Glamorously gaudy, a self-made postmodern diva stitched together from elements of Madonna, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury, Lady Gaga was the first true millennial superstar. Mastering the constant connection of the Internet era, Gaga generated countless mini-sensations through her style, her videos, and her music, cultivating a devoted audience she dubbed “Little Monsters.” But it wasn’t just a cult that turned her 2008 manifesto The Fame into a self-fulfilling prophecy: Gaga crossed over into the mainstream, ushering out one pop epoch and kick-starting a new one, quickly making such turn-of-the-century stars as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears seem old-fashioned, quite a trick for any artist to pull off, but especially impressive for an artist who specialized in repurposing the past — particularly the ’80s — for present use, creating sustainable pop for a digital world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given her flair for grand gestures, Lady Gaga has deep roots in drama. Born Stefani Germanotta on March 28, 1986, the future Gaga played piano as a child and pursued musical theater in high school, regularly auditioning for New York-based television shows, notably landing a background role for a 2001 episode of The Sopranos. At the age of 17 she enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in their Collaborative Arts Project 21. As she studied, she continued to eke her way into show biz, winding up with an appearance on MTV’s short-lived post-Punk’d reality show Boiling Points in 2005. Not long afterward, she left school so she could concentrate on her music, fronting a band called SGBand, which released two EPs prior to splitting. Germanotta then teamed with producer Rob Fusari, a collaboration that produced not only her stage name Lady Gaga, but recordings that led to her signing with Def Jam in the fall of 2006.
Her association with Def Jam was short-lived: the label dropped her early in 2007. Gaga rebounded by working with performance artist Lady Starlight, the two developing the Lady Gaga & the Starlight Revue, a tongue-in-cheek neo-burlesque act that gained positive press and proved to be her last stop before signing with Interscope later in 2007. While at Interscope she created a bond with Akon, who convinced Interscope head Jimmy Iovine to have her co-sign with his Kon Live imprint, and Gaga began working with producer/songwriter RedOne, a union that led to the songs that would bring her fame: “Just Dance,” “LoveGame,” and “Poker Face.” These songs formed the foundation of The Fame, the debut album that appeared in August 2008.
Initially, Lady Gaga had greater success in Europe, thanks in large part to the “Just Dance” single, which earned club play in the U.S. and chart placement in other territories. Gaga’s march toward the top of the American chart was slow but “Just Dance” reached the peak position in January 2009, followed swiftly by “Poker Face,” the single that firmly pushed her into the mainstream, its popularity growing so large it often functioned as a punch line on TV in addition to winning a Grammy for Best Dance Recording. “LoveGame” and “Paparazzi” also appeared as singles before Gaga released The Fame Monster in time for the holiday season of 2009. The mini-LP, available separately and as a package with The Fame, contained the single “Bad Romance,” whose popularity soon rivaled “Poker Face” and helped kick-start a stellar year for Gaga in 2010. That year, the hit singles “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro,” and the Beyoncé duet “Telephone,” along with the successful Monster Ball Tour, put Lady Gaga front and center with the public as she worked on her sophomore album, announcing its May release on New Year’s Day 2011.
The steady march to the summer unveiling of Born This Way was preceded by the release of three singles: “Born This Way,” “Judas,” and “The Edge of Glory.” All of them reached the Top Ten, and the empowerment anthem “Born This Way” hit number one soon after its release in February 2011. The accompanying album arrived to mixed reviews, but it eventually reached double-platinum status and produced subsequent hits with the Top Ten “You and I” as well as a Top 40 entry for “Marry the Night.” A full remix of the album, naturally called Born This Way: The Remix, appeared at the end of the year, as did a holiday television special called A Very Gaga Thanksgiving and an accompanying EP, A Very Gaga Holiday.
Gaga continued to promote Born This Way throughout 2012, appearing at various star-studded events and on television programs while continuing her international tour. The tour came to a halt in February of 2013, when she announced that she needed hip surgery to repair a labral tear. As she was healing, she worked on her third album, Artpop. Preceded by the Top Ten single “Applause” and the Top 15 follow-up “Do What U Want” (the latter a duet with R. Kelly), Artpop was released in early November 2013. The album explored familiar themes of fame, love, and empowerment. It debuted at number one in several countries, including the U.S.
The release of Artpop coincided with an announcement that Gaga had parted company with Troy Carter, her manager of five years. Then, shortly after she embarked on the ArtRave tour in May 2014, it was revealed that Bobby Campbell — her new manager — had signed them both up to Artist Nation, the artist management division of Live Nation Entertainment. That same year, Gaga worked in collaboration with fellow New Yorker Tony Bennett on an album of jazz standards titled Cheek to Cheek, which was issued in September. Cheek to Cheek provided a jolt to Gaga’s career. The album debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top 200 and earned the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Album, its success opening the door to other snazzy showbiz gigs. First, she sang a tribute to The Sound of Music at the 2015 Academy Awards and, a year later, she was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar for “Until It Happens to You,” the tune she co-wrote with Diane Warren for the documentary The Hunting Ground. Gaga was also cast as a lead in the 2015-2016 season of American Horror Story, winning a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Elizabeth.
She returned with new music on 2016’s Joanne, which was inspired by her late aunt of the same name. Drawing on glam rock, disco, and folk, as well as dance-pop, the album featured an impressive list of collaborators, including Mark Ronson, Nile Rodgers, Father John Misty, Josh Homme, Florence Welsh, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and Beck. Featuring the singles “Perfect Illusion,” “John Wayne,” and “Million Reasons,” the album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 but quickly lost traction on the charts. It wasn’t until February of 2017 when the success of her Super Bowl halftime show would set Joanne on the comeback trajectory. In addition to returning The Fame, Born This Way, and Artpop to the charts, the momentum from her performance landed Joanne at number two and “Million Reasons” at number four on the Hot 100. Before embarking on the Joanne World Tour, she issued the standalone single “The Cure” and the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which partially focused on chronic physical ailments that would eventually cause the cancellation of the final stops of the world tour.
In 2018, Gaga joined the cast of the remake of A Star Is Born and was one of the many high-profile artists featured on Elton John’s tribute covers album, Revamp. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine