Lady Gaga's debut single had one-hit wonder written all over it. A beer-soaked ode to getting wasted in the club, "Just Dance" showcased some of the then-unknown singer-songwriter's whimsical wordplay ("Control your poison, babe/Roses have thorns, they say/And we're all gettin' hosed tonight") and a "half psychotic, sick, hypnotic" bridge that revealed her affinity for synths.
Although these distinctive elements set Gaga apart from the R&B- and hip-hop-influenced sounds that ruled the pop charts at the time, the song's banal, unimaginative chorus failed to offer a glimpse of the musical powerhouse its composer would eventually become. "Just Dance" was catchy, but the woman who made her debut with a concept album about exploitative aughts celebrity culture knew it would take more than a sing-along chorus to retain the public's attention.
And that's about the time she stopped wearing pants.
In 2008, though her album The Fame was unleashing hit after hit, Gaga was best known for paparazzi photos of her over-the-top and revealing outfits: a seemingly endless supply of skintight body suits, ripped fishnets, sky-high stripper heels, and mirror-mosaic disco-ball bras. Hanging above the stage dripping in fake blood at the following year's 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga sealed her reputation as a chart-topping shock rocker.
It would have been impossible back then to imagine that within five years, she'd release an acclaimed album of jazz standards with a legendary collaborator six decades her senior, Tony Bennett, and that the duo would spend the better part of 2015 touring the world in support of it. It would have been just as unthinkable that only three years after that, she'd become a bona fide movie star overnight, starring opposite Bradley Cooper in a hit remake of A Star Is Born.
While some yearn for her long-gone days of meat dresses and the macabre, a decade and a half after her debut, it's more exciting than ever to be a Lady Gaga fan. As she's leaned into her old-school showbiz inclinations, she's expanded her palette beyond music and reintroduced the element of surprise in an era where shaky concert videos and online setlists reveal all secrets.
At just 36 years old, Gaga appears to have entered the second phase of her career. She's got two successful Las Vegas residencies: a pop show named "Enigma" and a set of standards dubbed "Lady Gaga Jazz & Piano." For decades, a Vegas residency has signaled the sunsetting of an artist's career, but Gaga was among the first artists to alter this perception in recent years. Coupled with her recent foray into film — successfully with A Star Is Born, less so with House of Gucci, and to be determined with the forthcoming Joker: Folie à Deux — Gaga appears to be signaling less and less interest in the pop-star horse race. Even at the height of her cultural domination, she foreshadowed this shift.
After the success of The Fame Monster — the debut album reissue which included Gaga's opus "Bad Romance" and the EP many have come to see as the quintessential essence of all that is Classic Gaga — she faced intense pressure to prove herself as a once-in-a-generation phenom on her sophomore full-length album. Rather than leaning into the hooky pop music of the day — a sound Katy Perry and Kesha were already replicating and one which she helped create — Gaga enlisted the help of some of the rock pioneers who inspired her when she played piano-driven, singer-songwriter tunes on New York City's Lower East Side. Queen guitarist Brian May soloed on the power ballad "Yoü and I," and E Street Band veteran Clarence Clemons played saxophone on "Hair" and single "The Edge of Glory." Gaga's authentic tribute to the music she grew up on paid off: Born This Way yielded four top ten singles and Rolling Stone later named it one of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."
However, Born This Way also marked the height of Gaga's pop-chart dominance. No subsequent Gaga album has attained that level of cultural saturation.
Still, a large part of Gaga's mythos has always been based on positioning herself as the underdog, so it stands to reason that some of her most rebellious and compelling statements came about during her so-called "flop era."
The release of Born This Way's follow-up, 2013's Artpop, was marked by a contentious and chaotic rollout. Gaga fired her management on the eve of the album's release, and an accompanying app meant to complement the album's techy aesthetic never materialized. The album garnered mixed reviews from critics and fans. Nonetheless, Gaga was fully committed to the project. "For those who don't wish to hear Artpop, we suggest you grab a glow stick or get the fuck out!" she screamed at crowds on the album's supporting ArtRave tour. Once again, her insistence paid off: Nearly a decade after its original release, the album has been reclaimed by her fanbase and reconsidered by some of its original naysayers. These days, it's Gaga who doesn't remember Artpop.
It's hard to blame her. Gaga's career took many more unexpected turns in the decade that followed the controversial record. While her foray into rhinestone-studded Americana, Joanne, didn't do much to bolster her appeal beyond the Little Monsters who find something to love in anything she makes, the sometimes-stripped down record was a natural evolution from her work with Bennett — the first truly oddball, left-turn move of her career. Gaga had been known as a stylistic chameleon for years, but this evolution aimed higher than nine-inch stilettos and flying dresses.
She's long been known to surprise on the stage and on red carpets, but Gaga's collaborations with May, Clemons, and Bennett marked the beginning of her unpredictability as an artist. Her subsequent Vegas residencies and film roles have only begun to hint at where she'll head next. Musical theater would be a natural fit but always count on Gaga to do the opposite of what's expected.
In the meantime, if you really want to see her doused in fake blood for old times' sake, she's still doing that on her latest tour. Showbiz is showbiz.
Lady Gaga.7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 17, at Hard Rock Stadium, 347 Don Shula Dr., Miami Gardens; 305-943-8000; hardrockstadium.com. Tickets cost $56 to $281 via ticketmaster.com.
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Celia Almeida is the digital editor of American Way and the former arts and music editor of Miami New Times. Her writing has been featured in Venice, Paper, and Billboard; and she co-hosts Too Much Love on Jolt Radio.