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Ever felt intimidated by a musician’s extensive back catalog? Been trying to get into a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, providing a clearcut entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom — now all you have to do is take it.
In many ways, Lady Gaga’s presence in the pop culture history books feels inevitable.
In 2008, when she burst onto the scene with the back to back smashes of “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga already felt like a fully-formed revelation. She embodied “pop star” in all its forms; massive choreography, grandiose (and often controversial) music videos, and a commitment to theatrics became hallmarks of her performance style. Of course, Gaga had been scraping by for years as Stefani Germanotta, everyone’s favorite Italian girl from New York — but to most of us, the Mother Monster simply appeared one day, ready to usher us into a brighter, wilder, and more adventurous way of living.
Naturally, Lady Gaga’s story began with pop music domination and has since seen her transcend genre, channel her penchant for the theatrical into a thriving career on the screen, and cemented her as an essential artistic influence. Her discography is simply massive. Here at Consequence, we considered celebrating the release of “Hold My Hand” this week by rounding up her 10 “best” songs, and found the task impossible. There’s too much goodness here.
Instead, the below timeline is a series of windows into the endless well of talent packed into the 5’2″ artist. Call them starting points; call them highlights. Just remember: There can be 100 Lady Gaga songs in the room, and all it takes is one to become a Little Monster.
— Mary Siroky
Introducing the Mother Monster: “Just Dance”
Legend has it that Lady Gaga wrote “Just Dance” in 10 minutes, which will perhaps go down among the most consequential 10-minute periods in the history of popular music. Co-written by producer RedOne and Akon (and featuring guest vocals from Colby O’Donis), the track was no overnight sensation, spending five months on the Billboard Hot 100 before finally claiming the chart’s No. 1 spot in January 2009. But once “Just Dance” achieved mainstream global hit status, it firmly cemented Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta as Mother Monster, laying the foundation for a mythology that would bond Lady Gaga to her fanbase in a way that transcends conventional pop stardom.
Gaga would follow up the success of “Just Dance” with The Fame’s second single, “Poker Face.” If the former was a broader ode to excess, the latter zeroed in on sexuality, further laying out the contours of Gaga’s persona as uncompromising, exhibitionist, and — most importantly — sex-positive. As a “bisexual anthem,” the track made Gaga into a queer icon, which would not only continue to be an important part of her legacy, but alter the wider pop landscape in the process. It’s difficult to imagine the commercial success of artists like Halsey, Kim Petras, Janelle Monáe, Charli XCX, and Miley Cyrus without “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” paving the way.
At face value, “Just Dance” is a simple song about having a “little bit too much” and getting overwhelmed at a club. But looking back, the song articulates the governing ethos that’s served as a premise for many of Lady Gaga’s best tracks: You may lose yourself along the way, but you need to find a way to push through all the turmoil and respond with joy. In that way, “Just Dance” is a statement of resilience disguised as a party anthem. — Spencer Dukoff
The Drama of It All: “Paparazzi”
Gaga’s performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 VMAs is, simply put, a work of art. It’s strange to think about Lady Gaga being ahead of her time, but the audience in the theater that night was not ready for her performance — who could ever be?
It begins with what seems like a standard Lady Gaga performance (if there even is such a thing), featuring a dramatic set, great costumes, and a slew of backup dancers. Her riffs and note changes on the radio smash ensured that her vocals are live. Then, she sits down at the piano (where she always excels) and when she emerges, blood begins to leak out of her costume.
Even on a grainy video from over a decade ago, it’s easy to identify horror and shock from those in attendance that evening. Gaga’s anguished cries and dramatic ending pose strung from a rope on the ceiling put a terrifying spin on what was, at the time, being spun as a catchy pop track. The performance proved that nothing is ever even a little bit surface-level with Lady Gaga — there’s always an angle, or a deeper meaning, or a chance to elevate and re-cast a song into something new. — M.S.
Reaching Icon Status: “Born This Way”
Gaga announced herself as a pop star fully formed when The Fame arrived in the summer of 2008, only to ride the disco stick to even greater heights with its darker, weirder sister The Fame Monster.
So the pressure was on when it came time for the newly christened sensation to deliver a follow-up. How could she possibly top “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi” or, god forbid, “Bad Romance”? By coming back guns blazing with a once-in-a-generation anthem of empowerment dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community and Little Monsters everywhere who’d ever felt marginalized or put down because of who they are and who they love.
With a rallying cry of “paws up!”, Gaga was suddenly catapulted to the level of a modern-day Madonna thanks to the smash single’s inclusive message set to a crashing electropop soundscape straight out of the ‘90s. Even with the controversy surroundings its similarities to Her Madgesty’s “Express Yourself,” “Born This Way” proved to be a watershed moment for Gaga’s career as it became the 1,000th No. 1 single in the history of Billboard’s Hot 100 and helped subway kids the world over rejoice their truth. — Glenn Rowley
Two Queens Maximizing Their Joint Slay: “Telephone feat. Beyoncé”
What happens when you put two of the most visionary and influential women in music history in the same room?
The prison break story in the music video for “Telephone,” Lady Gaga’s club pop 2010 track with Beyoncé, is more of a short film than just a visual accompaniment — as if these two would ever phone it in, so to speak. It’s elaborate, bright, campy, and laugh-out-loud funny, and also serves as a continuation of the story started in the music video for “Paparazzi.” (Forget the MCU — let’s dive into the Gaga Cinematic Universe.)
It was as thrilling then as it is now to witness two women at the top of their game simply having a blast together. Plus, it was a joyful chance for two of the most enthusiastic fan bases to enjoy a joint effort from their respective queens. In an interview with MTV at the time, Gaga echoed that idea of using this song as a chance to escape and let loose a little — her status had already reached a point of no return, where it would be impossible for her to have a night out at a club. Thankfully, it sounds like a few days on set with none other than Queen Bey scratched that itch for her, and left us with an enduring track. — M.S.
Gaga’s Yeehaw Moment: “Joanne”
The 2016 rollout for Joanne may have served as Lady Gaga’s audition tape for A Star Is Born. It kicked off with an intimate tour of tiny, beloved venues around the United States, with Gaga sporting cowboy hats and boots along the way. Some people who had fallen in love with Gaga’s explosive pop weren’t sure what to make of her pivot to a more Americana-inspired era, and others saw it as a response to her tepidly-received 2013 offering of ARTPOP.
No matter her motivations, Joanne has actually aged quite well. Rock, folk, and even country sounds suit Gaga, and maybe that’s just because there’s not really anything she can’t do if she puts her trademark energy into it. “John Wayne” is gritty and intoxicating; the title track is heartbreaking; “Perfect Illusion” was a radio-friendly cut that stayed closest to the pop lane. Even now, there might be some people out there who don’t think Lady Gaga of all people has music for them. Joanne is a collection that welcomes the doubters in with open arms and a nice cold beer. — M.S.
Queen of B-Sides: “Yoü And I”
Long before she channeled the spirit of her late aunt Joanne, Stefani Germanotta stomped down country roads to the vroom of a muscle car on “Yoü And I,” the fourth single off her monster sophomore album, Born This Way.
And sure, the anthem’s music video introduced Little Monsters to Gaga’s latest round of alter-egos at the time — look, there’s Jo Calderone! And who can forget Yüyi, the mermaid being ravaged by mad (and very naked) scientist Taylor Kinney, who would go on to become the singer’s eventual fiancé after meeting on the video shoot? -— but stripping the song down to its core, “Yoü And I” is perhaps Gaga’s most unabashedly hopeful and wide-eyed love song this side of Ally Maine’s “Always Remember Us This Way.”
Gaga’s discography runs deep after nearly 15 years in the spotlight, and while other singles have certainly been bigger hits on the charts, the superstar’s songwriting prowess is often most impressively displayed on comparatively smaller singles and album cuts like “Yöu And I.” Don’t believe us? Just ask the Little Monster in your life how they feel about “Electric Chapel,” “John Wayne,” or #JusticeforARTPOP. — G.R.
Football, But Yassified: The Super Bowl Halftime Show — “Million Reasons”
NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas could barely contain the potential energy of a Lady Gaga halftime performance, which may explain why Gaga decided to kick things off on the stadium’s roof. Decked out in a custom Versace jumpsuit, Gaga began the set with “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” before dramatically leaping from the rooftop (a move that spawned a million memes) as a cluster of drones formed the stars and stripes of the American flag behind her.
The vibe was “patriotism is camp,” throwing out a little red meat to the NFL fans at home before launching into a set that was unabashedly Gaga. To play songs like “Poker Face” and “Born This Way” on one of the world’s largest stages — in front of conservative-leaning football fans, no less — was a stroke of subversive genius, preaching radical self-acceptance and being boldly political without letting it overwhelm the performance.
More than anything, the Super Bowl halftime show was a testament to Gaga’s technical skills as a performer — singing, dancing, playing instruments — as well her penchant for big, beautiful spectacle. Being able to pivot from the pop anthem of “Just Dance” into the piano-led “Million Reasons” only to bring the energy back up for an enormous finale is a Gaga move through and through.
Sure, football fans probably remember Super Bowl LI as the year Tom Brady’s Patriots overcame a massive deficit to come back and beat the Atlanta Falcons, but many, many more people will remember Super Bowl LI as the year Lady Gaga raised the bar for what it means to deliver a Super Bowl halftime performance. — S.D.
Her Movie Star Moment: “Shallow”
Where were you the first time you heard Lady Gaga belting in “Shallow”? Released prior to the theatrical run of A Star Is Born, “Shallow” immediately silenced anyone who attempted to paint the Bradley Cooper-helmed iteration of the now iconic story as unnecessary. This was no ordinary remake; this was a remake that had Lady Gaga on the creative team.
While her performance in the film as Ally is genuinely incredible, it’s the fact that Lady Gaga pulled double duty writing the movie’s music that really sealed the deal on this being a highlight of her already impressive artistic journey. From the moment she appears onscreen with “La Vie En Rose” to the devastating closing of “I’ll Never Love Again” (and all the magic in between), A Star Is Born left no room to mistake otherwise — this was Gaga’s movie.
At first, it was almost jarring to see Lady Gaga as stripped down as she appeared in the film, with brown hair and a lack of spiky platform boots. When the time came for the press tour and awards circuit, though, Gaga embraced the movie star moment, channeling Old Hollywood on the red carpet and fully epitomizing what can be so magical about transformative performances on the silver screen. By the time she and Bradley Cooper took to the stage at The Oscars to perform an almost shockingly intimate rendition of “Shallow” live, Gaga’s metamorphosis into an outright movie star was complete. — M.S.
The Time She Gifted Us A Perfect Escapist Track During the Peak of the Pandemic: “Rain on Me”
Put yourself back in the mindset of Spring 2020, if you will — yes, it’s a tough ask. Things were bleak. Really bleak. With the entire arts industry at a standstill, writers and performers had two major lanes of creative expression dominating the conversation. The first was to go with realism, yielding some truly great works that spawned from times of isolation and introspection. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, though, took the second route: joyful escapism.
“Rain on Me” truly arrived when we needed it most and saw the two pop princesses join forces in the perfect vehicle to showcase their strengths. The Grammy-winning hit is upbeat and allowed for some great choreography and plenty of space for Miss Ariana to go completely off the rails with her signature vocals towards the end. “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” they sing together, managing to beautifully summarize how it felt to be pushing through those wildly difficult times. — M.S.
She Has the Range: Collaborations with Tony Bennett — “Cheek to Cheek”
In the five years between “Just Dance” and Cheek to Cheek, Lady Gaga’s collaborative album with Tony Bennett, the artist cultivated a persona of pop provocation, with her music only representing one piece of her artistic output. But Cheek to Cheek put Gaga’s singing front and center, linking her vocal prowess to a rich musical tradition stretching back decades. This is Lady Gaga, the singer, without artifice or layers of abstraction between her and the audience. And as an artist who made her name as singular force, Cheek to Cheek showcases her talents as a creative co-pilot — this was no diva afraid of getting overshadowed by a musical heavyweight like Bennett.
Gaga and Bennett’s enduring friendship only makes listening to their duets more special, and the chemistry runs deeper than two talented people getting into a recording booth because they thought they’d find acclaim or commercial success or something else. The music is so good, perhaps, because these two masters of their craft are so delighted to be making this music in the first place. The joy is palpable, and it’s one that anyone who’s ever listened or watched the two perform onstage together has been able to share and cherish. — S.D.
Lady Gaga In 10 Songs Playlist: