Lady Gaga is a bona fide movie star now, but nobody will ever forget that she’s a pop music queen. Even as we continue to luxuriate in the many pleasures of A Star Is Born‘s soundtrack, her current Las Vegas residency delves deep into her back catalog—it’s a huge pleasure to remember where she’s been. She may no longer rely on meat dresses or glitter vomit, but she is not afraid to go left when her peers turn right.
That’s because Lady Gaga is most interesting when she experiments. This applies not only to her appearance (before awards season, which was all old glamour and attention-grabbing Hollywood gowns, there was the minimal Joanne era—all short shorts, crop tops, and combat boots), but also to the music itself. Every album brings a new era for the woman born Stefani Germanotta. Here, we look at the 20 songs that have helped define Lady Gaga’s eclectic career.
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“Just Dance” (2008)
“Just Dance” launched Lady Gaga’s career, and it’s also one of her most forgettable singles. Simple lyrics, a steady beat, and an infectious chorus made it the perfect antidote to the frightening recession era: pop at its easiest, though not its most interesting.
“Poker Face” (2008)
“Poker Face” feels like a proper introduction to the Gaga we know and love. She may be a pop queen, but that doesn’t mean she sticks to pop conventions. “Poker Face” features abrasive synths, complex lyrics, and off-kilter melodies. This was all unusual at the time (pop was still mostly influenced by R&B and hip-hop in the late 2000s) and would help usher in a new era of synth-driven, Euro-pop-influenced Top 40 music.
“Paparazzi” revealed a more artistically driven Lady Gaga. Not quite a ballad, but not meant for the dance floor, either, “Paparazzi” was a lush, weird, spot-on examination of celebrity and fame. It was also the first single to come with what would become a Gaga signature: long, plot-driven, and cinematic music videos.
“Bad Romance” (2009)
If there’s one song that defines Lady Gaga, it’s this one. A highly successful blend of pop and synth maximalism, “Bad Romance” was a tour de force by all accounts: brilliant lyrics; a shimmery, fashion-forward music video; record-breaking sales; and Lady Gaga’s singular voice at its most guttural and raw.
There are few artists who can collaborate with Beyoncé (or who earn the opportunity) and Lady Gaga is one of them. Beyoncé’s seal of approval solidified Gaga’s reign. She was more talented and interesting than many of her pop peers, and Queen Bey took note.
Even given Gaga’s innovative, stellar career, “Alejandro” sounded and looked like a minor misstep. The Madonna comparisons began here, and with good reason. “Alejandro” saw Gaga flirting with different styles of pop at a time when she should have been solidifying her vision. Still, that unpredictability is exactly what we now expect of the star. Experimentation would feature throughout her music again and again—both to positive and negative reception.
“Born This Way” (2011)
Gaga at her peak was never quite as enthralling as Gaga on the rise. It became even more difficult to shake the Madonna comparisons after this lead single, which channeled Madge’s “Express Yourself.” The inspirational, political single came at the exact right time to fly the flag for her LGBTQ fans, and it reached #1. But is it as memorable a track as “Bad Romance,” which is nearly flawless?
“The Edge of Glory” (2011)
Apart from its popularity amongst Hollywood acapella groups, “The Edge of Glory” doesn’t get as much shine as other Gaga singles. Still, it might be her most interesting and inspirational song. The anthemic single has a timelessness that transcends the stylistic trends that have come to define Gaga’s most successful music. It might just be her masterpiece.
“Heavy Metal Lover” (2011)
Early record The Fame (and its reissue The Fame Monster) was a perfect distillation of Gaga’s Euro-pop charm, but on successor Born This Way, her numerous ideas and influences seemed jumbled. This deep cut demonstrates the lack of focus in the later part of Gaga’s career. “Heavy Metal Lover” is smart and sharp—a small glimpse into the woman beyond the pop star—but it feels odd next to a sonic feat of greatness like “The Edge of Glory.”
“Yoü and I” (2011)
An ash-blonde Gaga serenading her sneering, Danny Zuko–esque male alter ego, Joe Calderone, is just so Gaga I can’t handle it. (Her mermaid persona, Yüyi, also makes an appearance.) Styling the word “you” with an umlaut because her boyfriend at the time, Lüc Carl, had one in his name, is also so Gaga. The fact that this simple country-rock love song samples Queen and features guitar from the band’s Brian May is just the icing on top of this wacky, lovable cake.
Everything about “Applause” makes sense, from its continued exploration of fame to Gaga’s gravelly, dramatic vocals tackling uber-catchy harmonies. So why isn’t it as memorable as other Gaga tracks? Maybe because, despite being on the singer’s third album, it doesn’t show much artistic growth. Artpop was touted as Gaga’s greatest creative achievement, but the album didn’t quite hit the mark.
“Do What U Want” (2013)
The video for this 2013 song, a collaboration with R. Kelly, never saw the light of day. At the time, many wondered if that was due to the sexual assault allegations against Kelly and sexual harassment allegations against the director, Terry Richardson. Years later, in January 2019, Gaga announced that she wanted to remove the song from streaming platforms like iTunes. (An alternative version of the song featuring Christina Aguilera is still available, though.) She also released a statement of support for the women making the allegations.
“Swine” sounds similar to many of Gaga’s past tracks, but it showcases a vocal energy—even fury—that would return in the Joanne era. It’s aggressive dance pop, with a forceful beat and dirty synths that pierce the ears. Gaga anticipated the curious ascendancy of EDM on this track, just like she had foreseen or even precipitated the rise of dance pop. On an album that features some unlistenable moments, “Swine” is Artpop‘s true standout. If it had been marketed correctly, perhaps Gaga (and a legion of her female peers) would have been the ones leading the EDM movement, rather than its now ubiquitous bros. If nothing else, the track proves that Gaga can succeed in nearly any genre.
“Anything Goes” (2014)
Anyone who was surprised by Cheek to Cheek, Gaga’s album of classics with Tony Bennett, wasn’t paying attention. Her costumes? Her theatrics? Her vocals? Please. Gaga screams “theater kid,” and “Anything Goes”–era Gaga is the manifestation of every musical theater kid’s dreams. This track established a toned-down and more “mainstream” Gaga. She would go on to cowrite and sing the Oscar-nominated “‘Til It Happens to You,” from the film The Hunting Ground; win a Golden Globe for her eerie, campy performance on American Horror Story; and perform loving tributes to Julie Andrews and David Bowie.
“Perfect Illusion” (2016)
This was not what most people expected. It might sound a little incomplete, but is it a bad song? No way. “Perfect Illusion” ushered in a new era of Gaga. If “Anything Goes” introduced the more traditional Gaga, this Joanne cut represents an artist who has doubled down on her own tastes and instincts. The track is a little bit rock, a little bit disco—and, actually, a lot of fun.
“Million Reasons” (2016)
Gaga’s single sounds absolutely indebted to ’70s country and ’90s alt singer-songwriters, and that’s a good thing. The somber, slow track will never rejuvenate a party, but trust that it will blare from dive-bar jukeboxes and karaoke stages across the country. With its fluttering piano and acoustic guitar, “Million Reasons” is the most un–Lady Gaga track ever, and yet it sounds more authentic than anything she’s made since “The Edge of Glory.”
“The Cure” (2017)
A non-album single is pretty rare from Gaga, but following the Joanne two-step of “Million Reasons” and “Perfect Illusion,” the singer threw us a curveball in “The Cure.” Gaga debuted the track at Coachella, which she headlined after Beyoncé pulled out due to her pregnancy. While it wasn’t her biggest hit, cocooning a powerhouse chorus in tenderness felt very right from a woman who habitually touts vulnerability as a strength. It was also her last big single before the Hollywood dazzle of A Star Is Born.
Thanks to A Star Is Born‘s huge success, that opening guitar riff will remain in our ear canals forevermore. “Shallow” was the center of Bradley Cooper’s iteration of the classic story, pairing Gaga’s Ally and Cooper’s Jackson Maine together in romantic and musical matrimony. Not only did the two stars deliver an intimate version of the track live at the Oscars, but it also scored the Best Original Song award.
“Why Did You Do That?” (2018)
You might think this Diane Warren–penned pop simulacrum is the worst song from A Star Is Born, but hear me out. In the film, Ally and Jackson Maine’s relationship grows more fraught, in part because of her shiny new career as an orange-haired, dancer-humping yodeler in a sparkly bra. Her performance of this absurd song cements his disappointment, and his own life only deteriorates from there. But out in the real world, nobody was sure whether this song was actually bad. Yes, it asks “why’d you come around me with an ass like that.” But it’s more memorable than many actual songs attempting to make a dent on the Billboard Hot 100. Confusing!!
“La Vie en Rose” (2018)
Okay, but without this song, A Star Is Born might never even have happened. The story goes that Bradley Cooper saw Gaga perform “La Vie en Rose” at a benefit, immediately decided he needed to meet her, went to her house, and bam! “I felt an instant connection to him,” Gaga told Entertainment Tonight. So it’s fitting that the film basically recreates that whole encounter, getting a bleary Jackson Maine into a drag bar where Ally’s doing her best Edith Piaf. The rest is…l’histoire.
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