It’s 12 years ago since Lady Gaga unleashed her debut single ‘Just Dance’ and gave the world a much-needed injection of weird and woozy synth-pop. She spent the following decade releasing some of our era’s definitive songs, along with albums that demonstrated her chameleonic ability for reinvention. The glossy Gaga from her debut record, ‘The Fame’, mutated into a leather-studded glamazon for the industrial ‘Born This Way’, who then took an LSD trip through Andy Warhol’s Factory for ‘Artpop’, before emerging as a beer-swilling rocker on ‘Joanne’.
Her latest pivot appears to be an amalgam of this journey. Trailed earlier this year with the buoyant single ‘Stupid Love’, Lady Gaga’s sixth full length album, ‘Chromatica’, is nearly upon us.
Or at least it was before the current global pandemic. Gaga announced last month that the record would be postponed indefinitely while she put her time into trying to figure out how to help humanity, which – given the $35 million she has helped raised for coronavirus relief organisations in just one week – seems to have been the right call.
Still, with the album due later this year, what better time to revisit Lady Gaga’s discography. Put your paws up and join us on Mother Monster’s musical journey…
7‘A Star is Born’ (2018)
Lady Gaga purists might debate the inclusion of a soundtrack when considering her back catalogue. And, to be fair, they have an argument. Many of the tracks from ‘A Star is Born’ don’t feature Gaga at all, focusing instead on her co-star and director from the film, Bradley Cooper. Nevertheless, Gaga is a pedant, and given that there can be 100 people in a room and only one believes in you, you just know that she’d want this soundtrack included. It does have its moments, too. ‘Shallow’, the film’s musical centrepiece, is a soaring power ballad, while ‘Hair Body Face’ and ‘Why Did You Do That?’, surely meant to be ironic, are actually fun bops. It’s just all so tied to the film and its characters that there’s no space for Lady Gaga the artist here.
6‘Cheek to Cheek’ (2014)
Who would have guessed that Lady Gaga would have scooped a Grammy award for her collaborative album with Tony Bennett? Filled with jazz standards, this extreme pivot initially felt incongruous from the meat dress wearing weirdo who had strung herself up and pretended to bleed while performing at the VMAs. Surprisingly, though, it’s quite a pleasant listen. There’s a beautifully produced, cinematic version of David Bowie’s ‘Nature Boy’, while Gaga’s often under-appreciated vocals shine on jazz classics ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ and ‘Lush Life’. Unfortunately, neither really detract from the fact that, at its heart, this is just an album of quite good jazz covers.
Named after and inspired by her aunt Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who passed away before Gaga was born, ‘Joanne’ is Lady Gaga at her most bare-faced. It was a disappointment to many fans, who would have preferred souped up electronics to rootsy, ‘authentic’ Americana. The songwriting is patchy, too, especially in the record’s second half: ‘Hey Girl’ featuring Florence Welch is a ‘Benny and the Jets’ rehash, ‘Come to Mama’ is a little too honkytonk for its own good and ‘Grigio Girls’ lacks the comedic self-awareness it should probably have.
But there are glimmers of classic Gaga here. ‘Diamond Heart’ is, in this writer’s opinion, one of her best songs; the rootin’-tootin’ ‘John Wayne’ is delivered with a punch and a wink; and ‘Dancin’ in Circles’ is a brilliant ode to masturbation. The problem is that, for the most part, it takes itself too seriously in its over-eager grab for ‘authenticity’.
4‘The Fame’ (2008)
This is the album that made Lady Gaga a household name, thanks to the likes of ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’ and the supreme ‘Paparazzi’. But for all its significance, it’s also Lady Gaga’s most generic record. ‘Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say)’ might have done tropical pop before tropical pop became a trend, but it’s cloyingly saccharine, while ‘Starstruck’ feels fairly rudimentary, especially when you compare it to something like ‘Paparazzi’. Likewise, the album’s production, while fizzy at the time, has flattened with age, leaving songs such as ‘Paper Gangsta’ and ‘LoveGame’ struggling to keep up by today’s standards. There’s charm in abundance, though, and from the underrated ‘I Like It Rough’ to the songwriting majesty of ‘Brown Eyes’, Gaga certainly proved herself as a force to be reckoned with.
The unruly wild child of Lady Gaga’s discography, ‘Artpop’ arrived at a crossroads in the singer’s career. After she injured herself while performing and was suffering from a severe case of overexposure, Gaga decided that rather than keep her fourth album subdued she’d make the most in-your-face, experimental and batshit crazy record imaginable. Album opener ‘Aura’ is deranged, as are ‘Mary Jane Holland’ and ‘Venus’ (and the less said about the trap-influenced ‘Jewels N’ Drugs’ the better).
Still, there’s so much to love amid the chaos: bisexual banger ‘Sexxx Dreams’ is God-tier pop, and ‘MANiCURE’ hints towards the trajectory that Gaga would go down with ‘Joanne’. There’s a haunting quality to the album’s title track, too, while ‘Fashion!’ is a clever and camp nod to David Bowie. It’s all tied up by the rattling ‘Applause’, a perfect, stomping album closer.
2‘Born This Way’ (2011)
Sitting at 17 tracks, Gaga’s second album may be a little bloated around the middle, but this is an album chockablock with things to say. The title track may not live up to its lofty ambitions of unity, but the rest of the album delivers. The industrial pounding of ‘Judas’, ‘Government Hooker’ and ‘Scheiße’ complement the grungy ‘80s roar ‘Bad Kids’ and ‘Electric Chapel’. Meanwhile songs such as ‘Marry the Night’ and ‘The Edge of Glory’ are power-pop in their truest form: glittering, exuberant and totally ridiculous, complete with either saxophones or bombastic outros. There’s even a song called ‘Highway Unicorn’ (Road to Love)’, while ‘Heavy Metal Love’ actually features the lyric “Dirty pony I can’t wait to hose you down.” Incredible.
1‘The Fame Monster’ (2009)
Is there such a thing as a perfect album? Perhaps not, but Lady Gaga gave it a good go on ‘The Fame Monster’. And, yes, this is a separate record in its own right – it’s much, much more than just a re-package of her debut album, and the additional eight tracks some of the slickest, most well-constructed pop songs of all time. ‘Bad Romance’ remains a bizarre and ambitious piece of work, borrowing as much from German techno as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and ‘Alejandro’, with its nods to ABBA and Ace of Base, feels spritely and current, despite being a decade old. The only dip comes in the form of ‘Telephone’, which under-uses guest star Beyoncé, and even that is a grade-A banger.
The majestic ‘Dance in the Dark’ is the aural equivalent of glitter landing in a deep red puddle of blood and even the album’s more conceptual moments, such as ‘Teeth’ and ‘Monster’, are taut and impeccably executed. More than just flooding pop with weirdness, though, ‘The Fame Monster’ proved how intelligent, inventive and progressive the genre can be, and in the process confirmed Gaga as one of its most important and exciting figures.