An artist is judged by the extent to which they’ve fulfilled their ambitions. I believe Lady Gaga’s monumental effort to give four decades of pop music its glittering conclusion categorically failed. Kesha on the other hand aimed lower, but wove a whimsical paracosm more coherent and distinctive than Gaga’s opus. Nonetheless, Gaga’s The Fame era (2009-2010) for which she is best known, showed promise and remains one of pop’s most exciting debuts. To compare “Just Dance” – an innocuous splash of electropop – with the more eccentric “Poker Face” video and then with the cinematic kookiness of the “Paparazzi” video is to discover how her ambition burgeoned dramatically with commercial success. While her McQueen-esque costumes, which made the streets she walked down into runways, were a masterstroke in terms of publicity, their frantic diversity revealed an impatience to get out new ideas which limits the era’s unity. One can see why David Bowie, who so meticulously crafted his personae, would not associate with the starlet. And unlike Prince, whose outfits were part of his mystique, Gaga concealed herself behind her clumsy if sometimes inspired eccentricity, risking the possibility that when the mask was lifted the public would not approve. However, we can’t demand perfection of any artist, and we must especially forgive new artists for such missteps. Her incomplete aesthetic was still utterly mesmerising in 2009’s pop landscape, and 2010’s “Bad Romance” heralded a period of rapid growth and creativity. Comparisons to Madonna were understandable. The revamped Monster Ball Tour is a loud, rushed yet marvellous production which I believe marks Gaga’s apotheosis. Her virtuosity as performer rivals Madonna, and her voice is stronger. But the first sign that her team didn’t share Madonna’s incisive knowledge of the industry arrived soon with the release of the monotonous “Alejandro” instead of the gorgeous “Dance in the Dark” (even if its bridge steals that of Madonna’s “Vogue”).
Adele’s success in 2011 could never have worked in Gaga’s favour, but she could have harmonised her era with Adele’s to avoid the damaging contrast between honesty (21) and pretence (Born This Way). Following her debut, Born This Way was in many ways an understated era – a song of staggering, simple beauty like “The Edge of Glory”, released with an imaginative yet subtle video might have changed the music industry. Instead Gaga released the album’s mediocre title track with its high-octane LGBT advocacy. In thereby alienating heterosexual listeners Gaga relinquished her position as a camp figure in the mainstream (as Madonna always was) to become a pigeonholed queer icon (akin to Cyndi Lauper). Like Beyoncé, her vain desire to symbolise a political movement tarnished her art. The era couldn’t recover from such a botched start – overexposure and hastily-conceived videos further bruised the star so that by the time she returned to form with the “You and I” video the public had lost interest. Then Artpop (2013-14), visually sound but musically questionable, was virtually abandoned after one single. Cheek to Cheek (2014), her jazz album with Tony Bennett, and the soft-rock Joanne (2016) reflect a jaded and nostalgic turn away from pop, and while the latter did salvage her image with the raw “Million Reasons” and consummate Super Bowl performance, its modest sales were propelled almost entirely by core fans. “Come to Mama” is my favourite track from Joanne – a gloriously camp plea to the embittered which voices woman’s healing power and foreshadows that Clinton presidency that never happened (Gaga performed the song on Clinton’s campaign), and “Sinner’s Prayer” is also a highlight. “The Cure” (2017) is a luscious one-off radio-friendly single which underperformed and ended hopes of a true comeback. Rarely has a superstar been so swiftly consigned to veteran status: Gaga must be commended for her talent and work ethic, but she’ll be remembered as a woman who had the opportunity to change popular culture and flunked it. Her career’s trajectory only reinforces the remarkable breadth and consistency of Madonna’s.