Lady Gaga's Top 10 Most Daring Songs: From 'Joanne' to Her David Bowie Tribute
Lady Gaga deserves to be celebrated as one of pop music's biggest overachievers. Gaga’s reminiscent of a classic showbiz triple-threat, like Judy Garland and who else since the days of Madonna and Michael Jackson has so clearly wanted it all?
The woman behind these songs isn’t just a student of singing and dancing but also theater and other dimensions of art and stage that are more complex to pinpoint. Suffice it to say, her musical and lyrical and improvisational talents are as well-suited to classic pop molds as they are to explore new creative territory. In that spirit, we celebrate 10 of her most adventurous works.
“Speechless,” The Fame Monster, 2009
Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame was almost uniformly devoted to surefire dance-pop, but its addendum The Fame Monster stretched out into pastiches unlike anything else from contemporary acts on the 2009 charts. Case in point would be this string-piano-and-guitar ballad that may be the best Elton John song of the last 20 years. And without the blocky format of synths and drum programming, this was the first time fans could really hear her voice and soar to full capabilities. “Bad Romance” was the instant classic, but “Speechless” was our introduction to how much Gaga could really do.
“Americano,” Born This Way, 2011
Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video and groundbreaking VMAs performance showed us her desire to marry the leaps and swoops of Broadway to four-on-the-floor electro-pop, but the Mariachi-inflected disco of “Americano” from her second full-length managed the same effect without a visual element. She duets with herself in Spanish and English, calling and responding a rallying cry of “A la la, Amer-i-ca, Americano,” all of which would be impressive enough if the then-best-selling musician in the country wasn’t sneaking in a lesbian love story and subtle protest of gay marriage laws.
“Hair,” Born This Way, 2011
Born This Way was a long, stylistic muscle-flex of a record that made innovative use of pop devices that hadn’t yet been excavated even in an era full of nostalgic sonic returns. But while there’s plenty to say about Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band great Clarence Clemons’ iconic sax taking the standout “Hair” over the top as an E Street-Europop hybrid, at the time it was truly notable for being Gaga’s most personal song yet. For all the masks that she wears with her headline-getting costumes and eye-bugging videos, Gaga humanized her wacky image with this tune about how controlling her own physical identity empowers her. If her mom cuts her hair while she sleeps, she’s “short of her identity” and she’s unafraid to admit that she’ll put in raccoon or red highlights “just because I want my friends to think I’m dynamite.” This isn’t Andy Warhol or Tom Waits distancing themselves from their art; Gaga never wants us to think she’s anything above a human who wants to be cool like anyone else and at times that simply means “I am my hair.”
“Yoü and I,” Born This Way, 2011
With “Yoü and I,” Gaga set out to create the greatest karaoke tune of all-time and even if it may never unseat “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s hard to imagine any more determined competition from the 2010s. That means she needed the heart and piano sway of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” to kick off the ultimate “Mutt” Lange tribute: a Shania Twain-Def Leppard hybrid epic that isn’t her biggest hit simply because that’s not how hair-metal-country songs work in the 2010s, but it will almost certainly be the song chosen to play over the end credits of a Lady Gaga biopic in 30 years or so.
“The Lady Is a Tramp,” Duets II: The Great Performances (with Tony Bennett), 2011
Lady Gaga is so multifaceted that even her “safe” PR moves are astounding. When Sinead O’Connor followed up her smash I Don’t Want What I Haven’t Got with big-band music on Am I Not Your Girl?, she was considered to have never recovered commercially. But Gaga's retreat from the oversized techno of Artpop with Cheek to Cheek, a gutsy record of jazz-pop standards alongside 88-year-old legend Tony Bennett wasn’t just a canny move or damage control. Most of the performances were aces, especially “I Can’t Give You Anything” and “Anything Goes,” with Bennett sounding about 27 and Gaga crooning with a heft beyond her years. But three years prior, the duo was already on fire for Bennett’s own duets album making something new out of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” their most impressive collaboration of all, with Gaga’s hysterical ad libs and Bennett’s inability to hold in a chuckle or two.
“Aura,” Artpop, 2013
Simply put, 2013’s controversial Artpop is where pop fans decided that Gaga’s risks were outnumbering her rewards, a dreaded snag that required a career course change. This is a genuine shame: it sold better than you’d think reading about it and it’s her most thrilling album to date, a fun-house of campy insanity and EDM at its busiest and most novel and colorful. But many felt its opening bid got it off on the wrong foot, with a white woman writing from the perspective of a devout Muslim longing to show her partner the girl “behind the burqa.” Appropriately or inappropriately, its bending synth lines mimicked those of Middle Eastern dance music such as Syrian dabke. It’s unquestionably Gaga’s boldest moment, particularly as an album opener, and it’s understandable if you can’t hear it without wincing. (Even the song’s collaborators Infected Mushroom have disowned it.) But it’s a dizzying roller coaster ride of a tune and its presumed intent -- to get inside the head of a woman from a completely different walk of life and find a kindred spirit in sexual repression -- is not without merit.
“Jewels N’ Drugs,” Artpop, 2013
It’s fair to say that Artpop’s unpopularity was due in part to its interactions with people of color. A white woman trying her hand at Middle Eastern electronica (“Aura”), R. Kelly’s oversexed R&B (“Do What U Want”) and especially trap-rap (“Jewels N’ Drugs”) were greeted with apprehension at a time when cultural appropriation was becoming a mainstream conversation topic. But these songs succeeded on all fronts, if crudely. At least Gaga’s nonsensical rap collaboration handpicked the best emcees for that beat: a typically smooth T.I., a twangy Too $hort and Twista doing his usual Sonic-the-Hedgehog flow to the usual amazement. It could’ve been much worse and you could even say it paid off.
David Bowie medley, 2016
It’s absolutely true that Gaga made her whirlwind of a Grammy tribute to the late, great David Bowie all about her. There was no profundity, really, in putting herself through a lightning round of his greatest hits, nor did it exemplify her hero’s own greatness. What it did instead was making a case for herself as his successor, a quick-change artist and pop magician constantly throwing the world off track -- and not always tastefully or soberly. And in that way, it was kind of fitting for both of them. Despite what his son thinks, Bowie wouldn’t have performed such a thing any more modestly.
“Sinner’s Prayer,” Joanne, 2016
Joanne isn’t quite a comeback album as it’s unclear clear what Lady Gaga’s would be coming back from, but it continues her disciplined eccentricity and world-conquering ambition with a surprising few country songs, such as this understated, bluesy piece that could have been a highlight for Miranda Lambert. It is, as Gaga sings, as “good as, good as, good as gold.”
“Come to Mama,” Joanne, 2016
Joanne’s back-to-basics thread makes it Gaga’s least centered album to date, particularly with a surprising lack of killer singles, but it’s full of smaller charms and the '50s-inspired “Come to Mama” is her first attempt to bring the swing of Cheek to Cheek to her solo records. She continues to treat even the dustiest pages of the universal songbook with reverence and freshness, a pairing that’s always tricky and rare.