Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images
Though she’s been a household name for a decade now, the first half of Lady Gaga’s career still feels like recent history. From her 2008 debut The Fame to 2014, when the ARTPOP hype bubble burst, Lady Gaga sped through several careers’ worth of highs, lows, and controversies. Every release became an event; her every move was dissected on social media. Gaga’s imperial phase was such a whirlwind that, in hindsight, we’ve barely had time to reflect on the depth of her artistry. Looking back on her first four albums — The Fame, The Fame Monster, Born This Way, and ARTPOP — her sheer ambition was dizzying. No pop star this decade has been more committed to achieving transcendence through her art. She has undoubtedly raised the bar for pop music, videos, fashion, and live performances.
But the comedown, if you can call it that, has been fascinating in its own way. Since Cheek to Cheek, 2014’s duets album with Tony Bennett, we’ve witnessed a gradual unraveling of Gaga’s once-messianic image. Superwoman no longer, 2016’s Joanne allowed her to be more vulnerable, to find a sense of equilibrium within her art.
Lady Gaga’s already influenced a new generation of weird, countercultural, often LGBTQI pop stars: Everyone from Lorde to Sia, Nicki Minaj, Charli XCX, Halsey, Troye Sivan, Sophie, and Janelle Monáe owes Gaga some debt. But the sound of Gaga’s iconic dance-pop hits couldn’t be more out of fashion with the moody, trap-tinged, playlist-centric downturn of late 2010s pop. Sometimes, the days of Gaga’s meat dresses and vomit art can feel like a distant memory. But then, she’ll go and do something like her Golden Globe–winning performance in American Horror Story: Hotel, or unleash the fury within “Shallow,” and you’ll remember — she’s still Lady Fucking Gaga.
Over the years, Gaga’s shape-shifting has painted a collective portrait of a complex, restless, fearless woman. In every guise — including Ally, the singer-songwriter she plays in this year’s A Star Is Born remake — she’s given it her all. No artist is completely original, but time has proven Lady Gaga sui generis. A decade after her debut, she’s proved that she’s an all-timer. What will she do next? Your guess is as good as hers.
This list is less about judging Lady Gaga’s catalogue than making sense of the recent past — much of which we’ve already forgotten! It includes every commercially released studio track, and her more significant featured credits. That gives us 108 songs, with fewer stinkers than you’d expect, and a top 60 that could rival many other pop stars’ catalogues. No list can represent every fan’s opinion, but I’ve tried my best to rank her songs (along with her more impactful videos) based on their emotional, autobiographical, and cultural significance. Disagree? To quote the Lady herself: “I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong / To crash the critic saying, ‘Is it right or is it wrong?’”
108. “Christmas Tree,” non-album single (2008)
The great Christmas songs balance joy and melancholy. “Christmas Tree,” on the other hand, is so tongue-in-cheek that it immediately collapses under its own weight. Less a song than a gag, every individual element is unpleasant: single-entendre lyrics; vocals and synths that aren’t even in the same key; and the less said about Space Cowboy’s guest verse, the better.
107. “Vanity,” Rhapsody exclusive single, 2008
First heard on Lady Gaga’s Myspace page in 2006, then cut from The Fame and later issued as a digital single, “Vanity” is a forgettable glam-pop romp that just barely hints at her true potential. As Gaga told New York Magazine in 2009, while still in the early stages of her journey, “We walk and talk and live and breathe who we are with such an incredible stench that eventually the stench becomes a reality. Our vanity is a positive thing. It’s made me the woman I am today.”
106. “Starstruck,” The Fame (2008)
This is the closest Gaga’s ever come to doing no-frills commercial R&B, but it’s far from convincing. With clichéd lyrics drenched in bad auto-tune — “Would you make me number one on your playlist? / Got your Dre headphones with the left side on” — “Starstruck” felt dated almost immediately upon its release. Surprisingly, Flo Rida’s guest verse over-delivers.
105 “Retro, Dance, Freak,” The Fame Monster (2009)
Included on international editions of The Fame, this Prince-inspired strut feels like a sketch that never develops past its title.
104. “Fashion,” Confessions of a Shopaholic soundtrack (2009)
Gaga’s fourth-best song with fashion in its title actually suits Heidi Montag better. Gaga playacts at the song’s narcissism, but Montag lives it.
103. “Goody Goody,” Cheek to Cheek: Deluxe Edition (2014)
Tony Bennett chastises a former lover while Gaga provides a cheeky running commentary. It’s worth a laugh, but their rendition of this old standard is too fast, lacking anything except humor. Everyone from Frankie Lymon to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rosemary Clooney has recorded more definitive versions.
102. “Paper Gangsta,” The Fame (2008)
Written about her brief, fruitless first record deal with Def Jam, the titular “paper gangsta” refers to L.A. Reid himself, who dropped Gaga after hearing her early studio recordings. To be fair, “Paper Gangsta” inspires little confidence. It might have worked as a piano ballad, but Gaga half-raps, half-sings the verses without committing to either, and her flow is as awkward as the auto-tune it’s lathered in.
101. “Money Honey,” The Fame (2008)
A RedOne production with a lot of “Poker Face” DNA, but far less of its charm.
100. “Winter Wonderland,” iTunes exclusive single (2014)
There are no bad versions of this Christmas standard, and this duet with Tony Bennett is fun — but Gaga sings the verses with an odd, brassy accent, almost as if she’s poking fun at the song a little too much.
99. “Just Another Day,” Joanne: Deluxe Edition (2016)
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this playful Joanne bonus cut — it’s just inessential. A ’70s glam-soul vamp, it’s mostly memorable for Mark Ronson’s fuzz-guitar solo tribute to Mick Ronson (no relation).
98. “Boys Boys Boys,” The Fame (2008)
This gender-swapped electropop take on Mötley Crüe’s “Girls Girls Girls” contains the best worst lyric of Gaga’s career: “Love it when you call me legs / In the morning, buy me eggs.” This was nearly The Fame’s sixth single, until “Bad Romance” was released earlier instead. Can you imagine?
97. “Disco Heaven,” The Fame (2008)
A fun but shameless disco pastiche with an unbelievably on-the-nose bridge: “We got that disco, D-I-S-C-O / And we’re in heaven, H-E-A-V-E-N!”
96. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
A blisteringly quick two-minute take on the Irving Berlin–penned standard. Tony Bennett already recorded better solo versions in both 1957 and ’87.
95. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
Most of Cheek to Cheek’s best songs aren’t uptempo swing numbers, but slow, luxurious ballads. So it’s ironic that the album closes with this Duke Ellington classic, perhaps the song that embodies jazz’s big-band era. Gaga and Bennett are fine, yet a spectacular tenor sax solo outshines them both.
94. “Firefly,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
Written (but not used) for the musical Gypsy, “Firefly” leans more toward theater than jazz. While it’s not an easy vocal line to sing, Gaga matches Bennett note for note.
93. “They All Laughed,” Cheek to Cheek: Deluxe Edition (2014)
First performed by Ginger Rogers in 1937’s Shall We Dance, Ira Gershwin’s unique lyrics mix social commentary with romantic wit. Bennett and Gaga are charming enough, even if the song doesn’t lend itself especially well to duets.
92. “Summerboy,” The Fame (2008)
Pure, sweet escapism — check out that “Heart of Glass” guitar riff, and Gaga’s unusually Gwen Stefani–like chirp. “Summerboy” closed out most editions of The Fame, but the song in no way hinted at the bigger and better things to come.
91. “Music to My Eyes,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A ’50s-style country waltz that would be intolerably sappy if not for the sheer warmth of Gaga’s voice. Bradley Cooper’s rugged delivery is a little uptight, while Gaga is effortlessly soulful — sounding less like herself, and more like the gentler, less fiery Ally.
90. “The Queen,” Born This Way: Deluxe Edition (2011)
“The Queen” immediately name-checks — you guessed it — “Killer Queen,” but its poppy synth-rock sounds more like Pat Benatar. Gaga sings about self-confidence yet manages to sound less inspired than on the rest of Born This Way, and the closing guitar solo deflates the song like a balloon. Why wouldn’t you go out shredding?
89. “Before I Cry,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A soaring Ally ballad that’s still poppy while remaining more organic than her dance tracks. To be sure, Gaga’s vocals are impressive here. Still, the song’s too underwritten to linger in the memory, and it’s barely featured in the film.
88. “I Don’t Know What Love Is,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
In A Star Is Born, this ballad soundtracks Jackson and Ally’s impromptu wedding, but beneath their musical declarations of love lies a thinly veiled layer of desperation. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson could have sung this to each other, but it may be too sentimental for some listeners.
87. “I Like It Rough,” The Fame (2008)
Like all good synth-pop, “I Like It Rough” blends the human with the mechanical, though Gaga makes for an unconvincing fembot in the bridge. Could almost pass for Robyn or Goldfrapp.
86. “I Won’t Dance,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
One of the most live-sounding tracks on Cheek to Cheek, Bennett and Gaga’s version revs up this Fred Astaire classic, ending with a spectacular call-and-response climax: “I won’t dance! I won’t dance!!” But like many of the songs in this lower-middle section of the list, it’s enjoyable, if not as essential as Gaga’s best.
85. “Heal Me,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
More soulful than most 2018 pop, more smoothed-out than the Gaga we’re used to. This is exactly the kind of song that’d get Ally onto countless Spotify playlists but wouldn’t quite make her a star.
84. “The Fame,” The Fame (2008)
The Fame is an iconic album title, but the eponymous track never really crossed over into the broader consciousness. “The Fame” is a tongue-in-cheek ode to hedonism, fueled by Gaga’s steely determination to make it to the top. Her true potential lies in the dreamy, more sincere bridge: “Don’t ask me how or why, but I’m gonna make it happen this time / My teenage dream tonight.”
83. “Your Song,” Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (2018)
This Elton John cover doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, instead content to capture just enough of his old magic. When she sings in a low contralto, Gaga can sound like she’s doing an Elton impression — but when she leaps up an octave in the third verse, it’s breathtaking.
82. “Black Jesus † Amen Fashion,” Born This Way: Deluxe Edition (2011)
“Jesus is the new black!” Over thumping electropop beats, Gaga relives her New York origin story, reimagining the city’s art scene as an “underground pop civilization” led by, well, Black Jesus.
81. “Why Did You Do That?,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
To quote Vulture’s Nate Jones, is this song “terrible, is it a bop, or is it a terrible song that’s also a bop?” The answer is … yes. For the haters, it’s an accurate portrayal of how repetitive modern pop sounds to their ears. But for pop fans, “Why Did You Do That?” is delightfully campy. The melody evokes 2001 Jennifer Lopez, but Gaga’s diva vocals clearly outclass the material — which is why it’s so fun! “Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Who needs answers when you have rhetorical questions like that?
80. “Fashion!,” ARTPOP (2013)
With its Chic bass line, chiming piano, and dazzling production, this is worlds better than 2009’s “Fashion” — yet a tad less vital than ARTPOP’s best. On Gaga’s 2013 Thanksgiving special, she performed the song with the supergroup it deserves: RuPaul and the Muppets.
79. “But Beautiful,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
First sung by Bing Crosby, “But Beautiful” might be Bennett and Gaga’s most naturalistic duet on Cheek to Cheek, as they slowly escalate over four minutes to a gentle but devastating emotional climax.
78. “Video Phone (Extended Remix),” Beyoncé’s I Am … Sasha Fierce: Deluxe Edition (2009)
Lest we forget, Beyoncé and Gaga’s first collaboration preceded “Telephone” by four months. Neither the song, produced by Bangladesh of “A Milli” and “Diva” fame, nor the video, directed by Hype Williams, was quite as well-received as “Telephone.” But Beyoncé and Gaga clearly had chemistry, and the futuristic video was adventurous new territory for them both.
77. “Diggin’ My Grave,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A haunting-yet-groovy blues guitar tune where Bradley Cooper and Gaga dream of romantic betrayal and its consequences: “You’ve been out all night diggin’ my grave.” Cooper’s a natural blues singer, but Gaga’s belt dominates the mix.
76. “Look What I Found,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
Ally’s first studio recording in A Star Is Born is a slice of charming if undercooked pop soul — like Duffy and Mark Ronson operating at 70 percent. It only really gets going halfway through, once Gaga leans into her higher register. Still, the song acts as a stylistic bridge between Ally’s bluesier songs with Jackson and her slick pop productions. The official video cheekily recuts the film into a romantic comedy, in case you were hoping for something more like Music and Lyrics.
75. “MANiCURE,” ARTPOP (2013)
A glam-rock stomper set in a little beauty shop of horrors: “Can you feel it? Looking serial killer, man is a goner.” As fun and raucous as “MANiCURE” is, the repetitive chorus doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the rest of the song.
74. “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love),” Born This Way (2011)
This song exists for one reason only: so Gaga could open the Born This Way Ball by coming out on a bionic unicorn. A Journey-like arena rock anthem, “Highway Unicorn” is the most obvious song on Born This Way, an album that’s in no way subtle.
73. “Grigio Girls,” Joanne: Deluxe Edition (2016)
“Grigio Girls” was written for Sonja Durham, the Haus of Gaga’s longtime managing director, who died of cancer in 2017. It’s not a pop song, just an intimate moment shared between a close group of friends, turning their tears of mourning into wine. It sounds like nothing else in Lady Gaga’s discography — so much so that it’s hard to imagine her ever writing in this mode again.
72. “Cheek to Cheek,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
“Heaven, I’m in heaven / And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,” sings Gaga as she opens this song, having the time of her life working with Tony Bennett. As on much of the album, Bennett plays the straight man as Gaga cheekily vamps around him.
71. “Hair Body Face,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
“A man loves a triple threat … / Hair, body, face” goes this song’s fabulous chorus, which was clearly not written with Jackson Maine or any straight male audience in mind. “Hair Body Face” could plausibly have fit on The Fame, though 2008 Gaga would’ve cranked up the irony.
70. “Anything Goes,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
Lady Gaga’s voice is the first thing you hear on Cheek to Cheek — sounding familiar, yet unrecognizable in the album’s new-old setting. Longtime jazz fans might find this Cole Porter song selection overly familiar, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Gaga’s musicality.
69. “Donatella,” ARTPOP (2013)
“I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch!” Gaga revisits The Fame’s hedonism with a tad more sophistication and, via Zedd, upgraded production. “Donatella” isn’t exactly deep, but Gaga makes high fashion’s possibilities feel endless, accessible to anyone.
68. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
While Gaga is a convincing jazz vocalist, her readings aren’t always subtle. On this Jimmy McHugh cover, her tone is brassy, and clearly influenced by rock singers — but more charming for it. You’d never sing an original jazz composition this way, but standards were made to be reinterpreted.
67. “Mary Jane Holland,” ARTPOP (2013)
There’ve been many songs written about marijuana, but only one sung by a musical-theater kid over banging dubstep-EDM. The slowed-down, operatic bridge is magnificent: “I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess / But it’s alright, because I am rich as piss!”
66. “Brown Eyes,” The Fame (2008)
A David Bowie pastiche that, for many, was the first sign of the depth of Gaga’s musicianship. “Brown Eyes” is a breakup piano ballad, but Gaga snarls her way through the lyrics instead of confronting the tender emotions beneath the song’s surface. “I guess it’s just a silly song about you,” she sings — but later ballads like “Speechless” would be anything but silly.
65. “Again Again,” The Fame (2008)
The only Lady Gaga track that dates back to her Stefani Germanotta Band years, it’s no wonder she kept this bluesy piano-rock jam — though it’s lightweight, she’s rarely sounded more effortlessly charming. “Again Again” is one of this era’s true hidden gems.
64. “Jewels n’ Drugs,” ARTPOP (2013)
In late 2013, trap beats hadn’t fully been gentrified by pop stars, let alone teen YouTubers recording diss tracks. So “Jewels n’ Drugs” was a total curveball on a major-label pop album, even one as weird and sprawling as ARTPOP. Featuring T.I., Too $hort, and Twista, it’s a genuinely underrated posse cut — even if little of its ferocity comes from Gaga herself.
63. “Bad Kids,” Born This Way (2011)
Every beat on Born This Way hits hard, and this electro-glam metal fusion is no exception. But “Bad Kids” has a sweet, almost power-pop chorus, with Mother Monster at her most maternal: “Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure / You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid, baby!”
62. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” Cheek to Cheek iTunes bonus track (2014)
Hey, this isn’t jazz — it’s Cher! Funnily enough, Cheek to Cheek’s most original reading isn’t of a standard at all. Recorded live at the Lincoln Center, the band plays a bossa-nova take on the song while Gaga sings solo, wearing one of Cher’s own wigs. She mostly leans away from the song’s natural melodrama — until she belts the final verse with full diva theatrics.
61. “Is That Alright?,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A sparse piano ballad that’s more reminiscent of Adele than Lady Gaga, where Ally pledges to love Jackson until the end of her life. Like all great musicals, A Star Is Born tells its story through its lyrics — though you might not pick up every nuance in the moment. “Is That Alright?” plays during the film’s end credits, a tragic ode to future dreams that’ll go unfulfilled.
60. “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” Cheek to Cheek: Deluxe Edition (2014)
Gaga delivers this Cole Porter classic like a lullaby, indulging in the beauty of the song’s composition rather than dwelling on the lyrics’ regret. Her rendition on the Tonight Show is even gentler, and utterly mesmerizing.
59. “Dancin’ in Circles,” Joanne (2016)
Joanne isn’t the album you might think it is — it’s groovier, wittier. Co-written with Beck, “Dancin’ in Circles” is one of the funnier songs about masturbation ever written, though that very quality makes it a tad inessential.
58. “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say),” The Fame (2008)
At the time, “Eh, Eh” — the follow-up to “Poker Face” outside the U.S. — sounded far too saccharine for Gaga’s fame-hungry ambitions. It seemed a step backward: an Ace of Base–like bubblegum-pop track, paired with a video where she plays Italian Housewife Barbie. But aside from its production, “Eh, Eh” could pass for a ’60s girl-group song. Listening to it today, Gaga’s sincerity shines through, as she waves good-bye to a former lover while trying not to hurt his feelings.
57. “Sexxx Dreams,” ARTPOP (2013)
This is one of the more straightforward lyrics on ARTPOP, but the track is weird as hell! Packed with twists and turns, brooding verses that explode into technicolor synth choruses, “Sexxx Dreams” embodies 2013 Gaga’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to songwriting.
56. “Angel Down,” Joanne (2016)
Inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, Joanne’s final track is a spiritual for the 2010s; a far cry from the fearless optimism of Gaga’s past albums. But it carries an important message: to not turn away from suffering. “Angel Down” puts into perspective the sense of death and loss that hangs over Joanne, from David Bowie and Amy Winehouse to Gaga’s aunt Joanne Germanotta. It also functions as an unexpected reunion with her former producer RedOne, writing with Gaga for the first time since 2011 in a vastly different setting.
55. “Always Remember Us This Way,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A tribute to the best parts of Jackson and Ally’s creative and romantic relationship, “Always Remember Us This Way” sounds like vintage Carole King, with a hint of modern Nashville via Gaga’s three co-writers — Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, and Hillary Lindsey. In the film, Jackson recruits Ally as his touring keyboard player and backing vocalist, and later encourages her to perform this, one of her original songs, as their encore. Ally succeeds spectacularly — the crowd even chants her name! But “Always Remember Us This Way” isn’t exactly a showstopper — it’s the kind of song that charms you over multiple listens with its warm, familiar delivery.
54. “ARTPOP,” ARTPOP (2013)
On ARTPOP, Lady Gaga embodied all of her personas at once, forcing the listener to make sense of the record’s sprawl themselves. The title track is the halfway point — a psychedelic synth journey through time and space, a question without an answer. “My ARTPOP could mean anything,” sings Gaga, signifying … what, exactly?
53. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” The Fame (2008)
In early 2006, Stefani Germanotta was an earnest piano-rock balladeer. By the end of the year, she’d recorded this: disco-funk via Prince and the Scissor Sisters, but hungrier and more amoral. At the time, Gaga was far from rich — but that was her motivation. Like in the world of ballroom culture, she portrayed herself as an outcast indulging in tongue-in-cheek hedonism. Produced by her early mentor Rob Fusari, “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” perfectly encapsulates the attitude that would soon make her famous, but not the Eurodance sound … she hadn’t met RedOne yet.
52. “The Lady Is a Tramp,” Tony Bennett’s Duets II (2011)
Gaga’s delightful first duet with Tony Bennett came during the middle of Born This Way’s album cycle. She couldn’t have been a bigger pop star, nor, to the surprise of many, a more triumphant jazz singer. But Gaga didn’t merely pay tribute to the past; she updated a beloved standard, and held her own against the Tony Bennett — who dubbed her “America’s Picasso” in the making.
51. “Nature Boy,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
Gaga croons this Nat King Cole cover in a near whisper — the only time on Cheek to Cheek she plays it softer than Tony Bennett. It’s as sumptuous and beguiling as any version’s ever been.
50. “Swine,” ARTPOP (2013)
“You’re just a pig inside a human body / Squealer, squealer, squeal out, you’re so disgusting,” goes the chorus of “Swine,” the most uncomfortably strange song in Lady Gaga’s discography. Incited by her sexual assault at the hands of a music producer when she was 19, “Swine” urges you to embrace your deepest, darkest feelings of revulsion. Gaga casts predatory men as swine, but by the end of the song, she unleashes the inner pig inside us all: “Paint your face and / Be a swine just for the weekend!” “Swine” spawned some truly unhinged live performances, but the studio version is so bright and polished that it’s overwhelming — much like Jeff Koons’s eye-popping ARTPOP album cover.
49. “LoveGame,” The Fame (2008)
The follow-up single to “Poker Face,” “LoveGame” isn’t really about romance, or even sex — it’s about Gaga toying with us, her audience. It hasn’t aged as well as her other early singles, but in retrospect, its lyrics that seemed silly at the time — “disco stick,” “got my ass squeezed by sexy Cupid” — were memes-in-waiting. Gaga even began wielding a literal disco stick in live performances. The Joseph Kahn–directed music video brought Gaga’s entourage of dancers into the New York City subway, but even more impressive was her raucous performance at the 2009 MuchMusic Video Awards.
48. “Heavy Metal Lover,” Born This Way (2011)
“I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south,” opens Gaga’s horniest song to date.Bassy synths grind like metal guitars, buzzing with desire. The song’s fantasies are autobiographical, with references to Lüc Carl, the same metal-drummer boyfriend who inspired “Yoü and I.” Gaga asks, “I could be your girl, girl, girl … / But would you love me if I ruled the world?” The price of fame is steep, but she makes it sound so much more seductive than romance.
47. “Perfect Illusion,” Joanne (2016)
A muscular disco-rock power ballad, “Perfect Illusion” swung for the fences — but Gaga’s vocals felt overwrought and underwritten, too melodramatic to forge a real emotional connection. The song played a pivotal part in Gaga: Five Foot Two, her 2017 Netflix documentary, where its mixed reception seemed to strike a nerve.
But it’s the music video that truly elevates the song — shot in the California desert, Gaga’s physical contortions take on a mesmerizing beauty. Time has tempered our reactions; two years later, you have to respect Gaga’s audaciousness, even if “Perfect Illusion” isn’t quite the masterpiece it aspired to be.
46. “Lush Life,” Cheek to Cheek (2014)
A song about distracting yourself from heartbreak with the finer things in life, Gaga’s best studio performance on Cheek to Cheek is serene, naturalistic, and perhaps not coincidentally, solo. Recording with Tony Bennett connected Gaga to a sense of history, a lineage of great jazz performers, but it made the album less of a musical statement. Imagine a whole album of covers, even original songs, as moving as “Lush Life.”
45. “Fashion of His Love,” Born This Way: Deluxe Edition (2011)
A breezy bonus track, “Fashion of His Love” pays tribute to the late Alexander McQueen, and the near-religious experience of wearing his intricate designs. The beefed-up ’80s dance-pop track borrows more than a little of Whitney Houston’s head-in-the-clouds joy — and it even earns its surprise last-chorus key change.
44. “John Wayne,” Joanne (2016)
Gaga’s love of old-school, bad-boy masculinity has occasionally seemed at odds with her progressive feminist leanings. So with “John Wayne,” it was a relief to finally hear her verbalize that conflict, over a country-disco boogie worthy of Shania Twain. The Jonas Åkerlund video, too, is among Gaga’s freakiest, featuring exploding cars, neon-country dance sequences, and her playfully devilish expressions. On “Perfect Illusion,” love is tragic, but “John Wayne” at least has a sense of humor about it.
43. “Diamond Heart,” Joanne (2016)
“Young, wild, American … / I might not be flawless but you know I got a diamond heart,” sings Gaga, rebooting her origin story on Joanne’s opening track. Now in her 30s, Gaga is still a performer at heart, and the Americana rock of “Diamond Heart” is no less a costume than any other sound she’s adopted. The only problem is, the deconstructed rock-band arrangement is too stiff — where are the high-hats? — and it never feels live enough to truly soar. “Diamond Heart” isn’t quite the mythological “Thunder Road” Gaga intended, but it’s still an exciting, necessary reboot.
42. “Americano,” Born This Way (2011)
Lady Gaga does nothing by halves — if she’s going to do a “mariachi techno-house record” about the injustices of U.S. immigration law, you’d better believe she’s going all the way. “Americano” is an initially dizzying listen, though there’s a tenderness in the eye of the storm. Said Gaga, “It sounds like a pop record, but when I sing it, I see Édith Piaf in a spotlight with an old microphone.”
41. “Million Reasons,” Joanne (2016)
Gaga clearly adores this song, as it closed out every Joanne World Tour set list. “Million Reasons” has that moving chorus, yet it’s too much of a power ballad to work as a true breakup song. Gaga’s raw vocal performance elevates it, though the lyrics and bland arrangement lack the precise, lived-in details of a truly great country song. The video shows off her rebranding as a country singer, clothed in that beautiful Joanne shade of pink.
“Million Reasons” didn’t fully come to life until her 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, where it was her lone cut from Joanne. As she sang and played piano on an elevated platform, surrounded by fans waving lights and cell phones, her latest reinvention felt complete.
40. “Dope,” ARTPOP (2013)
Immediately after ARTPOP’s “Mary Jane Holland,” a guilt-free celebration of pot, comes this whiskey-fueled piano ballad about a codependent, borderline-toxic relationship. “I’ll hate myself until I die,” drawls Gaga — haunted by her demons, trapped by her addictions. But whenever she played “Dope” live, it became a celebration between every other fucked-up misfit in the room.
39. “A-YO,” Joanne (2016)
The first Lady Gaga song in years that felt unforced, totally unpretentious — and fun. Over Josh Homme’s offbeat slide guitars and Mark Ronson’s Stax horn arrangements, Gaga sounds like she’s having the time of her life — the perfect embodiment of her raucous, back-to-basics 2016 Dive Bar Tour.
38. “Electric Chapel,” Born This Way (2011)
How many pop songs open with an honest-to-God Judas Priest guitar riff? “Electric Chapel” throbs like neon synthwave with a heavy-metal edge, lighting the way to Gaga’s cathedral — her Born This Way Ball. If you’re still confused about the album’s infamous bionic motorbike cover, “Electric Chapel” should make you a believer.
37. “Bloody Mary,” Born This Way (2011)
In this electropop opera, Gaga assumes the role of Mary Magdalene — “the ultimate rock star’s girlfriend” — as she forgives the world for taking her beloved Jesus away from her. “I won’t crucify the things you do … / When you’re gone I’ll still be Bloody Mary,” sings Gaga, casting Mary as a graceful, eternal icon of feminine suffering. “Bloody Mary” could be sacrilegious, but like in The Last Temptation of Christ, humanizing icons only makes them more relatable. Oh, and it helps that the track’s ruthlessly danceable, too.
36. “Teeth,” The Fame Monster (2009)
The Fame Monster ends by shifting from dance-pop to this funky, soulful stomper, produced by Teddy Riley of Blackstreet fame. On the previous seven songs, Gaga confronts her fears, but by “Teeth,” she’s become ferocious in life and the bedroom: “Take a bite of my bad girl meat / Show me your teeth!” As she told MTV in 2009, “‘Show me your teeth’ means ‘tell me the truth,’ and I think that for a long time in my life that I replaced sex with the truth… You hide in the physicality of a relationship as opposed to really getting to know somebody.”
35. “Government Hooker,” Born This Way (2011)
A tribute to Marilyn Monroe and other women who influenced politicians in the bedroom, peaking with Gaga’s incredible spoken bridge: “Put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy / I’ll make you squeal baby / As long as you pay me.” “Government Hooker” would be the perfect soundtrack for a military-industrial-themed fashion show on Mars, with buzz-saw synthesizers as sharp as Gaga’s prosthetic cheekbones.
34. “Scheiße,” Born This Way (2011)
“Scheiße” has a faux-German hook that’s as nonsensical as it is catchy, but the song’s message is crystal clear: “If you’re a strong female / You don’t need permission.” It’s impossible to hear this and not want to strut down a catwalk in oversize platform heels.
33. “Til It Happens to You,” non-album single (2015)
“Til It Happens to You” isn’t the usual fare for Lady Gaga or Diane Warren, who co-wrote the song. Written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary that addresses the climate of sexual assault on college campuses, Gaga’s recording pulls no punches. “Til it happens to you / You won’t know how it feels,” she sings, calling upon the full weight of her vocal abilities. Gaga delivered a heartbreaking performance at the 2016 Academy Awards, accompanied onstage by over 50 sexual-assault survivors. “Til It Happens to You” didn’t win Best Original Song, but it left a lasting impression, a year before the #MeToo movement took off.
32. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Cheek to Cheek: Deluxe Edition (2014)
Another Gaga solo performance recorded live from Lincoln Center, she delivers this Pal Joey show tune with breathtaking, intimate understatement. At her best, Gaga has all the wit, humor, and precise emotional control of the great jazz vocalists. She’s never been so charming while doing so little — the audience hangs on every word.
31. “Venus,” ARTPOP (2013)
ARTPOP, as misunderstood now as it was upon its release, is a work of science fiction. If Born This Way was about learning to love yourself, ARTPOP imagined the Gaga-ified utopia we could live in. “Venus” opens by quoting Sun Ra, the iconic jazz Afrofuturist, then blasts off through the solar system in search of sexual liberation: “Uranus / Don’t you know my ass is famous?” Why can’t all pop be this unapologetically freaky?
30. “The Cure,” non-album single (2017)
In the 2017 documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, Gaga struggles to perform at a high level while managing chronic pain. She witnesses her dear friend Sonja Durham’s battle with cancer; and she prioritizes her career over love, ending her engagement with actor Taylor Kinney. “The Cure,” at first, may sound like any other top-40 pop song, but it deals with the same emotional burdens as the film. Gaga’s never sounded this vulnerable in a pop context: “Rub your feet, your hands, your legs / Let me take care of it, babe / Close your eyes, I’ll sing your favorite song.” It’s simple, familiar, but it says everything.
29. “I Want Your Love,” Chic’s It’s About Time (2018)
Chic were never known for having diva-level singers — their vocal lines were essentially vehicles for the crisp grooves of Nile Rodgers and his band. But surprisingly, Gaga doesn’t overpower this blockbuster remake of Chic’s classic 1978 single. She fits right in, even elevating the song to new heights in all the right moments. Their version first premiered in 2015, soundtracking Tom Ford’s SS16 womenswear collection. It took three years for the full recording to get an official release, but so what? It’s every bit as timeless as the original.
28. “Come to Mama,” Joanne (2016)
Written and originally demoed by Father John Misty, “Come to Mama” feels like a lost ’60s classic — like Magical Mystery Tour via Phil Spector’s Christmas album. Mother Monster calls for peace with a firm but gentle hand — she’s no longer the messianic figure of eras past. It’s a celebration of life, and a warning of what we’d lose without love.
27. “G.U.Y.,” ARTPOP (2013)
Short for “Girl Under You,” “G.U.Y.” is a power-bottom anthem fueled by Zedd’s vicious, stuttering groove. Like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” Gaga dreams of reversing the roles in her relationship: “I don’t need to be on top to know I’m worth it / ‘Cause I’m strong enough to know the truth!” Gaga only made two music videos for ARTPOP, but the seven-minute “G.U.Y.” short film was her most visually ambitious to date — cramming in snippets of “ARTPOP,” “Venus,” and “MANiCURE” as well. “G.U.Y.” went underappreciated at the time, but revisit it, and you’ll find it’s positively overflowing with joie de vivre.
26. “Joanne,” Joanne (2016)
Lady Gaga never met her aunt Joanne Germanotta, who was an artist and a painter, but they’ve long shared a spiritual connection. “Every part of my aching heart / Needs you more than the angels do,” drawls Gaga, like Stevie Nicks over fingerpicked guitars — old sounds that are new to her. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on an intimate family conversation (and in a scene from Gaga: Five Foot Two where she plays the song for her grandmother, we literally do). But the song’s piano version, recorded earlier in 2018, is sparser and even more haunting. Gaga croons gently, letting the lyric speak for itself. The song ends with her acknowledging her middle name — “Call me Joanne … / XO, Joanne,” resolving the Joanne era on a peaceful note.
25. “Aura,” ARTPOP (2013)
“I killed my former and / Left her in a trunk on highway ten,” sings Gaga, shedding Born This Way’s skin and, seemingly, much of her casual fan base. Her most sonically aggressive opening track, “Aura” blends mariachi guitars with growling, inhuman synths. But the chorus soars, seemingly foreshadowing the album to come: “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? … / Do you wanna see the girl behind the aura?”
24. “So Happy I Could Die,” The Fame Monster (2009)
One of Gaga’s most spiritual songs, a dreamy ode to self-love and discovery that floats on sparkling amber synths. The subject matter isn’t too far removed from “Just Dance,” really, but “So Happy I Could Die” stands on its own, feeling more like a shared moment with a friend in a club at midnight.
23. “Do What U Want,” ARTPOP (2013)
It’s hard to say if this should have been a far bigger hit, or if it shouldn’t exist at all. A relentlessly catchy R&B-synth-pop banger, “Do What U Want” — like Madonna’s “Human Nature” — is a statement of artistic defiance through sexual freedom: “You can’t stop my voice, ‘cause / You don’t own my life, but / Do what you want with my body.” It should have been a powerful message … but how do we reconcile that with R. Kelly’s involvement? In 2013, we should have known enough about his transgressions. In 2018, there’s no excuse.
It’s uncomfortable yet undeniable that Gaga and Kelly had musical chemistry. On “Do Want U Want,” he plays his usual seductive, lecherous persona — but actually tones it down a little. The two courted attention with racy performances on SNL and at the AMAs, and a video directed by Gaga’s frequent collaborator Terry Richardson — another alleged sexual abuser — was filmed, then canceled, never to be released. A 2014 remix swapped out R. Kelly for Christina Aguilera, but wasn’t nearly as compelling. For many, “Do What U Want” symbolized everything that went wrong with the ARTPOP campaign; Gaga hasn’t addressed the controversy since. Did she deserve the backlash? Maybe so. But despite everything, the original recording is still electrifying. Whatever you think of the song, there’s nothing else in her catalogue quite like it.
22. “Sinner’s Prayer,” Joanne (2016)
Joanne’s most cinematic song plays out like an intimate Western family drama. Gaga’s voice has never sounded smokier as she sings of her innate weakness for volatile men — and sees her struggles reflected in her sister’s and father’s relationships. If loving someone means accepting their flaws, then that makes her a sinner, too: “Hear my sinner’s prayer / I am what I am / And I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man but you …” “Sinner’s Prayer” shares startling thematic similarities with Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” from 2016’s LEMONADE. Both women acknowledge their conflicted heritage, and begin to make peace with it through the redemptive power of country music.
21. “Hey Girl,” Joanne (2016)
Lady Gaga and Florence Welch are two of modern pop’s most famous belters — so no one expected their first collaboration to be a duet so adorable it could’ve been performed by two Muppets. Over ’70s soul piano borrowed from “Bennie and the Jets,” Gaga and Welch gently exchange lines and lift each other up. It’s no motivational anthem, just a simple ode to women supporting women. “Hey Girl” is an astonishing record, a gift of pure emotional generosity.
20. “I’ll Never Love Again,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
Lady Gaga’s Oscar campaign begins with A Star Is Born’s grand finale, a true tearjerker from the Whitney Houston playbook. Gaga embodies the five stages of grief with her whole voice and body, whether she’s cooing softly, in her lower register, or belting her heart out. The film version cuts away from Ally’s climactic performance to a flashback of Jackson, nervously singing the song to her for the first time. It’s an act of pure emotional manipulation on Bradley Cooper’s part as a director, but it perfectly encapsulates the characters’ relationship: Jackson sees Ally’s artistic potential, but it’s she who brings it to life. “I’ll Never Love Again” sounds like nothing on the 2018 charts, but that’s why it’s so powerful — Gaga could’ve been a star in any era.
19. “Just Dance,” The Fame (2008)
With producer RedOne, Lady Gaga engineered a sound that would define the next five years of pop: American R&B melodies, Europop synthesizers, four-on-the-floor dance rhythms, and just a tinge of pop-punk and emo’s brattiness. In 2008, “Just Dance” seemed wildly ambitious, the first shot — and Billboard No. 1 — fired by a star in the making. A decade later, it almost sounds … humble?
Gaga hides her weirdness in plain sight here. You can hear her theater-trained vibrato in the verses; and then there’s the “half psychotic, sick hypnotic” bridge, a curveball no other pop singer would’ve attempted. What few remember is Colby O’Donis’s guest verse, a series of horny-in-the-club clichés that only exists to provide a male point of view, making it more palatable for commercial radio. It shows how faceless “Just Dance” could have been if Gaga weren’t such a compelling narrator.
18. “Alejandro,” The Fame Monster (2009)
“Alejandro” paired one of Gaga’s catchiest pop songs with her darkest visuals. Gaga rejects a string of Latin suitors — Alejandro, Fernando, Roberto — via melodies that evoke ABBA and Madonna, over a thumping beat, like Ace of Base gone EDM. Rejection has rarely sounded so sweet. The Steven Klein–directed video, however, combines German expressionist cinema with religious and militaristic imagery. Gaga begins by mourning her dead lover, but the narrative gets increasingly inscrutable from there. It was almost too provocative — few could make sense of it all. But what is clear is this: Steven Klein’s camera adores the male body, spotlighting the dancers as much as Gaga herself. The “Alejandro” video is a tribute to queer masculinity, and the ability of marginalized people and artists to thrive under oppression.
17. “Shallow,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
A Star Is Born’s entire narrative plays out within “Shallow,” a duet between a man who longs for change, and a woman who ultimately embraces it. In the verses, Cooper and Gaga’s lyrics and vocal lines are mirrored, two world-weary cynics serenading each other. But with the chorus, the song turns from country to power ballad, as Gaga leaps into her higher register: “I’m off the deep end / Watch as I dive in / I’ll never meet the ground.” Initially, she’s softer, hesitant — until they harmonize, their fates still entwined. But then, Gaga summons her inner strength to unleash that already-iconic “almighty wail,” surrendering to her emotions once and for all. It’s no wonder “Shallow” struck a chord, even before we’d seen the film — the song bottles the heart-pounding feeling of Ally stepping onto Jackson’s stage for the first time, her life about to change forever.
16. “Poker Face,” The Fame (2008)
“Just Dance” got Lady Gaga onto the charts, but “Poker Face” is where her iconography truly begins. The video opens like a horror film, as Gaga emerges from a pool in a bedazzled alien mask, drawing us into her topsy-turvy sonic world. “Poker Face” topped the Billboard charts not just because it was a strange, minor-key earworm, but because Lady Gaga was a puzzle we couldn’t figure out. Who was the “real” woman behind the poker face? We expect pop to be glittery surfaces, but here was Gaga telling us love, sex, and fame are all a performance. Live, she’d reinvent the song as a solo piano-cabaret piece, often in unglamorous radio promo settings — never playing it the same way twice. Gaga refused to be pigeonholed as an artist, or objectified as a woman in pop. With “Poker Face,” she wielded her sexuality like a weapon — not simply to please her audience, but to leave us wanting more.
15. “Monster,” The Fame Monster (2009)
The Lady Gaga of The Fame seemed invincible; but a year later, on The Fame Monster, she lay her deepest fears bare. “He ate my heart and then he ate my brain,” sings Gaga in the bridge, unsure if she’s in love, or lost all control. Backed by ’80s toms and beautiful, melancholy synth chords, “Monster” is among the best pop songs ever written about losing your innocence — how sex and intimacy can feel like you’re being eaten alive.
14. “La Vie en Rose,” A Star Is Born soundtrack (2018)
In a much-retold story, Bradley Cooper watched Gaga perform “La Vie en Rose” at a cancer benefit in 2016, then cast her in A Star Is Born the next night. The film restages that moment for the cameras, as Jackson wanders into a drag bar where Ally happens to be singing. Gaga is magical, channeling three women at once: Ally, herself, and Édith Piaf. Gaga’s voice is deeper, more muscular than Piaf’s, but every bit as masterful in her delivery, building to an astonishingly passionate climax. “La Vie en Rose” — “life in rosy hues” — has always been more than a mere love song. It’s a tribute to the transformative power of art itself. It shouldn’t be possible to reinvent such an iconic standard, but Gaga’s rendition in A Star Is Born adds yet another layer, depicting how an artist’s drab, uninspired daily life can blossom into truly moving art.
13. “Judas,” Born This Way (2011)
By 2011, we’d gotten used to Gaga pushing the envelope, but it’s still incredible that a song this weird was a hit: “Judas” is a work of camp, melodrama, opera, pop, dance, mythology, religion, morality, and slamming industrial beats all in one. Gaga retells the story of Judas Iscariot through the eyes of a Mary Magdalene torn between Jesus and Judas, love and temptation, aggressive verses and dazzling melodic choruses. The song’s video, which depicted Jesus and the 12 apostles as a high-fashion biker gang, was controversial upon release — but it wasn’t sacrilegious; rather, it honored the concept of religious art. After all, myths exist to be retold and reinvented.
12. “Yoü and I,” Born This Way (2011)
On an album filled with messages of self-love and empowerment, the penultimate track found Gaga singing her first unconditional love song — a bluesy, country-rock tribute to her ex-boyfriend Lüc Carl. “There’s only three men that I’ma serve my whole life / It’s my daddy, and Nebraska and Jesus Christ” — the song’s lovestruck lyrics went a long way to humanizing Gaga. But that didn’t mean ditching the costumes: The video sees her traipsing through middle-America barns and cornfields; playing a mermaid; and assuming her drag persona Jo Calderone, which is how she opened the 2011 VMAs.
And yet, the song does have one flaw: Mutt Lange’s production. His drum track, built from an unnecessary “We Will Rock You” sample, is overly stiff and mechanical — everything that Gaga’s voice isn’t. Still, when she first premiered “Yoü and I” live in 2010, she delivered one of her rawest performances ever. Playing the piano with her band, she made the song come alive — it swung like ’70s rock and roll. Watch the video above, and you’ll never hear “Yoü and I” the same way again.
11. “Gypsy,” ARTPOP (2013)
ARTPOP was ultimately about finding grace and inspiration in chaos; embracing the 24/7 mania that comes with being a household-name pop star. “Gypsy” sounds like a tour bus barreling down a highway at breakneck speed, knowing the thrill can’t last forever. In hindsight, it was the last gasp of the first half of Gaga’s career, when the costumes were wild, EDM ruled pop, and our cultural optimism seemed boundless. Ultimately, the era’s excesses took a toll on Gaga’s mind, body, and the perception of her public persona … but “Gypsy” makes it feel like it was all worth it.
10. “Hair,” Born This Way (2011)
Gaga’s most explicit song about identity, “Hair” reimagines her teenage years as a kind of West Side Story musical battlefield. She struggles with her parents’ and society’s expectations, but finds liberation in the one thing that’s hers — her hair. The song is built from elements that could come off as ’80s kitsch — synth-metal riffs, broad Springsteen inflections, Clarence Clemons’s saxophone — but Gaga’s self-belief is so powerful that not one second of “Hair” feels cliché. The Fame and The Fame Monster built her an audience, but with Born This Way, Gaga chose to recast pop as a safe space for vulnerable, misfit, queer kids to find their individuality and reinvent the world in their image. Born This Way was a coming-of-age album for her fans, and “Hair” was its heart and soul.
9. “Telephone,” The Fame Monster (2009)
Originally a demo written for Britney Spears, “Telephone” takes a simple premise and elevates it to high pop art: Don’t call me in the club; I’m out dancing with Beyoncé! “Telephone” is the embodiment of the pop star’s imperial phase, when they can redefine the Zeitgeist through seemingly effortless force of will. Over harps and buzz-saw synths produced by R&B legend Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Gaga and Beyoncé cross paths at the perfect time — one new star on the rise, one familiar star consolidating her iconic status.
The song is also inseparable from its Jonas Åkerlund–directed video, a nine-and-a-half minute “Paparazzi” sequel that riffs on revenge thrillers and pop-music tropes alike. From a women’s prison to the Pussy Wagon to poisoning an entire diner, Gaga and Beyoncé command the camera, serving look after look after look. “Telephone” is Gaga’s ultimate feminist statement: She does things her way, with no regard for the male gaze or the music industry’s gatekeepers. “Telephone” didn’t just elevate Gaga as a pop star — it made her a new American icon.
8. “Dance in the Dark,” The Fame Monster (2009)
Grinding synths morph into a stadium-size riff as Gaga’s moans give way to a morbid introduction: “Silicone, saline, poison / Inject me baby / I’m a free bitch.” “Dance in the Dark” is about a woman who can only have sex with the lights off — who finds liberation, her will to live, in the darkness. The song’s spoken-word bridge evokes Madonna’s “Vogue,” but Gaga speaks to the dead, summoning her icons as ghosts that haunt our memories: Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Judy Garland, JonBenét Ramsey, Liberace, Jesus, Stanley Kubrick, and Princess Diana. The Fame Monster track sits on the razor’s edge between glamour, tragedy, and immortality. At the 2010 Brit Awards, Gaga dedicated “Dance in the Dark” to the recently departed Alexander McQueen, in a performance that was anything but conventional. It’s criminal that this was never a true single, but maybe it was always destined to be a cult favorite.
7. “Marry the Night,” Born This Way (2011)
Born This Way opens with a pilgrimage to New York City’s Lower East Side, the site of Stefani Germanotta’s rebirth as Lady Gaga. “Marry the Night” begins as a melancholy hymn that accelerates into an electro-rock opera, as Gaga romanticizes her days as a struggling artist, determined to succeed at any cost. Gaga sings of despair and glory, love and loss, until you no longer know which is which, till the song ends on synth chords that ascend like a neon-lit stairway to heaven.
“Marry the Night” went on to close the Born This Way era with one of Gaga’s most personal videos, a 14-minute epic about “one of the worst days of [her] life” — the day Def Jam dropped her from her first record deal. Gaga’s visions of couture hospital gowns, ballet, and her rebirth as a fire goddess bear no resemblance to the art she was making in 2007, but that was the point — there was no looking back.
6. “Applause,” ARTPOP (2013)
As ARTPOP’s lead single and closing track, “Applause” caps the first half of Lady Gaga’s career with a circular statement: “Pop culture was in art, now / Art’s in pop culture in me!” Driven by endless variations on six looping chords, “Applause” is Gaga’s grandest moment of meta-commentary. In 2013, it seemed of a piece with the era’s EDM-pop trends, but in hindsight, it was the most aggressively theatrical single she’s ever released. Her androgynous, Bowie-esque verses; that unforgettable, accelerating drum fill; the uniquely offbeat chorus; and the bridge, the highest note she’s hit on record — these were all things we’d never heard from Gaga before, nor since.
The music video, directed by fashion photographers Inez and Vinoodh, is a tribute to the lifesaving joy of creative expression, packed with absurd, laugh-out-loud visual gags and artistic references. Somehow, her live performances were even wilder: Gaga opened the 2013 VMAs by singing “Applause” in five different costumes, each representing one of her eras; and pulled off a Wizard of Oz tribute on, of all places, Good Morning America. Later on the show, Gaga said, “All of these outfits and all of these wigs that I’ve been changing in over the years … This is my way of getting to Oz, to have all my dreams come true … Dorothy was able to transform in order to survive.” Just five years after her debut, Gaga was able to cement her legacy as a pop icon, and “Applause” was a large reason why.
5. “Speechless,” The Fame Monster (2009)
“Speechless” has nothing to do with the Warhol-inspired Lady Gaga of 2008, but its piano-bar confessions fit right in with the dark electropop of The Fame Monster. Written as a plea to her father, who was refusing to undergo open-heart surgery for a life-threatening condition, “Speechless” is one of pop’s great Oedipal-complex ballads. For the first time, she’s seeing her beloved, troubled parent as an equal, addressing him with the heartbroken candor of a lover. “I’ll never write a song / Won’t even sing along / I’ll never love again,” sings Gaga, so devastated that she could throw it all away. Behind every great pop song is a real well of emotion, and “Speechless” lays it all bare.
4. “Paparazzi,” The Fame (2008)
Unlike any other track on Gaga’s debut, “Paparazzi” depicts fame not as a hedonistic playground, but an erotic thriller turned horror film. Gaga’s lyrics weave together love, voyeurism, and stalkerish obsession, as she forces her subject into the role she wants them to play. Rob Fusari’s production channels the bouncy, percussive rhythms of Timbaland, but strips away his excesses. Dissonant verses give way to a major-key chorus that’s so pretty it’s unsettling, unreal: “Baby you’ll be famous / Chase you down until you love me.” On the radio in 2009, it sounded alluring and dangerous — there was nothing else like it.
In the seven-minute music video, released in June 2009, Gaga plays a fallen star who murders her boyfriend to reach an even higher level of infamy. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, it felt like the first pop video in years that aspired to art-cinema status — with shots invoking Vertigo, Metropolis, and Federico Fellini. And with its array of high-fashion looks, including bedazzled wheelchairs and crutches, glam mug shots, and a Minnie Mouse murderess outfit, “Paparazzi” marked the point where everything about Gaga’s performance-art ambitions clicked.
She soon outdid herself with a fever-pitch, star-making performance at the 2009 VMAs — the same night where Madonna memorialized Michael Jackson, and Kanye interrupted Taylor. The year after Britney Spears’s public breakdown was a strange time to want to become a pop star. But as Gaga hung from the ceiling, dripping with stage blood, she refused to be an object of fame. She’d do it on her own terms, or not at all.
3. “Born This Way,” Born This Way (2011)
Lady Gaga first introduced “Born This Way” after accepting the 2010 VMA for Video of the Year, while wearing — of all things — her infamous meat dress. In one of the most emotional moments in MTV’s history, she belted the song’s chorus a cappella — moved to tears not by her own personal success, but by her message. Gaga didn’t just want to write the greatest, most uplifting LGBTQI anthem of all time — she wanted to change the world. The power of “Born This Way” lies in its directness. It pulls no punches; it demands self-respect. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, Gaga believes in you. Her vocals, inspired by Whitney Houston, channel the higher power of gospel music. Yet she sings over a synth-heavy track that growls and crackles with electricity, so loudly that you can barely make out the individual elements. “Born This Way” feels like a single organism: spiritual, mechanical, alive.
It led to her freakiest music video to date, which imagined the birth of an alien race — one that “bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” With its amniotic fluids, prosthetic horns, and surreal dance sequences, Gaga pushed the viewer to accept beauty in all forms, especially her post-human imagery.
Perhaps no pop song this decade has provoked so much debate, even from those sympathetic to its message. There are some awkward lyrical choices — “orient”, “chola” — and beyond the Madonna comparisons, Valentino’s disco classic “I Was Born This Way” predated Gaga by 36 years. But seven years later, it’s inarguable that “Born This Way” kicked down doors — or at least, got the ball rolling. In a beautiful act of serendipity, “Born This Way” was the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s 1,000th No. 1 single. In the first half of the 2010s, there were many pop songs written with a purpose in mind. “Born This Way” is the one we’ll remember. Time has proven its truth.
2. “The Edge of Glory,” Born This Way (2011)
“The Edge of Glory” is a huge, major-key, Springsteen-infused dance anthem — and the rare pop song that dares to stare death in the face. Opening with the sound of a heartbeat, synthesizers pulse and swirl around Gaga, building to an electrified chorus. As her voice climbs higher and higher — “I’m on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge!” — Gaga makes you a believer. The song was inspired by her grandfather’s passing; death comes for us all, but Gaga transcends it by living without fear: “It isn’t hell if everybody knows my name tonight!” Just three years after her debut, she was already thinking about the legacy she’d leave behind. “The Edge of Glory” may channel ’80s pop, but it already feels timeless — it’s one of the most joyful, existential pop songs ever written.
Compared to her past music videos, “The Edge of Glory” is eerily empty — but no less magical. Clad in Siouxsie-like makeup, Gaga lip-syncs and struts, unchoreographed, across an artificial New York City apartment block, staring directly into the camera with the hunger of a woman on top of the world. There’s nothing to draw your eye away from her. The only other person in the video is Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band’s legendary saxophonist, doing what he does best — vocalizing the sound of pure passion — in one final, career-encompassing solo before his death just days later. You couldn’t imagine a more poetic way to ride off into the sunset.
1. “Bad Romance,” The Fame Monster (2009)
Is there any other choice? Released in October 2009, “Bad Romance” not only defined the end of the 2000s — its shadow still hangs over the 2010s. Despite its title, the song isn’t just about love, or even a toxic relationship; it’s about confronting the darkness that lies within and outside of you. The track is built from the same basic skeleton as “Poker Face,” but every element is at war with itself; hooks, verses, and pre-choruses collide and repeat in different formations. RedOne’s signature sound becomes nightmarish: His four-on-the-floor drums are explosive, his synths ice-cold. The dissonant hoover synths seethe like Bernard Herrmann strings, echoing the lyrics’ references to Hitchcock’s Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window. Gaga stamps her name on the “Gaga, ooh-la-la” hook — which is both nonsensical and totally coherent, a vocalization of pure mania. Over one of the most powerful bridges in pop history, tension builds as Gaga’s vocals cascade around you. “I don’t want to be friends,” she begs over and over, until her voice leaps up an octave, quavering with vibrato, and the music drops out — “Want your bad romance!” It’s all or nothing.
And then there’s the video — directed by Francis Lawrence, who’d later helm The Hunger Games sequels — which takes place in a white room reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s bedroom, the stage where all life plays out. The clip begins with an electrified snippet of a Bach fugue, until Gaga and her dancers awaken. She’s kidnapped, drugged, and forced to perform for Russian gangsters — a metaphor for how the music industry commodifies artists. Gaga’s movements and outfits are as much body horror as high fashion, obscuring her face as she dances, clawing at the air. In what could be the definitive image of Lady Gaga’s career, we see brief glimpses of her face in extreme closeup, looking impossibly glamorous, but with fewer adornments than we’d ever seen her. Like a religious icon, or a silent-film star, she weeps openly, acknowledging the song’s emotional turmoil. The message: Without true vulnerability, there can be no art, no love, no expression — only death. So in the end, she burns her male captor alive. She’ll never be beholden to anyone else again.
“Bad Romance,” in song and in video, is boundless — it draws no distinctions between classical music, high fashion, avant-garde cinema, dance, or pop. In five months, it became YouTube’s most-viewed video at the time; its sheer strangeness only made it more compelling to a mass audience. Lady Gaga began as a fame-hungry, Warholian persona, but “Bad Romance” completed her transformation into a truly fearless, all-encompassing artist. It was the biggest risk — and reward — of her career to date. The Fame Monster is Gaga’s ultimate statement: There’s nothing to be afraid of, except everything.