Who – or what* – is Lady Gaga?

*for those who, like Christina Aguilera, aren’t sure of Lady Gaga’s gender

Every once in a while, an artist pops up out of (seemingly) nowhere and manages to capture the essence of a period of time. In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, no one is poised to be that kind of artist more than Lady Gaga.

A strange amalgamation of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, and Madonna, Lady Gaga is probably one of the most unique artists on the scene today. More than any artist since…well, Madonna, Lady Gaga has worked tirelessly to build an image that is all her own, with many entertainment critics (and the singer herself) referring to her image as that of a modern-day Andy Warhol.

Her music is equally unique – lyrics on her debut album, The Fame, are split three ways between sex, celebrity, and simply dancing. Her pursuit of celebrity, in particular, stands out in a more bold and brash way than songs and albums by other female artists that have infiltrated the airwaves in recent months.

With months of international success behind her, Lady Gaga recently began her siege on her native American audience. Raves from Perez Hilton certainly haven’t hurt, either. In a manner similar to what he did with Katy Perry through 2007 and 2008, PerezHilton.com has become a veritable breeding ground for information on Lady Gaga as she began focusing on the United States. As the singer’s unimitable personality began to be featured more prominently, record and singles sales began to pick up.

The artist’s first single, “Just Dance,” took an astounding 22 weeks to climb the Billboard Hot 100 to the #1 position in January, the second-longest amount of time in chart history – and this period came after the single was a success on the Dance charts for four months. Second single “Poker Face” became a hit in the United States more quickly, with the song reaching #3 (at press time). “Poker Face” also reached the Top 10 while “Just Dance” was still in the Top 10; the latter was beginning its climb down the charts. This made Lady Gaga the first female in Billboard history to place her first two singles in the Top 10 simultaneously. Third U.S. single “LoveGame” recently debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, even though its official release isn’t scheduled until later this year, due to the continued strength of “Poker Face.”

Album sales for The Fame continue to also grow. In March, the album hit a new peak of #4 on the Billboard 200, and the album’s sales continue to grow on a weekly basis.

But who is the person behind the act?

Not much is known about Lady Gaga outside of her (very) staged public life. What is known is that the singer’s real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and that she was born in Yonkers, New York in 1986. She reportedly learned how to play the piano by ear at the age of four, and began performing publically at the age of 14. At 17, Gaga was granted early admission to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was a music major. It was at NYU that she focused her writing skills on the topics of art, religion, and socio-political order.

After withdrawing from NYU, Gaga began to immerse herself in New York’s club scene, eventually appearing in shows with drag queens and gogo dancers. At 19, she was signed with Island Def Jam, but was dropped within a couple of months. It took until January 2008 for Gaga to be signed with another label – this time, with Interscope Records. Gaga was originally brought in as a songwriter, but was partnered with Akon’s Konvict label after the singer heard her sing a reference vocal for one of her songs.

Meanwhile, Lady Gaga began taking her particular brand of music – avant-garde electronica – and incorporating both pop melodies and glam-rock. Through Akon, Lady Gaga began working on her debut album with producer RedOne, who helped mix Gaga’s dance beats with urban melodies and pop choruses.

As she focused further on her debut album, Gaga found a topic of discussion – fame. Gaga created the “Haus of Gaga,” a collective focused on creating clothing, set stages, and sounds for Lady Gaga. The collective worked with Gaga on not only promotion for her album, but subsequent touring of Europe and America, including Gaga’s tour as the opening act for the New Kids on the Block.

In December 2008, Lady Gaga received a nomination for Best Dance Recording for “Just Dance,” though she lost the award to Daft Punk. Around the same time, “Just Dance” was finally coming around on the U.S. charts, though the single had already by that point been a major international success.

As for what’s to come from Lady Gaga…who knows? In her own words: “I’m not trying to prove to anybody that I’m going to be here for 30 years. You either are or you’re not. you either have passion for it, or you don’t. It’s either important for you to stop, and buy a condo, and have babies, and marry a rich actor, or not do any of that, and continue to make music and art, and die alone. Which is what I’ll probably do.”

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