At pretty much any Lady Gaga performance, you can count on spectacle: whirling lights, elaborate sets and many, many costume changes. When she took the stage at the Grammy Awards this year, things were no different — except that she was deploying her famous pipes in the service of another artist’s music. As she pinballed through David Bowie‘s catalog in a career-spanning tribute to the late icon, it was a reminder that the 29-year-old Gaga is as much a chameleonic overachiever as her hero. After six Grammys of her own, a Golden Globe for her role on American Horror Story: Hotel, duets with Tony Bennett, a Super Bowl national anthem and one very famous meat dress, there appears to be little that the woman born Stefani Germanotta cannot do.
And yet, she recently surprised herself. Alongside veteran hitmaker Diane Warren, Gaga co-wrote the song “Til It Happens to You” for the 2015 film The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses. The track is up for an Oscar, but the bigger breakthrough is a personal one. Like Warren, Gaga is a survivor of sexual assault, and says the decision to work on the song didn’t come easily — but that once it was out there, stories from other survivors came flooding in, some prefaced with the admission that they’d never felt comfortable sharing their experiences until now.
Lady Gaga joined NPR’s Michel Martin from New York to talk about songwriting that hits close to home, how artists and fans benefit from mutual support, and what David Bowie meant to her as a teenager gazing on the cover of Aladdin Sane for the first time. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Michel Martin: I want to start off by talking about “Til It Happens to You,” which is nominated for an Oscar. I know it’s not easy to talk about, but may I ask how you came to be involved in this project?
Lady Gaga: “Til It Happens to You” is something that has come out of a group of women coming together, who decided that they wanted to make a change. And that’s me and Diane Warren and Bonnie [Greenberg], who was the music supervisor. When we first started talking, I was really not sure what to do. I have a very uncomfortable relationship with this topic because it’s so personal to me, and I didn’t know if I was ready to be a part of it. And as soon as I met Diane and she started to talk to me about what she wanted to do, I knew that I had to be brave, and I had to help tell this story to the world.
So, Diane and I met in New York City. She played me this song idea that she had started, and I immediately started crying. I was really unsure, even in that moment, if I was going to be able to do it. And she said, “Well, I want you to make it your own. I want it to be something that you feel connected to.” And we started to change the song together — make it something that reflected both of our experiences with sexual assault. I guess it’s a long story, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s a quite complicated one. And it starts with me, when I was a young girl: I had this traumatic experience, and it’s sort of coming full circle now, and really ending in a way for me, as I’m healing from it in writing this song with Diane.
Have other artists come to you since you recorded this song to talk about this issue? It just seems as though a number of people in your industry have had similar experiences and didn’t talk about it for years, or ever.
Yeah, there are. I wouldn’t reveal names of anyone that came to me personally to express that they had been through something similar. But there’s a lot of people, men and women all over the world, who have experienced sexual assault not only on campuses and not only in the music industry, but within their own families and within their own relationships. It has been kind of overwhelming for both Diane and I, the amount of letters and people on the street that stop us to talk about this song and to tell us how much it means to them. I’ve had reporters tell me about their experiences with sexual assault in interviews, and they’ve told me, “I’ve never ever told anyone that but you.” You know, that’s a powerful thing to witness.
As an artist, and also through your foundation, you’ve worked on some really raw and emotionally complex issues. Given that you have a voice you can use to elevate a topic, how do you decide what you want to talk about?
Well, I always have been an activist for things that were just authentically a part of my life, that I felt connected to. In terms of my involvement in “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality and anti-bullying and social emotional learning in schools — these are all things that arise out of my relationship with the world and with my fans. I listen to them, I meet with them, they write me letters; I’m in tune with what people want to change in the world, and I want to be a part of moving that forward. I just genuinely feel that that’s what you do when you’re an artist: You stick up for the people around you.
I imagine that’s draining, emotionally and physically. How do you manage that work and still do all the other things you do?
I guess I don’t really think about it that way, you know? This thing that I do with caring about the message in my music, it’s not separate from my work as a commercial artist; they’re totally one and the same. I’m always going to be thinking about what my voice means. When I was 22, putting out my first couple records, I was a baby — and nobody really views you as any type of role model or anything. But as you get older, you realize that you have the attention of a lot of young people. And you think, “OK, well, what should I say now? What can I say that will be impactful in a positive way?”
You know, just bringing it back to “Til It Happens To You”: What happened to me happened 10 years ago. And then I became famous like overnight, it felt like, and I never really had time to deal with my issues. As soon as you start to make money selling your music, there’s a lot of people around you that are very excited about what you have to offer financially to business, and they start to maybe forget that there’s a person underneath all of that. [So] my team now, they spend every day making sure that I am healthy and happy and that I am able to focus on the things that I love.
We have to talk about David Bowie and your tribute to him at the Grammys this year. He’s somebody you’ve been compared to in some ways: constantly reimagining yourself, testing the boundaries of presentation. Your performance actually used computer graphics to draw his famous lightning bolt on your face as you sang. How did you get to this point?
Well, the moment that I saw the Aladdin Sane cover for the first time, I was 19 years old, and it just changed my perspective on everything, forever. It was an image that changed my life. I remember I took the vinyl record out of the casing and I put it on my vinyl player — which was on my stovetop in my kitchen, because I was living in this really tiny apartment and I had my turntable on my stove. “Watch That Man” came on and, I mean, that was just the beginning of my artistic birth. I started to dress more expressively. I started to go to the library and look through more art books. I took an art history class. I was playing with a band.
I guess what I’m trying to tell you is, my friends and I in New York, we’ve lived a lifestyle of total immersion in music, fashion, art and technology since we were kids — and this is because of him. I just would never be here, or have the philosophy that I have, if I didn’t have someone to look up to that you know blew my mind so intensely. You know the way that Nile Rodgers talks about Coltrane, and the way that Coltrane makes him think about jazz? That’s how David Bowie is for me. You meet or see a musician that has something that is of another planet, of another time, and it changes you forever. I believe everyone has that, don’t you? That one thing you saw as a kid that made you go, “Oh, okay. Now I know who I am.”
How do you feel now that the tribute is over? I mean, it had to come together so quickly, and it was so complex and had so many layers to it.
How do I feel now that it’s over? I mean, I feel like my whole career is a tribute to David Bowie.
So it’s not! It’s ongoing, right?
It’s still going. I’ve been watching his videos all day long, and also listening to Blackstar, his last album, which is a truly incredible piece of music. It’s one of the single greatest things an artist has ever done: making a masterpiece album that is their own eulogy. Can you imagine? To go into the studio every day and put your heart in that place, where you are saying goodbye to life? I mean, his art made him strong.