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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, our next guess is someone who probably doesn't need an introduction.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKER FACE")
LADY GAGA: Pa, pa, pa poker face, pa, pa, poker face. I want to roll with him, a hard pair we will be...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD ROMANCE")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah. Ro mah, ro mah, mah. Gaga, ooh-la-la, want your bad romance...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST DANCE")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Just dance, going to be OK, da, da, doo, doo mmm - just dance...
MARTIN: She was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, but she is known around the world as Lady Gaga. Her resume includes six Grammys for a wide-ranging music career and a new Golden Globe for her acting role on the FX television show "American Horror Story: Hotel." Earlier this month, she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. And she's been nominated for an Oscar for an original song "Til It Happens To You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) You tell me it gets better. It gets better in time. You say pull myself together, pull it together. You'll be fine.
MARTIN: She covered that song with Diane Warren for "The Hunting Ground," a documentary about campus sexual assault which is also up for an Oscar. When I talked with Lady Gaga at her home in Manhattan, I started by asking her why she decided to get involved in a project about sexual assault, which could be a difficult decision for anybody, but especially for someone who, like her, has been through it.
LADY GAGA: The song "Til It Happens To You" is something that has come out of a group of women really coming together who have decided that they wanted to make a change. That's me and Diane Warren and Bonnie, who's the music supervisor. When we first started talking, I was really, really sort of not sure what to do. I have a very sort of 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) You tell me hold your head up, hold your head up and be strong 'cause when you fall, you've got to get up. You've got to get up and move on.
So Diane and I met in New York City, and she played me this song idea that she had started. And I immediately started crying. And I was really unsure even in that moment if I was going to be able to do it. And then she said well, I want you to make it your own. And I want it to be something that you feel connected to.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) I don't want to hear nothing from you, from you, from you, from you 'cause you don't know.
We started to change the song together, make something that reflected both of our experiences with sexual assault. And this song began to become something else. And I mean, I guess it's a long story. But what I'm trying to say is it's a quite complicated one. It's one that starts with me when I was a young girl that I had this traumatic experience. And it's sort of, you know, coming full circle now and really ending in a way for me as I'm healing from it and writing this song with Diane.
MARTIN: You know, you as an artist and also through your foundation have been working for some time on some really raw and emotionally complex issues. Given that you have a voice on these things, how do you decide what you want to talk about? Because I can imagine that it is very overwhelming.
LADY GAGA: Well, for me, I always have been an activist of things that were just authentically a part of my life that I felt connected to. You know, my involvement in Don't Ask, Don't Tell and marriage equality, anti-bullying and also, you know, social emotional learning in schools, you know, these are all things that are arising out of my relationship with the world and what I see inside of not only my fans but, you know, any audience I get the pleasure of singing or performing for. I feel their stories; I listen to them; I meet with them; I see them. They write me letters; I read them. I - I'm in tune with what people want to change in the world. And I feel that I just want to, you know, be a part of moving that forward. And I really want nothing for it in return. I really just genuinely feel that that's, you know, what you do when you're an artist is you stick up for the people around you that support your music and that love you. And the world can be a better place if we all work together.
MARTIN: That's one thing I wanted to talk about, too. It seems as though you're at a point in your career where it seems that you are very free. I mean, not many people can go from wearing a meat dress, you know, to doing duets with Tony Bennett and then singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl and then doing this amazing David Bowie tribute at the Grammys. I'm just wondering do you feel as free in your mind as you seem to us watching you? And how did you get there?
LADY GAGA: Well, I have got to tell you, it really is my team. It's really the people that I have around me that take care of me. They're really my family. I mean, this industry's really tough. And, you know, as soon as you start to make money selling your music, there's a lot of people around you that, you know, 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. And my team now, you know, they spend every day making sure that I'm healthy and happy and that I am able to focus on the things that I love, which is music. I mean, I'm - I have time every single day to sit at the piano. I have time every single day to sing. These are things that are really important as an artist that you have to take care of your craft. So I guess maybe the freedom that you're feeling is that I - you know, for me, I do feel free. I can just enjoy making music and entertaining people because if I'm not happy, you know, I can't make other people feel happy when I'm on stage. And that's what I really want. I love to perform and, you know, light up the room with excitement.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of lighting up the room with excitement, I have to talk about the Grammy to be to David Bowie. I mean, somebody you've been compared to in some ways for your own work and constantly reimagining yourself and kind of testing the boundaries of presentation and, you know, performance. And I just have to ask how did he inspire you? What kind of got you there?
LADY GAGA: Well, the moment that I saw the "Aladdin Sane" cover for the first time, I was 19 years old. And it just - it changed my perspective on everything forever. It was an image that changed my life. And I remember I took the vinyl record out 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 played that record. And "Watch That Man" came on - that was just the beginning of my artistic birth.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATCH THAT MAN")
DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Shaky threw a party that lasted all night. Everybody drank a lot of something nice.
LADY GAGA: I had never heard somebody with such a strong musical perspective that combined so many different genres and types of music in such a boundless way. I had never heard or seen anyone that was so limitless in his vision, where music could go and how you can change the world in a single moment by creating some piece of theater that is just otherworldly. He was a once-in-a-lifetime artist that I don't think we will ever, ever, ever witness again.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2016 GRAMMY AWARDS)
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Check ignition and may God's love be with you. This is ground control to Major Tom. You really made the grade. And the...
I mean, I really actually could go on and on about him. But the truth is that from the moment I saw that cover, my life changed forever. And I started to, you know, dress more expressive of how I wanted to be. I started to be more free with my choices. I started to have more fun. I was playing with a band. I - I guess what I'm trying to tell you is my friends and I - we've lived a lifestyle of total immersion in music, fashion, art and technology since we were kids. And this is because of him. And I just simply would never be here or have the philosophies that I have if I didn't have someone to look up to that blew my mind so intensely, you know? You meet or see a musician that has something that is of another planet, of another time, it changes you forever. I'm sure everyone has that. I believe everyone has that - don't you? - that one thing that you saw as a kid that made you go oh, OK, now I know who I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) My mama told me when I was young, we are all born superstars. She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir.
MARTIN: Lady Gaga, just off of her Grammy performance, the Super Bowl performance and looking ahead to the Oscars, where she is nominated for her original song "Til It Happens To You." Lady Gaga, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LADY GAGA: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes. I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way. Don't hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you're set. I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way, born this way. Oh, there ain't no other way. Baby, I was born this way. Baby, I was born this way.
MARTIN: For Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news. I'm Michel Martin. You can follow us on Twitter - @npratc or follow me - @NPRMichel. We're back next weekend. Thank you for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.