Not so revealing Lady Gaga

Terry Richardson’s book of photographs says little new about the megastar performer, Ian Forde reports

LADY GAGA is rarely far from the headlines. This week she made the news by claiming to have eavesdropped on her parents’ sex life while growing up in New York. By accident, of course: there were no bedroom doors in her family’s apartment, and therefore no privacy. She bears no resentment, however: Gaga is best friends with her parents, and lives with them still whenever her hectic schedule allows.

Lady Gaga performed in Ireland twice in 2009, once at the Live at the Marquee festival in Cork on July 1, and again at the Oxegen festival in Punchestown on July 12. In Cork, she caused something of a sensation when she visited the Rising Tide pub in Glounthane and sank a few whiskeys with her friends. After her performance at the Marquee the next evening, she expressed her delight at selling out the 5,000 capacity venue as the headline act.

Anyone who thought Lady Gaga’s early triumphs were a flash in the pan must look back in wonder at her achievements in the meantime. She is is now one of the most successful entertainers in the world. Since 2008, her three albums — The Fame, The Fame Monster and Born This Way — have sold over 23 million copies. Her single sales are more remarkable: even in a market where the format is supposedly in terminal decline, she’s shifted over 64 million units. Her 18-month Monster Ball Tour, which kicked off in November 2009, was one of the most successful of all time, and her work has garnered five Grammy Awards. Not bad, for a 25-year-old.

Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in New York in 1986. She began playing singer/songwriter nights at 14, and studied briefly at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University before leaving to pursue music full-time. Initially signed to Streamline Records as a songwriter, she was soon discovered by the singer Akon, who signed her to Kon Live as a recording artist.

Her rapid rise is usually attributed to her sense of innovation, her canny choice of collaborators, and her willingness to shock. Gaga paid her dues as a gogo dancer and a burlesque performer, she’s openly bisexual, and has long been the subject of rumours that she was born a man, or is in fact an hermaphrodite. To her credit, she has been a vocal champion of gay and transgender rights, and has done much to fight sexual prejudice.

In many ways, Gaga is the latest challenger to Madonna as the Great Goddess of Pop. But in truth, she’s nowhere near as calculating, and quite possibly she’s nowhere near as cool. This is borne out by the publication of Lady Gaga’s first book, a collaboration with the photographer Terry Richardson.

It’s almost inevitable that Lady Gaga would produce a coffee table book. She is, after all, a style icon as well as a performer, and she’s been photographed more often than most working models. What seems most remarkable about Lady Gaga X Terry Richardson, however, is just how conservative a publication it is. When Madonna produced a book in 1992, she called it Sex, and it did just what it said on the cover, portraying its subject in a series of fetishistic tableaux with both male and female models. Sex was the subject of controversy across the world, sold millions, and boosted sales of Madonna’s fifth album, Erotica. With Gaga her book does not so much push at boundaries as cosy up to them knowingly.

It may be the case that Madonna’s Sex, published in 1992, still had the power to shock because pornography remained relegated to the top shelf in newsagents. The internet has changed all that: pornography is ubiquitous now, and has never been so accessible. Lady Gaga hardly needs to be part of it. Indeed, she seems to be all the more powerful a character for having declined to pose nude: among all the images there’s one glimpse of her right nipple, hardly the kind of thing that anyone will get worked up about.

This is all very well, but, in her brief introduction to the book, she gushes of Richardson: “I have discovered through him that ‘shame’ is an obsolete notion and ‘apology’ is an injustice in any performance.” This is pretty rich for a mainstream entertainer: after all, we’re not talking cutting edge music here, just a nice line in pop that enjoys greater sales than perhaps it deserves. Still, the appetite for her material is simply insatiable: as of this morning, the video for her single Bad Romance had clocked up over 433,000,000 views on YouTube, despite sounding like a dodgy Eastern European no-hoper in the Eurovision.

Lady Gaga X Terry Richardson offers little new by way of insight into the performer’s life off-stage. None of the photographs are captioned. None bear a date. Richardson simply went on tour with his subject and shot her, on-stage and off, in her outlandish outfits. These include the headline-stealing dress of raw meat she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles in September 2010, where she won the gong for the aforementioned Bad Romance video.

There is no sense at all that any of Richardson’s images are candid: even when Gaga is pictured in her underwear, brushing her teeth, or is seen spitting beer in a swimming pool, it seems clear that these vignettes are staged. Indeed, most everything Gaga does is staged.

Richardson, whose previous credits include the book Hysteric Glamour, turns up in an alarming number of these images himself. A few other celebrities feature — Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Liza Minelli are two — but there is little sense here of Gaga cutting loose behind the scenes. Doubtless, Lady Gaga will be with us for years to come. It seems churlish to begrudge her the level of success she enjoys, but her book confirms what many may have suspected for some time: if this is the best she can do by way of provocation, Lady Gaga poses little threat to the establishment.

- Lady Gaga X Terry Richardson (Hodder & Stoughton) €35.

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