My first true love was punk music. As an uncool 10 year old doomed to acne and a K-Mart budget, I gave up trying to squeeze into Abercrombie halter tops and focused my efforts on memorizing every word of the Dead Kennedy's Plastic Surgery Disasters as if it were a sonnet.
As a dweeby tween turned mainstream defector, MTV was the ultimate forbidden fruit: it featured artists like Usher and Maroon 5, who were undoubtedly members of the establishment, crafted by the man to pollute our minds. I would tune to channel 24 only when I was certain that nobody else was in the house. If I heard the garage door start to creak open, I would flip the channel to C-SPAN before frantically pressing the "Off" button of the remote, tracks covered.
But from time to time, I was afforded several hours of reality television and music video bliss. I regret that my SAT scores were likely impacted after one too many episodes of Room Raiders and My Super Sweet 16 (still a personal favorite), but it was probably good that my psyche had the occasional respite from anarchist philosophy.
One afternoon in 2008, amidst an episode of Parental Control—a reality competition where parents would try to convince their son or daughter to dump their dingleberry of a significant other by going on blind dates with new contenders of their choosing—Sway informed me it was time for an MTV News break. This was the first time I saw her. Dressed head to toe in black patent leather, platinum bow of hair atop her head, and microscopic John Lennon-style sunglasses, Lady Gaga was explaining herself to a confused looking reporter, who was standing slightly farther away than necessary. Lady Gaga was escorted by two towering, androgynous women, wearing outfits of a similar, Bowie-in-Labyrinth nature.
She was promoting her first single "Just Dance" which was slated to be released in the very near future. Lady Gaga was relaxed and composed, speaking in her unmistakable vapid yet intellectual growl. The reporter seemed privately delighted, as though she were interviewing a Cirque du Soleil fire-baton twirler: you can't deny their talent, but the thought of them taking their "artistry" too seriously is positively giggle-inducing.
I stared open-mouthed, not sure how to feel about what I was witnessing. Let the fact that I remember the exact pink of her lipstick speaks to the power of the moment.
Months later, and Lady Gaga was everywhere. Her songs "Just Dance" "Love Game" and "Paparazzi" were unavoidable and incessant. Firmly against all things mainstream, Lady Gaga soon became a high-ranking member of my personal Most Wanted List. I viewed her wild costumes and theatrics as weak attempts at replacing the ever-elusive "real music" with shock value. Real music, obviously, consisted solely of anything with a potent anarchist message. Bonus points awarded to anything available exclusively on cassette.
While my peers debated the true meaning of a "disco stick" I railed against all things Gaga. Each tabloid image or radio play earned a well-placed scoff from yours truly. Taking to the internet, I found dozens of others who felt similarly—most of them middle-aged men who wore backwards baseball caps to disguise ever-growing patches of male-pattern baldness. "Thank God Freddie Mercury is dead! He would be rolling in his grave if he heard modern music!" Little did any of us realize that Gaga, a lifelong Queen devotee herself, adopted part of her stage name from the Queen song "Radio Ga-Ga." To MetallicaFan666 and I, "Gaga" was merely a mantra of inhumanity.
And so I lived for a time, going about my life of knee-length denim skirts and Ralph Nader-worship, all the while in the back of my mind ruminating on my distaste for the over-worshipped pop phenomenon who only seemed to grow more revered by the day.
In late 2009, you couldn't set foot outside of your house without hearing a chorus of "ra ra ra-ah-ah..." "Bad Romance" was the lead single off of her second album, The Fame Monster, and represented a turn in her musical and visual styles. Darker, less slick, less friendly. Radiohead is notorious for releasing their drippy first album Pablo Honey merely as a means to break into the industry and from then on assume creative control. It felt like Gaga was doing something similar here, albeit with more wigs.
I began to develop Stockholm Syndrome. I made her my captor, luxuriating in the pleasure of complaining, only to discover I had fallen under her sequined spell—I wanted more of her in a completely non-ironic way.
For a while, Lady Gaga and I existed in secret. At the public library, I would sit at the computer in the deserted "Hip Teen" section and pore over her Wikipedia page. My mental pretext was that of reconnaissance: I had to know the enemy completely in order to best bring them down. But with every click, I only grew more fascinated. Her visuals, though outrageous, were beautifully orchestrated. When Gaga spoke about her music, she unexpectedly had so much of value to say. She was genuinely cool, powerful, and a friend to anyone who had been sent to the principal's office for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt and tutu ensemble for fifth grade picture day.
My adoration remained unconsummated for a time. I sustained myself on grainy YouTube videos and gossip blog posts as I waited for the precise moment to strike. Finally, a weekend came when my dad and I were driving about hour away from our house. We spotted a record store and I asked to go in. Certainly there was no chance I would know anyone working here or have to potentially face them ever again. Nevertheless, when I made my way to the register, copy of The Fame Monster in hand, I asked for a gift receipt to try and give the impression my purchase was intended for someone else, "Not one of us who listens only to original Black Flag LPs!" I might as well have added to the long-haired cashier. He didn't even look up during the entire transaction.
My feelings of shame were quickly quashed by the fact that I was free to pop the coveted disc into my portable CD player and let each delicious synthesizer sensation wash over my body, cleansing it of every distortion pedal and grimy voice I had subjected myself to for the past five years. I was reborn. I loved Lady Gaga and I wasn't afraid to say it.
I began following her devoutly. Though perhaps I didn't go as far as to pray to Mother Monster as some other highly incensed fans, I can report that I once used an entire can of hairspray (I now have a specific hole in the ozone named after me, kind of like when you adopt a panda) to create a hair-bow in her honor, and spent several months' worth of a minimum-wage paycheck on tickets and a glossy collector's program when attending her The Monster Ball tour.
Though I wasn't readying my confession to the world, or informing MetallicaFan666 of my newfound discovery, loving Lady Gaga was liberating. For too long had I been trapped in the cycle of musical pretention. "Their earlier stuff was better," is a classic symptom of this illness. Angry men had dominated what channeled its way through my headphones, but why? So I could attempt to convince myself this is who I really was? Then where was the crack Lady Gaga had slipped into?
Anything catchy, love-oriented (save for the Buzzcocks), and without a clear political message I had trained myself, Pavlovian-style, to immediately toss down the mental garbage chute. By repressing what felt good, I maintained credibility as someone who loved "real" music.
Perhaps what I had been rejecting the entire time was femininity. Internalized misogyny, particularly rampant in the punk community, had conditioned my pubescent brain to believe that being feminine, and embracing myself as a woman, was the very antithesis of individuality.
Giving into Lady Gaga was, ironically, perhaps the most punk thing I had ever done. For the first time, I genuinely cared so little about what anyone else would say, I wasn't afraid to loudly sing along to "Alejandro" and "Telephone" while making eye contact with someone next to me at a red light.
I believe it comes as no coincidence that all of the artists I rallied against were female. Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj: all women who had been subject to my harsh criticism in regards to their lyrical content, personal life, or physical appearance. Though none of these other women ended up as elevated as Gaga in my heart and soul, I think the initial psychological workings were the same. By dubbing Avril Lavigne as a "talentless poser" (see ih8avril.groups.msn.com for more) I was given the instant tingling sensation that I was better, I was smarter, I had more knowledge of the musical universe than her. While I certainly had no personal report with Avril Lavigne, the fact that she was a young woman made her a target enough for my criticism. It sounds absolutely bonkers because, simply put, it is.
Only by opening my heart and mind to female musicians did I really begin to grow as an individual (I tried very hard to make that statement less pretentious, but unfortunately there's no way around it). There was so much infinite knowledge that these women had to share with me, knowledge I had previously never understood due to a chorus of "Anarchy in the U.K." on permanent loop in my frontal lobe. I was coming into my own as a teenage girl with the assistance of Bikini Kill, Shonen Knife, Sleater Kinney, Selena, and of course, Lady Gaga. Sure, I still got the Led out from time to time, but they became slightly more irrelevant when I realized they didn't have anything to say on the subject matter of buying your first box of tampons.
Though punching some guy in a mosh pit can make you feel pretty powerful, I had never felt as powerful as the first time I listened to Kathleen Hanna sing to me about the state of womanhood. Here I was, a mixed-up girl with so much more to say than "Gabba gabba hey!" yet this is what I was force-feeding myself.
There's no greater sigh of relief you can breathe than when you just let yourself be. Giving up the internal debate between what was popular and what was worthwhile was, in no small way, a root in the discovery of who I am. Accepting what I was meant to accept had fantastic consequences. Cat Power inspired me to explore, Ciara showed me how to dance, Lady Gaga taught me to love my previously-loathed nose—we have the same distinctive Italian-American slope that comes only with its fair share of repressed New York Judaism.
Now, I find myself seeking out and listening to female musicians almost exclusively. I feel fiercely protective and proud of any woman expressing herself creatively, whether that expression be disco stick related or otherwise. Women are worthy of my time and interest. More importantly, I am worthy of my own interests.