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.

Show Hide image

Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.