Written by Jennifer Dong.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

From her sugary, upbeat synth-pop tracks that dominated the radio in 2008 to the somber ballads featured on the soundtrack of last year’s A Star is Born, Lady Gaga has undoubtedly taken the music world by storm. While Gaga is mostly known for her operatic vocals and bold lyrics, her impressive, wide-ranging discography proves that she is no stranger to the silver screen. Although some might dismiss the singer-songwriter and actress as bizarre or superficial, Gaga shows time after time that the selves presented in each of her albums are deliberately wrought characters. Underneath the meat dresses and macabre performances is a girl from New York with a couple of pipe dreams that, through hard work, became realities. There is a defining scene in the middle of A Star is Bornin which Ally, the character Lady Gaga portrays, tentatively walks up to the stage where Bradley Cooper’s Jackson is performing. An unknown waitress, she is wide-eyed and noticeably nervous, but just as ambitious and hungry to prove herself. The crowd in the movie and the audience in the theater await with bated breath as Ally takes the microphone and gazes across the room, eerily reminiscent of her 2005 performance of “Electric Kiss” at a talent show as NYU student Stefani Germanotta, and a few years later, her iconic 2009 VMA performance of “Paparazzi” under the stage name “Lady Gaga.” The moment she unleashes her soaring voice on all of these stages, it becomes clear that she had nothing to prove—a star had already been born, and the whole world will hear her name. 

2008: “Just Dance” 

Lady Gaga’s memorable debut single featuring Colby O’Donis is perhaps the one that launched the then-23-year old’s career to unprecedented heights, and it is not hard to see why. A fun and positive anthem with a potent mixture of uncertainty and confidence, “Just Dance” recalls the 2008 milieu of MTV, spaghetti straps, lip gloss, and ringtones in the setting of a scintillating Manhattan night. While the lyrics describe Gaga being intoxicated at a party, the song also carries a deeper message about the struggles of daily life and the private anxieties most people harbor about the future. The lines “Just dance/ Gonna be okay” seem to serve a consoling effect for both Gaga and the listeners, challenging them to live fearlessly.  

2009: “Paparazzi”

Perhaps her most profound song, “Paparazzi” examines the elusive, mysterious nature of fame and our culture’s obsession with it while lamenting the equally euphoric and heartbreaking experience of unrequited love. “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” Lady Gaga sings, equating the ruthless hunt of paparazzi flashing cameras at celebrities on the street to the thrill of longing for the object of one’s desire. Through her performances of this song, Gaga acknowledges that both will end in tragedy, but continues to maintain a devastatingly hopeful perspective at all costs. Complete with dramatic key changes, this is Lady Gaga at her most vulnerable and clever—framing the futility of love and fame in a bittersweet bubblegum-pop tune that would be played in nearly every public space in the late aughts.

2011: “The Edge of Glory” 

A cathartic single on Lady Gaga’s second album, Born This Way, “The Edge of Glory” centers upon the feeling of fulfillment in the last moments of one’s life. With messages of freedom and love, this song is bursting at the seams with unadulterated hope, emotion, and raw humanity — a far departure from the more artificially produced tracks in her debut album. Paired with a stratospheric saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, Lady Gaga’s powerful vocals are fueled by a contagious energy that renders the song a perfect one to scream out while riding in a car at night. 

2011: “Heavy Metal Lover” & 2013: “Applause”

Buoyed with a sweeping cinematic grandeur, “Heavy Metal Lover” is a single with electropop influences and a dreamy, subterranean sadness that opens like a flower as the song progresses. Through this song, Gaga reveals her enduring struggle with love and success being a zero-sum game, sharply criticizing misogynist views regarding women rising to power. At its core, the song is an anthem celebrating independence and empowerment much like “Applause,” the lead single of Lady Gaga’s experimental third album, ARTPOP.The perfect song to boost your spirits while walking to class, “Applause” addresses Gaga’s unabashed dependence on her fans’ adoration through an explosive, upbeat chorus, while showing that music runs in her veins: she was born to perform. Yet, the song also leaves you feeling inspired to take on the day and go in the direction of your dreams with the same strength and confidence. 

2016: “Million Reasons” 

Although befitted with her typical soaring vocals, this slow-burning ballad shows an unexpectedly touching, honest, and deeply personal side of Lady Gaga. Gone are the days of icy and monotonous spoken-word songs, vapid obsessions of fame, and metallic platforms. With halting piano chords in the background, “Million Reasons” narrates the difficulty of staying hopeful amid life’s struggles. In the chorus, Gaga sings, “I bow down to pray/ I try to make the worst seem better,” revealing a human riddled with daily doubts and fears simply trying to survive. It leaves you feeling emotional and slightly sad in same the ways that being in an empty building after hours or being stressed out by exams feel, but there is a faint glimmer of hope or even grit belying Gaga’s voice reminding us that in the end, everything will be okay. 

2018: “Always Remember Us This Way” 

One of the most striking songs from A Star is Born, this song begins with a subdued melancholy in the dingy lighting of a nondescript venue, calling to mind the image of scrappy, struggling musicians yearning for a better future. While Ally’s iconic wail in “Shallow” displayed a powerful wonder and surprise at her own courage, signifying a new beginning, this song is sung by Ally to memorialize Jackson after his tragic death. “When the sun goes down/ And the band won’t play/ I’ll always remember us this way,” Ally sings. This song reminds us that everything in life is ephemeral, and that our own lives are as delicate and impermanent as the wings of a butterfly. Yet despite this, there lies a kind of timeless, triumphant quality latent in Ally’s voice as she reflects on a life worth living, and the life still ahead of her. 

Over the years, Lady Gaga has continually broken through boundaries, simultaneously establishing her place in the world as a powerful pop behemoth as well as a sensitive and passionate human being. Through her music and art, she inspires people of all backgrounds to accept themselves and to continue to work hard even after experiencing failure or adversity. What emanates from the body of her work is a sense of freedom to shape-shift, to defy, to critique, and to embrace a complex, expansive selfhood. The effect is thoroughly successful—we want to believe in her. We see glimpses of ourselves in her, we think we know her. Yet with every new song, album, or film, she proves us utterly wrong, leaving us wondering who she’ll become next. 

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