True romance

Despite her fearsome reputation, Lady Gaga knows how to charm a crowd.

By now, even the most gentle readers among you probably have heard of Lady Gaga, stage name of the 24-year-old New Yorker Stefani Germanotta. In the past 18 months, she has sold an astonishing 12 million albums worldwide (no mean feat in these days of declining record sales), become the darling of both the broadsheets and the tabloids, and has just added yet another British date to her Monster Ball tour.

This week, she played two nights at London's O2 Arena. I went to see what is it about Gaga that attracts her Little Monsters -- the provocative, colourfully clobbered young fans that worship at her altar -- as well as the audience of conventional rock fans, and mothers and daughters, that make up her shows.

At the end of evening, I had a theory. At the same time as Gaga manages to shock and provoke people with her outlandish behaviour, she simultaneously cossets and welcomes the people who follow her. Also, unlike Madonna, the pop predecessor to whom she is always compared, she tells her audience to be themselves -- and that peculiarness is part of who we really are.

Her live show, for example, addresses mortality (which has suddenly taken on deeper resonance this week since rumours surfaced about her being diagnosed with lupus). There is one striking routine in which Gaga's dancers tear at her body, leaving her neck and chest covered in blood, which she doesn't remove. She also stops stock-still after songs for 20 seconds at a time, breathing heavily, as if issuing a death rattle.

Stage oddity

Even in her skimpiest outfits, Gaga foregrounds ugliness rather than prettiness, which shows us that her presentation is nothing to do with sexiness, and everything to do with the acceptance of weirdness. Among contemporaries of hers like Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé, as well as Madonna, this is unique.

Then there is Gaga's personal way of talking to her fans on stage. She talks at length about what their love for her means to her, her speeches sounding born of a hunger for friendship and acceptance, rather than a desire for dollar bills. She also tells her fans things they want to hear, but far too few pop stars tell them.

"You don't need money or plastic surgery to be a star," she says. "Reject the idea of not being good enough, thin enough, blonde enough. Like every motherfucker told me."

Whether they are straight or gay, black or white, anarchic or everyday, she tells her fans constantly to accept their odd qualities.

At the Monster Ball, Gaga says, everyone can be free.

There are other things that make Lady Gaga a great pop star, that people of all ages and backgrounds can see. There are her musical talents: the piano-playing with her fingers as well as her stiletto boots; the way she can make her voice growl and soar as well as soothe.

And there are songs like "Bad Romance", the set's dazzling encore. A five-minute epic that exposes the agonies of lust, and culminates in the most melancholic vocal in the pop canon for years -- "I don't want to be friends", she wails, desperately hinting at those times in our lives when we have all craved the opposite -- it reveals the high, dark drama in our real worlds. This is what Lady Gaga is all about. Long may we all be her monsters.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage