6:49 am Jul. 15, 2010
In the final hours of Thursday, July 8, Lady Gaga transformed Rockefeller Plaza, already crowded with entire families huddling down to secure prime space for her concert the following morning, into a holy site.
“Thousands of previous lil monsters are sleeping in street outside TodayShow. May NY watchover u, + may u sleep smiling under the stars. Amen,” Gaga tweeted at 10:25 p.m.
With the sunrise, countless pilgrims, many sporting iconic glyphs and headpieces in homage to Mama Monster, streamed in and out of the streets surrounding the plaza. They squeezed through gaps half their size in barricades, some storming away indignant when unable to procure standing room with a direct line of sight to the main stage.
A record-setting 20,000 fans arrived to witness the spectacle. Most did not come to hear, but mainly to enjoy the spectacle it's been Gaga's mission to deliver these past three-odd years. Mostly, they were disappointed.
“That was fucking bullshit!” yelled a man somewhere a few feet away in the crowd just after the performance, put up by the "Today" show, had ended. “We were screaming for her to turn and she wouldn’t turn.”
The stage was stark, her dance moves simplified and muted, and the outfits and antics little more than a gesture toward the bizarre and brave style Gaga’s Little Monsters have come to expect. Even her voice, a powerhouse, whatever her critics may say, seemed phoned-in. On all songs but two that is.
At the top of the show was the Gershwin standard “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a soulful and atypical piece which bled gradually into a rendition of “Alejandro” far inferior to the intensity of the song’s controversial music video. But more importantly, Gaga ramped up her enthusiasm to introduce a large audience to a new song, one which she has hinted will typify the style of her new album.
“This song is called ‘You and I,’ and it’s a bit of a rock and roll tune, which means it will most likely never get used as one of my singles. So I guess it’s alright to play it tonight,” said Gaga.
She'd unveiled the number at Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball on June 25, 2010. “This song is very, very dear to my heart, and I just wrote it," she said. "So here it is.”
She was sitting at a piano, relying solely on her voice more than perhaps ever since she made it big. Gaga’s new piece is less pop, more the glam rock that inspired her in the days just after she finished school at New York University. The lyrics (there’s something, something about this place / something about lonely nights and my lipstick on your face) smack of autobiographical reference to Gaga’s high school days dating older men and singing rock at the Bitter End.
THIS ENTIRE NEW YORK TRIP, COMPLETE with a string of sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, appears to be the fulfillment of a high school wish. Under "dream" in her senior yearbook photo, Gaga put “headlining at Madison Square Garden.”
For a performer usually guarded about her past, and obsessed with guarding the integrity of her stage persona (she rebels when called by her given name, Stefani Germanotta), this development is strange. Perhaps the milestone of a new album has brought out some reflection in the Lady, as she has opened up more recently in the press about her past and her personal life. Or perhaps this reemergence of Gaga’s past, the Germanotta poking through and merging with the Lady, will be indicative of the style of the mysterious new album.
The lines between the realities of the life of Germanotta and the character of Lady Gaga blur so easily. Even in what appear to be moments of candid and self-effacing biography, there is some ephemera: her memory of being mocked by high-school classmates, for instance, are generally not corroborated by her friends, who remember her as a popular girl.
“As far as I know, she got along with people,” said James Phillips, a music instructor at the all-boys Regis High School, who worked with Germanotta in the school theatrical productions that routinely swap in talent from other single-sex schools (Germanotta attended Sacred Heart, a few blocks north of Regis).
It has been fashionable to sort through Germanotta’s history in Regis productions to find the predictors for her current fame. The hindsight accounts portray an exceptional pupil, one standing out bold against the crowd and excelling in almost every field. But the few documents the historians of Gaga will have of that time—reviews in the school’s paper, The Owl—just do not support the Gaga Manifest-Destiny doctrine.
Germanotta did break onto the scene as a freshman in December 2000’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in the part of the Rosemary, the story’s primary love interest.
“Her rafter-shaking voice and smoldering sensuality electrified her every scene,” said Peter James Cook, The Owl’s reviewer, in a rare moment of passionate and descriptive writing.
“[She] sang with an incredible range that allowed her to sound like a pre-dope Whitney Houston one moment and Curly Howard the next,” said reviewer Michael Ponterotto of Germanotta’s December 2003 performance as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.
As with most high-school and community newspapers, the incipient boosterism makes it as difficult to sift out high praise from the general affirmation and know what you've really got. But in the Iliad-like Catalog of Actors school spirit demands of its newspaper reviews, mentions of Germanotta tended to elicit some of the few moments of original and honest enthusiasm.
“She was very much like everyone else,” said Phillips. “She was a very quick study, but so were many others.”
What attention Germanotta did gain, for her roles as Adelaide, Rosemary, and Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was directed almost exclusively towards her voice. Reviews of school productions of Damn Yankees and A Man for All Seasons made no specific mention of Germanotta for her roles of Lola and Alice More, respectively, whatsoever. No review was available for her role as Andreyevna in Gogol's The Government Inspector. Notably, those roles for which she received no recognition required Germanotta to lean more on acting skill than her considerable singing talent.
Clearly the acting chops would develop sometime before the inception and donning of the Gaga guise. But at the time Germanotta had a strong voice, a good ear. She was, otherwise, a regular high-school actress, gaining key roles when voice mattered, garnering few mentions where it didn't.
Phillips recalled two roles in which Germanotta did excel, and they happen to be the only two roles explicitly mentioned by Gaga in profiles and interviews: Adelaide and Philia, with Adelaide considered her best performance. It had nothing to do with seniority or growing skill. The Adelaide performance came half a year before her unnoticed portrayal of Alice More.
More likely Germanotta succeeded in these roles because she found a resonance with the characters. Both Philia and Adelaide, and Rosemary too, for that matter, are long-suffering and loving women. They are deeply sexual, pent-up and ready to cut loose, especially Adelaide whose Hot Box dance escapades presaged Germanotta’s later adventures with Lady Starlight.
“My favorite solo she ever sang was a song called ‘Lush Life,’” said Phillips.
The tune in question is a world-weary piece lamenting the stagnation of club high life. It seems to draw from her high-school years spent honing her voice at open mic night at the Bitter End, or clubbing with her mother.
“She was clearly exceptional,” said Phillips. “But I never saw the present phenomenon coming.”
Her success in the roles of engaged and bothered women exploring their sexuality onstage tells a story of a girl on the brink of self-discovery. This was a woman ingraining herself into the Lower East Side and East Village, diverging from her schoolmates, perhaps growing up fast. She was a talent without a true face, searching out a style that would slowly develop through her forays into NYU’s arts scene and the gay and burlesque cultures of downtown Manhattan.
But that changeability is itself a part of Lady Gaga's well-guarded persona. How does a shapeshifter assume a shape and grow up?
What peers out through “You and I” is perhaps not the reemergence of the Real Stefani Germanotta, but the maturation of Lady Gaga: the assimilation of all those earnest pre-fame obsessions into a fully formed persona. The rebirth of Germanotta inside the fully realized character of Gaga may well revolutionize an already revolutionary artist. How her lil’ monsters will react to the rock-powered numbers is anyone’s guess. But then, they all must grow up, too.