Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in March 1988, Lady Gaga comes from mixed Italian and French ancestry but was born in Lennon Hill, Manhattan and brought up in a well-to-do family on the fashionable Upper West Side of New York City. An accomplished pianist who began writing ballads as a teenager, Gaga was wowing folks at open mic events and starring in high school productions of meaty musicals like Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In that sense she has a conventional, somewhat old school upbringing, which has given her credibility and enabled her to buck those same conventions with authentic zeal. Moving to an apartment on chic Rivington Street aged 19 she began to explore her career in earnest writing early songs with Grandmaster Melle Mel before forming the Stefani Germanotta Band (SGBand), playing a mixture of originals and rock covers – Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Maker” amongst them.
Gigs in NYC showcase venues The Bitter End and Mercury Lounge brought her to the attention of local producers and one Rob Fusari became her mentor and paramour. Between them they concocted the name Lady Gaga, after Queen’s “Radio Gaga” and it was goodbye to Stefani. A flirtation with Def Jam aside Gaga became immersed in the world of burlesque and go-go dancing, both empowering her.
The New York underground was her stomping ground in the same way it had been for the Velvets and Dolls back in the day. Neo-punk as she is Gaga cut her teeth on revue style shows that incorporated electronic avante garde and elements of Freddie Mercury and Bowie into her act. She was then signed to Cherrytree Records, Inc., an Interscope, offshoot and made demos of “Boys Boys Boys”, “Christmas Tree” and “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” - while she was also hired as a songwriter to pen goodies for Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Fergie and The Pussycat Dolls; but in reality she was going to be the next big thing, no puppet of the industry.
In 2008 she moved to Los Angeles and got stuck in to making The Fame. Sleeper hit “Just Dance” was a slow burner but gave Gaga her first Grammy for Best Dance Recording and then “Poker Face” just blew the world up. The most flamboyant single of the year by a long chalk it made number one in every significant territory and has shifted close on 10 million copies since.
Phenomenal is a word that’s overused but in Lady G's case it fits like a satin glove. The Fame disc was accompanied by the Fame Ball Tour where the album’s inner core of songs about sexuality, personal power struggles and intoxicating party grooves took on new life and convinced everyone that Madonna had finally met a match. certainly the cuts “Paparazzi” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” revealed a principled artist with plenty of nerve.
The Cherrytree Sessions and the gothic looking The Fame Monster project kept Gaga bang on the money with the former containing acoustic versions of “Poker Face”, “Just Dance” and “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)”. Production and direction from Vincent Herbert and Martin Kierszenbaum lends all the work to date a strong European atmosphere while the Hitmixes set is well worth seeking out for the Space Cowboy’s remix of “Poker Face”.
The Fame Monster itself is a terrific culture clash of glam, decadent Goth, disco rock and synthpop with shades of electronic industrial pervading the whole and providing us with the smash “Bad Romance”, another number one around the globe and recipient of the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album of the year. Often described as the artist facing up to the demons that usually go with fame and money this essential disc features “Telephone” (with Beyonce) and found Gaga performing in its wake with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts 30th Anniversary event.
By now it’s apparent that Gaga is cross-fertilising art, fashion and music with such compulsive energy that she’s already crammed more into 18 months than most artists manage in decades. To ram that point home The Remix (2010) features collaborations with Marilyn Manson, The Pet Shop Boys, Passion Pit et al. and is another dance floor filling epic.
For a brand new album now enter Born This Way, some of it recorded at Abbey Road, where Gaga acts as co-producer and enlists guitarist Brian May from Queen and the late Clarence Clemons from the E Street Band on saxophone. Fittingly, and spookily, the title track as a single became the 1000th number one on the Billboard chart since its inception in 1958. Lady Gaga describes this disc as like a producing a baby between Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston! A rock and R&B hybrid in other words with heavy does of electronica and Euro disco beats, four to the floor thumping house beats, church bells, New York City street noise, heavy metal, Germanic chanting and ear-worm songs. Another beast of a disc for sure. Everything is a strand-out here but we’re currently obsessing over “Americano” (in Spanish) with its mariachi meets techno rhythm and the mesmerising trance like “Bloody Mary”. The Lady never holds back and that’s why her legions of fans – the Little Monsters - adore her. She puts it all out there.
Her next deconstruction disc, Born This Way: The Remix, is as diverse as its predecessor with Foster The People, The Horrors and Metronomy wizard Joseph Mount doing some of the honours. Joe’s work on “You and I’ is properly brilliant and Two Door Cinema Club’s blitz on “Electric Chapel” is equally recommended.
Born This Way: The Collection is Gaga’s third compilation: a three disc box set with a DVD culled from the Madison Square Garden leg of the Monster Ball tour. Check out the cover too, where she’s wearing a dress made out of, er, slime, a Perspex hat and Alexander McQueen heels. As usual she is larger than life and defining the future.
So to Artpop (2013), that arrives as a neon-lit, Warholian mash up of observations on fame and sex, addiction and feminism, love and scrutiny. Another glorious thing this gives us “Applause”, “Do What U want” and “G.U.Y.” with an uber-kitsch cover from artist Jeff Koons that references Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a significant influence on the disc. Other artists aren’t going down this road!
If critical response to Artpop was slightly crisp, it shouldn’t detract from the excellence of the songs. “Aura”, “Venus” (featuring a sample from Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine”) and the Rick Rubin-produced “Dope” resonate in her catalogue; Tim Stewart’s guitar playing is inspired and the introduction of will.i.am to the team adds more flesh to the bone.
If the third act is a spellbinder than Cheek to Cheek is going to convince a whole new crowd that it’s worth discovering this remarkable woman. Working with the immortal Tony Bennett the pair add an American Italian tang to the songbook of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Jimmy Van Heusen. There are also glorious excerpts from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn school – notably “Lush Life”, “Sophisticated Lady”: and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”. A jazz venue tour is promised for 2015 and that will be the hottest ticket of the year we reckon.
Seems like there isn’t much that Lady Gaga won’t attempt - and pull off - and having an artist of that calibre around enriches the scene immeasurably. She’s possibly the most with-it superstar of the century thus far. It’s impossible to imagine pop life without her and what did we do before she came along? Mind boggling Lady Gaga.
The times were crying out for a pop star like Lady GaGa -- a self-styled, self-made shooting star, one who mocked the tabloid digital age while still wanting to wallow in it -- and one who's smart enough to pull it all off, too. That self-awareness and satire were absent in the pop of the new millennium, where even the best of the lot operated only on one level, which may be why Lady GaGa turned into such a sensation in 2009: everybody was thirsty for music like this, music for and about their lives, both real and virtual. To a certain extent, the reaction to The Fame may have been a little too enthusiastic, with GaGa turning inescapable sometime in the summer of 2009, when she appeared on countless magazine covers while both Weezer and DAUGHTRY covered “Pokerface,” the rush to attention suggesting that she was the second coming of Madonna, a comparison GaGa cheerfully courts and one that’s accurate if perhaps overextended. Like the marvelous Madge, Lady GaGa ushers the underground into the mainstream -- chiefly, a dose of diluted Peaches delivered via a burbling cauldron of electro-disco -- by taming it just enough so it’s given the form of pop yet remains titillating. Sure, GaGa sings of disco sticks, bluffin’ with her muffin, and rough sex, but her provocation doesn’t derive solely from her words: this is music that sounds thickly sexy with its stainless steel synths and dark disco rhythms. Where GaGa excels, and why she crossed over, is how she doesn’t leave all this as a collection of hooks and rhythms, she shapes them into full-blown pop songs, taking the time to let the album breathe with chillout ballads and percolating new wave, like the title track that echoes Gwen Stefani in dance diva mode. But where Gwen simply celebrates celeb consumer culture, GaGa bites, her litany of runway models, pornographic girls, and body plastic delivered with an undercurrent of disdain, even as she loves all the glitz. This dichotomy propels much of The Fame, particularly on the clever “Paparazzi,” where she casts herself as the photographic parasite chasing after her crush, but none of this meta text would work if the songs didn’t click, functioning simultaneously as glorious pop trash and a wicked parody of it.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Initially planned solely as a standard double-disc reissue in the wake of the blockbuster success of The Fame, Lady Gaga decided to release the new material as a separate EP called The Fame Monster in addition to the standard two-CD set, where it’s tacked onto a now standardized version of her debut. It’s a nice move for fans, plus it helps emphasize the new material, which does act as a bridge from the debut to a forthcoming full-length. Everything on The Fame Monster bears a galvanized Eurotrash finish, as evident on the heavy steel synths of “Bad Romance” and the updated ABBA revision “Alejandro,” as it is on the rock & roll ballad “Speechless” -- its big guitars lifted from Noel Gallagher -- and the wonderful, perverse march “Teeth.” Even the stuttering splices on “Telephone,” a duet with Beyoncé, leans to the other side of the Atlantic, which just emphasizes the otherness that’s become Gaga’s calling card. And even as she’s becoming omnipresent, with her songs mingling with those who co-opt her on the radio, she is still slightly skewed, willing to go so far over the top she goes beyond camp, yet still channeling it through songs that are written, not just hooks. The Fame Monster builds upon those strengths exhibited on The Fame, offering a credible expansion of the debut and suggesting she’s not just a fleeting pop phenomenon.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Not long into the ceaseless promotional parade for Born This Way, Lady Gaga’s second full-length record and easily the most anticipated record of the 2010s, a certain sense of inevitability crept into play. It was inevitable that Born This Way would be an escalation of The Fame, it was inevitable that Gaga would go where others feared to tread, it was inevitable that it would be bigger than any other record thrown down in 2011, both in its scale and success. This drumbeat, pulsating as insistently as Eurodisco, is so persistent that there is an inevitable feeling of anticlimax upon hearing Born This Way for the first time and realizing that Lady Gaga has channeled her grand ambitions into her message, and not her music. Gaga has taken it upon herself to filter out whatever personal details remain in her songs so she can write anthems for her Little Monsters, that ragtag group of queers, misfits, outcasts, and rough kids who she calls her own. Gaga is hardly insincere -- this isn’t an act, she’s been instrumental as a gay rights activist -- but her conquistador stance ironically reduces Born This Way to a collection of songs about fashion, freaks, and religion, with the occasional respite arriving via German unicorns.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If Born This Way was made for the Little Monsters, its 2013 sequel ARTPOP was made for the world. Lady Gaga has grand designs for her third album, to pull a "reverse Warhol," which presumably means she wants to channel high art into pop instead of pop into high art, but it's a little difficult to discern Gaga's intent, either in this statement or ARTPOP as a whole. Willfully existing simply on the surface, a surface that perhaps (or perhaps not) signifies a greater depth, ARTPOP is teasingly garish, its bright colors and brittle beats attacking with glee, the emphasis always on big, pulsating beats, shattered reflections, and sound cascading over song in every instance. Inevitably, this emphasis on production means the pop in ARTPOP winds up diminished; perhaps it's "pop" in the pop-art sense, as it's shamelessly intentionally populist, but as pop music it's stiff, relying not on hooks in either its melody or rhythm, but rather a full-on glitz blitz that can dazzle as often as it tires. Lost in her self-generated mythos, Gaga doesn't much care whether her music sticks as long as she's not ignored -- even such seemingly soul-baring moments as the single-spotlight showcase "Dope" aren't confessional so much as gear shifts designed to capture attention -- and ARTPOP continually demands attention as it eschews the notion of love, right down to how all the sex songs deliberately separate the body from the soul. This isn't limited to Gaga's exhortation to R. Kelly to "do what you want with my body" on "Do What U Want," either. At times -- particularly through the album's first half -- ARTPOP is a non-stop erotic cabaret, Gaga contorting herself to fulfill any desire, switching roles between a guy and a girl, and a bottom and a top, her ambidextrous sexuality signaling power, not sensuality. This same arrogance glides her through songs about style -- the ludicrous "Donatella," a tribute to Versace that borders on character assassination; "Fashion!," which isn't a David Bowie cover, no matter how much it longs to be -- and through the songs about drugs, a cycle that takes her toward a concluding coda where Gaga stands resplendent in the applause. The concept is artful and logical, yet ARTPOP never insinuates or settles in the subconscious; it always assaults, determined to make an impression even when all it has to say is that it doesn't have much to say.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett sang before 2014's Cheek to Cheek -- she popped up on his 2011 collection Duets II -- so this standards album isn't exactly out of the blue. Furthermore, the two aren't such an odd pair. Bennett naturally has a long track record not just in regards to the Great American Songbook, but in presenting it to modern audiences, freshening it up for an MTV Unplugged in 1994 and cutting a full album with k.d. lang in 2002, while Gaga is grounded in music theater and cabaret, a background that is perhaps too apparent on Cheek to Cheek even when it serves her well. She has the chops to sing these warhorses but she sometimes seems unsure of her skills, relying on sheer power when she'd be better off easing into a lyric. Gaga also is occasionally betrayed by her taste for camp -- it's fetching when she's re-creating the splendor of 1976 within the album art but when she begins throwing out flirty asides on "Goody Goody" ("I'm no goodie, I'm a baddie"), she slips on the thin ice she's skating upon. Comparatively, Bennett takes things perhaps a shade too casually, relying on charm as much as skill. This isn't entirely a bad thing. His ease provides a welcome tonic to Gaga's eager glee club theatrics and there are some sparks that arise from this contrast. Also, Cheek to Cheek benefits from sharp arrangements and production that draw upon anything from boisterous, full-bore big bands to swinging, intimate cabaret. Such variety helps spice up a pretty predictable set of songs -- it's a familiar parade of Porter, Berlin, Ellington, Kern, with Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh's "Firefly" being the least-familiar tune (although Bennett has recorded it numerous times since the late '50s) -- but Cheek to Cheek is a record where the music and even the songs take a backseat to the personalities. Gaga and Bennett intended to put on a razzle-dazzle show here and that's exactly what they did. Whether you like it or not depends entirely on how much you dig the way they swing.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine