There is a moment during Lady Gaga's "Inside the Outside" documentary when she refers to herself as "a perpetual underdog," which seems like an odd thing for a woman who's sold more than 15 million albums worldwide to say.
But then you listen to her new Born This Way album, you take a look at her rather astonishing career, her never-ending tour, her collection of over-the-top music videos, and that statement begins to make sense. Lady Gaga truly is a perpetual underdog, at least in her own mind, and there's a surprising amount of evidence to support that claim.
Before she was adored by millions, she was a misunderstood kid, then a rebel, and then she struck out on her own, struggling to get noticed as a piano-playing singer/songwriter and a bikini-clad performance artist/party girl. And then, when she finally earned a small piece of recognition — she was signed to Def Jam at age 19 — she was summarily dropped after just three months. No one, it seemed, believed in her or her music, no one "got it" (as she repeatedly says in the doc), and it hurt. Bad.
In fact, you could argue that her entire career — like all great careers, from Elvis and Michael Jackson (both of whom overcame overbearing parents) to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (who had to force folks to listen) — has been fueled by that hurt, by rejection, by her belief that she is the eternal long shot. It's why she does everything she does, why she works so incredibly hard. She is eternally trying to prove the naysayers wrong.
That's just one lesson you learn in "Outside," which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on MTV (and then re-airs again at 11 just in case you missed it), but it's an important one. Because it helps you make sense of Gaga's rapid ascent to the top of the pop stratosphere, a rise that was powered by little more than her undying work ethic and that rather sizeable chip on her shoulder — a rise that you begin to realize wasn't really all that rapid.
In her own words, Gaga reveals that she's actually been working toward her fame ever since she was a child, first barely able to reach the keys of her parents' piano, then meticulously working to master the instrument: Hanon exercises, Bach, Chopin until her wrists ached. Then, after her father promised he'd buy a baby grand if she learned how to play Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," she spent hours toiling over the intricate progressions. And she got the piano.
As a teen, she longed to play the lead in a production of "Guys and Dolls," but could never warrant consideration because she was a brunette. So she bought a blond wig and she got the part. When she moved out on her own, she haunted the Lower East Side, playing music wherever they'd have her (her first show, she humorously recounts, was 90 minutes long. "I didn't give a sh--," she laughs) and working as a go-go dancer and a waitress to make ends meet. Then she teamed with Lady Starlight and launched the next stage of her career: a theatrical pop star who pissed off local promoters with her homemade pyro. No one got the act, but slowly — by nothing more than sheer determination, it would seem — the duo began to catch on, which eventually led to Gaga inking that deal with Def Jam.
When she got dropped, she was crushed. But, as she says in the doc, she took some inspiration from her grandmother, who allowed her to cry, but only for a day, because after that "you have to go kick some ass." And, not surprisingly, if you've been following along here, that's exactly what she did. Six years later, she is one of the hugest pop stars on the planet, an icon and an inspiration to millions. But she's never truly gotten over those past rejections; they have shaped her into the artist she is today. And though they stung, watching her re-live them, you get the feeling she wouldn't have suffered any other way.
And it's that drive, that compulsion, that makes "Inside the Outside" a truly compelling thing. You learn who Gaga was, and, more importantly, who she is. And in doing so, you even begin to come around to her belief that she is "the perpetual underdog." She's certainly put in the work to prove that fact.
Don't miss "Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside" to hear Mother Monster herself open up about the creative forces behind her generation-defining career. Our exclusive documentary airs Thursday, May 26, at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET/PT on MTV, followed by a live stream on MTV.com hosted by MTV News' James Montgomery and featuring special guests Lady Starlight, Justin Tranter from Semi Precious Weapons, documentary director Davi Russo, producer Fernando Garibay and Gaga's biggest Little Monsters.