What Gaga Owes Elvis

The success of 25-year-old Stefani Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, is really the fault of Elvis Presley, who would completely understand the woman’s immense drawing power.

Back in the mid-1950s, the United States was largely a conformist nation. Americans had endured the strict discipline of a vicious World War, and those who had served in the military were strongly committed to obeying the power structure and playing by society’s rules. Largely because of that, there was a sameness to American life in the ’50s that bored some younger Americans. And so, like James Dean, millions of teenagers became rebels without a cause.

Enter a young singer from Tupelo, Miss., named Elvis Presley. Armed with long, slicked-back hair, sideburns and a non-threatening sneer, Presley captured the imagination of young people everywhere. Although polite in speech, Presley’s actions were daring, swiveling his hips suggestively as he sang about rocking in a jailhouse. Before long, Elvis was America’s biggest star, sending some conservative Americans into spasms of indignation.

Today, Lady Gaga is channeling her inner Elvis, as our time, in some ways, parallels the 1950s. Faced with a barrage of high-tech gibberish, some young people have become jaded and are turning out the recession, the wars and the intense competition to make a buck. They value individuality and excitement, which Lady Gaga provides almost nonstop. Thus, Gaga has become a symbol, as well as an entertainer.

Germanotta’s music is OK — a series of dance tunes that are almost disco-like. But her voice doesn’t come close to what Elvis had going. No, it is Gaga’s persona that has pushed her to the top of the charts. Here’s a young woman who doesn’t seem to give a flip about what anyone thinks of her. Flashing her tattoos, she is the epitome of a working-class girl even though she attended private school and studied music at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her outrageous stage presence is right out of the Madonna playbook, and there is no question that she is marketing herself to an audience who, to quote the song Grease, believes “conventionality belongs to yesterday.”

The problem is that while the lady may portray herself as a tramp, she cannot possibly keep up the frenetic pace. Watching her HBO special, your eyes glaze. Running all over the stage, Gaga makes Mick Jagger look like Rip Van Winkle. She changes costumes after almost every number, finding a multitude of ways to expose herself to an audience that loves every minute of it.

But how long can you do that?

Elvis burned out after a few years and went into hiding as the Beatles took over. He later emerged as a comeback kind of guy. The struggle, however, took his life. He died at 42, but his legacy endures.

Germanotta’s legacy is anyone’s guess, but the odds are that she will have to settle for being a period piece. It is indeed Lady Gaga’s time. I just hope she’s saving her money.