The MTV Video Music Awards have always been a stage where stars are born—or reborn—with controversy. Madonna made a splash at the first telecast in 1984 when she writhed around in a wedding dress, crooning the lyrics to "Like a Virgin." Britney Spears gave her debut performance there at 17, and PETA groaned when she shimmied onstage with a python at the 2001 awards. And nobody—or was it everybody?—complained when Britney and Madonna shared a kiss in front of the cameras. But at this year's awards, on Sept. 13 in New York, the crowd will go gaga for a musician named ... Lady Gaga. And the 23-year-old pop sensation will likely deliver a sizzling performance that cements her newly minted status as one of music's most daring stars.
At a time when the music industry is seriously lagging, Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Germanotta; she plucked her name from the Queen song "Radio Ga Ga") has leaped into the spotlight with unusual vigor. Her debut album, The Fame, has moved more than 3 million copies worldwide, and her songs "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" were in many ways perfect anthems for the summer. She's gotten (and courted) media hype like almost no pop star since the Material Girl, so it's no surprise that comparisons between the two have been frequent. And Gaga isn't shy to express herself in some very strange materials: fishnet stockings, plastic bubbles, glittery masks, a zipper over her eye. In July, she made headlines when she appeared on a German TV talk show in a jacket made of Kermit the Frog puppets.
Lady Gaga likes to sing about fame, and her own fame hasn't been accidental. She's a fitting star for today's YouTube generation, and not just because she tries to stage her concerts with YouTube-friendly lighting. The New York-born Andy Warhol fan says she's not just in it for the music: she wants to inspire an entire movement, one in which everybody is entitled to act as though they're famous. Duh. Now do you see why she's the Internet's most beloved poster girl? Gaga spoke to NEWSWEEK's Ramin Setoodeh about the VMAs and her life as an artist so far. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your nine nominations. Have you always been a fan of the VMAs?
When I was younger, I used to wrap a big blanket around myself, an afghan my grandmother knitted, and I would wear it like a gown. I would run around the basement with popcorn and I would scream in excitement waiting for them to come on. I used to love the big pop acts. I remember Alicia Keys gave a beautiful performance and Michael Jackson with 'N Sync.
Have you figured out what you're going to perform?
I'm going to be performing one of the most recent singles off my album. But it's going to be a different and more dramatic interpretation. And it is most certainly rooted in New York-style performance art.
What does that mean?
It's less of me singing the song, and more of an art installation. A performance-art piece. It's very well-designed and thought out, and we've been planning it for months and months. It is for me a very meaningful performance, [for] where I am in my career, as well as the experiences I've had, as well as the co-headlining tour I'm going on in the fall.
Do you think it will be one of those defining moments people will remember at the VMAs?
I know it will. I sort of have this philosophy about things: there's never a reason to do something unless it's going to be memorable, unless it's going to change things, unless it's going to inspire a movement. With the song and with the performance, I hope to say something very grave about fame and the price of it.
Something grave? What?
You'll have to see.
What are you going to wear?
I would say that the fashion for the performance is a representation of the most stoic and memorable martyrs of fame in history. It's intended to be an iconic image that represents people. I think after watching the performance and maybe studying it after you watch it on YouTube, you'll see the references and the symbols come through.
Do you watch yourself on YouTube?
I like to watch my performances sometimes. I'm always trying to improve on choreography and the stage shows. I like to watch the lighting. I often argue with my lighting designer on the show; as much as I like to light the show for the room, it's important to light the show and design the sound for YouTube. In truth, lots of my fans can't make it to my shows in Israel or Germany or in Paris, so they go online to watch them.
How do you light a show differently for YouTube?
I like it to be moody. I like it to evoke an idea more than light my face. It's not about what you see. It's about what you don't see, and sometimes that vacant space can be very scary.
Everybody knows you now, but if somebody didn't, how would you describe your music?
It's New York pop. The music reflects the lifestyle of me and my friends living in downtown New York, with no money but a dream and fervor for fame and to be a star. And it was through a constant devotion to our work, as well as a relentless pursuit of our dream, that we are here today. For myself, the Haus of Gaga is not a marketing tool. It's a group of friends and young designers that I wish to use my fame to propel them forward. So it's music in tandem with art.
How old were you when you first wanted to be famous?
I think I was in my mother's womb. But it's not about fame, you see. It's about "The Fame." It's about a life of glamour. I believe in a glamorous life.
What's the difference?
Fame today, the stereotypical idea that we have about fame, is that cameras follow you everywhere and everybody is talking about you and you can't go anywhere. The "it" girl. [With] The Fame, I'm talking about the inner sense of confidence.
So you can be a non-famous person and still have The Fame.
I prefer non-famous people who have The Fame. I myself don't like celebrities. It's the idea that you can be whoever you want to be. You don't have to be a victim of your environment. You can become the image of yourself you project, [that] you could become in the future.
Why don't you like celebrities?
I just haven't had an excellent personal experience with celebrities. But I'm sure there are a few lovely ones. I have made a few friends, of course.
You wore a jacket made entirely of Kermit the Frogs. Were you a fan of the Muppets?
I do love the Muppets. It is a wonderful childhood memory I share. That particular jacket, we had no idea it would make such a splash. That jacket is very famous now. We're excited that it's famous. It's by a designer we wanted to support. I thought it was comical because I don't wear fur. But there was something morbid and hilarious and wearing a jacket made of lots of Kermits. Dead, dead Kermits.
Did you still have the jacket?
I sent it back to [the designer]. I imagine he would like to have it. Maybe some amazing fashion model will wear it on the cover of Italian Vogue.
I read that Madonna came to your concert?
Yes. She did.
Did you meet her?
No. I didn't. But we have exchanged messages [through] mutual people that we know. She is very kind to me and supportive. I appreciate her support very much.
I read on your Twitter they tried to arrest you in Russia.
They did. I was wearing my outfit from my performance at this nightclub in the middle of Moscow. I was in the car going back to the hotel. I asked them to pull over in Red Square so I could take a picture. I was out there for about five minutes, and I guess they thought my clothing was inappropriate.
You Tweet in German a lot. Do you speak it fluently?
I don't speak German, but my favorite writer is German, Rainer Maria Rilke. I just got a tattoo of this book he's very famous for, Letters to a Young Poet. I got the tattoo on my bicep.
How many tattoos do you have?
You recently wrote a song for Michael Bolton?
I love Michael Bolton, and I always have. The record label called me and said, "Michael is doing a new album, and who better to write an '80s love song than Lady Gaga?" I said, "You're absolutely right." I looked at it as an exciting opportunity, especially after I wrote "Just Dance" and I was writing for other artists, everybody wanted me to write them the next "Just Dance." It was always dance music. It was an exciting opportunity to work with someone as timeless as Michael and do a ballad. Do something that I'm really good at that I don't get to show very much. Or that I haven't shown on this record. But I will be showing on the rerelease, which is coming out this fall.
Would you be interested in writing for other artists?
I am working on other people's work right now. I'm always writing.
Can you tell me who?
No. I couldn't do that. I like to honor the artists. Some artists don't like other people to know they're collaborating. So I want to be honorable and take care of the artist. When I'm a writer, it's not about me. It's about them.
Do you ever ghost-write a song?
I prefer not to say.