It may be one of the greatest artistic conspiracies of our time: an intractable rock and roll legend pitted against a pop star sensation whose cultural cachet, and grasp of reality, is suddenly collapsing. At stake: the future of America’s creative class, where words like “sincerity” and “rebellion” and “profitability” are so perilous, they’ve been known to cause melees and even murder.
Yet the feud between these two musical icons did not begin under such an ominous cloud. There were high hopes and the glimmer of a truly profound collaboration. It could have been an unique opportunity to marry cultural authenticity and commercial success, to do for music what Andy Warhol had done for pop art. Unfortunately, the events that followed took a much darker turn.
It was the fall of 2012 and, more than anything, Lady Gaga wanted Lou Reed’s blessing. The musician was working on a follow-up to her critically acclaimed, Born This Way. For this project, Gaga wanted a new direction. She had already proven that she could be outlandish and political, but the novelty of her performances was beginning to wear thin. Some reviewers even accused her of being overly theatrical, while lacking deeper substance.
As one of the most uncompromising musical geniuses of his generation, Lou Reed had inspired Gaga with a greater ambition. She wanted to be nothing less than a postmodern creative phenomenon, just as Andy Warhol or The Velvet Underground had been 40 years earlier. Her new work, which came to be named Artpop, was going to be an avant-garde masterpiece. It would prove to critics just how serious Gaga was about her art and about her outsider status. And it just might cement her position as the intellectual heir to Warhol.
To achieve this goal, Lady Gaga’s circle reached out to all the right people. They hired the leader of the Post-Pop art movement, Jeff Koons, to contribute to Artpop’s cover. Performance artist Marina Abramović was enlisted to adapt Gaga’s stage presence. Abramović had pioneered conceptual art in the 1970s and hoped to bring a mature and meditative quality to the singer’s rambunctious performances.
Finally, Lou Reed was a vital piece of this puzzle. Artpop was going to be an homage to his work with the Velvet Underground. Gaga’s manager Troy Carter contacted a mutual friend who made the introductions. At first Reed was reluctant, but when Gaga’s record company offered a $1.2 million consultancy fee, the infamously gruff and inscrutable rocker grew receptive to the idea.
From Venus in Furs to Venus
Many of the tracks on Artpop correlate directly with the greatest hits of The Velvet Underground. Gaga’s Dope, for instance, was meant to be the new millennium’s version of Reed’s Heroin. Walk on the Wild Side was re-envisioned as G.U.Y. Yet where the Velvet’s song was a gender-bending exploration of the cultural fringe, Gaga’s piece uses wordplay to mock the same concept: “I wanna be the girl under you (oh yeah) I wanna be your G.U.Y. (yeah).” The slow and sensual Femme Fatale, about socialite and fashion icon Edie Sedgwick, became the fast-paced and lyrically vapid Donatella, about the Versace designer and cosmetic surgery addict.
In one of the strangest adaptations, I’ll Be Your Mirror with Nico’s slender vocals became the post-feminist anthem, MANiCURE. While both use a woman’s intimate moments as their starting point, they veer off in wildly conflicting directions. Artpop’s most commercially successful track, Applause, has a casual relationship to Reed’s I’m Waiting for the Man. However, Gaga’s opening verse of “I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong” is about an expectation of fame, rather than the anticipation of a packet of heroin. This difference is telling, for Applause reveals a guileful self-consciousness that Lou Reed would be loath to express.
Early tracks were cut and sent to Reed in November of 2012. According to current and former members of Gaga’s inner circle, she was expecting support from the aging rocker. Instead, he responded with a month of deafening silence. When Reed finally chose to communicate, it was directly with Troy Carter. His message was succinct: “I have no interest in any further involvement.”
Gaga’s Persistence, Reed’s Nausea
Reed’s displeasure with Artpop was initially kept secret from Lady Gaga. Producers feared that it might derail her creative process. At this point, Interscope Records had already invested tens of millions of dollars into the endeavor and executives there were profoundly worried that the erratic singer might not deliver.
In the first few months of 2013, the dynamic between Gaga and Reed became a full-blown crisis. Reed had privately expressed disdain for the tracks he had heard and word eventually found its way back to Lady Gaga’s entourage. Late one night in March, Gaga phoned Reed’s Southampton residence directly and surprisingly, he answered the phone. While the specifics of that conversation are not known, it is rumored to have been filled with accusations of plagiarism and a great deal of invective.
Not quite dissuaded, Gaga returned to the studio and put the finishing touches on what was meant to be Artpop’s centerpiece, Venus. This love ballad was a strange meditation on The Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs, which itself was inspired by a groundbreaking work of fiction by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name we derive the word masochism from).
When Venus was delivered as a sort of peace offering, Lou Reed was outraged. Among friends, he openly expressed his conviction that Lady Gaga was incapable of grasping what made The Velvet Underground so transgressive. In conversations with manager Troy Carter and later with Lucian Grainge, the CEO of Universal Music (parent company of Interscope), he made it known that he would publicly denounce Artpop and would also pursue legal action if the album was released with songs like Venus and Dope intact. In nearly every discussion, the word he used to describe Gaga’s work was, “nauseating.”
A Private Obsession
For a celebrity of Lady Gaga’s stature, this was a bitter day of reckoning. Her public feuds with Katy Perry and Adele had already caused fans to abandon her. She felt wounded that her peers had so little respect for her efforts. The critics were harsher, some even declaring that Gaga’s moment had passed and that she should take time off from performing. Over time, the star became withdrawn and paranoid, believing Reed had created a firestorm that just might obliterate her career.
One former friend says that Lady Gaga became fixated on Reed’s insult, repeating the word “nauseating” to herself again and again. Reed’s public declarations that Kanye West was the true musical revolutionary of his generation further undermined Gaga’s psyche. According to one former studio employee, this is when the pop singer’s behavior turned vengeful. It was alarming enough that music executives at Universal became concerned.
In May, a summit was held in a private suite at the Peninsula Hotel in New York City. Gaga, Troy Carter and Jimmy Iovine, the head of Interscope, were all present. Iovine had heard rumors that Lou Reed would be entering the Cleveland Clinic for a liver transplant and that offered them a unique opportunity. Collectively, the three agreed that the time had finally come to “terminate with prejudice” the Reed situation.
Polonium and the All Seeing Eye for Profit
The music industry has always been haunted by its shady characters. The mafia has held the industry in a stranglehold for decades, but for this particular mission Iovine wanted to reach beyond his familial connections. Far behind the scenes of the entertainment business there is an echelon of oligarchs that the public rarely hears about it. Euphemistically, this organization is known as the Illuminati. While many believe the group is a myth, the strange abundance of symbols employed by top entertainers and their subsequent public denials suggest otherwise. Indeed, there are undoubtedly levels of monopolistic coordination and control that exist in the music industry that are far from common view.
Coincidentally enough, the hospital where Reed was admitted is located in the hometown of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, founded by two noted Illuminati leaders — Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner — and designed with heavily occultic symbolism by the same architect who built the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. It is believed that this group’s involvement, at the prodding of Universal CEO Grainge, was vital to the arrangements that followed.
It was there at the Cleveland Clinic that an unknown individual proceeded with the “termination with prejudice” plan using polonium. Polonium is a deadly radioactive element that has been linked to the murder of such figures as Yasser Arafat and Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It is a favorite poison of assassins due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to stop once introduced to the human blood stream. Because it may take weeks or even months to kill, it can be very difficult to trace back to its point of contact. Specifically, polonium causes liver failure, which is precisely how Lou Reed died.
By most estimates, polonium was likely injected in Reed’s IV drip as he was recuperating from surgery at the clinic in May. There is a brief police report from Cleveland’s 323rd precinct recording suspicion of breaking and entering at the hospital on the same day. Some medical garb was stolen and a computer security system was tampered with, however since nothing was found stolen or disturbed, there was no follow up by investigators.
Doctors noted at the time that Lou Reed was sure to make a full recovery. The rocker himself announced that his surgery had been “a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry” and that he was now, “bigger and stronger than ever.”
Death and Rebirth
Within a month of his stay in Cleveland, however, Reed’s health began to mysteriously deteriorate. By August, the rocker’s touring scheduled had to be scaled back dramatically and in September, he cancelled numerous events. By October, the damage the polonium was causing to Reed’s internal organs had become apparent. He made no further public appearances. It is not known if the rock legend was aware in his final days that he had been poisoned. But it would have made little difference at this point.
Lou Reed died shortly thereafter, on October 27, 2013 at his home in Southampton, New York.
(Some have suggested that Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, is now fully informed about the murder but has been blackmailed into silence by Jann Wenner. Wenner has claimed to possess a videotape showing an elder Reed engaging in intimate acts with a 24-year old Abercrombie & Fitch model, thus confirming the longstanding rumors of Lou Reed’s homosexuality.)
The news of Lou Reed’s death had an immediate effect on Lady Gaga and her organization. An ambitious Warholian performance was immediately scheduled for the next night, on the British talent show, The X Factor. Gaga introduced Venus, her homage to the Velvet’s Venus in Furs. It was a brazen attempt to lay claim to Reed’s legacy. Gaga also pushed up the release date of her album Artpop by weeks, to offset the coming flood of Reed obituaries and the predictable handwringing over the current state of the avant-garde in music today.
The cunning of these machinations was too much for the pop singer’s manager, Troy Carter. Insiders say he worried that he had unwittingly unleashed Gaga’s inner monster. They parted ways immediately after Artpop’s November 6th drop and Carter has refused to comment on the scandal ever since. It is rumored that Interscope offered him a sizable fee for his silence on the Reed matter.
For Lady Gaga, these are strange times. Critics were roundly unimpressed by Artpop, but the album has occupied a steady position on the Billboard Top Ten. Applause is a major hit and Gaga herself continues to cause commentary and public outrage with her performances. Lou Reed’s fame may glow a bit brighter with his passing, but it is Gaga who is reaping new levels of celebrity and success every day. She may not have become the creative phenomenon she had hoped for, but the financial power now within her grasp is unparalleled.
Despite all this, the pop star’s taste for blood has only grown. From the murder of her teenage rival in 2008 to Lou Reed’s death in 2013, Lady Gaga has exhibited a deadly ambition that may ultimately win her a place in the history books.