No. 5: Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga owned 2009. The year 2010 was all about figuring out how she did it.

With hit singles, sold-out concerts, and a meeting with the Queen last year, Lady Gaga might have been excused if she had had a meltdown or just burned out this year. But while her chart success didn’t top 2009’s, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta cemented herself as the first lady of pop culture.

Go, go, Gaga
She lost to Taylor Swift at the Grammys (which let critics huff once more at the award show’s irrelevance) but dominated the MTV Video Music Awards a few months later.

If the mainstream didn’t notice her six No. 1 hits (something that took Mariah Carey 12 years to do), then it did notice the sold-out concerts, the “Glee” episode, and her rallying cry against the American military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Plus, all the wonks spilled ink studying the Gaga origin myths and authenticity.

Ultimate quick-change artist
She has survived the scrutiny well. So far, at age 24, Lady Gaga is no passing pop tart (a label plastered on fame seekers like Paris Hilton, fellow alum of the Convent of the Sacred Heart). For one thing, Germanotta actually paid attention to her cultural studies: Her credited inspirations call out rock stars (Grace Jones and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, whose “Radio Gaga” inspired her name), performance artists (Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi), poets (Rainer Maria Rilke), pop artists (Andy Warhol), and the gay subculture.

Also, her classical piano training and pipes, which reminded one producer of a “female John Lennon,” put her in the category of serious singer-songwriter and proved her a performance artist on her own merits.

Her childhood preference for alter egos and stage names has made her the ultimate quick-change artist. Pundit analysis reckons that the manic speed of her costume changes is tailor-made for fickle Internet attention spans. Fickle? Her fans (or “little monsters” in Gaga jargon) have remained devoted all year, helping her set records in Web video viewings, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and making the year’s top 10 search terms on Yahoo!.

Bending genders
Lady Gaga bent gender, too: Persistent intersex rumors (or, in search terms, “lady gaga hermaphrodite“) testified to her successful devotion to androgyny. The New York Times called her the “enemy to the authentic.” Really, though, the lady was the ultimate drag queen, remaking glam rock in her own image and opening a new path for female artists. As far out there as she seemed to be, underneath the fake blood and histrionics and meat dresses were reinventions of old-school acts like the Ziegfield Follies, Barnum & Bailey, and heavy-metal pyromaniacs.

Sure, a bit of Gaga overload was bound to happen, such as M.I.A. dismissing her label mate as “not progressive.” Then there were some 2010 dramas, like her criticizing “American Idol” for “poorly” editing her performance, ducking into Jerry Seinfeld’s empty box seats at a June Mets game, or countersuing her ex-producer (although that was resolved speedily). Keeping up with Gaga could be more exhausting than tracking Lindsay Lohan’s electronic bracelet.

A moody sign of the times
But Germanotta stuck to the business of Lady Gaga (even landing a fusty job title as Polaroid’s creative director), and people have been buying.

By all accounts, Lady Gaga dealt with her demons (such as they were) before achieving fame. As she told Scotland’s Daily Record, “I did this [climb to fame] the way you are supposed to,” playing every club with her given name, quitting school, and dabbling in drugs before becoming a superstar. An early bad break — Island Def Jam signed her up, then broke off the relationship — just pushed her “deeper into the parallel reality of Lady Gaga.”

Tellingly, online searches for Lady Gaga in 2010 relentlessly focused on the music. In these “too much information” times, her masquerades gave breathing room to followers who didn’t have to keep an accounting of addictions, breakups, or family squabbles. In fact, an album advance paid for her beloved dad’s open-heart surgery.

Gaga isn’t just an artist: She’s a moody sign of the times and even of a place. Leave it to her to define herself best, as she told New York Magazine: “The Lower East Side has an arrogance, a stench. We walk and talk and live and breathe who we are with such an incredible stench that eventually the stench becomes a reality. Our vanity is a positive thing. It’s made me the woman I am today.”

–Vera H-C Chan