Lady Gaga wants you to know she is not a Method actor. The 23-year-old ingenue behind hits like “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi” does believe in cultivating what thespians call “theatrical truth.” But while devotees use the exercises developed by the late Lee Strasberg and others to go deep into character and pull themselves out again, Gaga has made artifice her permanent home.
“Hated Lee Strasberg,” Gaga says in a behind-the-scenes video on her website, reminiscing about her youthful studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “You create sensory scenarios for yourself,” she explains. “Like, I’m gonna feel a coffee cup right now, or feel the rain, and when I feel rain, I feel this way. Then you go into that state, and you stay there. And then you have to learn in the classes how to get out of that state.”
“But that’s what I don’t do,” she concludes. “I’m in a permanent state of Gaga.”
The former Stefani Germanotta, who tells every journalist she encounters that Lady Gaga is “not a character” and who gets offended when someone calls her by her given name, is only the most insistent in a wave of pop artists actively questioning the value of an old and often-debated artistic standard: authenticity.
The balance between “real” and “fake” in pop has run in cycles. Rawness and spontaneity come into fashion, then formalism and glitz. In fact, both extremes are always present, with some artists aiming to express unfiltered emotions in unstudied ways, others adopting a deliberately mannered, costumed, referential style, and most combining elements of both approaches.
Since the dawn of the popular music age, the nature of authenticity has been debated by artists, who’ve battled in rhyme and punched each other backstage over the matter; fans, who tend to think whatever their community does is the most real; and critics and theorists, who’ve written enough on the topic to sag several bookshelves.
Lately, though, the split between “real” and “fake” seems to have closed. It sometimes seems that all of pop is in a permanent state of Gaga. This isn’t because the quest for authenticity has been abandoned. It’s because, for artists like Gaga, fake has become what feels most real.
Across nearly every genre in pop, artifice, theatricality and synthesized sound rule the day. The biggest group in the nation is the Black Eyed Peas, hip hop’s answer to both the Monkees and Cirque du Soleil. Green Day, formerly your basic snotty punk band, has gained renewed respect and commercial success by writing rock operas; now the band’s Billie Joe Armstrong and “Spring Awakening” director Michael Mayer are turning one into a musical. And Slipknot-style masks and pseudonyms have returned to the hard rock underground via the band Hollywood Undead.
Theater veteran Adam Lambert turned “American Idol” on its head by wearing glitter and metal wings and performing with KISS; he reportedly is working with Gaga’s producer, Red One, on his upcoming album. Lambert’s friend Katy Perry became the most talked-about female artist of last year by resurrecting classic styles of feminine masquerade, including burlesque and Lucille Ball-style screwball comedy, and releasing songs like “UR So Gay” and “I Kissed A Girl,” which make provocative hay from the hot topic of fluid sexual identity.
Even college rock, once a bastion of frumpy sincerity, has been taken over by the drama club kids -- from the kitchen-sink epics staged by bands like the Decemberists and Of Montreal to the fairy tales spun by alter-egoed fantasists Bat for Lashes and St. Vincent (real names are not cool these days, unless your mama called you Panda Bear).
Country music too has gained a synthetic sheen: The hot new single by crossover band Gloriana kicks off with what sounds suspiciously like a drum machine, while industry standard-bearer Brad Paisley celebrates video chatting and smart phone Super Pac-Man on “Welcome to the Future.”
This giddy embrace of the world as a stage seems to go beyond where glam rock and disco took pop in the past, partly because it’s assisted by more sophisticated technology. Auto-Tune, the software program that alters vocal pitch, has become ubiquitous both as a corrective and a kind of carnival mask, used by artists like T-Pain to upend listeners’ expectations about what a love song -- or a party song -- should sound like.
Auto-Tune is so overused that it’s engendered a backlash. The first single from Jay Z’s upcoming album, “The Blueprint 3,” is called “Death of Autotune,” and similar polemics have been issued by his fellow hip-hop veterans Wyclef Jean and KRS-One. But these efforts are akin to the apocryphal story of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power lines with an ax when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.
The real story is the gradual emergence of the computer as pop’s main musical instrument, not only in dance music and hip-hop -- forms based around synthesized sound -- but across the spectrum. Using Pro Tools or other digital audio workstations that provide huge libraries of sampled sounds, songwriters can create whole soundscapes without strumming a guitar or hitting a drum. Those who favor more “natural” methods of composition can tweak them in any way they want during the recording process, and they do. Even raggedy-looking neo-hippies like Bon Iver couldn’t enact their “rustic” experiments without computers.
The new realities of musical composition mirror the ways we’re all baring our carefully constructed souls using social media like Facebook or Twitter. No filtering device exists on the Web to separate a true confession from an artful lie, and virtual connections can feel very real. Reality television has blurred lines too: One of Lady Gaga’s key concepts, that anyone can think themselves into the supremely self-confident state she calls “feeling the fame,” make sense only in the context of a culture in which actual fame might strike any average Jenny lucky enough to have her closet raided by Quentin and Stacy or be challenged to a throwdown by chef Bobby Flay.
In the permanent state of Gaga, old distinctions simply don’t hold. This seems like a new moment in the ongoing relationship between pop music and the theater, one more seamlessly constructed than those to which it reaches back. Gaga and the many other dance-pop artists who cultivate a similar style (from Princess Superstar to the Scissor Sisters) constantly reference glam rock and disco, but in some ways, they take theatricality further than their beloved elders did.
In 1971, David Bowie, one of Gaga’s idols, said, “I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up onstage -- I want to take them on stage with me.” Bowie pioneered the idea of rock as theater, incorporating influences like mime and Kabuki into an act that stressed the dreamlike quality of his work. But he still made a distinction between that dream life and his real one.
A decade later, genre-crushing New Wave art star Grace Jones reiterated the split. With her signature Flat Top hairstyle and elaborate outfits designed by artists like Jean-Paul Goude and Keith Haring, the statuesque Jones was possibly the most high-concept pop diva ever. But she could step out of her role. “Listen, I’m two people,” she told an interviewer in 1980. “Otherwise, I’d be insane!”
We’ve also come a long way since 1994, when Courtney Love and her band, Hole, released the single “Doll Parts” after the death of her husband, Kurt Cobain. “I fake it so real I am beyond fake,” Love sang in what became one of the most quoted lyrics of the era. But Love, like most musicians of the time, wasn’t that good at faking. In her torn ball gowns and smeared makeup, singing her bloody songs about failing to live up to feminine ideals, Love presented herself as exactly what a pop star was supposed to be in the 1990s: uncontainable, willing to be ugly, immediate.
Those qualities added up to “real,” even when embodied by artists like Love, who’d read their feminist theory and believed that identity was, at least in part, a construct. Like Cobain, Love wrote songs that questioned social norms, especially when it came to gender roles, but behind her act (and his) was the assertion of a believable self.
Lady Gaga and her peers are the ones who’ve gone beyond fake. It’s not that they no longer recognize the distinction between real life and performance; it’s that they don’t care about it. The pose initiates the self; what’s behind it just can’t be that interesting.
Few current pop stars immerse themselves in their personae as completely as does Gaga -- T-Pain, for example, has a song about his children in which he doesn’t use Auto-Tune. But many are preoccupied with the idea that the guises of the stage cannot or need not be removed.
In the video for her song “Overpowered,” Irish electropop artist Roisin Murphy performs in an eye-popping checked cape and dress and rectangular hat -- and then leaves the nightclub, gets dinner at a chip shop, walks home, does her evening toiletry routine and tucks herself into bed, all in the same massive costume.
Janelle Monae, a protegee of Outkast and Diddy, gained critical accolades last year for “Metropolis: The Chase Suite,” an EP that served as the first chapter in an unfolding science fiction epic. In her songs and her live shows, the theater-trained Monae presents herself as “a cyborg without a heart, a face or a mind.” Her strange, jerky dance movements imply that she’s in character, but she’s said that her onstage journeys are never scripted.
The moves these young artists make rarely seem new. Quite the opposite, in fact. Monae, Gaga and others like them wear their debts to Bowie, Jones and Madonna on their shoulder-padded sleeves. But is this a lack of originality, or a refusal of it? Perhaps that’s the most powerful point of all.
Taking scam to a new level
Originality is, in its own way, a sign of authenticity: only Bowie could be Ziggy Stardust, because the character, however elaborately garbed and alien-seeming, came from within. Lady Gaga is more like a collection of quotes than a singular performer. Every move she makes, every crazy ensemble she wears, can be easily traced. She’s a human mash-up, a sample bank, recycled and reused.
To Gaga’s detractors -- and, I suspect, to dance floor veterans 30 and older, who say she makes them feel old -- the borrowed quality of her act undermines her obvious smarts, decent voice and endearingly overwrought sense of purpose. But what pop innovator hasn’t also been a borrower? In the permanent state of Gaga, “new” is a false category, just like “real.” Every thought’s been had by someone who came before and is searchable through Google. Every image has been minted and uploaded to YouTube.
“I know I’m a magpie, right?” Gaga says in another of her well-staged behind-the-scenes videos. “I see shiny things . . . I’m like, waaaa.” And she grabs for the air. This is one way forward in the age of too much information, when even the drug of novelty has been exposed as a placebo. The evidence is before us now, that every artist is a borrower, every genius a liar.
Why pretend otherwise?