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Whether or not you're a huge Lady Gaga fan, you can't really deny that her songs are catchy. The woman knows how to write pop hits (and she's had lots of practice, considering she used to write for Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls before launching her own career).
She often finds herself having to explain this to interviewers who are used to the manufactured pop stars of the Backstreet Boys variety, and thus assume she has little to nothing to do with the process songwriting or composing music. But Lady Gaga is no manufactured pop idol. A musical prodigy from a very young age, she taught herself how to play the piano by ear at the age of four and was later classically trained in the instrument. She wrote her first piano ballad by age 13 and soon started singing at the mic as well.
As a teenager, music was her life. "I studied classical music and I grew up hanging out in jazz clubs," she told iProng Magazine, "and being in jazz bands and choirs and rock and roll and stuff. So I was just surrounded by it growing up. I wasn't the girl that was hanging out with boys after school, you know? I was always doing something artistic."
Gifted musically and with a flair for crazy outfits and pumping basslines, it's no wonder that she's struck such a chord with the dance scene. "Paparazzi," like her earlier hits "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," boasts a prominent electro-synth groove that underlies the track and keeps things moving. It's in the key of C minor, adding a darker melodic texture to what would otherwise be a too-happy pop song. The subject matter, after all, is about the obsessive wooing of the paparazzi, stalking a rock star, and chasing unrequited love (all at the same time) so a minor key is fitting for this kind of drama.
The chords are built around the original key, in a progression that moves from mostly C minor and F minor, in the verses, to predominately A-flat Major and D-flat Major when she sings the hook:
I'm your biggest fan (A-flat)
I'll follow you (C minor)
until you love me (D-flat Major)
The effect of these major keys adds a certain self-determination to those lines; you can almost see Gaga lifting herself up out of the depression in the verses to a new conviction in the chorus. The final verdict: this isn't an easy key to compose in; Gaga's success in crafting "Paparazzi" provides more evidence that her classical training continues to really pay off on the dance floor.
In an age dominated by manufactured pop acts that are little more than co-branded, mass-marketed spinoffs from the Disney Channel, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and Making the Band, it can seem that musicians who actually worked their way up to stardom the old-fashioned way have become a thing of the past.
But Lady Gaga is living testament to the fact that it's still possible, if you have talent and work hard enough, to rise from playing no-name gigs in New York dives to becoming one of the biggest names in pop music. To the rest of the world, it might seem as if Lady Gaga just woke up one morning, put on a diamond-encrusted bustier, and thought to herself, "I think I'll take over the music industry today." But in reality her fame is the result of years of working tirelessly, getting rejected, getting back up, and trying again.
As she told her official website:
I was always an entertainer. I was a ham as a little girl and I'm a ham today,' says Lady Gaga, 23, who made a name for herself on the Lower East Side club scene with the infectious dance-pop party song 'Beautiful Dirty Rich,' and wild, theatrical, and often tongue-in-cheek 'shock art' performances where Gaga—who designs and makes many of her stage outfits—would strip down to her hand-crafted hot pants and bikini top, light cans of hairspray on fire, and strike a pose as a disco ball lowered from the ceiling to the orchestral sounds of A Clockwork Orange. 'I did this the way you are supposed to. I played every club in New York City and I bombed in every club and then killed it in every club and I found myself as an artist. I learned how to survive as an artist, get real, and how to fail and then figure out who I was as singer and performer. And, I worked hard.
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta to parents of Italian heritage, the singer got her stage name when producer and co-writer Rob Fusari compared her vocal style to Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of Queen. Fusari nicknamed her Gaga after Queen's hit "Radio Gaga"—the name stuck.
Gaga attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart School (the same Manhattan private school attended by Paris and Nicky Hilton) but saw herself as belonging to a completely different world than those ritzy, popular girls. To begin with (as you might guess from her wild stage outfits), Gaga's fashion sense has always been a bit left of normal and she often got picked on in high school for her eccentric style. The same fashion aesthetic that made life tough in conformity-dominated high school has since made Gaga an icon. From luxury high-end items to scraps picked up at thrift stores and unforgettable self-designed pieces, she has made a name for herself in the fashion industry as a provocative entrepreneur.
As Gaga explained to Ellen DeGeneres:
I didn't fit in in high school and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with and they don't feel alone. The whole point of what I do—The Monster Ball, the music, the performance aspect of it—I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate. This is really who I am, and it took a long time to be okay with that… Maybe in high school you, Ellen, you feel discriminated against [Ellen is a lesbian]. Like you don't fit in and you want to be like everyone else, but not really, and in the inside you want to be like Boy George—well, I did anyway. So I want my fans to know that it's okay. Sometimes in life you don't always feel like a winner, but that doesn't mean you're not a winner, you want to be like yourself. I want my fans to know it's okay.
Later on the same show, Ellen congratulated Gaga for being the rare pop star who actually sings rather than lip-synching when she performs live. "Aren't we supposed to sing?" Gaga laughed. "Isn't that part of the gig or something?"
Another thing to remember is that Lady Gaga (unlike most of those other pop acts) actually writes all of her own material, both words and music, a fact she often stresses in interviews because this is so rare in mainstream pop music. "I'd just like to stress," she told iProng Magazine, "that I wrote, obviously, the whole album and that I have a really heavy hand in all of the creative content and the videos and the films and the TV, and I just really care about what I do."
Gaga also directs her own shows, picks the outfits, designs the sets, and has complete creative control. She does have a group of artists in New York to help her with clothing and set design—she calls them the "Haus of Gaga"—but she has the ultimate say in everything. Discovered after spending most of 2007 performing in Lower East Side music halls with fellow avante-garde artist Lady Starlight (their burlesque '70s-inspired act was called "Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue") the two were asked to appear at Lollapalooza and got rave reviews. Gaga began writing for artists signed to R&B artist Akon's label, Konvict, as well as for Britney Spears, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, and other pop stars.
"I was like the weird girl," Gaga told The Independent, "who dressed like a zoo animal, the trash glamour in a roomful of urban hip-hop cats… They'd be, like, 'Gaga, what do you think of this lyric?' and I'd twist it all up and all of a sudden it was edgy." (Source)
Akon, already impressed with her writing, also took notice of Gaga's singing ability and persuaded executives at Interscope to sign her in a joint deal with his other venture, Kon Live Distribution. She spent the year working tirelessly on her debut album, The Fame, with producer RedOne; its release in 2008 unleashed full-blown Gagamania into the world.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Lady Gaga is that the persona she has created for herself is so all-encompassing that it seems to have completely taken her over her life. The woman born as Stefani Germanotta lives, breathes, thinks, and acts as Lady Gaga every day. As far as we can tell, she is her alter ego. But she does not see this new identity as a chore; rather as a free expression of the inner artist/true self that she had to suppress for many years. But Gaga is her reality now. As she told The Independent, "In my show I announce, 'People say Lady Gaga is a lie, and they are right. I am a lie. And every day I kill to make it true.' It's the dream of my vision, it's the lie that I tell, whether it's an umbrella or it's a hat or it's the way that I shape my lipstick. And then eventually it becomes a reality. My hair bow was a lie and now it's true." (Source)
And even though all of Gaga's work seems to be fixated on fame, it's not the kind of fame that we think of when we picture shallow celebrities doing whatever they can to extend their 15 minutes. For Lady Gaga, she always felt famous, long before anyone knew who she was; "fame" to her is the idea of changing the world. "The kind of fame that I write about is a very special kind of fame," she told iProng, "that I think is really positive and can affect people's lives in a really, really amazing way. And I think that that other kind of fame that you're talking about is much more egocentric and has to do with making sure that people are recognizing me for my work. If anything I really love it when I see that my music and my fashion is affecting pop culture. That makes me feel famous."
Ever heard that quote, "With great power comes great responsibility?" Well, with great fame comes great power, great responsibility, and great scrutiny. With the paparazzi following every minute, trying to generate good stories for a crazed fan base, it's not hard to see how rumors get started. It seems to be the price of super-fame that you are doomed to at least one ridiculous rumor about your life. From alien abductions, to secret cults, to gay rumors, to adulterous affairs, the tabloids have pretty much covered it all in celebrity scandals, and Lady Gaga has not escaped this.
A few years back, the gossip magazines announced that Jamie Lee Curtis was anatomically a woman but genetically male. Uh, what? And then there were rumors swirling (based on a weirdly shaped lower portion of a certain outfit she was wearing) that Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite or pre-op transgendered person. She hardly addresses this crazy assertion in interviews, mainly because journalists are too scared to bring it up, but we can say with certainty that it isn't true, and that Gaga is fully a woman. (And even if it were, cut it with the gossip.) Rather, she finds androgyny sexy and tries to incorporate it into her act whenever possible.
Always pushing the boundaries, that one. When one interviewer compared her to a female version of Freddie Mercury (who was gay) she replied:
Yeah I think so. I think it's part of me and what I do, there's like an androgyny to my stage show. I'm super-feminine and sexy, but then again I sort of carry myself like a dude. You know, the music is a reflection of who I am, and I grew up as a theater kid and studying musical theater and auditioning in New York. I was a dancer, I was a singer, I was an actress. So doing theatrical pop music was a way for me to blend all of those worlds together. And Freddie Mercury was an inspiration for me when I was at a record label and they'd say "you're too theater" and I'd be at an audition for a musical and they'd say "you're too pop," you know? I was able to bring both worlds together.
Phew, now we can put all those silly transgender rumors to rest. At any rate, this woman has the world going ga-ga for a reason. Her infectious beats and catchy lyrics, her "shock art" stage performances, her willingness to embrace the bizarre and the misfits, her devotion to her fans, and her self-confidence all combine to form an intoxicating cocktail of pop music perfection; it's no accident that she's won a huge following. And with her work ethic and love for what she does, we don't think she'll be going away for a long time.
"I'm living my dream right now," Gaga says. "I'm on the road, I'm making music, I'm making art, I'm performing at arenas and in nightclubs and people know my lyrics, they know my fashion and they know what I'm trying to say and it's affecting them. This is great. This exactly what I've always wanted." (Source)
Want to know where Lady Gaga draws her inspiration for her songwriting? Just take a look at her left arm; the answer's literally etched into her skin. In 2008, while on tour in Osaka, Japan, Gaga got inked twice. The second tattoo, inked on her inner arm in German script, is a quote by her favorite romantic philosopher/poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. The English translation of Gaga's tattoo:
"Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?" —Rainer Maria Rilke
Must Lady Gaga write? Heck yes. In stark contrast to most other pop stars, she has always written all of her own songs (or at least co-written them), both lyrics and music. In fact, she broke into the industry as a songwriter long before anyone ever heard of her as a performer, writing songs for other big acts like Britney Spears and ghe Pussycat Dolls. As she honed her technique over time, she started leaning away from writing for others and towards a solo career.
A classically trained pianist, Gaga's songwriting technique is far from ordinary. First of all, she believes that if a song is right, it will come together very quickly and not take days or even hours to complete.
As she explains her songwriting recipe to iProng Magazine:
It's got to have that undeniable melodic big chorus. It's something that I'll really, really look at, and I don't know how to explain it, it's like the song comes on and that thing kicks in, and you just know it's a hit record. It's not really explainable. I always say that the best songs ever written kind of write themselves. You start writing the melody and then you get the lyrics real quick and then it just kind of goes. If it takes you longer than, like, ten to thirty minutes to write a song, it's probably not a good song.
While some musicians start with an idea or a few lyrics and then build a melody around it, and others start with the tune and insert the words later, Gaga approaches songwriting as a holistic process; the simultaneous development of the whole package—from the words and music to the stage performance, costuming, and music video. For Gaga, it's all part of one piece of art. She explains this concept in an interview with About:
[Interviewer] I heard you say this quote I loved, and I'd love for you to explain it—you 'make music for the dress.'
[Lady Gaga] Yes, absolutely. I mean I don't write records and then decide what the video will look like. I instantaneously write things at the same time so it's a complete vision, the song and the visual, the way that I would perform it on the stage. It's something that all comes to me at once. So when I say I make the music for the dress, the dress is a bit of a metaphor for 'I make the music for everything,' for the entire performance vision.
This is certainly true of "Paparazzi." Though obviously not as dense as say, Lord Byron, Lady Gaga still holds her own as a writer with vivid imagery, metaphor, and hyperbole to convey the sensationalistic feel of celebrity, the over-the-top reality of a rock and roll lifestyle, and the heartbreaking intensity of unrequited love.
The descriptions she uses are often tactile, conjuring up different types of fabrics ("velvet ropes," "leather and jeans"). The lyrics are also visual ("eyeliner," "flashing lights," "garage glamorous"), colorful ("yellow dance," "purple teardrops"), and sometimes invoke smell, taste, and touch ("lashes are dry," "cigarettes"). The words are rich in metaphor: She compares herself to the paparazzi, her lover to the star, everyone to plastic, and a shadow to something that can be burned.
The overall effect is staggering and places us right alongside Lady Gaga as she navigates the surreal world of fame and glamour. We can smell the smoke from the cigarettes and the cameras as flashbulbs pop all around us, feel the red carpet under our feet, hear the reverb from the guitars backstage, and sweat under the heat of the blinding stage lights. Lights of every color flood our senses and later, after the show and the heartbreak, it's not hard to imagine the make-up smear of tears that runs down our cheeks. It's fast, intense, and unforgettable.
Maybe that's why you just can't stop getting "Paparazzi" stuck in your head.