Successful poems, like successful pop songs have a strong central conceit or metaphor, this is like a central gravitational point which as the piece orbits sometimes closely like Mercury around the sun, sometimes distant like Pluto. The song or poem is a journey of exploring this central point up close or at an obscure distance.
In this post I will be casting my poet’s eye over Lady Gaga’s music to comment on what makes these songs so successful and interesting within the context of lyrical analysis, performance and Gaga’s career at that time.
Poker Face (Nadir Khayat / Stefani Germanotta)
The central idea of Poker Face is evident from the title, it is a song about deception. It is about the struggle of withholding the truth but also the joy in being in control of the truth. The song seems to embody these two sides of the deception, stating in turn that the protagonist is in control of the lie (“he can’t read my poker face”), but also that the protagonist will “show you what I’ve got”. This tonal shift between the verse and the chorus expresses the duality of truth and lies in the song. This is further expressed through the stuttering of the title lyrics in the chorus, the catchy hook “p p p poker p p poker face” sets out this sense of waivering or uncertainty.
“Can’t read my
Can’t read my
No he can’t read my poker face”
Ultimately the song is incredibly catchy, as well as covering a subject matter through the central metaphor that is incredibly relatable to a pop audience, the idea of secrets, deception, and deciding to reveal or not reveal the truth is something that will always chime with teen audiences and those within the LGBTQ community. This was the first song that many people heard from Gaga, it is a great introduction to her music, lyrically it has a strong central relatable message and musically it is catchy and well performed.
Paparazzi (Rob Fusari / Stefani Germanotta)
Paparazzi, though a song in a darker mood, is no less catchy than Poker Face. It is a song which is more narrative driven with the a central metaphor which draws comparisons between the fervour of the paparazzi with that of a lover. The fact that the song is written from the perspective of the person pursuing their potential lover / paparazzi target give the song an interesting perspective. This song is about fame as much as it is about obsessional love. Lady Gaga was in the early days of her stardom when this was released, this being one of the songs which helped her build her profile and success. It is a fantastically wise move to release a song like this (which is catchy and memorable) which deals directly with fame and love in such an explicit way. In terms of building her career, it worked hugely to Gaga’s advantage. The subject matter of the song placed Gaga within the context of fame with all the trappings. She was not quite at that level of fame at this point, but the song suggested she was. In a way which may have been at best a mixed blessing, this song was courting the paparazzi. Through the success of the song, Gaga’s growing number of fans took on the mantel of the protagonist in the lyrics, with Gaga herself becoming the person being pursued. You can imagine the power of a crowd of obsessive fans singing the lyrics:
“I’m your biggest fan
I’ll follow you until you love me
The perspective of this song, whether intentional or not, encouraged a movement of fans to grow and galvanise. The work of the video in tandem with the song cannot go unmentioned and was the first major event music video of the many Gaga would do over her career. It was filmed by Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund and starred actor Alexander Skarsgård along with Gaga in a narrative which played with ideas of fame, death and unrequited love. The video referenced (amongst many other things) Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Madonna’s music video for Vogue. The video worked intentionally (in a similar vein to the song) to place Gaga into the mainstream of popular culture, with memorable costumes and iconic video moments. It worked brilliantly.
Applause (Stefani Germanotta, Paul “DJ White Shadow” Blair, Dino Zisis, Nick Monson, Martin Bresso, Nicolas Mercier, Julien Arias, William Grigahcine)
Much later in her career, after the huge success of her album Born This Way, Gaga’s career moved in a much more self-conscious direction, the result of this was the album ARTPOP. Although it can be argued that for her entire career her decisions have been skilled and artful, ARTPOP’s release was self-conscious to the point where it was harmful to its own success, Gaga made a more intentional and sustained bid for mainstream success, something, arguably, she did not need to push for. The song Applause (a simple song written by EIGHT people, including Gaga) is a song which continues the threads of Paparazzi but in a different way. Gaga is now acknowledging herself as the idol at the centre of it all and is singing about the affect this extreme success has had on her:
I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Where the video for Paparazzi (and Telephone, which I don’t have time to get into!) worked hard to place Gaga within the pop cultural landscape, Applause does the same and attempts to elevate Gaga above pop culture into the contemporary art world. Her collaborations at this time with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović served both sides as a way of seeking legitimacy for Gaga as well as introducing her younger fans to these well-respected contemporary Artists.
What is interesting about Applause, when looked at compared to the other Gaga songs I’ve mentioned, is that it seems to dispense with the layer of metaphor entirely. It is brazenly upfront about the subject, whilst still being a very catchy and well put together song. It is an impressive move which once again feeds into her own legend and status as a “POP STAR”. It could be argued that this is the point of the song Applause, that it is a self-conscious, self-referential critique of Gaga’s own career and her own desires for validation, which drove her accelerated rise to prominence. It could be read as a hard critique of herself, that she has nothing else important in her life because she lives “for the applause, applause, applause” the repetition does instil a shade of almost manic desperation into the song. Whether this was clearly the intention, is up to the listener. The song itself also works as a catch all song which can be played in various contexts, it works as a song which could be played to encourage a crowd to applaud or get excited about an act about to perform. It’s not just Gaga’s crowds who can be encouraged to applaud with this song. Along with being catchy, it is an incredibly useful song. It’s not Happy Birthday To You but it is a song which was written to have a clear use, a way of setting the stage, this which means Applause will continue to pop up in this context for a long time.
The song ends, rather cynically in my view, by spelling out the name of the new album the song was introducing the world to A-R-T-P-O-P. This worked in the same way that music videos often now feature product placement, like a bright red pair of Beats headphones, sign posting listeners towards the new album. It was a clever move but perhaps a little too calculated.
Ultimately what I’ve learned about Lady Gaga from looking into her work in this way is that she is someone who has engineered her career incredibly well (with perhaps the ARTPOP slump as an exception). The work is written closely and carefully and with a bold and sometimes complex intention at the heart of it. Gaga and those collaborating with her were aware of the song’s potential uses and made sure they worked hard to strength Gaga’s mystique, career, and legend. Whether this explains why Gaga became so successful is unclear. I do think that no matter how the songs were written, their slick production and broad appeal would have brought success in some form. However this extra layer of interest that is at the heart of the songs is what has kept me interested.