‘Poker Face’: The Intelligent Design of Lady Gaga

Whether we like it or not (and — full disclosure — I personally do), Lady Gaga’s pop presence is inescapable. She’s risen to fame at a breakneck pace these last few years, solidly establishing herself as a fashion icon, intrepid gay rights advocate, and “mother monster” to all her fans. She presents herself as an empowered young woman and an eccentric yet confident artist. Her influence these days is all-reaching and refreshingly positive. (Oh yeah, and her songs are catchy, too!)

But is Lady Gaga for real? Maureen Callahan explores that question in her biography, Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga. Is Gaga — born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta of New York’s Upper West Side — really a bizarre outsider artist, or actually a privileged, calculating performer and business woman? Callahan’s tell-all book (which has inspired a forthcoming Lifetime biopic) suggests that Gaga is, in reality, mostly a persona, an image. You know: a poker face.

That focus on image — on the construction of persona and fame — might seem limiting for a biography. It’s probably a wise choice in this case, though. Lady Gaga is still very young, and she seems to have a long career ahead of her; a straightforward history of her life would feel dated in the blink of a false eyelash.

As it is, Gaga’s already performed alongside Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live since the publication of Poker Face, pulling comedic acting out of her seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. She’s also performed at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards in full drag as her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone, and she’s suffered fan backlash over the serious similarities between the song “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. No biography of the young performer could keep up with her rapid news-making pace.

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta as Jo Calderone

Thus, it’s fair that Poker Face casts a somewhat narrow net. As Callahan explores the formative days of Lady Gaga’s career, she focuses on image-construction, revealing that Stefani Germanotta used to have a much different musical identity than the one we see today.

Based on insider interviews, Callahan divulges that Stefani’s original goal was to be a singer-songwriter like Fiona Apple or Norah Jones — just a girl with a piano and a soulful song. Her other early incarnations are compared to Michelle Branch, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, a “female Billy Joel”, a “jam-band chick”, and a Broadway singer. Her voice is compared to Christina Aguilera’s, which should come as little surprise; she and Aguilera shared a vocal coach.

It could be argued that that’s normal for an adolescent girl, to try on and discard various selves on the path to “finding herself”. Doesn’t everyone do that? The insinuation in Poker Face, though, is that Stefani never really became her true self. She became her record company’s creation, and in the process, she became what (not who) she’d always wanted to be: really, ridiculously famous.

The problem with Stefani’s initial singer-songwriter plan was that she didn’t have the looks for it. Descriptions of her sub-par appearance echo ceaselessly in Poker Face, so if harsh physical descriptions of a reasonably attractive young woman get your hair in knots, then this isn’t your book. Appearance-wise, she’s described variably as “chunky”, “overweight”, “pedestrian”, “a girl with no taste”, “out of place”, “derivative”, “not pretty enough to be a pop star”, and endless other descriptions all adding up to the same conclusion: in the looks department, she’s nothing special, and if she seems “hot” to the average American consumer today, that’s just the result of effort, smoke, disco mirrors, and massive heaps of money.

To become Lady Gaga, Stefani first lost 15 pounds. She and her production team then calculated ways to distract from her face and keep the focus on her body — a formula that included heavy makeup, sunglasses, and a weave up top, and very few clothing items on below. (The pant-frees look she sports today serves a very specific purpose: to distract from her lack of classic beauty.) The move from rock to dance music was similarly calculated. Lady Gaga (a name that was the group effort of her production team) was designed to sell, and dance music sells.

Obviously, this was an intelligent design, because (as Forbes has noted repeatedly) Lady Gaga certainly sells! Gaga sells records (her first has gone diamond), iTunes singles, and concert tickets, and perhaps most importantly, she sells ideas. And that brings me to my one major gripe about Poker Face: For all of its efforts to reveal Stefani Germanotta as an ambitious, derivative, yet charismatic fame-chaser, the book doesn’t dig into the positive influence her image has had on fans, and how (if at all) Stefani has grown from that relationship.

Callahan does touch briefly on the Lady Gaga self-love mission statements (which Callahan dubs “self-help platitudes” in the tradition of Madonna), the devotion to fans, and her relationship with the gay community. These are mostly glossed over in favor of the book’s style-over-substance implications, though, and it’s really too bad. The book sums up Gaga’s role in gay culture as another part of her image strategy. By catering to a gay fan base, Gaga benefited from “a committed core of consumers with highly disposable income”, and by identifying herself as bisexual, she gained “cred as an outsider artist”. Again, everything about Lady Gaga is presented as a means to two ends: fame and money.

That must be a tough pill for the LGBT community to swallow. After all, Gaga’s been affectionately called “Lady Gay Gay”, and an entire episode of Glee was devoted to her “self-help platitudes” about originality and self-confidence. Is she truly just in it for the fame? Even for me, the somewhat harsh portrayal of Gaga was getting hard to buy as I read, and I’m not that much of a fan.

That’s not to say that Poker Face isn’t a well-written, thoroughly researched biography with an interesting angle. It is, it is! And I’d absolutely recommend that fans read it. The portion about Gaga’s experience in the Lower East Side is especially entertaining.

The thing is, I’m just not sure that the book’s main question ultimately matters. When it comes to Lady Gaga, what’s authentic and what’s not? My response to that query is, “Who cares?” If she keeps thousands of industry professionals in work, helps millions of young people feel good about themselves, inspires young women to go for the limelight and the corner office, breaks down the forces of homophobia, and, yes, writes smart, catchy pop music, then I’m not sure if it really matters that she broke a few eggs to make an omelet. But it’s very interesting to read about all the same.

RATING 6 / 10