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How Lady Gaga transformed from popstar to political powerhouse

Susannah Butter
·5-min read
<p>Lady Gaga</p> (REUTERS)

Lady Gaga


It is an image which makes it abundantly clear that America is moving on from Trump.

Lady Gaga stood at the inauguration belting out the Star-Spangled Banner in a blush pink skirt by so puffy that she could hardly walk in it, to celebrate her friend Joe Biden becoming President. She appeared nervous, growing in confidence as she went on, but it was a significant moment, as momentous as the enormous gold dove of peace brooch pinned to her chest (has she been taking style notes from Baroness Hale and her spider jewellery?)

If President-deselect Donald Trump was still on Twitter you can only imagine how incandescent his tweets would be — he would be spitting with envy at the line up of popstars that Joe Biden has commanded when everyone from Neil Young to Adele refused to be associated with him. Biden had Lady Gaga, complete with bling gold microphone and earpiece, and a poised, powerful J. Lo as his warm-up act, followed by 22-year-old poet and activist Amanda Gorman, who gave the world hope with her reading.

Perhaps Trump would make a dig at Lady Gaga too, an outsider who has always stuck up for people who are different. In the past year, Lady Gaga has cemented her position as a popstar philanthropist who makes an impact — no wonder Biden wants her on side. For all the quips about how it looks as if he is her grandfather and how her outfit at the inauguration was a bit Hunger Games chic, they are a powerful union of pop appeal and politics. Gaga gets things done. Her One World: Together at Home concert at the start of the pandemic helped raise $127 million for frontline care workers (and lifted spirits with an utterly mind bending performance from Elton John mispronouncing the chorus of his song I’m Still Standing — Google it).

On the surface, Lady Gaga is synonymous with a wild, disco attitude and an ability to surprise. This is a woman whose first hit, Just Dance, was about her losing her keys and phone in a nightclub, unable to see straight and wondering “How did I turn my shirt inside out?”. And remember when she wore a dress made out of raw beef to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards?

But actually her new position at Biden’s side makes a lot of sense. Gaga, 34, has always been a popstar with a social conscience, able to package up serious messages in a way that gets your attention and has widespread appeal. That meat dress was a protest against US government restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers. That doesn’t mean she can’t also sing outré songs about, for example, wanting to take a ride on your disco stick.

Lady Gaga making a statement in her beef dress at the 2010 MTV AwardsGetty Images
Lady Gaga making a statement in her beef dress at the 2010 MTV AwardsGetty Images

“Lady Gaga is like Madonna in that she knows how to reinvent herself,” says publicist Mark Borkowski. A Star is Born showed how she can do serious acting as much as fun New York style disco. “She has a huge and incredibly loyal fanbase and when you see her live it is powerful. Her relationship with Joe Biden speaks to the fact that people want authenticity from popstars now.” The Joe sweatshirt she wore to support him sold out and her inauguration outfit was a shrewd choice - by Schiaparelli, a brand with an American creative director.

This month she received a Free Speech Award from the Martin Luther King Jr Centre for non-violent social change and she denounced racism and white supremacy in her acceptance speech. Oh and there’s her vegan skincare line (is she the new Gwyneth Paltrow?). She has achieved all this while keeping up her day job, releasing a new album, Chromatica in May last year and acting in two upcoming films, one directed by Ridley Scott (name TBC), the other an action thriller called Bullet Train. And you thought you had done well in managing to work from home with weak wi-fi and do a 5k. If you feel horribly inferior, read the New York Times piece by the journalist whose ex-boyfriend is now going out with Gaga.

Presidents and popstars have always had special relationships — look at Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy. But the union between showbiz and politics is not straightforward. “Agents don’t want their acts to be too political as it can alienate people,” says Borkowski. “Lots of people voted for Trump, so some agents would prefer acts to be anodyne.” Taylor Swift exposes this in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana where she defies her management to speak out about Trump. They were afraid she would lose fans over it.

Lady Gaga and Joe Bidenladygaga/Instagram
Lady Gaga and Joe Bidenladygaga/Instagram

Gaga has known Biden for a long time. They are both Catholic, he worked with her to set up trauma centres for sexual assault survivors and as she sees it, she had a role in him running for President. She has said: “I remember when I was hanging out with him one day and I was like, ‘So you’re going to run for president, right?’ And we had a little talk and he did it. But I was like, ‘Listen, we need you, because we needed somebody that was going to bring us all together for this moment, this very important moment.” Thanks Gaga.

But what does she want? There is a clue on her new album where she sings a duet with her friend Elton John. Sine from Above is about how when she was younger she pursued “lightning” but now she wants to heal and find love. There was plenty of that in the air at the inauguration.

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Joe Biden sworn in as 46th US president