A standalone single that came out of the early sessions for the 2018 soundtrack A Star Is Born, The Cure pinches too liberally from the tropical-tinged “Spotify sound” of the time, but under the twinkly synths sits a heartfelt lyric about the healing power of love. Premiered at Coachella in 2017, it was dedicated not only to her fans, but also to a close friend who had cancer.
The German EDM producer Zedd helps concoct a ludicrous melange of grinding synths, house breakdowns and vaudeville on the third single from 2013’s chaotic album Artpop. Lyrically, Gaga explores the power moves behind specific sexual positions (GUY stands for Girl Under You), then ruins the whole thing with this clunker: “Love me, love me, please retweet.”
While 2008’s debut album The Fame teased the idea of Gaga the megastar, 2009’s eight-track spin-off The Fame Monster cemented it. As its only conventional ballad, Speechless sticks out like a sore thumb. But its slurred, whiskey-soaked vocals and over-the-top 70s rock production lend it a knowingly playful edge. Also: during those early hi-NRG, hit-packed shows, it was the perfect excuse for a bar/loo break.
For the majority of 2016’s album Joanne, Gaga swapped leotard-sporting, high-drama dance-pop for ill-fitting, smoke-damaged plaid-rock. Out went the likes of Zedd and Madeon; in came Mark Ronson and Father John Misty. Thankfully a hint of the old Gaga can be found in the chugging groove of the camp cowboy fantasy John Wayne.
Artpop found Gaga careening between genres with more than a hint of desperation, but she finds space to breathe on the skyscraping Gypsy. What starts out as a muted piano ballad balloons into a joyous, galloping Europop stomper, complete with a central lyric about the loneliness of fame that doesn’t make your eyes roll out of their sockets.
Referencing the uber-ballads Without You and All By Myself, this tear-jerking closer from A Star Is Born is given the full Whitney Houston treatment by Gaga, who doesn’t let a single syllable go unadorned. One for the anti-pop brigade who remain unconvinced about her vocal prowess.
With its central synth riff and its lyrical reference in the bridge, the throbbing, horned-up Heavy Metal Lover is the cooler older sister to the eager-to-please Born This Way (from the homonymous album). “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blond south,” coos Gaga, before seemingly reading from a Countryfile voiceover script as she intones: “Dirty pony, I can’t wait to hose you down.”
You and I originally appeared on the setlist for the Monster Ball tour in early 2011 as a contemplative piano ballad. By the time it appeared on Born This Way later that year, it had mutated into a strange hybrid of Queen (Brian May plays guitar on it) and Shania Twain (Twain’s long-term collaborator and ex-husband Mutt Lange produced it), but without leaning enough into either camp. On the far superior Mark Taylor remix, the riddle is solved and Twain reigns supreme.
Sure, Bradley Cooper has a pleasant growl of a voice, but it is Gaga who takes A Star Is Born’s instantly vintage-sounding dustbowl anthem and shoots a rocket up its backside. The line: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in,” is the song’s devastating centrepiece, but surely the Oscar was in the bag from the moment she spectacularly shifted through the gears on those wordless moans that spawned a million memes.
In hindsight, Gaga had essentially auditioned for her role in A Star Is Born on Joanne, with this lovely, stripped-back ballad showcasing her more rough-hewn vocals and the idea of fighting for love against all the odds. It was propelled into the US Top 5 three months after its initial release following her spectacular performance at Super Bowl LI in 2017.
An emblem of how keen Gaga was to move away from her old self came early in the campaign for Joanne. Premiering its lead single, Perfect Illusion, on BBC Radio 1, she was keen to let the public know the lyrics had been crafted on an old typewriter, as if even putting pen to pad left her too open to claims of frivolity. A similar joy vacuum almost upends the song itself, but there is just enough recklessness in its heady swirl of Kevin Parker-assisted glam rock.
Despite being one of her biggest songs, Gaga confessed to hating Telephone during an interview with Popjustice in 2011, describing its production and mixing process as “very stressful”. Originally rejected by Britney Spears (her demo leaked online in 2010), a subsequent duet between the two was then rumoured to have been curtailed by Gaga, who opted for Beyoncé instead. Either way, the result is a turbo-charged, constantly mutating dancefloor behemoth about suffocating relationships. It has the audacity to utilise Beyoncé sparingly and somehow get away with it.
The story goes that LoveGame was written in just four minutes, with Gaga buzzing from a previous night’s club-based escapades. Noticing a man she fancied, she apparently marched up to him and declared: “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick,” a chat-up line she would later work into the track’s opening couplet.
There is more penis chat on this throbbing slab of dance-pop that delves into Gaga’s relationship with sex, and bad boys in particular. As she would explore later with Born This Way’s Judas, dynamics become increasingly important as the song goes on, with the zipping, chunky synths of the verses giving way to a sunburst chorus.
As Gaga’s fame increased, so her worldview seemed to shrink. The lead single from Artpop focused on the not-exactly-relatable feeling of missing having thousands of people screaming for you; it was written after she was forced to cancel her Born This Way Ball stadium tour due to a hip injury. It houses one of her most uplifting choruses, with Gaga sounding delirious throughout.
After the muted reaction to Joanne was followed by the huge success of A Star Is Born, many felt Gaga might persist with that more rustic, singer-songwriter fare. Thankfully, the neon-hued Stupid Love (the lead single, co-written with Max Martin, from the pending-but-delayed album Chromatica) is a big, dumb return to Born This Way’s thundering dance-pop, complete with an exceptional pre-chorus – “I freak out, freak out, freak out” – perfect for cooped-up isolation workouts.
Gaga’s finest ballad is also her character Ally’s theme song in A Star Is Born. Like most of her best songs, it was written and recorded quickly, with the creases and scuffs in her vocals adding to the emotion behind the delicate pre-chorus, before she finds more solid ground on the gorgeous open road of a chorus.
Born This Way represented Gaga’s first real misstep in the eyes of the public. There were criticisms about the gay-saviour lyrics, the use of racial stereotypes and, perhaps most crucially from a tabloid angle, the accusation it ripped off Madonna’s Express Yourself. As it was cravenly written to be a plain-speaking, empowering anthem, any accusations of a lack of nuance seem to miss the point, and there is something undeniably intoxicating about that mammoth chorus.
Wherefore art thou, Colby O’Donis? To be fair, it could just as easily have been Gaga that time forgot, with this hedonistic debut single coming at a time when the charts were hardly lacking in dancefloor-ready pop bangers. The producer RedOne, who worked extensively on The Fame and The Fame Monster, utilises the one-finger synth figure and chunky bass that would become his trademark, while Gaga attacks the vocal with the passion of someone who realises this is her big break.
Swathes of the sprawling Born This Way album nod to religion, but on Marry the Night – which opens with a plaintive church organ before exploding into a club banger imbued with prime Whitney euphoria – Gaga sings the praises of her home town, New York, and of the courage it took not to fall into a post-fame Hollywood trap.
Like the majority of Born This Way, the gleefully ludicrous Scheiße was recorded on a tour bus as Gaga traversed the planet on the Fame Monster Ball tour. Inspired by a heavy night in Berlin, it sandwiches the city’s techno scene between a layer of cheesy Eurohouse, complete with a pogoing synth riff and an earworm hook of garbled German.
Originally mooted as the third single from The Fame Monster, but rejected by Gaga in favour of Alejandro, Dance in the Dark has always been a fan favourite. Opening with orgasmic moans and a stuttering vocal sample, it blossoms into a deliciously outrageous, sky-scraping chorus that pierces through the mesh of synths like a laser. Lyrically, Gaga fuses gothic imagery with the idea of physical shame during sex.
While Artpop’s favoured first single Applause was about being Gaga – with the fame she had craved now a prison of sorts – the superior Sexxx Dreams celebrated nothing more than the joys of fantasising about “doing really nasty things” with another person. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’ve had a couple drinks and … Oh my God!” Gaga giggles halfway through, drunk on lust.
As if to prove her debut single, Just Dance, was no fluke, Gaga and RedOne upped the ante with its follow-up. Built around a similarly intoxicating synth riff, and an early trait of wordless, repetitive hooks, the global No 1 was inspired by Gaga’s efforts to hide the fact she spent her time in bed with an ex-boyfriend fantasising about women. Suffice to say, the line: “’Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin,” is not about a trip to Greggs.
Inspired by ludicrous heavy metal bands such as Kiss and Iron Maiden, as well as the driving rock of Bruce Springsteen, Hair feels like the soaring centrepiece to an imaginary, leather-clad jukebox musical. In fact, if you think of it like that, the song’s central premise – that identity and self-confidence can be influenced by a haircut – feels less trite, with the song’s broad strokes and naive charm creating something undeniably joyous.
Dismissed at the time as Gaga’s attempt to remake Bad Romance, Judas plays out more like that track’s gloriously unhinged, turbo-charged sequel. Gaga alternates between a robotic half-rap, a strange caterwauling shriek and then, on the Steps-esque chorus, a pure pop vocal perfect for radio ubiquity. Underneath the lyrical blasphemy, RedOne cooks up an industrial-strength soup of house, pummelling electro and, at the 2min 40sec mark, the sound of a synth disintegrating punctured perfectly by a levity-inducing “Eww” from Gaga.
Initially given a lukewarm reaction by US radio, Alejandro has become one of Gaga’s most enduring singles. Perhaps that is down to its timeless influences, be it the lyrical references to Abba, or the way its mid-tempo BPM recalls the 90s Eurodance boom of Ace of Base, a sound that has endured thanks to Scandinavia’s continued pop dominance. Gaga, occasionally testing out a dodgy Spanish accent, sings her goodbyes to a trio of no-good men with a delicious flourish.
While Just Dance and Poker Face were still being dismissed as flukes, this more featherlight affair, complete with a yearning chorus, showcased a different side to Gaga’s artistry. It also highlighted her early obsession with every facet of being famous, with the song’s central theme of struggling to balance success and love refracted through the prism of wooing the paparazzi. In an early example of her theatrical flair, she performed it at the 2009 MTV VMAs while swinging from a chandelier covered in fake blood.
Born This Way’s third single kept things refreshingly simple. Inspired by the death of her grandfather, its uplifting central message of living in the moment is buoyed by a straightforward pop structure that never complicates the near flawless chorus. Keen to add to the song’s Springsteen-esque rush, Gaga convinced E Street Band member Clarence Clemons to freestyle a sax solo.
The pop landscape into which Bad Romance was released in 2009 was overrun with buoyant, hands-in-the-air pep. Gaga had helped prop up the party on The Fame, but quickly saw an opportunity to become pop’s gothic-tinged outlier, one who would actively crave an emotionally devastating bad romance, as opposed to delicately unpacking the fallout from it over a club-lite production. On Bad Romance, she stomps petulantly around RedOne’s churning cacophony of ever-expanding synths, veering in and out of dangerous infatuation. It is a song built on layers and layers of undeniable hooks, from the opening “Oh, oh, oh” to the inbuilt chant of her surname (perfect for cementing that cultural ubiquity) to the section where she sings in French for no obvious reason. Delirious, delicious pop perfection.