply say to myself that I’ve been through hard things and I’m feeling hard things and it is what it is.”
To become a legend means enduring and making a mark, a mark that is so indelible that it may never run or bleed. It may never be overtaken. The name Lady Gaga instantly brings several images–or marks–to mind, images of a person who has both given and gotten much from the world.
“I love music’s ability to spread happiness, kindness and joy,” Gaga says. “I love its ability to speak while it’s singing. I love its ability to say things without saying them. I love its ability to be both simple and complicated at the same time, just like human beings. I love the way it sounds. I love the way it soothes and heals us. I also love the way that music can be disruptive. I think great art is disruptive, and I think that you can be kindly disruptive. I would like to be kindly disruptive until my last song.”
Photo by Norbert Schoerner, Courtesy of Interscope Records