50 People Who Matter 2010 | 44. Lady Gaga

Paparazzi darling.

When does a star become an icon? The moment she passes the six million mark on Twitter? The day she is nominated for six Grammy Awards? Or the month (August 2010) in which it is calculated she has sold more than 15 million albums and 51 million singles worldwide? Lady Gaga (left) has done all these things.

But that's not it. In her own words: "God put me on earth for three reasons: to make loud music, gay videos and cause a damn ruckus." Ah, the ruckus. It has become the Gaga art form, most recently seen in the shape of a dress made of raw meat that she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards, provoking outrage and uproar in equal measure ("What does Lady Gaga's meat dress mean?" asked the BBC).

Gaga is used to such reactions: the world attends her every theatrical move, from the live routine that left her blood-soaked and ailing onstage to the red leather Elizabeth I dress that she wore to meet the Queen at the Royal Variety Show last year. And yet, while some say she redefines empty exhibitionism, her army of obsessed fans - whom she calls her "Little Monsters" - surge to her defence.

This is Gaga's trick. While she is mainstream enough to sell huge quantities of records and duet with Beyoncé (on the nine-minute song "Telephone", whose video features prison bondage and lesbian kisses), she has established herself as an ambassador for the marginalised, the lonely, the misunderstood. It's a lucrative market.

There's a limitless supply of alienated teenagers willing to sign up to a life of Gaga worship, especially since she tattooed her love for them on her arm (near another of her tattoos, from Rilke: "In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself: must I write?") But she was not always Gaga.

Born in New York City in 1986, Stefani Germanotta went to a private Catholic school on the Upper East Side, although she says her parents were from "lower-class families". She was always, she says, an outsider, but a dorm-mate at New York University remembers her as "a very suburban, preppy, friendly, social party girl".

The name "Lady Gaga" was born of a misspelt text by her then collaborator and producer, Rob Fusari (who tried to sue Gaga, saying she failed to pay him royalties for songs that he had co-written) - yet a New York Post profile claimed it was concocted by music industry executives.

This, too, is Gaga: a myth. The comparison is often made with Madonna - Gaga has inherited her mantle of Catholic-girl-turned-provocatrice. The feminist author Camille Paglia calls it "theft", an image of an icon repurposed for modern times, but Gaga has morphed the brand with her own uncompromising, outlandish, androgynous style.

And for her millions of Little Monsters, she is not just an artist, a singer, or a wearer of impossible clothes, but their champion and heroine: the ultimate "self-professed freak".


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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.