Lady Gaga is a professional shapeshifter. In the twelve years since she rose to prominence, gigantic hair bow fixed firmly to head, she has been through more iterations of her persona than you during uni – racking up a meat dress, a pink cowboy hat, a number of European accents, a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar, an egg carriage and a Vegas residency on her way to a place in pop music history.
These days, the concept of pop star eras has been solidified by Stan Twitter, who await new aesthetics and sounds from their faves every album cycle. The ‘era’ is an especially helpful medium via which to truly explore Lady Gaga, whose versatility defines her: when you think of the rah rah bitch, you can’t help but think about about the ease with which she transforms from Close Personal Friend and Collaborator of Tony Bennett to Very Hot and Agile Alien Who Has Established Her Own Planet, via Literal Movie Star.
In celebration of that fact, then, here are ten of her most memorable personas, correctly ranked for posterity.
HAIR BOW GAGA
When I first saw the “Just Dance” video, I thought that the song was just OK, and that Lady Gaga would be a one hit wonder I would never hear of again. Then, she started doing the hair bow thing (this later translated into other hair items such as the hair fascinator from the “Paparazzi” video.) It was an early indication of her eye for a weird, attention-grabbing detail, and her ability to set a trend (I remember suddenly noticing at some point in 2008 that the accessory bit in Solihull New Look was full of fake hair bows, what an impact), but compared to what she’d achieve later, it was merely minor league.
DENIM CUTOFFS GAGA
I am not one of those people who behaves like Joanne was a war crime but I am also not someone who can just act like “Grigio Girls” never happened, particularly not when it came from the mind that also at one time gave us “Bad Romance.” The music on Joanne didn’t really scale the heights that fans are used to, but what was more disappointing was that it lacked the high camp and aesthetics that had defined her output up to that point. Any pop star can wear denim: I want to see Lady Gaga of all people in head to toe latex, possibly doing something that will offend Christians.
Lady Gaga likes to remind us that she is a Musician, and to be honest, why shouldn’t she? She’s an excellent pianist, and she’s as versatile a vocalist as we have. However this can sometimes stray into what feels like a self-conscious need to remind us that she is actually More than her extra-terrestrial pop persona – see Joanne, see Cheek to Cheek, see A Star is Born.
This is a shame, because even though all of those projects had something to love about them (some a lot more than others), and even though I am one of the few who loves it when Gaga gets her hands around a set of keys, if all we had was the bombastic pop star Lady Gaga and everything she’s given us – not LEAST Ariana Grande doing that little trot in the “Rain on Me” video – she’d still be one of the best pop stars of this century so far.
OSCAR-NOMINATED INGENUE GAGA
There could be 100 people in the room and not one of them would be as good as Lady Gaga at acting the part of the Hollywood starlet. Fame and its different tenets have been the most referenced themes of Gaga’s career (all the way back in 2010, she told the Telegraph “I’ve always been famous, you just didn’t know it”), so her turn as America’s sweetheart had an enjoyable sort of meta-narrative, as she played two roles: Ally in A Star Is Born, obviously, and Lady Gaga The Much-Celebrated Actress, as she took up a mantel set down by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, two women whose fame also preceded them.
MEAT DRESS GAGA
Meat Dress Gaga is the logical evolution of Hair Bow Gaga, continuing the practice of Wearing Stuff People Will Talk About, and dragging it out to the nth degree. It encompasses all of the shit Gaga pulled in the period 2010-2011 (arguably her imperial phase as a musician, as this is was not long after The Fame Monster and during the Born This Way cycle), including but certainly not limited to the time she hatched from an egg at the Grammys, after claiming that she had incubated inside it for three days. This time was very important for Gaga’s profile, legacy and reputation as an attention seeker, and I look back on it with fondness.
There are not many things I can say with total certainty, but one of them is that Artpop is not as bad as everyone says. One of the main reasons for that is because of Gaga’s embrace of the Fashion Banger around this time. The Fashion Banger canon is a hallowed one, most recently added to by Rina Sawayama’s “Comme des Garçons”. It contains songs which reference labels or runways or notorious figures in fashion, and often feel made for blasting over shows in New York, Paris, Milan and London.
For posterity I should state that Gaga’s interest in the Fashion Banger actually began on Born This Way with “Black Jesus † Amen Fashion,” but really came into its own on Artpop, which features the one-two punch of “Donatella” and “Fashion!”
Obviously Gaga’s relationship with the stuff she wears is well documented (see: MEAT DRESS GAGA), and so her music about fashion has an inherent understanding of all the whimsy, bitchiness, and poise that a runway walk should evoke. Also if nothing else, “Donatella” has one of the best opening lines in recent pop history: “Check it out: I’m blonde I’m skinny, I’m rich… and I’m a little bit of a bitch.”
DANCE PARTY ALIEN GAGA
I am of the opinion that Gaga’s 2020 record Chromatica has been underrated by the critical establishment. 100 percent killer (including and especially the Elton John one), it’s the record that fans of Gaga’s full-throttle pop side have been longing for for years – an aesthetic! A concept! – and it really didn’t disappoint. Leaning into Eurodance is one of the smartest and most joyful things she could have done at this point in her career, and to crack out a song like “Babylon” when you’re over a decade deep into making records is the mark of someone with real staying power. Where were you when they changed to white eyeliner in the “Rain on Me” video?
“Judas” is one of the best songs and videos Gaga has ever done (the leather! The nonsensical Biblical references!) and this look is one of my personal favourites and it’s my list so I’m giving it this potentially unreasonably high placing!
GERMAN ACCENT GAGA
I would listen to Lady Gaga speaking fake German and/or in an English-trying-to-be-German accent on a loop in the background of all my thoughts, if it were possible. Obviously the pinnacle of this art form is the Born This Way highlight “Scheiße” – which also references European dance music in a slightly different way to what she’d later do on Chromatica – but we get a little of it in recent single “Rain on Me,” too.
“ALEJANDRO” VIDEO GAGA
There is no argument!
- Pure sex!
- The hair!
- The boys’ haircuts!
- The eyebrows!
- The nude underwear!
- The bit where she’s dressed as a fetish nun!
- The fact that it’s a fairly obvious Madonna rip off but that just makes it even better because so much of her career has been riffing on Madonna’s stardom in the same way she riffed on Hollywood during her A Star Is Born phase!
- This pose!
“Alejandro” is Lady Gaga’s finest moment to date, and I think many of her fans would agree. Everything feels perfectly executed, the references translate beautifully, and if she did a whole album which revisited this vibe I’d probably quit my job and join Stan Twitter professionally.