We’re in the midst of the female invasion. That’s an opening line I’ve used before but it could not be more relevant when it comes to any discussion surrounding Lady Gaga. Sensational and perplexing, artsy and trashy, beloved and hated, her rise to fame is the story of the wonder kid who came out of nowhere to dominate the charts, emerging at a time as other pop-charged females such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift rose to prominence. Here was a woman who just didn’t give a shit about sensibilities and owed much to her predecessor Madonna. But what set apart the heir-apparent was that she was more than just a voice and T&A. No, she was the real deal. In a game dominated by producers and scribes for hire, she blazed her own path by playing her own instruments and writing her own songs. So much of her work has felt genuine and elevated above their pop roots–a rarity among her contemporaries–while still giving off a irony-tinged plastic facade. Say what you will, but the bitch has got talent.
We all know of her fame and follow her every move, but what most people don’t know is the ugly duckling that lay in waiting for her chance to sprout into a beautiful swan. Yes, I’m talking about the girl behind the mask that is Lady Gaga, better known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. This is the first in a series of three articles chronicling and reviewing her career, but before I get into the hits and the glam I’d like to focus on the artist that almost was–the indie rock chick who just wanted to hook up for an innocent one night stand. Trust me, it’s not near risque as it sounds. I’ll cover a very early EP released while she was in college, as well as a a few songs she composed for other artists before she found her own spotlight. We’ll see the budding sprouts of her career as well a shining display of talent, but above all, we’ll see how the girl named Stefanie became the artist named Lady Gaga.
1. Captivated/Electric Kiss
What one hell of a performance.
Lady Gaga’s origin seems like a destined fairy tale come true. A child to Italian American parents, she started playing the piano at the age of four, and by her teens was composing her own songs. It seems reminiscent of the famous child prodigy and genius Mozart, whose father was transcribing his compositions as a child, but the comparison falls short from there. While Lady Gaga hasn’t changed music theory or composed one of history’s greatest symphonies, her knack for for composing captivating and melodic tunes is on full display here.
It’s not surprising to see the seeds of her theatrical displays she’s since come to be know for. She studied theater in high school and had found small roles on TV shows, and it’s a culmination of that education and experience that really sells the performance on display.
This video was recorded while she was a student at the New New York University and shows just how confident she was at that age. What truly impresses with these self-composed tunes is how skillfully she eases from a ballad into a livelier composition. And above all else is the total package of the performance. Her voice has a bravado to it, soaring above the keys of the piano that ends with bringing down the house. She has a jazzy timbre, a skill that most people would not hear till much much later. But maybe what’s most surprising is how far removed these two songs are from pop music. She displays a more virtuoso piano performance. Now contrast that that with the uniform blandness that is pop music, where the focus is on catchiness and hooks, and less on performance. Hell, most modern forms of popular music have gone this route. Look at modern rock, which eschews solos, opting for conformity of composition. It’s a little refreshing to see one of the most prominent pop artists showing her performance based roots. In many ways it’s also disheartening to see a career that almost was. Stephanie could have gone on to be a more Norah Jones type artist. She could have gone a more soulful and intimate route, and while she would have never been as wildly successful, her music would have been far more rich and rewarding. This isn’t to say her pop music hasn’t been just as complex and soulful, but rather it’s a complaint leveled at the nature of pop music in general. Fortunately, Stefani would go on to diversify her output under the Lady Gaga moniker, especially with her work with Tony Bennett.
Lyrically, the complimentary compositions are tame compared to her major label output. They’re very youthful and earnest, a wakening reminder that not all of Lady Gaga’s music is just pop drivel. Take for instance, the lines “I’m gonna change the world with my lips / One voice with life together / Peace, love, solitude and happiness”. There’s such a hopeful display that only could come from a college student, and yet they could have been written by John Lennon, another songwriter known for his beyond reach optimism.
This same youthfulness is on display with “Captivated”. The tune is sweet and charming, showing a gentle earnestness with the lines “So please show me that smile / Make me laugh for just a little while” as well as “I love the way you can make / Me dance from miles away”. There’s no sexual innuendo or explicit and shocking sexual frankness. Perhaps you could call these two compositions sophomoric, but I like to think of them as the beginning of a remarkable career. Many songwriters could take lesson from how a meaningful song can be constructed around such simple and earnest lines. Anyone who writes of Lady Gaga’s career should look at her early output to find music that counters their claims. As it stands,”Captivated/Electric Kiss” is a snapshot of brilliance, a look inside the early mind of an artist just beginning to sprout her wings. They’re also just a great listen.
2. Red and Blue/Words
Sometime around 2005 Stefanie dropped out of her college and started making herself known around bars and clubs as a performer. It would prove to be a crucial decision. If her performance of “Captivated/Electric Kiss” showed anything, it was that she could have easily gone on to further her studies in performance and theater, becoming an entirely different breed of artist. It’s not hard to imagine her as a lounge singer or playing in small clubs, dazzling audiences with her sultry voice and tight lyrics. Maybe that would have happened in another reality. Instead, Stefani would go on to headline stadiums and perform live on TV, selling millions of records and becoming a household name. She’s secured her place in place in the history of modern pop music, and established herself as one of the best songwriters in the business. But as of 2005, this was still long away.
After she dropped out, Stefani quickly formed a band called the Stefani Germanotta band, securing gigs around New York by playing covers of popular bands as well as original tunes. Take a listen to one of their cover of “D’yer Maker” by Led Zeppelin.
I’d wager a lot of money that a majority of the population would have never guessed that this was Lady Gaga by listening alone. What’s so remarkable about the album is how removed it is from her major label output. Gone are any themes of sex (save for one song) and any rich lyrics. Rather the album is bland and generic, something that any semi-talented rock band could put out. This isn’t to say it’s bad, per se, it’s just that this is really sophomoric. “Captivated/Electric Kiss” was miles beyond her work here. Gone is the sultriness of vocals, replaced by flat and droning holds of notes. Nor is there any display of showmanship with the piano. Instead, it’s just pop rock tunes that harks back to the alternative music of the 90s. I don’t find it very re-listenable but it did gain her a small following. And without it, she’d never have got the recognition she needed to launch her professional career. That alone merits its consideration, as well as make it an artifact worth preserving. With that said, let’s get into the tracks.
I’ll be honest, there’s not much to write about these five tracks. That’s the biggest problem with writing about modern popular music. So much of it revolves around one hook, one chorus, and sometimes a bridge. There’s a real lack of showmanship and complexity. At its worst, this genre of music just revolves around power chords (not to diss the punk genre, but let’s be honest). Fortunately, the tracks on the EP actually have a display of leads and notes, well written lyrics (though they’re not catchy or memorable).
Musically, “Something Crazy” has a punk vibe, most prominently displayed by the palm muted strumming on the electric guitar. Stefani’s voice also has a cutting edge to it, lacking any vibrato or gusto, but rather exhibiting a flat edge that feels more rockish.
The lyrics are rather lackluster, feeling more amateurish and generic. Look at the lines “It always brings me down / when you’re not around”. The words are so dull and lacking of metaphor or wit. The rhymes are predictable but worse offer nothing new that hasn’t been heard. And the delivery just isn’t catchy. The same can be said about there rest of the lyrics, with lines such as the chorus “Oh, you do something for me baby / I cannot control it lately / Oh, you do something crazy to me / I cannot control it, baby.”
The lyrics are really a display of Stefani’s age at the time. She was around 18-19 years-old, hardly old enough to have any real wisdom or world experience, which is why it’s hard to really critique this album. While I level harsh words against it, it must not be forgotten that this was one of her first steps towards a music career. Still, it wouldn’t be honest to shy away from a real critique, especially considering she would go on to world fame and acclaim. We’re not exactly kicking dirt in the eyes of the handicapped kid.
Wish You Were Here
“Wish You Were Here” takes the form of a ballad, opening with an unaccompanied piano. The lyrics are stronger on this track, as she paints imagery with the lines “It’s funny how things, they change / The clouds they part, rearrange / Faces of strangers and I have no familiars to help me see / Where is home, I want you to know”. More impressive is Stefani’s voice, which has a slight tremolo, though it still comes off flat as she carries out nots without any grace.
The chorus is simple enough, with the lament that “I wish you were here.” She sings the word gently and intimately, bringing the listener in as if they were hearing a secret a conversation for them only. It helps reflect the lyrics thematically, and gives the song some welcome dynamics.
The second verse kicks off with a drum beat and guitar picking notes in the background. The lyrics bring in a religious motif, something Stefani would come back to as Lady Gaga, with the line “Sometimes I wonder if God hides out in cities to set us free.”
From there we repeat the chorus, before launching into the bridge, which unfortunately has the vocals laced with a flanger effect. However, there’s a shining moment with Stefani’s voice, which swells as she belts the lines “I’m so much more, than all of my fears / Than all of these tears / My tears, yeah”. She really lets loose as she sings the word “tears”, but again they feel flat. It’s a odd musical choice, especially coming from a singer with such talent, and I can only imagine what having a studio producer could have done to lift these track above blandness.
And yet, cynicism aside, this track feels sweet and gentle. It feels far more intimate than anything Gaga would put out. My biggest complaint of her later work is that it hides her talent–something you really only get to see if you go to a live performance.
Something very evident on this EP is how Stefani is trying to emulate the female pop artists that were big at the start of the millenium. The singer that comes to mind is Michelle Branch, another piano player who sang mostly bland songs but were popular nonetheless. It’s interesting because of all Lady Gaga’s pop influences, she’s never given off this vibe. Maybe that’s a testament to her versaitily, but I like to think of it as a maturation. Whatever the case, I bring this up because of how prevalent it is on this track.
“No Floods” owes a heft dose to funk musk, mostly during the chorus. The guitar punctuates the rhythm with muted scratches alternated with chords. Also to note is Stefani’s display of her piano chops, as she playfully tickles the keys. Better yet, Stefani’s voices is far more effective here, with flairs of vibrato and a much firmer grasp of the notes. The song is the closest on this album that she gets to the performer she would become.
There’s hints of her later output displayed by the lyrics, carrying a more mature style than that of the preceding two tracks. Stefani sings about her moving away from her familiy, and the declaration that “No matter lightning or thunder / Buckets of rainwater / You can’t flood this town”. Better yet is how alive the song feels. For the first time I wanted to sing along. It’s a rare glimpse of real fun on the album, and I could imagine it being a favorite in the bar scene. As with any other track on the album, the song lacks any real hook. In an album full of flies on the wall, however, the song stands out as a better display of musicality and writing.
“Words” begins with a circular guitar riff and the hum of chords being played on the organ, slowly crescendoing into the verse. Again, Stefani’s voice sound bland, with notes being held as she sings in a flat and monotone pitch. Elsewhere, little is done with the piano or guitar, leaving just the lyrics to carry the song.
Unfortunately there’s no hook. The mark of a great song is how long you can hold out before the chorus, and then how long you can get the listener to want the chorus to last. While “Words” comes nowhere close to achieving this, it fortunately is written with a steady hand, despite of the feeling of being generic. The song deals with the failure in unnamed people to believe in our narrator, something that would feel important to a 19-year-old. Which is fine enough. But the problem with the song is how Stefai sings the chorus, as she declares “I’ll take your words and be gone”. I kept asking myself why is she singing this way? There’s no joy or musicality to the way she drones out her notes. At such a young age it was she clear she was trying emulate the alternative rock scene from the 90s. But the problem is she seems to have emulated the worst of that genre.
Red and Blue
“Red and Blue” is by far the best track on the album. The song opens with a punk riff on the guitar, matched by Stefani’s sultry vocals. The opening verse even get as close as we’ll get to the Lady Gaga persona, with the lines “You got ripped jeans / I’m only 19 / What do you wanna do?”. Yes, finally a song about sex. It’s almost comical in how tame this flirtatious suggestion is. For example, the lines “Yeah I am red, you are blue / I’m old school and you’re so new” can be described as cute. And yet, it’s a glimpse into the id of artist who’s come to be known for her sexuality.
The song even get’s playful at the end of the song when Stefani sings “la la la”. It’s the best moment on the EP, one where we really can hear the band having fun. It’s actually pretty re-listenable.
I’d encourage anyone interested in listening to the EP to seek it out either via YouTube or torrent it. Now, let me clarrify, torrenting is illegal and could get you in trouble, so don’t sure me if something bad happens. And no, I actually don’t support torrenting, but this is one of the few instances where I actually think it is beneficial to society. Imagine a world where we can keep art from being destroyed by human beings or time, a world where art exists through the hard drives of millions of people, forever a flowing network of data. Sounds peachy right? Just do your homework, okay kids?
4. Songs written for other artists
Taking in the album Red and Blue as a whole, it’s no wonder most fans haven’t heard of it. For starters, it sounds nothing like Lady Gaga. For other reasons, it’s just not that good. The album was played around the local bars of Manhattan and got her followers, but it was nowhere near close to being up to snuff to hear on the radio. However, it did get Stefani Germanotta in touch with the producer Rob Fusari, and it was through him that Stefani came up with the Lady Gaga persona. She eventually dumped the band and started hanging around glam artists such as Lady Starlight. And it would only take about four years for her luck to change. But before she was ready to take over the world, she cut her teeth writing for popular artists, such as The New Kids on the Block and Pussycat Dolls. While I won’t go into a complete run down of all the tracks she wrote, the complete list can be found here. One quick thing to note about these songs is that the majority of them were never released. She first started collaborating with Fusari in 2006, and didn’t see a song make it onto an album until 2008. Fortunately, we do have some songs that were released that give us a glimpse into an artist on the eve of making it big. I’d like to focus on two of those tracks.
As much as I shit on songwriting in the Red and Blue EP, we can’t forget that Stefani Germanotta had displayed a load of talent with her “Captivated/Electric Kiss” composition. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of these compositions she wrote for other artists are quite good. None were big hits, but they were definitely of a higher standard that came before. Much of this can be attributed to her work with co-writers and producers, who no doubt showed her the ropes. And while it’d be wrong to attribute all of her success solely to her, it’d also be wrong to deny her the credit that she is due. But that’s where discussions of Lady Gaga, and for that matter most women who female pop artists that write their own music, often settle into. Is she a product of the system or does she deserve as much credit as she already does? Nevermind that her name is listed under the songwriters credit, these arguments tend to have a questionable (by which I mean sexist) vibe to them. It’s such a boring discussion, if we are to deny that pop music isn’t worthy of praise, as if only rock music is the only true music on earth. But yet here we are. Whatever the case, when listening to Gaga’s (I’ve been alternating between calling her Stefani and Lady Gaga, but I think we’re at the point where we can just caller Gaga) compositions, that she’s the real deal.
One notable composition was “Quicksand”, written sometime in 2008. By this point Lady Gaga was on the brink of making it big, but was earning her wages by writing songs for other artists. This song was originally intended for her own debut album The Fame but instead wound up as a track for Britney Spears.
Lyrically, the song is a tight pop composition. The lyrics are simple, but unlike Gaga’s work under her real name, has stronger imagery and actually has a hook. Take for instance the chorus, which is basically two lines being song over and over: “Because you and me are sinking like quicksand / Like quicksand, baby like quicksand”. It’s simple enough, relying on repetition to drive the point home (Pro-tip: Repetition makes a song more listenable, which explains the popularity of a lot of modern songs.). And yet, there’s a strong metaphor that adds weight to the lyrics. This isn’t earth shattering stuff, but is a huge improvement on the lyrics we’ve looked at before.
Also worth noting is how earnest and personal this song is. If I hadn’t looked Gaga’s writing for other artists and had heard this song, I would never have connected the two. I might have guessed Sia, but definitely not Gaga. Thematically it seems out of place from her subsequen oveure, almost saccharine like when compared with the raunchiness of the first half of The Fame.
Despite these differences, the song is polished and listenable, a major step up from her early work. While some of this must be credited to the production, it’s still evident that the lyrics have gotten stronger.
Big Girl Now
It’s fair to say that by the time Gaga wrote this song she had arrived to the pop scene fully fleshed out. This song has upfront sexuality on display along with tight lyrics that are infectious. The opening lines playfully flirt with the listener, with the repeated line “I’m a big boy, you’re a big girl now”. The lyrics seem like a meta commentary on Gaga’s own growth as an artist. Gone are the sophomoric hints at a one night stand, but instead an open invitation that doesn’t leave any intention to doubt.
This sexuality has bothered many, which is fine if you’re a prude. I never understand rockists that complain about how banal and sex obsessed pop songs. Like Robert Plan singing about cum dripping down his leg was any better. Look, we’re adults here, and like it or not, and sex is just one of many themes to be explored. Again, I get a questionable vibe when people criticize Gaga for her sexuality (again, I mean sexist). There’s nothing wrong with using it as a subject to explore, anymore than love or other theme is used as an artistic expression.
But again, what’s worth pointing out is how fully fleshed this song feels. It was evident by now that her talent had fully developed, and with the right production, pushed to elevated heights. While the song wasn’t a major hit, it helped push her to the mainstream spotlight. And judging by this live performance, was the real deal. All that was left was her album to drop.
8. A star is born
Looking at the period of time in her development, it’s rather remarkable how much Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta grew as an artist, moving away from a doe-eyed romantic to a flat out harlem. But thematics aside, what’s important is that her compositions became more musical and listenable. This child prodigy grew from a theatrical performer, to alternative rocker, to pop diva, and she did it in the span of five years.
There are naysayers who insist that she’s regressed as a musician, but this is a narrow minded viewpoint. There’s more than one style of music and there’s an infinite amount of ways to express art. Just because she didn’t stay in the mold of Norah Jones or a rock chick doesn’t mean she hasn’t lived up to her potential. Rather, she found an avenue that she excelled at and went for it. And by all accounts, pop music is a genre that has a lot of potential growth. Let’s be honest, what terrain would have been left for Stefani to explore in rock music? Especially considering how bland her output was in that genre. But with pop music, she found an area that was devoid of any real auteur, and had a dearth of thematically rich lyrics. But as we’ll see, Lady Gaga would flex her muscles to liven up the pop scene, rightfully earning her obsessive fandom.