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Posted at 4:28 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Understanding Lady Gaga

By Allison Stewart

gagaWhat makes Lady Gaga Lady Gaga?

Even visionaries have to start somewhere.

Lady Gaga invented herself, fashioning her outsize persona from a mix of high and low culture, drag queens and heavy metalers, pop stars and random provocateurs. Unlike Madonna, pop history’s other great appropriator, Gaga, 24, wears her influences proudly: She’s smarter than the average pop star. Better read. More extensively traveled. Deeper. And she wants you to know it.

But exactly what goes into a Gaga? And where might Gaga go next?

In anticipation of her concert Thursday at Verizon Center, we’ve pieced together a compendium of the people, movements and events that created Lady Gaga, or, more specifically, that Lady Gaga used to create herself. Everything — from the classic-rock records her parents played when she was growing up to the outfits worn by the burlesque dancers she befriended on the Lower East Side — finds its way into the mix, though it doesn’t always fit together as well as Gaga might have hoped.

Some of her influences she has acknowledged openly, and a few are so obvious as to be undebatable. Still others, like the inspiration for the glowing space egg from which she emerged at the Grammys, might forever remain a mystery.

Perhaps like Gaga herself.

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, an Italian girl from New York City, absorbed what she could from others, taught herself the rest and fashioned it all into Lady Gaga, an avant-garde cocktail of fashion, art, high culture and film that fascinates even as it sometimes fails to cohere. “What’s that phrase, [jack of all trades], master of none?” asks Jonathan Van Meter, who interviewed Lady Gaga for a March cover story in Vogue magazine. “She’s super-interested in pop culture, in all the arts. I think she takes some things in more deeply than other things.” Here are some of the influences that have made Lady Gaga who she is:

Cultural influences

Rainer Maria Rilke: A Bohemian poet whose meditations on solitude and its relationship to the artistic temperament prompted Gaga to call him her “favorite philosopher.” Tattooed on her left arm is a quote, in German, from the first of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” a work beloved by depressive philosophy majors everywhere: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”

Scary movies: Professor Mathieu Deflem, who teaches the class “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” at the University of South Carolina, cites Alfred Hitchcock as an influence, one she often returns to lyrically (“Bad Romance”) and visually (the “Vertigo”-aping “Paparazzi” video). Gaga herself cited the uber-violent 1995 French film “La Haine” as her favorite and has also spoken of her love of horror movies. “I have an obsession with death and sex,” she explained to an interviewer, perhaps unnecessarily.

Isabella Blow: A British fashion icon and aficionado of elaborate hats, Blow, who died in 2007, bore a striking physical and stylistic resemblance to Gaga and almost certainly inspired the singer’s love of outsized chapeaus. Blow also discovered designer Alexander McQueen, another figure who greatly affected Gaga.

Deepak Chopra: Gaga called the famed New Age guru “the most influential person in my life” in a Time magazine video, saying that his inspirational message helped her show her fans “how the spiritual laws can affect their lives.” It’s unclear how Chopra’s influence might manifest itself in Gaga’s work, but the longtime reports that she used to carry around the Oprah-approved self-actualization manual“The Secret” now make a lot more sense.

Leigh Bowery: A beloved performance artist, singer, drag queen and club kid, Bowery had a profound influence on Gaga’s visual aesthetic. Seven feet tall and fond of feathers, Bowery loved the rococo and the freakish, and Gaga’s latex bodysuits and lobster heels are direct descendants of outfits he used to wear.

Klaus Nomi: Nomi was a German postmodern performance artist and onetime backup singer for David Bowie. He was intensely theatrical and deeply weird, and his fondness for outrageous, sci-fi-inspired outfits was a precursor to some of Gaga’s greatest sartorial moments, including (probably) the striped, pointy-shouldered jail outfit in her “Telephone” video.

Lady Starlight: The DJ and Lower East Side rock chick was Gaga’s partner in crime/unofficial older sister/pop-cultural Yoda. Starlight and Gaga performed in a burlesque revue during the singer’s formative years, and Starlight takes credit for the singer’s fateful abandonment of pants.

Spencer Tunick: In college, Gaga reportedly wrote an 80-page thesis on the photographer, who specializes in nude installation art. Tunick in turn invited Gaga to pose with thousands of other naked people for an installation at the Sydney Opera House last year; it’s unlikely she actually did, but you never know since the photo was shot from quite a distance.

Andy Warhol: Gaga has frequently cited Warhol as a posthumous mentor who has proved instructive in the workings of fame and the power of consistent imagery, which is why, she has said, she rarely changes her hair. Warhol’s studio, the Factory, was the model for the Haus of Gaga, her in-haus creative team. Professor Deflem isn’t convinced Warhol was as big a role model as Gaga claims, saying she might merely use his higher-minded theories as a kitsch justifier, “a form of artistic legitimation,” he says. “Something to justify doing pop music and still be considered an artist.”

Musical influences

Heavy metal: Gaga has often said she wants to write pop songs that metal fans would like, and the Grand Guignol of hard rock, its goriness, its drama and its theatre, has clearly loomed large in her creative imagination. The track “Boys Boys Boys” on “The Fame” was intended as a distaff take on Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” with a meaty, AC/DC-style chorus. Gaga has been known to dance onstage to Metallica’s “Metal Militia,” and at least one track on her upcoming album “Born This Way” evokes Guns N’ Roses.

Classic rock: Elton John, David Bowie and any number of early ’70s glam-rock types are long-running influences, but perhaps none more than Freddie Mercury, the bombast-loving Queen frontman.

The iconic ones: Gaga’s love of Michael Jackson, androgynous ’70s dance music queen Grace Jones and Madonna need hardly be mentioned. Gaga is likely as influenced by Madonna’s influences (the early ’80s East Village, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat) as she is by Madonna herself.

The unexplainable

The Hilton sisters: Gaga attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive Manhattan private school, at the same time as heiress Nicky Hilton, and she has said that the “perfect” appearance of Hilton and her sister, Paris, deeply impressed upon her the value of savvy image presentation.

Jesus, son of God: Gaga’s blood-drenched performance at 2009’s MTV Video Music Awards, in which she pantomimed dying and was then hoisted heavenward, was intended to mirror the ascension of Jesus. According to VMA creative director Lee Lodge, Gaga got the idea after a visit to Jesus’s tomb. “It was supposed to be commenting on the life of celebrity,” he said to MTV News. “Even though you see her dying, she’s going to a much better place.” He probably didn’t mean the after-party.

By Allison Stewart  | February 18, 2011; 4:28 PM ET
Categories:  In today's Post  | Tags:  Lady Gaga  
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Next: Coda: Recovering from the Grammys; Anticipating new Radiohead jams; The week in Odd Future

Comments

How could a 24 yo pop star mesmerize a 60 yo respectable physician? One would have to read Marshall McLuhen's treatise on how the 'medium is the massage" to understand how this performance artist combines media, art, fashion, theatre and fame into an original created out of parts of others. She is compulsive, relentless and passionate about her creativity and talents. Hopefully she will someday cross genres and portray Gelsomina in a remake of "La Strada" but with a better outcome than Madonna's do- over of "Swept Away".

Posted by: drpro | February 18, 2011 9:03 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the most comprehensive lists of Lady Gaga's influences that I've read. The inclusion of Blow, Bowery, and Nomi shows that Stewart (the author) has dug deep. I would also add Springsteen and Matthew Barney (for the man-monster connections).

Posted by: menloshark | February 18, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, also Wendy O'Williams. tommy kafafian-gagas old guitar player who wrote some tracks said when he met her she was only listening to jam bands,, judging by her videos from 2006-more than true, he says he gave her Missing Persons cds to study-rest is history... Her ex-producer Rob Fusari came up with the name Lady Gaga and created her sound... Shes only written 1 song alone "speechless", the rest of her music is written by industry heavyweights.
The influences you mention are a joke.. She probably has a team of more than 20 people who come up with all these ideas and themes, in no way are they her influences,, the only people who would believe this article are under 21.

Posted by: theotome | February 19, 2011 3:04 AM | Report abuse

Fabulous News!! I just printed Coupons for free. You can print coupons before you shop at "Printapons" search online.

Posted by: dayleslover | February 19, 2011 5:21 AM | Report abuse

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