21 Do What U Want (featuring R. Kelly)
Removed from streaming services after new allegations of sexual assault/abuse against R. Kelly, Do What U Want – with its painfully problematic subject matter and vocals akin to a live exorcism – won’t be missed. The less said about Kelly’s contribution (‘I could be the green in your blunt, your pusher man’) the better.
20 You and I
Do What U Want is the apex of a common Gaga problem: lack of self-restraint. You and I, a grandiose country number, is similarly overwrought. And it’s inexplicably irritating.
19 Million Reasons
I don’t need a million reasons to dislike this simple piano ballad. One will do. Lazy songwriting. She repeats the words ‘million reasons’ over, and over, and over again. Of course, there are countless examples of mindless repetition in pop. (‘Who run the world?’). But this is one of the worst offenders.
Contextually, given the run of perfect singles preceding it, this was probably Gaga’s greatest disappointment. (We know, it’s her birthday – we’re just getting the criticism out of the way before the lovefest begins…). But you can’t blame her for being a victim of her own success. It’s not all bad, anyway: there are echoes of the pumping greatness of Bad Romance… But also the nursery rhymey annoyingness of the horrific Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say).
Standing for ‘girl under you’, the punchy G.U.Y is a great example of Gaga playing with ideas of sex and gender. But once again, like its video, it’s overblown. It has its defenders, but I prefer the sparse silliness of Artpop’s promotional single Venus to this.
16 The Cure
Released during the Joanne era, The Cure – a conventional pop song – doesn’t appear on that album. What potential singles fell by the wayside to make space for it? The charismatic A-YO? The barnstomping John Wayne? Regardless, it’s breezy and pleasant enough: in the midst of an all-guns-blazing discography, it’s perhaps best considered a palette cleanser.
Solid, sexy and playful, this is the kind of song Ali, Gaga’s A Star Is Born alter ego, would smash out of the park. It arguably got lost amongst the noise of The Fame’s bigger singles. But that’s a pretty good problem to have, right?
14 Marry the Night
Ambitious, grand and euphoric, but tinged with sadness, Marry the Night’s an example of Gaga’s penchant for exaggeration paying off. It’s exhausting, and the aftereffect’s like a hangover, but it suits the song. This is what a night out with Gaga is like, in sonic form.
13 Always Remember Us This Way
Heart-on-your-sleeve melancholy meets simple acoustics on the second single from the A Star Is Born soundtrack – much like the titular track of Gaga’s last studio album, Joanne. That said, I’d have chosen the classy/classic power ballad I’ll Never Love Again as a single over this.
12 Shallow (with Bradley Cooper)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Shallow – but isn’t it overrated? This year’s Best Song Oscar winner is at least let down by Bradley Cooper’s highly affected alcoholic rockstar vocal. (I can’t understand what he’s saying in a lot of the film). That said, those opening strings are immediately arresting. And I adore how the vulnerability of the first verse bleeds into the second. Because, for me, the anticlimactic chorus is where it falls down.
11 Til It Happens To You
Also nominated for the Best Song Oscar (but robbed by a by-the-numbers Sam Smith Bond track), Til It Happens To You soundtracked 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses. Thus, Gaga bravely opens up about her own experiences (she’s discussed being raped at age 19) and her soul-bearing is at once devastating and comforting.
Stirring and cinematic, this potent ballad is a hidden gem of her back catalogue. The skyrocketing vocals at the end are especially moving – although her diction is distracting. Is it just me, or does she sometimes sing in an upper class English accent?
10 Perfect Illusion
A shot at redemption after the letdown of Artpop, Perfect Illusion was, to my mind, a ferocious comeback single that deserved to chart higher. Gritty and rocky, it was inspired by her recent broken engagement: ‘It wasn’t love,’ she spits angrily, ‘it was a perfect illusion.’ There’s a bit of screeching, but it’s not as bad as Do What U Want, and the aggression is necessary.
With a hit film under her belt, a Vegas residency to enjoy and her sixth studio album in the works, Gaga’s on top of the world in 2019. But cast your mind to 2013, when she went off the boil with Artpop, a challenging era even for diehard fans.
The outfits and press stunts got tiresome – remember the flying dress? – and a lot of the songs weren’t up to scratch. (Dope’s a low point). But while so much of her output at this time was impenetrable and alienating, I actually found lead single Applause a good insight into her psyche at the time. ‘I live for applause,’ she insists with naked honesty, ‘the way you cheer and scream for me.’ It’s dazzlingly overproduced, but it gets the heart racing every time.
I for one am guilty of projecting unrealistic expectations on Gaga. I expect every single to be as forceful, industrial and insidious as Poker Face and Bad Romance. When that doesn’t materialise (like with Born This Way, more on which in a moment), I freak out. But she slowed things right down with Alejandro, and how much richer is her discography for it?
The previous two singles from The Fame Monster were, indeed, monstrous; Alejandro is her catching her breath. It’s a slight, airy, rejuvenating Europop number that was compared (albeit not always favourably) to 80s/90s Ace of Base and Madonna. Promoting independence from redundant relationships, my only issue with it is, again, a repetitive chorus.
7 Edge of Glory
Should this have been Born This Way’s second single? It out-charted Judas, and I’m compelled to listen every time I hear those odd, breathy noises and the soaring saxophone.
Fun and flamboyant, Edge Of Glory flirts with the scariness of falling deeply in love, but for my money, the subtext sees her return to themes of artistry and fame. With it, she’s almost daring you to consider her glorious – a legend, an artist for the ages – while conceding she’s not quite there yet. The fact she’d stumbled with Judas underlined the question mark. But let’s face it: she’s always been amazing, hasn’t she?
6 Born This Way
Breathless with anticipation, then almost physically disappointed: this is how I felt hearing Born This Way the first time. Then, when Madonna called it ‘reductive’ (try singing Express Yourself over the chorus – I dare you), I was actually angry.
To be fair, she lost me with those infantile video game/arcade-style noises that follow the spoken word intro: ‘It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M’, Gaga says – just one of many oblique religious references in her work. (It only finally made sense to me five minutes ago!).
It’s an overcrowded song on an overcrowded album, but it’s in those LGBTI-inclusive lyrics that the song’s value lies. Reportedly the first Billboard Hot 100 number one to use the word ‘transgender’, Gaga shouts out to all manner of queer identities and tropes in what, for many, is a furiously fun and inspiring anthem with beautiful intentions. I can’t pretend I haven’t warmed to it since.
5 Just Dance
Can you believe Gaga’s debut single – an irresistibly energetic slice of electropop about enjoying yourself – is 11 years old? And while Akon’s verses sound scarily dated, hers do not.
Interestingly, looking back, it’s not the introduction to Gaga, the artist, one might expect. The subject matter’s lightweight, and it’s not her most distinctive song. (Listening to it now, I think of Kesha, although she came out the following year).
But there’s something refreshing about the lack of weirdness here, knowing it would later become her trademark, and occasionally get too much. Indeed, while many of Gaga’s biggest hits are polarising, most would be hard-pressed to slate this straightforward club banger.
Overshadowing Beyonce is no mean feat, but even The Queen seemed happy to play second fiddle to Gaga in 2010 on this addictive duet, when the star was at the height of her pop culture powers. (Although Bey’s all-too-brief quick fire verse pushes the song to new heights).
If Just Dance is enjoyably two dimensional, the thematically similar Telephone is on another plane. Originally written for Britney Spears, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Gaga injecting a dance record with such feral, wild energy.
It’s notable for being elevated by a video that was really more of an event, in which Gaga revels in her own strangeness; the more controlled and self-conscious Beyonce was just along for the ride. The video premiered in March 2010, four months after the Fame Monster EP release. And yet, it was received with such feverish excitement that Telephone felt like a second lead single. How many pop stars have pulled that off?
3 Poker Face
If her debut single was about sheer dancey euphoria, Poker Face was where things got ambiguous. The sweet spot for me is when Gaga gets at once sexual and menacing, a la Paparazzi and Bad Romance. Poker Face was the first sign of it. She sounds like an evil robot – the satanic niece of Vocoder Cher – and I was fascinated. Oh, and there’s a video of an orchestra performing it that’s godly.
The tinny synths are very 00s, but the song’s message remains pertinent. Gaga’s said Poker Face is about thinking of women while in bed with men, and I still interpret this as an admission of bisexuality.
This was of course a massive deal in 2009, and unfortunately still is today. (Look at Rita Ora, for example, who smoked herself out of the closet amid a storm of controversy after last year’s tone deaf Girls).
To be fair, The Fame contains some astonishingly basic moments. (When did you last listen to Boys Boys Boys?) But on the whole, I like to think of it as a concept album in which Gaga hides her intelligence in plain sight and flirts with vacuousness in a pitch for superstardom: a double bluff.
It’s there in the cheekily knowing hollowness of Beautiful, Dirty, Rich, and reaches thematic clarity in the smashing Paparazzi. Here, Gaga obsesses over a lover who may or may not be fame itself. (‘I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me…’ she coos creepily). The tempo’s moderate, the vocals soft and murmuring: there’s a sense of yearning desperation that indicates years of ambition coming to a head. It’s just so, so interesting…
Her more immediate, world-conquering singles are probably destined to be better remembered. But I think Paparazzi is Gaga at her most razor sharp and revealing. Also, the melody’s genius and the music video a killer, much like…
1 Bad Romance
Where to start? In my opinion, the pounding Bad Romance might be the best pop song ever recorded. I think Gaga knows it too, which is why she’s tried to recreate its magic more than once.
What is it about Bad Romance that is so incredible? Aside from its terrifically artful music video, which casts the singer as a very expensive sex worker? First of all, it’s simply very catchy.
I remember every gay man and his mother singing, in an almost stupefied state, ‘Ro mah ro-mah-mah, Gaga oh-la-la!’ when it came out. It’s a nonsense series of sounds that still sound oddly pleasing when you hear them today.
Of course, they’re just a precursor to more bold, profound lyrics (‘I want your ugly, I want your disease’) that display precision and a welcome lack of irony. When Gaga isn’t saying something with a knowing wink, she’s often trying to say 10 things at once. But with Bad Romance, her mission is clear.
She takes you into the deepest depths of her desire for the wrong person. She communicates that toxic mix of fear, dread and longing so successfully that you’re changed by the experience of listening to it. That’s true artpop.