Whether it's being encased in an egg or wearing slabs of meat, there's never a question of whether Lady Gaga will make a spectacle of herself at an awards show — the question is just what kind.
So when the MTV Video Music Awards came around this year, Gaga didn't disappoint. Though she dressed somewhat conservatively in short black hair, a dingy white t-shirt, a black blazer and pants, it was whom she embodied that made headlines — a man, whom she called Jo Calderone. The temporary gender switch marked yet another act in Gaga's strange pop odyssey.
But what made the VMAs so noteworthy was that Gaga wasn't the only oddity who graced the stage. In one corner there was Katy Perry, sporting pink hair and a giant yellow cube on top of her head. And then there was Nicki Minaj, who wore a colorful surgical mask, a rainbow-colored wig, a mini-tutu made out of cubic designs, with an attached string of stuffed toys.
It wasn't too long ago pop's top ladies were likely to try to out-sex each other, from plunging necklines to gyrating stage performances.
But Gaga, Minaj and Perry are part of a group of contemporary pop stars who are finding success by defying the conventional definition of sexiness with oddball tactics and wacky outfits, recalling pop stars from the past, from Cyndi Lauper to Annie Lennox to Grace Jones.
"All three are emblematic of the millennial generation, who are constantly remixing and reshaping their identities," said MTV president Stephen Friedman of Perry, Gaga and Minaj.
"It used to be all about the jocks and the beautiful women, and now the nerd is the new jock," Friedman continued. "The currency is about being smart and funny and different and I think that's what they're playing into — (it) is how can they be different than what you can expect the day before."
Ke$ha, who was absent from this year's VMAs, has also rebelled against the norm. She burst on the scene with her sideshow style singing about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels; she now wears a necklace of her fans' teeth. She wears her disheveled look with pride: At last year's VMAs, Minaj sported a fitted dress and pink wig, Perry also sported a sexy dress with pink and purple highlights in her hair — Ke$ha rocked a trash bag.
"People are like, 'Oh, maybe you should tone the homeless thing down?' It's just not going to happen," Ke$ha said from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where she performed her "Get $leazy Tour." "I like looking homeless sometimes. I like looking like a drunken grandma sometimes. I like looking like a tribal warrior from the future sometimes and I'm not going to stop playing with my style for anybody."
Being the "weird" girl has definitely enhanced these ladies' platinum profiles. But Gaga, Minaj and Perry didn't always appear to be oddballs.
Gaga started off with a "Jersey Shore"-esque tan and straight blonde extensions. The weirdest part of her look was oversized — yet trendy — sunglasses. Her music matched her style: Her debut CD, "The Fame," is filled with mostly safe-sounding pop songs that are club-friendly and radio-ready.
As Gaga became edgier (her "Paparazzi" video featured her dancing in crutches), so did her music. Her follow-up disc, "The Fame Monster" featured songs like the "Bad Romance," with bizarre lyrics like, "I want your ugly, I want your disease." The photo that graces her latest album, the top-selling "Born This Way," features her as a hybrid of a person and a motorcycle; on it, she sings of Judas, of being a government hooker, and in German.
"You look at Lady Gaga and she's reinvented herself more times in one year than Madonna did in 20 years," Friedman said.
Minaj evolved from an image as an oversexed street rapper to an animated R&B-pop singer and a bona fide pop star, with a penchant for Barbies and wild outfits and wigs that make her seem cartoonish, by design. Though Perry's first breakout hit was "I Kissed a Girl," the singer has infused her sexuality with an often silly, farcical persona that makes her an accessible, fun pin-up.
Ke$ha says their wackiness is a reflection of their confidence and individuality.
"I feel like the way I dress and the way I speak and the way I sing and the kind of music I make — it all comes from me," she said. "I'm connected to people because I'm not just parading around like I'm the sexiest thing on the planet, 'cause I'm not."
Mesfin Fekadu covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/musicmesfin