Where To Start With... Lady Gaga
Even though her debut album The Fame arrived only eight years ago in 2008, it feels like Lady Gaga has been around for much longer. When she first burst onto the scene with hits like 'Poker Face' and 'Just Dance', Gaga – or Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, to her mum and dad – was hailed as a modern-day successor to artists like Madonna, somebody who clearly understood the importance of image and fashion alongside music in the role of a 21st century pop star. Known almost as much for her outrageous outfits as her knack for chart-topping tunes, such as the infamous 'meat dress' she wore to the 2010 MTV Awards, Lady Gaga is a woman of many faces, none of them ever boring.
Her first two albums were packed with hit after hit and even though Gaga has only released three full-length solo studio albums to date – not including the 2009 mini-album The Fame Monster, of course – she's proved to be extremely prolific, putting out several remix albums, live albums and other collections, as well as writing tunes for several other artists including Britney Spears' 'Quicksand', Jennifer Lopez's 'Hypnotico' and even the Michael Bolton song 'Murder My Heart'. Michael Bolton. We'll let that sink in for a minute...
Actually, no we won't, because if you can't handle the idea of a Gaga-Bolton collaboration then you'd probably have needed a lie down when Gaga, ever the one to confound expectations, followed her hugely experimental third long-player Artpop by recording an album of duets with jazz legend Tony Bennett. Having guested on Bennett's album Duets II a few years earlier, the pair enjoyed themselves so much they decided to record an entire album's worth of covers and jazz standards, and if you're still in any doubt as to Gaga's natural singing ability when the layers of synths and production tricks are stripped away, give it a listen and prepare to be impressed. This girl can really wail.
While Artpop didn't quite reach the commercial heights of her earlier records and was a difficult one for critics to get their heads around, her third album has come to be better appreciated as time has passed and following that brief jazz interlude with the aforementioned Mr. Bennett, this week she's back again with a brand new album.
Entitled simply Joanne, the new record is, by and large, a more stripped-back affair in terms of its production than some of her earlier records; there are lots more pianos, guitars and a generally more earthy feel to new record, particularly on ballads like 'Million Reasons'. In fact, everything about Joanne seems to be a deliberate attempt to strip away the costumes, make-up and all the other artifice of 'Lady Gaga, Pop Star'. What remains is easily her most personal album yet.
Mostly produced by Mark Ronson, but also including production credits for the likes of Jeff Bhasker, Beck and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, the album still retains many of the pop sensibilities that has made her music so popular, but this somehow feels more honest and earnest than her previous albums. It's not all ballads and singer-songwriter ditties either, as tracks like the country-pop of 'A-Yo' and the stomping 'Perfect Illusion' demonstrate, but this is definitely a side of the already multi-faceted Gaga that we haven't seen before.
You can find the video for 'Perfect Illusion' below, beneath that we've picked five key tracks from her career so far for anyone who has spent the last eight years shunning the sunlight in a cave...
Taken from her 2008 debut The Fame, 'Poker Face' remains one of Gaga's most enduring tunes, as well as one of her biggest-selling (it's estimated that the song sold in the region of 13 million copies worldwide). A slightly darker kind of synth-pop than her debut single 'Just Dance' – courtesy of producer RedOne – and packed with double-entendre lyrics, the song was reportedly written in reference to Gaga's bisexuality and helped gain a huge following from the LGBT community, for whom she is considered something of an icon.
The original plan for Gaga's mini-album The Fame Monster was to release an extended version of her debut with eight extra tracks, but eventually the singer and her record label decided on a standalone release, no doubt in part due the strength of some its tracks, including 'Alejandro' and this track, released as a single in October 2009. Gaga had been touring in Europe and was heavily influenced by some of the club music being played at the time, particularly in Germany where there has long been a strong techno scene. Always one to blend styles and genres together, Gaga incorporates some of that house and techno vibe into this song and tops it off with a hook that lodges itself in your head and refuses to budge.
'You & I'
By the time of her second album proper, Born This Way, Gaga was looking to branch out and expand the range of sounds and styles on offer, so while she retained RedOne as producer for some of the album's tracks, she also enlisted the help of several others, one of whom being legendary producer Robert 'Mutt' Lange, best-known for his work with the likes of Def Leppard, AC/DC and his former wife, Shania Twain. Lange's distinctive production style shines through on this track, which owes a little to his work with his ex-wife, creating a song that's infused with rock and country vibes as well as Gaga's trademark synths, showcasing the singer's passion for experimentation in the studio. The track also features Queen guitarist Brian May, who lends his distinctive playing style to the song, which also samples the drums from his band's well-known stomper 'We Will Rock You'.
'Do What U Want'
Although there have been a few versions of this track from Gaga's third studio album Artpop, including a handful of remixes and a version recorded with Christina Aguilera, the original features the vocal talents of R. Kelly and it's this version we've picked out. The official video, directed by fashion photographer Terry Richardson, was the subject of some controversy when Gaga decided against releasing the video, with the label reportedly fearful that some of the more sexually suggestive sequences might be misinterpreted or offend her fans. So you'll have to make do with this live version performed on Saturday Night Live instead.
Our final pick is another track from Artpop, an album on which Gaga wanted to 'reverse Andy Warhol' by infusing pop music with art culture and which includes contributions from Rick Rubin and Sun Ra, among many others. Like most of the record, the track was co-produced with DJ White Shadow and was the closing salvo on the album. Although the record is quite an eclectic mix, 'Applause' is a slice of brash shiny pop that's squarely aimed at the dancefloor and it;s one of the album's standout moments despite being tucked away at the back end of the track list.