With Lady Gaga releasing a fifth album, Casey Kroll discusses her ever-changing musical style and her immense cultural influence.
It’s the summer of 2008, and a group of people has gathered at The Bitter End, a local music venue in the heart of New York City. An announcer calls for their attention and introduces the night’s act: a young amateur known as Lady Gaga. The crowd applauds weakly in anticipation of the inevitable failure that comes with any new artist. The female performer struts on stage donning a see-through black one-piece, matching leather gloves, and boots with six-inch heels. Dyed blond hair and sunglasses complete the outfit, and she begins to play the keyboard, sing, and dance. By the end of the night, the crowd is not sure what to make of this new sound, but in a few months’ time, the whole world will know her name.
Lady Gaga is the most eccentric, jaw-dropping performance artist of our generation. Like her or not, you’ve heard about her – whether it be the “Rah rah ah-ah-ah!” that’s stuck in your head, or the mesmerising memory of the meat dress she wore at MTV’s Video Music Awards. In 2013, TIME Magazine named Lady Gaga as the second most influential icon of the past decade (just pipped by freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi), beating the prestigious likes of J.K. Rowling and President Barack Obama.
What makes Gaga so influential? Is it the 64 million followers she has garnered on Twitter? How about the 201 different awards to her name, including six Grammys? Surely it’s the estimated 27 million albums and 146 million singles she has sold worldwide? While all of those have contributed to her iconic status, the answer is simpler than it seems. The source of her mighty influence comes from the root of her existence: her music.
“There’s nothing more provocative than taking a genre that everybody who’s cool hates – and then making it cool.” – Lady Gaga
If you compare the most popular songs eight years ago to the chart-smashing singles we hear today, you’ll notice a stark difference in style. The most popular songs of 2008 included the hip-hop favorite “Low” by Flo Rida (ft. T-Pain), Leona Lewis’ lyrical “Bleeding Love,” and the piano ballad “No One” by Alicia Keys. Today, the artists on top (such as The Chainsmokers and The Weeknd) all have one thing in common: a strong electric dance backbone, usually with a chorus that induces moshing at late-night parties. So, what happened during this transition between the decades? Lady Gaga happened.
With dance pop hits such as “Just Dance,” “Paparazzi,” and “LoveGame,” Lady Gaga ignited a musical storm, which could only be weathered by a complete assimilation to her eccentric style. Suddenly, the acoustic songs that made listeners tearful were taken over by Gaga’s dance beats– with artists like The Black Eyed Peas, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry following in her revolutionary footsteps. Her next albums were a continuation of her anti-chameleon affect: whatever was popular at the time, she wanted to avoid. The Fame Monster featured more ominous tunes, while Born This Way began a movement of songs that inspired the listener. Her fourth studio album, ARTPOP, combined visual art with music, offering the listener an authentic artistic experience. No previous musician had invested as much time and effort into creating new ideas – or popularising old ones – as Gaga did.
Few would deny that Lady Gaga is talented. Many are taken aback by her idiosyncratic presentation that they fail to see that her true talent lies in her ability to perform in any musical genre she pleases. In 2014, the New York native teamed up with the legendary Tony Bennett and created a jazz album comprised of hits from the Great American Songbook. The album was a masterful display of Gaga’s vocal abilities and brought up questions like, “How could this be the same woman who sang about ‘disco sticks’?” She continued to illustrate her dominance in a plethora of genres: her medley from The Sound of Music received critical acclaim; a funky tribute to Stevie Wonder; a performance of “You’ve Got A Friend” that made Carole King cry; one of the greatest renditions of the American national anthem; and a glam rock tribute to David Bowie, her hero, after his death. She can sing in any style she wants, any day of the week, and the same cannot be said of any other modern artist. The only way anyone could perform so exceptionally well in so many different genres is by accumulating musical knowledge and experience. Gaga has done so, and continues to show why she’s the artist at the top – even if she’s not the most played on the radio.
Lady Gaga’s entire message has been built upon individualism, uniqueness, and hard work. She’s the most influential musician of the decade because she changes the world around us. Her critics have been insistent on her downfall in the past few years, citing her lack of recent hits. Besides winning a Golden Globe and being hailed the first ever Contemporary Icon by the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Lady has been busy reinventing herself, and thus the culture around her.
Lady Gaga is a true artist. She focuses on creating new music, and the conformist musicians that dismiss Gaga as archaic should remember where their hit dance music started from eight years ago: a woman wearing a weird costume and singing her heart out in a small nightclub.