How Lady Gaga Raised the Standards for Ambition in Pop


In 2016, we're only eight years removed from 2008 -- barely even a president back -- but it was an entire pop universe ago. The two biggest Billboard Hot 100 hits of the year belonged to Flo Rida and Leona Lewis. Lil Wayne was the unquestioned Greatest Rapper Alive and Drake and Nicki Minaj were only well-known to mixtape enthusiasts. Adele was about as famous as Duffy. Justin Bieber's largesse was still contained to YouTube. And Lady Gaga was a dance-pop oddball signed to Akon's label, who seemed just as plausible as a future one-hit wonder than as a generational superstar.

But most importantly, pop in 2008 was simply a smaller place. Event albums were scarce, music videos were dwindling in relevance, award shows were almost uniformly boring. The most recognizable voice in pop music was, ironically, that of T-Pain, whose popularization of Auto-Tune across Top 40 flattened out the vocal playing field to a near-depressing amount. Stars like Beyonce and Rihanna were beginning to push at pop's walls a little bit, but weren't yet at the place of completely breaking the mold. The EDM boom, and accompanying explosion in festival culture, were still a couple years away. Something big really needed to happen.

It didn't take long for Lady Gaga to prove that she was the asteroid pop music was begging to have crash through it. Debut single "Just Dance" topped the Hot 100 for three weeks in early 2009, and "Poker Face" made her two-for-two a couple months later. Before long, this sleazy, sexually ambiguous club diva with mainstream pop smarts and underground grit was the biggest thing in Top 40 -- just in time for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where her surreal, macabre performance of new single "Paparazzi" provided the WTF? undercard to Kanye West and Taylor Swift's unquestioned main event.

And of course, the videos. "Paparazzi" -- a foreign-filmed faux-noir starring True Blood actor Alexander Skarsgard and featuring Gaga performing a dance number on crutches -- proved her most striking visual to date, ante upped later that year with the landing of the "Bad Romance" clip, an extraterrestrial odyssey that proved instantly iconic, in a way videos weren't supposed to be anymore. Best of all was "Telephone," in which Gaga was joined by Beyoncé for a ten-minute, high-art-infused, road-tripping hodgepodge of Tarantino, Thelma & Louise and Japanese TV that became the first event video of the 2010s. Gaga celebrated her coronation as the franchise player of 21st-century MTV (and YouTube) by wearing a meat dress to the '10 VMAs, and finally Millennials had a pop star who could hold her own against Madonna and MJ.

It all led up to the much-hyped release of 2011's Born This Way. The album, technically Gaga's second full-length, bore the full scope of her artistic ambition over the case of its 14 tracks and 61 minutes, reaching out to the clarion-call disco of its LBGTQ-rallying title track, the Springsteenian synth-pop histrionics of "Edge of Glory," the "Mutt' Lange-helmed stadium power balladry of "You and I," and the Latin-tinged operatics of "Americano." Everything about Born This Way was big -- the songs, the music videos, the cover art, and of course, the promotional appearances, with Gaga capping her trilogy of Big VMA Moments by gracing the '11 MTV awards as Jo Calderone, her male alter-ego with a particular youthful affinity for Britney Spears.

Of course, despite an initially rapturous reception -- Born This Way sold over a million copies in its first week, as its title track topped the Hot 100 for six weeks -- the album has since come to be perceived as something like her Be Here Now, a post-superstar album that sees the artist diving too deep into the qualities that initially endeared fans to them, and alienating those unsure if they want to follow that far down. (Never mind that the album still had a handful of classic singles, and that Gaga's crimes of trying too hard and dipping into art-pop pretension were far lesser than those of the Gallagher Bros' egomaniacal epic of shrugging guitar-pop mediocrity.) The public quickly cooled on Gaga, and though she's had hits and chart-topping albums in the years since, her reception has yet to reach the feverishness of those first couple years again.

But other pop stars have picked up the slack. Kanye West, the one contemporaneous Top 40 fixture whose big-thinking could've rivaled Gaga's at her peak (and, once upon a time, a near-tourmate of Stefani's) stepped up his game even further after her arrival, blowing his music videos into 35-minute short films and eventually expanding the art form to include live projections and stadium premieres. Former co-star Beyoncé also went through a conceptual makeover, eventually reviving interest in both the music video and the LP format with her self-titled surprise visual album. Rihanna released her weirdest album a year after Gaga's breakthrough and was never quite the same after. Even Britney -- who "Telephone" was initially written for -- ended up trying to make her own version of the song's video.

Not all of this can be traced back directly to Gaga, of course, but it's hard to overestimate the impact she had in making all this acceptable, even commonplace in the pop realm. She took American mainstream music at one of its least-interesting and most star-power-deprived moments and made it bigger, weirder, more visual and infinitely more personality-driven -- in other words, much more fun. Today, the sense of possibility in pop is as vast as it's ever been, and even if Gaga is no longer the ringleader that all look to for what comes next, she ensured that pop fans would at least come to expect such boundary-pushing out of their best and brightest. They haven't let us down since.