The Original Lady Gaga
Trevor Butterworth, 03.17.10, 12:01 AM EDT
The year was 1929 and the costumes and behavior were equally outrageous.
Fifteen minutes of fame are nothing compared to the starry currency of social shorthand, even if both, like the Perseids, are just as fleeting. “In the late nineties,” writes Patricia Marx in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Smith Street, Brooklyn’s Restaurant Row, was the Lady Gaga of the outer boroughs--one day you’d never heard the name and the next day the world was talking about nothing else.”
Whether we will soon start reading about “the Lady Gaga of cheese” or “the Lady Gaga of regional conflicts” remains to be seen, but if overnight ubiquity is now synonymous with the ascent of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (and who are we to argue with the New Yorker?), it is a case of third time lucky for her chosen stage name.Before Germanotta, there was a Lady Gaga in The Enchanted Canary, a fairy-tale opera by Noel Scott Stevens, first performed in Tampa, Fla., in 1966 and, it seems, never again thereafter (a score sits in the library of U.C. Berkeley, but on Lady Gaga’s comic turn on the stage, the Internet is silent). And before The Enchanted Canary there is the original of the species, who greeted the world in the pages of the British magazine Punch on Apr. 24, 1929, before making an equally swift exit into the slumbering library stacks.
The credit for her rediscovery belongs to the writer D.J. Taylor and his 2007 account of the Bright Young People, which had just been released in paperback in the U.S. with an Americanized subtitle that suggests Jazz-age parallels of youthful glamour, anomie and eventual doom.
While the trajectory is there, it is, perhaps, more apt to say that Britain’s Bright Young People were a halfhearted and almost wholly upper-class stab at Weimar decadence in the interwar years. (It started with treasure hunts across London for bored aristocratic girls; it ended with ennui, alcoholism and a handful of heroin addicts.) That is why it leads not to the tragedy of Gatsby, symbol of an age, but to the forgotten parody of Lady Gaga, flaneuse in a floating world of elaborately costumed parties.
Turning to Punch, with its delicate line drawings of insouciant flappers, their Edwardian fathers baffled at a world where youth had suddenly been stretched into a culture, the magazine’s middle-aged correspondent introduces us to his exotic escort: