On Monday morning, Lady Gaga -- avant-garde superstar and white-hot center of the pop cultural universe -- was just another chatty co-host on The View. And guess what? She fit right in. Decked in pearls and a ladylike, Chanel-esque houndstooth skirtsuit (with matching houndstooth-patterned sunglasses, hat, and grand piano), Gaga more than held her own as she dutifully discussed the morning's Hot Topics with her fellow kaffeeklatschers. When debating the current issue of smoking's cancerous effects versus those of processed meats, Gaga charmingly offered: "Hot dogs are just jealous that cigarettes are more controversial." Then, later in the show, Gaga gave a stirring performance of her new power ballad "U and I," and, lest anyone in the audience doubt just how game she is, changed the lyric "sit right down on the couch where we made love the first time" to "sit right down on the couch where we watched The View the first time."
It seems that as much attention as the media devotes to analyzing Gaga and her particular brand of world domination, one aspect of her appeal is going under-examined: her masterful ability to transform, chameleon-like, into different versions of herself for various outlets as the situation dictates. Indeed, as it turns out, Lady Gaga's poker face is just one of many. As she recently noted, "Every show has a different demographic, and a different audience that wants to know different things." And in our media-centered culture, Gaga's ability to recognize these different demographics -- and bring out various elements of her own personality to better speak to them -- is quite a powerful talent.
There is the bawdy Gaga -- the witty smartass who, in another lifetime, could have been a staff writer on National Lampoon. She's the Gaga who appeared recently on Howard Stern's radio show, and meshed perfectly in his notorious environment of fast-paced, raunchy humor. When Stern asked her about her love life, Gaga, not missing a beat, quipped: "It's hard to find a boyfriend who doesn't mind a good tuck."
And then there is High Art Gaga -- she of the meat dress; she who posed for the cover of Japanese "Vogue" in drag and conducted the entire interview in the voice of the beautiful young man she dressed up as; she who flaunts otherworldly, exaggerated cheekbones -- meant to suggest a new evolution of the human race -- in the video for "Born This Way." This Gaga is a deeply gifted thinker, writer, and student of style who, in her first column for V magazine, wrote: "I can look at almost any hemline, silhouette, beadwork, or heel architecture and tell you very precisely who designed it first, what French painter they stole it from, how many designers reinvented it after them, and what cultural and musical movement parented the birth, death, and resurrection of that particular trend."
But, lest you think that High Art Gaga takes herself too seriously, remember that she exists peacefully alongside Self-Deprecating Gaga -- she's the one who has no problem pretending to be a bottle of wine (complete with a giant cork on her head) on a Saturday Night Live skit alongside Justin Timberlake, or appearing in a faux commercial for a line of Lady Gaga baby clothing, "Gaga Goo Goo," on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (While hugging an infant that's donned in a tiny version of her famous bubble dress, Gaga smiles joyfully at the camera and exclaims, "We were born this way!")
Perhaps she herself summed it up best on Good Morning America, while putting on a green wig during a performance for her devoted Little Monsters in Central Park: "Without my wigs, I can only be one person," she said. "And I want to be so many."
It may be tempting to find something disingenuous in Gaga's ability to transform herself so easily for so many different platforms. But that would be a mistake. Because Gaga is not being two-faced (or two-dozen -faced, as the case may be). Instead, she truly does seem to have all of these widely divergent elements within her, and the fact that she does allows her to connect deeply with a wide range of fans, whether they be young or old, gay or straight, cool kids or nerds, male or female, or, as Gaga sings, "black, white, or beige."
Indeed, Gaga is so gifted at connecting with the varied masses that when Oprah Winfrey was finishing the last season of her talk show, and ABC's Cynthia McFadden asked Barbara Walters who might be able to fill the void Oprah was leaving behind, Walters replied: "Lady Gaga... [Oprah and Gaga have] the same message: 'I had to struggle... Look at me, I made it, and you can too.' And both of these women -- Lady Gaga at 25 and Oprah in her fifties -- both of them mean it."
Actually, if there is one common thread that runs through all of Gaga's many guises, it may be one we don't often associate with megawatt superstars: kindness. There is an open-heartedness to Gaga, a decency and a goodness that can be found in almost everything she does (aside from that bizarre mermaid-in-a-wheelchair stunt). The notion that we can and should be kind to one another seems to inform her entire worldview. And a lot of that may have to do with what Gaga's girlhood was like.
Although her upbringing was relatively cushy -- she grew up in a beautiful pre-war building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended the tony Sacred Heart school -- Gaga had a rough time as a kid. She was teased mercilessly at school, and was treated like garbage by her peers (literally -- the girls who bullied her actually threw her into a trash can on the corner of a New York City street). But Gaga rose above a tough adolescence to wield her immense powers for good.
There are the big, important ways in which she uses her power, such as lobbying Congress for gay rights. But then there are the smaller ways, which are deeply meaningful as well. When she poses for photos with her Little Monsters, and a photo doesn't come out right, Gaga will rush back to pose for more, making sure the shots are perfect. She treats the NYC radio DJs that she listened to as a kid -- relative untouchables in the music-industry caste system she now reigns over -- as if they were the ones worthy of worship, not her.
And then there is the story of a ten-year-old girl from Winnipeg, Canada named Maria Aragon. Maria uploaded a video of herself singing "Born This Way" onto YouTube, her sweet young voice accompanied only by the tinny sound of the small synthesizer she played. Lady Gaga saw the video, and promptly tweeted it to her millions of Twitter followers, commenting: "Can't stop crying watching this. This is why I make music. She is the future. " Were Gaga another pop star, perhaps she would have sent the girl some autographed merch, or more likely, done nothing. But she's not another pop star. She's Gaga. So she invited Maria Aragon to sing "Born This Way" with her, live, onstage, in concert, in front of thousands of fans, on her Monster Ball tour.
Lady Gaga's latest single is an exuberant tune that's nearly impossible to listen to without your head starting to bob back and forth like those '90s nightclub guys played by Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan on Saturday Night Live. In the song, against the rhythm of a relentlessly danceable beat and the haunting cry of the late Clarence Clemons's saxophone, Lady Gaga sings, "I'm on the edge of glory." But really, thanks to her talent, her decency, and her heartfelt willingness to be whoever her audience needs her to be, she's not on the edge of glory. She's already there.
Entertainment journalist Susannah Gora is the author of "You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation." Visit her on the web at www.susannahgora.com.