Lady Gaga rang Popdust from her record label's headquarters during yet another wave of promotion for her latest album, Born This Way. The world's biggest pop star had been dutifully gabbing with media types all afternoon—she yucked it up with radio jocks in Omaha before this interview and with god-knows-who afterwards—and it spoke to her cheerful lust for fame and heroic devotion to show business that she threw herself into our conversation as if Oprah F-ing Winfrey were asking the questions. When she squealed her delight in being named the top star in the Popdust 40 (click here to see the full Popdust 40 list), the thought occurred that she might be as good an actor as she is a musical artist. Which is exactly the sort of snoozy dichotomy—art or commerce? pop or rock? meat or dress?–that Gaga seeks to obliterate. Stefani Germanotta is so fully committed to playing the part of Lady Gaga that she's beyond fake. Popdust can pay no greater compliment.
POPDUST: We've just finished putting together our ranking of the 40 greatest pop stars in the world, and you, Lady Gaga, have been named the number one artist in the Popdust 40.
LADY GAGA: I have?
Oh my gosh!
You're so good at acting surprised!
No, really! Wow! I'm so honored. Thank you.
You're welcome. So, one of the categories we devised for the Popdust 40 is “third best song." We said your third best song is “Edge of Glory." Do you agree?
Well, it's so very difficult to say. I love all my songs so much.
Of course… a mother loves all her children equally. Let's start with this: If you had to, could you name your favorite?
Well, “Bad Romance" has a special place in my heart because it meant a lot to the Little Monsters when it came out. I also think “You and I" is one of the best songs I've ever written. But the third best song... [long pause] Well, I suppose I would have to say “Poker Face." But see, I have very different feelings about different songs at different times. I could also say that “Fooled Me Again" is one of the best songs I've written, and that was never on any of my albums. I could say that “Marry the Night" is my third best song, or “Americano." I go through these artistic rebirths where I envision my songs in completely different ways. But I guess I'd say my third best song is “Poker Face."
The Popdust 40 is a ranked list, and since most artists claim they hate being compared to their peers, I'm curious: Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
I'm very ambitious, very driven. And I'm competitive, based on so many years of rejection, so many years of being told no. I internalized that rejection and turned it into something positive. I said, “I can do this. I can be greater. I know I have what it takes."
Are you the type of person who studies your contemporaries on the pop chart?
Sure, I like to be aware of the landscape. But I'm really keen on understanding how I can push the boundaries of pop music and still exist outside of it in some way. When I made Born This Way, I looked at underground dance music and the direction it was taking. Then, I thought about where I was in my life and what I was trying to express, and I tried to create this hybrid of underground dance music—which is the voice of my generation—and the spirit of anthemic, rebellious rock n' roll. That's what Born This Way is all about.
One thing I thought you shared with Amy Winehouse is that, like you, she was an outsider working in pop music who refashioned the mainstream to her image, and not the other way around. Does that ring true to you?
That's a fair thing to say. I remember a moment, fondly and sadly, from 2007. I was in a Duane Reade on the Lower East Side with my friend Lady Starlight, shopping for eyelash glue. Amy's Rolling Stone cover had just come out, the one shot by Terry Richardson. We saw the Rolling Stone, and Starlight looked at me and said, “If Amy can do it, I think you have a real shot." Amy lived the blues, which is very different from me. There was genuine pain in her voice. She was so vulnerable and yet so strong. I really adore her music. She was the only contemporary artist I looked up to. The only one. At the time, she was the only artist who gave me any hope that I had a shot at being part of mainstream pop music.
How would you assess the current state of pop music?
I think pop is ever changing, and I hope to death it never stops being so. Art is designed to be different from moment to moment, and songs should reflect that. They shouldn't all be the same. That's my ambition as an artist. I'm not particularly obsessed with how my career will be viewed when it's over. I'm much more obsessed with what I create along the way and how dedicated I am to each creation.
What would you say in response to those who disparage contemporary dance-pop and Top 40 as inferior musical genres, especially compared to traditional guitar-based rock?
I rebuke that point of view.
Good word choice!
It's so incredibly archaic and dishonorable. It puts music in a space where it can't breathe or move. Led Zeppelin and the Beatles made dance music. When I wrote Born This Way I told everybody I wanted to make a whole bunch of stars and bananas and fish and flags and all sorts of things that don't fit anywhere, and I wanted to make them fit. I fought to make them fit. The point is, how do we bridge these genres and annihilate the idea that one is more valuable than the other? I don't view “You and I," for instance, to be just a pop song or a rock song or an electronic song. Actually, I view it to be cabaret.
What makes it cabaret?
It has this theatrical, honky-tonk pop emotion to it. I imagine myself in a barn with a piano, being filthy. That's just what I see.
What have you learned about yourself since you started promoting Born This Way?
I learned that to be a great artist, you must be emotionally very thin.
What do you mean by “emotionally thin"?
Your tears and your anger and your happiness must be just under the surface of your first layer of skin.
Is that the same as being vulnerable?
Yes. But I like to say “emotionally thin" because it's much more dramatic. Vulnerable to me implies only tears.
What's the downside of being so emotionally thin?
Well, in my mind, to be a great artist you must be both private and public at all times. And yet I'm part of an industry that challenges the pop female head-on, guns a-blazing. I have to be emotionally thin but equally strong and impervious.
And how does the industry prevent that?
The challenge is that what others view as artifice—my wigs, my makeup, my clothes, my love for show business and theater—to me, these are the paint in my palette. These things are not artifice. These things are my reality. But they create a boundary between me and the public that I have to fight through. People wonder, Is she for real? Is it all an act? But my question is, Since when did the act become a bad thing? Show business has always been about the act. Hasn't it?
Click here to see the full Popdust 40 list!
And check out the Popdust 40 mega-playlist on Turntable.FM.