The Evolution Of Lady Gaga In 12 Essential Tracks
It's been a long and winding 12 years.
Lady Gaga’s impact on pop music in the last decade outstrips every other artist on the planet.
If that statement causes you to scoff, I’d urge to you to cast your mind back to 2008, or more specifically, to the music that we were obsessed with at the time. Jason Mraz was sappily strumming through ‘I’m Yours’, Timbaland was drearily casting off lovers with ‘Apologize’, and Flo Rida was a thing — a big thing actually, seeing as ‘Low’ was the top charting ARIA single of the year.
So when a flamboyant singer from New York called Lady Gaga dropped a clattering club track called ‘Just Dance’, it was the strobing light at the end of a pretty dreary tunnel.
Subsequent releases like ‘Bad Romance’, ‘Poker Face’, and ‘Born This Way’ completely redefined the pop landscape. Not just musically either: Gaga’s indulgent and ostentatious video clips sparked a new interest in the artform, and her bizarre fashion choices quickly became the stuff of legend.
It’s now been 12 years since ‘Just Dance’ hit our earbuds, and Gaga’s music career has endured all the highs, lows, and left-field turns that a decade in the spotlight entails. So how did we get from ‘Just Dance’ to here?
We’ve gone over Gaga’s back catalogue to plot out exactly how we got to the Gaga of now, and just what the fuck happened along the way.
‘Just Dance’ (2008)
It’s only right to start at the very beginning. ‘Just Dance’, released in April 2008, was the world’s introduction to the woman known as Lady Gaga. It was a pretty strong intro: the track immediately soared to #1 in six countries, including Australia, and went on to sell over 10 million copies.
The track was a sleeper hit in the U.S. — it hit the top of the Billboard 100 10 months after it was released — but it was immediately picked up by the club charts, topping Hot Dance Airplay and Hot Dance Club Play. There was a reason for this: ‘Just Dance’ is a club track.
Gaga had spent years cutting her teeth in New York clubs like Mercury Lounge and The Bitter End, and her debut track was intended purely as a shit-hot dancefloor filler. It wasn’t necessarily revolutionary — it was a straightforward, four-to-the-floor banger — but on reflection, it was the canary in the pop coal mine: the age of Lady Gaga had begun.
The first singles from The Fame — ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’, ‘LoveGame’ — had cemented Gaga’s club credibility, but ‘Paparazzi’ proved that she could flex her muscles well beyond the dancefloor.
The melody and arrangement of ‘Paparazzi’ — with its crunching drum track, wahh-ing synths, and indelible chorus hook — is one of the strongest of Gaga’s back catalogue. It may even just be the strongest.
The accompanying clip was also the first in a slew of lavishly produced, kitsch, and gloriously self-indulgent videos — which Gaga would soon become famous for. Without Gaga being pushed off that balcony in ‘Paparazzi’, we wouldn’t have her running off with Beyoncé in ‘Telephone’, or grinding against brownstones in the ‘The Edge Of Glory’.
‘Bad Romance’ (2009)
If The Fame was Gaga announcing to the world ‘I have arrived’, then The Fame Monster was her saying “…and I’m about to change pop forever.”
Gone were the simple and straightforward choruses of ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’, and in were the wild, electroclash throwback sounds of ‘Bad Romance’, ‘Teeth’, ‘So Happy I Could Die’, and ‘Alejandro’.
For those of us that couldn’t remember the first time New Wave, synth-pop, and techno collided together in the ’80s, it felt as if Gaga was issuing dispatches from some distant galaxy far in the future. Forget about the charts, no other artist was even on the same fucking planet as her.
Emboldened by the success of The Fame, Gaga was pushing her musical agenda hard. And it was working.
The majority of The Fame and The Fame Monster had been about explosive dancefloor fillers, but on ‘Speechless’, Gaga suddenly remembered where she came from: Broadway.
Compared to the brash ‘Bad Romance’s and ‘Alejandro’s, the track mostly flew under the radar — but it’s emblematic of the path that Gaga would eventually take. In the bones of ‘Speechless’ you can hear the beginnings of ‘Dope’, of ‘Million Reasons’, of that entire Broadway jazz album with Tony Bennett.
It was also evidence that even when Gaga has her production toys taken away from, she can still write a fucking great song.
‘The Edge of Glory’ (2011)
If ‘Speechless’ was Lady Gaga trying her hand at subtlety, then ‘The Edge of Glory’ was her taking a sledgehammer to the dictionary definition of the word.
Born This Way remains Gaga’s greatest album: a beyond-extravagant statement of ’80s arena rock, wrapping up her musings on religion, sexuality, and self-love into musical atomic bombs.
At its core was ‘The Edge of Glory’, a volcanic ‘Tonight-Is-Our-Last-Night’ number that featured one of the best saxophone solos in modern music (from E Street legend Clarence Clemons, no less).
Really, Gaga was being modest about the ‘edge’ thing. She wasn’t on the edge at all — she was standing right in the goddamn centre.
‘Government Hooker’ (2011)
Away from the gail force bluster of ‘The Edge of Glory’ and ‘Yoü And I’, there were some tracks on Born This Way that hinted at a (slightly) new direction for Gaga.
There was ‘Scheiße’ – which saw Gaga gabble in German (and another, Gaga-made up language) over ray gun synths — and there was ‘Heavy Metal Lover’, which as the title suggests, was Gaga’s attempt at marrying techno-pop and metal.
But chief of these was ‘Government Hooker’, an operatic techno crusher that would become the blueprint for her next record, ARTPOP.
Born This Way was Lady Gaga in her prime. ARTPOP was when things started to sour, just a little.
By 2013, Gaga’s schtick was beginning to wear thin — how many more meat dresses and wrap-around sunglasses could we take? Even more dangerously, a new wave of popstars — Katy Perry, Kesha, Taylor Swift — were beginning to nip at Gaga’s lobster heels, co-opting many of the performance tricks that she had pioneered five years earlier.
ARTPOP was — putting it lightly — just too fucking much. It was Gaga indulging every sense and non-sense that she possessed, and it resulted in an album that was overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.
The album’s opener, ‘Aura’, was the pinnacle of this excess.
Gaga had kept us at arm’s length for most of her career up to this point. Sure, she’d talk about sex and masturbation and murder and killing Jesus, but you never once got the feeling that she was actually talking about herself.
She wrapped herself so tightly in metaphors and imagery that the real woman was obscured. But on ‘Dope’, she started to unwrap herself. Of course, the classic Gaga trappings were still there — the Broadway chorus, the melodrama — but it was a turning point for Gaga. She wanted to lift the veil.
It was also the only breathing moment we had for the entirety of ARTPOP — a gem hidden amongst the rubble.
‘Anything Goes’ (2014)
Gaga’s decision to turn away from pop and record an album of jazz classics with Tony Bennett was her version of retreating to the mountains to write a soul-searching acoustic record.
Cheek To Cheek was an important record for Gaga (even if it wasn’t for anyone else). It established her chops well outside of the pop world, endearing her to legions of new fans in the process.
It was also a vital breathing moment for Gaga — having been in our faces as an avant garde pop star since 2008, her brief moment away from the pop stage allowed us to remember why we loved having her there in the first place.
‘Million Reasons’ (2016)
Remember ‘Speechless’? Well, ‘Million Reasons’ is ‘Speechless’…updated.
Joanne may have been a hit and miss affair, but ‘Million Reasons’ was a necklace in the seabed. It’s introspective Gaga at her best: a delicate rumination on the the dying moments of a relationship, and the harsh price of fame — and, crucially, whether it’s possible to maintain one while still having the other.
‘Million Reasons’ was one of the only moments on Joanne when it felt like Gaga actually achieved what she set out to achieve. It was stripped back, with a heavy country influence (the song was co-written with legendary Nashville songwriter Hillary Lindsey), but it also didn’t feel like Gaga had thrown the baby out with the bathwater — like it did on ‘A Yo’ and ‘Hey Girl’.
‘The Cure’ (2017)
Six months after the lukewarm reception of Joanne, Gaga rocked up to Coachella to play her highly anticipated headlining set — the first headline performance by a solo female act in over a decade.
She played just three songs from Joanne, instead focusing on her tried and true favourites from The Fame and Born This Way. She also debuted a thumping new single called ‘The Cure’, a track which informed the world that the cow-prodding country of Joanne was going to be left in the dust. It wasn’t so much a bold new direction as an emergency course correction.
But instead of being a throwback Fame or ARTPOP track, ‘The Cure’ was…curiously conventional. Gaga didn’t sound like she was boldly forging ahead to another pop planet, she sounded like she was desperately trying to compete with the big chart hits of the moment — like Zedd’s ‘Stay’, Kygo’s ‘It Ain’t Me’, or Clean Bandit’s ‘Symphony’.
The success of ‘The Cure’ — it hit the top 20 in 11 countries — puts Gaga in a curious position leading into her next release. Will she divert back even further to The Fame or Born This Way? Will she try and fail to make her Joanne sound a success? Or will she chase The Chainsmokers for chart domination, à la ‘The Cure’?
‘Stupid Love’ (2020)
To answer the question posed above: Lady Gaga has gone back to the club. ‘Stupid Love’, released last Friday — after first leaking a few months ago — is classic Fame era Gaga, a thumping dancefloor filler that feels as bright as a disco ball.
Gaga is now in a curious position: 12 years after exploding the landscape, she’s now surrounded by artists and music that she helped influence. ‘Stupid Love’ is not pushing any new boundaries for Gaga, and it doesn’t sound out of place from other music in the market — you would be forgiven for wondering just what Gaga is going to do to differentiate herself, as she has continuously done for over a decade.
Still, when the bass slaps this hard, who really cares?
Jules ‘Bad Romance’ LeFevre is editor Music Junkee. She used to play Lady Gaga to stay awake while driving late at night around the NSW North Coast. Follow her on Twitter.