It’s been nine years since Lady Gaga dropped her debut album The Fame, which immediately established her as a self-aware and art-damaged force in the world of pop music. From the very beginning that concept, fame and the very act of being famous, has been central to her identity as much as her actual talents as a musician, singer, and songwriter. The eye-grabbing costumes and wild award show performance pieces have always been an extension of her music. It’s like that old Oscar Wilde line “...there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Constantly reinventing herself out of creative restlessness, she earned all the obvious comparisons to outlandish over-the-top artists like Madonna and David Bowie. Over the past few years, though, Gaga has been trying on a comparably demure mode. She did a full album of standards with Tony Bennett, 2014’s Cheek to Cheek, and performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music at the Oscars in 2015, but the most significant evidence of this growth was last year’s Joanne. Named after her aunt, an artist and abuse victim who died at 19 from lupus, it was promoted as a huge shift from her previous album, Artpop. It’s been an interesting trip for Lady Gaga these past few years, but thankfully we have the new Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two to pull back the curtain in a way that offers something to even non-monsters such as myself.
Before we dive in on this though, I have to ask: Was I the only one who read the title and immediately thought of Liz Phair? The Exile In Guyville track “6’1”” would not stop running through my head, which is fitting in its own way I suppose. With the way that Gaga handles her day to day fame-maintenance a fitting mantra might very well have been “And I kept standing six-feet-one / Instead of five-feet-two.” The film’s title is actually a reference to “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” (“Five foot two, eyes of blue, But oh! what those five foot could do”), a song that bubbles up during a scene shot at the reception following the baptism of Gaga’s goddaughter.
As an album, Joanne was pitched as a big statement and departure for Gaga, so getting that just right weighed on her. It’s concept is loaded with so much personal baggage, and the tonal shift opened her up to some intense insecurities. An interviewer tells Gaga that it’s a “gift to her father” and he’s not wrong. Along with the pressure from that album and her hopes of how it might shift the way fans perceive her, she’s fighting the debilitating discomfort, chronic pain, and body spasms that go with her fibromyalgia. All of this is further complicated when her album leaks three days early, throwing her positive promo-tour mindset into a meltdown. The most intense challenge Gaga faced is the one that bookends the film: The Super Bowl Halftime Show. It’s easy for me, a cynical unfamous person, to get distracted by the crass commercialism implied by every second of the largest and most aggressive annual branding opportunity in the world of sports. For Gaga, it’s a tightly choreographed work of mass media performance art, an extension of her most recent turn towards the relatively stripped down sounds of Joanne.
Being famous is just like everything else, in that it has its ups and downs. The upside is that you... are famous and presumably rich. The downsides are a lot more complex and only start with the baseline of paparazzi hounding you. When it comes to being famous, there are all these little things that are different that us non-famous people take for granted. Like, Florence Welch (herself a very famous person) points out how insane it is that every pic Gaga posts on Instagram with a flick of her thumb goes out to twenty five million people. Given her flustered reaction to being reminded of this, it’s a fact that Gaga seems to actively have to suppress in order to post anything on social media. It’s impressive that this film manages to capture Gaga in all these unguarded moments acknowledging the pressure put on her, and nothing about it ends up feeling forced. For someone who’s clearly hyper aware of narrative building there isn’t a single moment that comes off as insincere. Even the awkward impromptu stop at a Wal-Mart to check out how her new album is displayed manages to seem like a legit “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” moment when it easily could have gone off the rails into less favorable tabloid headline territory.
Fame itself has been the concept Gaga has seemingly meditated on since the very beginning, and Five Foot Two is a fascinating deconstruction of where she stands on the subject now. Seemingly only slightly worse for wear, Gaga’s got things under control and is still steering her ship as best she can with a course charted out for the foreign waters of her own artistic truth, all while balancing her place in the larger pop culture landscape.