In early 2009, a song called ‘Just Dance’ became a sleeper hit. The debut single from a then-little-known American artist had been released the previous year, but after five months in the US Billboard 100 the synth-pop smasher finally climbed to the top spot, later reaching number one in the UK. And with its pulsating synth-line and earworm chorus in which the singer purred “Just dance, gonna be okay”, the world was introduced to Lady Gaga: the ground breaking performance artist, hit machine and activist, who’s consistently changed the game during her decade as a super star.
As Gaga gears up to release album number six, ‘Chromatica’, let’s look back on the massive impact the musician’s had on the music industry, shall we?
Music has become performance art and a spectacle
If you look back on the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the first thing you’ll think of is Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, which kicked off a decade-long beef. But it really should have been Gaga’s breath-taking performance of ‘Paparazzi’ that dominated the front pages. The performance art masterpiece saw Gaga on a Phantom of the Opera-styled stage in a white, baroque costume. Beginning by admitting, “Amidst all of these flashing lights I pray the fame won’t take my life”, she launches into a dramatic rendition of ‘Paparazzi’, in which halfway through she becomes covered in blood and finishes the performance hanging above the crowd.
She explained the performance saying: “I also remembered my obsession with young women when I was younger that died, beautiful young actresses and poets – Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Sylvia Plath, these young women that died that we never saw their death. We see the deaths of these other women, but we don’t see their death. So I think I wanted to show that, and in my showing that, if you’re wondering what I’m going to look like when I die, here it is.” High concept, massively dramatic stuff – and it set a precedent of the artistry Gaga would continue to show throughout her career.
From the ‘Telephone’ video, where Gaga and Beyoncé go on a Kill Bill-style adventure (in which they poison an entire diner’s worth of people wearing massively iconic outfits), to launching her third album ‘Artpop’ with the artRAVE – a two-day event that showcased new works by Jeff Koons and performance artist Marina Abramović as well as “the world’s first flying dress” – Gaga’s music has always blurred the lines between music, theatre and modern art.
Other artists have now followed suit: Christine and the Queen’s recent live shows have been pure theatre, and music videos have got weirder and more cinematic (see Billie Eilish’s spider-filled ‘you should see me in a crown’), but it was Gaga who paved the way for this artistry to be pushed into the mainstream.
She’s used her art to make bold political statements
In her CBS 60 Minutes interview in 2011, Gaga explained, “I use the media to make political statements [because] my music is so damn good that I can”, and she’s not wrong.
Take her infamous “meat dress”, a gown made out of raw beef that she wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. While the media speculated about the look, guessing that it could be do with beauty or feminism, Gaga later revealed it was a statement on the US military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy (which banned open homosexuality in the military). She attended the event with four former members of the Armed Forces who’d been prevented from serving.
She followed up the meat dress with her “The Prime Rib of America” speech, in which Gaga urged politicians to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell”, saying: “Equality is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation. And I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer… Shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I did? Repeal ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ or go home.”
Gaga’s always been an outspoken LGBT+ advocate – from the meat dress to campaigning against the Trump Administrations anti-trans policies and releasing ‘Born this Way’, a self-empowerment anthem that put lyrics SUCH AS “No matter gay, straight, or bi/Lesbian, transgender life” into the public eye and on radio stations around the world, she’s constantly pushed for equality.
The Little Monsters
Gaga’s fans – affectionately nicknamed The Little Monsters – were one of the first examples of a fandom being given a distinct name, as well as becoming a place for like minded people all over the world to communicate. Now we have Beliebers, the Bey Hive and Arianators – but Gaga’s Little Monsters were first.
Online the Little Monsters built a community, with fans often offering each other support. In the past Gaga’s said her music speaks to “people who feel disconnected from society, or disenfranchised, feel like a freak, feel like [they] don’t belong [or] you don’t fit in…”, a feeling she could relate to. And through the fandom, Little Monsters could find people who related to their experiences of this and connect with like-minded individuals.
It also shifted the way that artists interacted with fans as Gaga engaged with this community. The Little Monsters could tweet Gaga and Mother Monster might respond – which has now become the norm for popstars. The barriers between celebrity and artist have broken down, and Gaga was a big reason for that.
Lady Gaga’s become a trailblazing genre chameleon
This is by no means a totally new thing (just look at Bowie and Madonna), but Gaga’s constant experimentation and reinvention has made her a trailblazer in the 21st Century. Emerging with bombastic, chart-topping synth-pop on ‘The Fame’, she’s since dropped an album of jazz standards with the legendary Tony Bennett (‘Cheek to Cheek’), turned cowgirl with 2016’s ‘Joanne’ and won an Oscar for her work on the blues rock soundtrack to musical film A Star Is Born.
The switch to country with 2016’s ‘Joanne’ was particularly unexpected – but the effects have ricocheted around the industry. Since its release Justin Timberlake (‘Man of the Woods’), Kesha (‘Rainbow’) and Kylie Minogue (‘Golden’) have all followed suit and popped on a cowboy hat of their own. Yeehaw!