There are many pop stars worth forgetting. These are the baleful dregs that bubble up to form a frothing scum in the cauldron of shallow culture and steep consumption. Happily, the combination of short attention spans and inevitable pangs of shame erases them from our consciousness. Remember Willa Ford? So too will pass the age of Ke$ha.

But Lady Gaga is worth remembering. As a scion with enough self-awareness to turn the paparazzi lenses of celebrity back on itself, she questions what it means to be a pop icon and asks why they matter to us.

The ivory tower of academia is a comfortable place to barricade oneself against the creep of barbarism and the Billboard Hot 100. Yet, though we may gripe about the decline of quality in Gaga’s dance hooks and grouse about the erosion of morality as we look at her outfits, we still gawk. We are fooling ourselves, then, if we write off a woman who can move 8 million records as nothing more than the next spasm in the death throes of civilization. For “queen of pop” is an itching mantle that Lady Gaga wears with chart-topping confidence, but nuance as well.

The music is ancillary, just one aspect that offers an mp3 medium for the media pantheon that is the Haus of Gaga, her cult of artists, dancers and stylists. After all, the mastery in all of this is that no one knows exactly what to focus on.

Her stage name combines an invented aristocratic title with juxtaposed gibberish. She is neither Madonna’s athletic dominatrix, nor Britney’s fallen schoolgirl. The Britney/Madonna/and don’t forget Christina! kiss that stirred America in olden 2003 broadcast a deliberate and eroticized lesbian fiction. But Lady Gaga was “bluffin’ with her muffin” in “Poker Face” as if it were nothing at all unusual, and progressed to the next logical taboo — hermaphroditism — with her non-denial of rumors this spring that she was a weeny bit more than a woman.

In another twist on the industry standard of branding and capitalizing on a star’s marketable beauty, many of the provocative costumes that garner Lady Gaga so many attacks and so much attention conceal her face with razor-blade sunglasses or disco-ball masks. Indeed, when “Lady Gaga without makeup” and “Lady Gaga hermaphrodite” are some of the top Google searches, the root of our fascination has to be something more complex than mere sexual appetite: a genuine curiosity.

Yet despite these divergences, Lady Gaga is not an anti-pop icon in the way that P!nk or Eminem are. The cult of celebrity is the source, the product and the trappings of Gaga. Lady Gaga could not have sprung from anything but the detritus of her pop star antecedents.

Thus the trajectory of stardom fits into the track listings of “Vanity,” “Beautiful Dirty Rich,” “Money Honey,” and “Paparazzi” on The Fame, and her friendship with gossip tycoon Perez Hilton cements her squarely in the mire of tabloid culture. Still, she only participates as part of her overarching performance. That is to say, we were fascinated by her simulated death on-stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, but don’t care about her personal life in the same way that we would care about Taylor Swift showing some cellulite while walking her dog.

Still skeptical? We can credit her with a neo-neo-gothic lexicon for the modern age. In an unlikely pairing of the macabre and irreverent she tweets to her “little monsters” and fans that “Boston ate my heart” at a concert, and adds poignantly that, “I don’t want it back.” However contrived, there is a brilliant cohesion to Gaga’s methodical eccentricity that we write off as frazzled zaniness in Bjork and Dennis Rodman.

Lady Gaga contradicts. She is the high priestess of tawdriness, donning fetish-wear to meet Queen Elizabeth II, but simultaneously the stewardess of high fashion, collaborating with Marc Jacobs, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. She is the muse of the corporate and the commercial, becoming Polaroid’s creative director, but pendant to high art, performing with the Bolshoi Ballet at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Toying with taste, Lady Gaga can repel and compel in equal measure.

In the end, we embrace icons and the iconic because many of us are too muddled to remember time as much more than a playlist of popular news stories, movies, songs, and personalities. They are a shorthand definition of an era, and whatever we decide to name the present one (End of Aughts?), a theme emerges. Recently, investors who entrusted billions to Bernie Madoff were content to accept bogus statements of fantastic returns because the lie was so delicious. This winter moviegoers have paid $1.4 billion total to see Avatar, a movie with illusionistic 3D visuals that imagines a human incarnating himself as a blue “Na’vi” in a world of floating mountains.

Lady Gaga presents the same phenomenon. “Some say Lady Gaga is a lie, and they’re right: I am a lie, and every day I kill to make it true,” she tells us. Because in the end it doesn’t matter that none of us really believe Lady Gaga exists as anything but a confection of synths, wigs and Kermit the Frog dresses. Straddling the liminal balance between fiction and authenticity, Gaga has forged a fantasy of everything bizarre and beautiful, and our fascination with her manifests a desperate need to pretend.

Now, why does Snooki from Jersey Shore matter?