Author Annie Zaleski returns to 360°Sound to talk about her new book, Lady Gaga: Applause (out now on Palazzo Editions). We last spoke with Zaleski in 2021 about her 33 1/3 book on Duran Duran’s Rio.
When the UK publisher Palazzo Editions asked Zaleski if she’d like to write an illustrated biography on Lady Gaga, the award-winning Cleveland-based music journalist did not hesitate. A longtime fan of Gaga, Zaleski first saw her live when she opened for New Kids on the Block in 2008.
“I was absolutely all in,” Zaleski told 360°Sound. “I was very flattered, too. The publisher has put out some beautiful books.”
Since her debut single “Just Dance” topped the charts in August 2008, Gaga has sold over 124 million records and racked up numerous awards, including 12 Grammys. Lady Gaga: Applause traces Gaga’s remarkable career through the years. Packed with stunning photos, Zaleski details Gaga’s constantly changing music as well as her impressive acting turns and her LGBTQIA+ activism. The book even includes segments that focus on Gaga’s fashion. The infamous meat dress she wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards is among the outfits featured.
“Gaga is the whole package,” Zaleski said. “She’s a musical talent. She’s a visual talent. Her fashion is unique. She’s such a striking figure.”
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: The book is full of great photos. Did you have a role in selecting the photos?
Annie Zaleski: No, and that’s what was so wonderful. I was able to focus on the writing and putting together a really good narrative. They took care of the rest. When I first saw the book, I was blown away. They did such an amazing job choosing these really vivid, colorful photos.
Luckily, Lady Gaga is such an interesting subject that it makes it easy. They chose some of the most iconic outfits she wore and some of the most iconic moments in awards shows and lives shows. I didn’t necessarily have the input, but they did a really good job reading my text and picking out the moments they thought would be best for it.
You write about how Gaga was dropped from Def Jam and how she evolved from a piano-rock prodigy to a pop star: “The post-record deal period was both the wildest and most transformative time of Gaga’s life.” Why was that such a pivotal moment for Gaga?
There are so many stories in music over the years of people being signed to multiple labels and not having success, especially pop stars. Artists can really go one of two ways. If they don’t have success, they can either give up and say maybe this wasn’t meant to be. And other artists will channel it and say you dropped me, you didn’t like this. Well, I’m just going to show you why you made a mistake. Gaga absolutely did that. She used that denial and that label that really wasn’t supportive and transformed herself.
She started exploring the really interesting cabaret, punk, and performance art of the Lower East Side in the mid-2000s and really leaned into that. She’d always liked artists like David Bowie and Andy Warhol. She really crafted a persona that you just couldn’t ignore. One of her first major public appearances in front of a big crowd was at Lollapalooza. She was there and her schtick at that time was setting hairspray on fire and wearing a disco ball bra. She put together a show so that people couldn’t help but pay attention to her.
She also was different because she had classical training and grounding. She’s a wonderful piano player, she has a great voice, and she took acting lessons. Gaga really had that foundation as well. She had the goods and the talent to back it up. She also made this electro-pop music. Her very early music was very cutting edge for pop music. It was electronic, it was dance-y, and it sounded different than everything else in the mid to late 2000s.
You drew on a lot of Gaga interviews for this book. It seemed like she’s been very open and straightforward about her creative process. Did you find that to be the case?
A lot of artists will say, ‘I prefer to be kind of mysterious about my lyrical origins or inspirations because I want people to take what they want from it.’ And Gaga has always been very open about that. With some of the romantic stuff, she might be a little bit more obtuse. She draws a lot on her own life. But the ways she portrays things and tells the stories, she does so in a unique way.
She has a very unique way of phrasing things and using imagery to convey what she’s talking about. When she talks about a “disco stick,” and I think that’s probably one of the more risqué metaphors she uses for different things. Her songs are very, very well-structured. When you look at pop songs, sometimes they’re lightweight and don’t have a lot of depth. So many of her songs have depth. Something like Joanne, that record especially was very inspired by her family.
There are some very moving songs on there where she was drawing from her own life and drawing parallels with her family and putting together these very moving songs. At the same time, she’s also really optimistic on her dance songs. On the album Chromatica especially, some of the songs were inspired by mental health issues or challenges. But at the same time, there’s this hope or optimism at the core of them.
She’s a really interesting songwriter. Even something like ArtPop, which was her most misunderstood record at the time, it was very bold and sexual, but she says it in a very different way. She’s not a straightforward lyricist. She’s a really kind of poetic, smart lyricist. A lot like Bowie in that sense, it’s very clever in the way she’s describing things.
Gaga is a singular artist. However, some critics have accused of her being a Madonna copycat. Do you think there are some parallels in their careers? How was Madonna an influence on Gaga?
Madonna was very much someone who evolved, and I think Gaga is very similar in that sense. Every album has sounded different. She’s always pushed her sound. She’s found different collaborators each time. That’s also very Madonna. Gaga has also branched out into acting, which is a Madonna blueprint as well.
But Gaga is so interesting because she’s such a modern artist. So much of Madonna’s work in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was basically trying to fight for this position because she was being sexually forthright in a time when so many music artists weren’t. There were so many people who were offended by her and scared that she was just so herself and so bold. Madonna really paved the way for that. And Gaga really took that and ran with it.
There are parallels. Gaga is kind of the heir apparent. But even musically, I think Gaga has gone in more directions. For example, Madonna hasn’t really made a jazz standards record like Gaga has with Tony Bennett. So there are some slight differences.
If you could interview Gaga and ask her one question, what would you ask and why?
So many things. I always like talking to musicians about their songwriting and how they came up with things and how they came up with songs. I’d love to pick her brain about her process and how it’s changed. What kind of music have you not made that you’d like to do next? Who have you not collaborated with? I would love to talk to her about ArtPop because that’s one of those records that I didn’t like very much at the time and now I’ve come around to it. How did that record come to be? Was it a tough time in her life? Looking back now, does she feel different about it?
Every pop star today has a huge fan base. BTS has the BTS ARMY, Beyonce has the Beyhive, Taylor Swift has the Swifties. It seems like Lady Gaga has a special connection with her Little Monsters. Tell us about that dynamic.
Gaga’s fans are as supportive as those other fan armies, I think. But there’s just something about them that they’re so supportive of her, too, but just in a really lovely way. I’ve met some fans through this book. They love everything she does, but they do it in a very pure way. They feel very protective of her. I think that’s part of the reason why she feels protective of them. It’s a very mutual relationship like that.
She’s also been very good about speaking directly to her fans. She really has sort of embraced them. She’s recognized their support and how important their support was. She also recognizes what it means to other people that she is playing this role and this person that’s telling them everyone is OK with who they are, they don’t need to change themselves, they’re absolutely fine the way they are. I think that’s really profound. People really pick up on that and have a really special relationship in that way.
Gaga is very vulnerable. She’s so powerful and so indomitable but she’s also very vulnerable. She’s been very open about the physical health challenges she’s faced, and people respond to that. It’s a very special and tender relationship. It’s very sweet.
Why should someone buy this book?
I think the photos are wonderful. They’re very striking. The book design is as well. It really embodies how fun and exciting she is and her music is. But I think even if you’re the biggest Lady Gaga fan on Earth, you’re going to learn something. Or you’re going to be reminded of why you are such a fan in the first place and why her music means so much to you. It’s even a great coffee table book. You can impress your friends. It’ll look great in your living room as a piece of decoration, too.