A Decade of Lady Gaga: Ten Unforgettable Performances

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Lady Gaga at the TIFF premiere of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born.”

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, was born just six days after me on March 28th, 1986. Over the past decade, I’ve looked to her as one of the defining artists of my generation. Her unceasing conviction and boundless versatility have made her a joy to behold in whatever form she happens to take. I’ll never forget the awards show where she appeared to be wearing a different outfit—each more gleefully bizarre than the last—every time the camera cut back to her in the audience. Yet it was Gaga’s spectacular performance in Bradley Cooper’s remarkable new version of “A Star is Born” that turned me from a casual fan into a serious one. The raves she received upon the film’s festival screenings in Venice and Toronto suggest that she could very well land a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the accolade would be entirely well-deserved.

This is just the latest triumph in a career chock-full of them. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of her debut on the world stage, here are ten more unforgettable dates in the legacy of Gaga…

September 26th, 2008

Ten years ago today, the second single from Gaga’s first solo album, The Fame, was released. It was a song my sister decided to include on a CD mix of modern music that she had deemed essential for me. As soon as I heard the opening hook, “Mum-mum-mum-mah,” I was entranced. “Poker Face” sounded like synth-pop from a different planet, with a rhythm and melody so catchy that it quickly became one of my favorite tracks. Though Gaga has described the song as an ode to past rock-obsessed boyfriends, as well as a reflection of her own bisexuality, it also encapsulates the essence of her appeal—so unpredictable is her next move that we can’t help but hang on her every word. Apparently a lot of people agreed with me, considering how the song went on to become the best-selling single of 2009.

February 11th, 2011

If Gaga’s messages of empowerment could be whittled down to a single anthem, it would be the title song of her second studio album, Born This Way. Just five days after its February release, it made the Guinness Book by becoming the fastest selling single on iTunes, receiving over a million downloads. The music video, directed by Nick Knight, is itself a mesmerizing work of surrealist art, opening with excerpts of Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” score, while chronicling—in exquisite sci-fi terms—the birth of a new race “which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” That same year, Gaga partnered with her mother Cynthia to form the Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit organization aiming to combat bullying and champion tolerance throughout the world.

August 28th, 2011

At the MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga unveiled her own male alter-ego, Jo Calderone, which she created with Knight as a way of pushing the boundaries on what is deemed beautiful in society. Her embracement of drag as both performance art and self-expression has been a crucial part of her career from the beginning—it was while starring in neo-burlesque shows that she met Lady Starlight (a.k.a. Colleen Martin), a techno performer who was instrumental in helping develop Gaga’s stage persona. As various familiar faces watched in gobsmacked awe from their perch in the crowd, Jo strutted across the stage, delivering a profane monologue before belting out “Yoü and I,” the fourth single from Born This Way. Cannot imagine a better person to have accompanied Jo than Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May.

July 28th, 2014

After releasing her third studio album, Artpop, with its lead single “Applause,” Gaga surprised everyone once again by teaming up with 88-year-old icon Tony Bennett to perform a series of jazz numbers. The resulting collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, earned a Grammy and launched a successful tour for the pair. During these concerts, Gaga continued to experiment, further demonstrating the breadth of her talent by offering her vibrant spin on a variety of classics. During their Jazz at Lincoln Center performance, Gaga—wearing a wig reminiscent of Cher—sang “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, a folk rock lament perhaps best known to film fans for opening “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” Yet whereas Nancy Sinatra’s rendition lends a mournful aura to Tarantino’s movie, what distinguishes Gaga’s cover is the ferocious fire of its climactic verse.

February 22nd, 2015

Easily the loveliest Oscar musical moment of my lifetime was Gaga’s wholly unexpected medley of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of “The Sound of Music.” Gaga insisted on performing each song in the register famously utilized by Julie Andrews in order to give the living legend a proper tribute. Andrews appeared visibly moved when she embraced Gaga onstage, much to the elation of the audience (Felicity Jones and Chloë Grace Moretz’s reactions are especially priceless). When I recently revisited the film, I was struck by how Mother Abbess embodies a spiritual wisdom far different from the divisive zealotry so often preached today. She refuses to let Maria be confined within the church walls, even echoing Gaga by noting, “You have to live the life you were born to live.”

June 8th, 2015

Also among the audience members cheering on Gaga at the 2015 Oscars was Bradley Cooper, along with his “American Sniper” director Clint Eastwood, who was previously attached to helm “A Star is Born.” What initially convinced Cooper to build his own directorial debut around Gaga was her show-stopping performance of Édith Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie En Rose,” at a charity benefit. Though numerous videos of Gaga belting out the pop ballad have been uploaded to YouTube, the most popular footage takes place at a gala concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in support of the WellChild charity. It’s easy to see why Cooper felt inspired to work with her, considering how the operatic intensity of her vocals blows the roof off the cavernous concert hall. So happy he got her to sing it in his film too.

October 7th, 2015

When the fifth season of “American Horror Story” premiered on FX, its biggest draw was likely Gaga, who relished her first juicy acting role as the bloodthirsty Countess. The show’s co-creator Ryan Murphy is certainly no stranger to staging musical numbers, as proven by his Fox series “Glee” as well as the glorious rendition of “The Name Game” sung by Jessica Lange in season two of “AHS.” Yet Murphy treated Gaga as a full-on actress, providing a splendid showcase for her formidable range. She’s by turns seductive, funny, tragic and downright chilling, while her scenes with transgender bartender Liz Taylor (a marvelous Denis O’Hare) are touching in how they affirm the importance of being true to oneself. Gaga’s tour de force earned her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Limited Series or Movie Made for Television.

February 28th, 2016

Just one year after her celebrated appearance at the Academy Awards, Gaga received her first Oscar nomination for “Til It Happens to You,” the stirring song she coauthored with Diane Warren for “The Hunting Ground,” Kirby Dick’s scathing exposé detailing the cover-ups of rape crimes on college campuses. Introduced on the telecast by Vice President Joe Biden, Gaga radiated rage, sorrow and unbridled strength—often singing directly into the camera. She was soon joined onstage by fifty people who, like her, are survivors of sexual assault. Their display of solidarity moves me to tears every time I see it. Brie Larson, who would later win the Best Actress Oscar that evening for playing a sexual abuse survivor in “Room,” made a point of hugging each survivor in the moments following Gaga’s performance.

February 5th, 2017

In terms of sheer thrilling spectacle, nothing tops Gaga’s Super Bowl LI Halftime Show, which begins with her jumping from the top of Houston’s NRG Stadium as hundreds of lighted drones form mind-boggling designs in the sky. Her most recent album, the autobiographical Joanne, was given an epic platform for its refreshingly stripped-down tunes, such as the popular track “Million Reasons.” Netflix’s superb documentary, “Gaga: Five Foot Two” chronicles Gaga’s preparation for the live performance, which is a marvel from its opening stunt to its final choreographed act. My friends and I guffawed with delight as Gaga exclaimed, “Super Bowl 51!” before dropping the mic, catching a football and then jumping out of frame as an impeccably timed assemblage of fireworks erupted behind her.

October 5th, 2018

Next week’s release of “A Star is Born” will cause even Gaga’s die-hard fan base to view her in a new light—one devoid of makeup or theatrics. Her performance as Ally, a gifted singer whose career takes off once she’s discovered by show business veteran Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), is one of the year’s best. She’s electrifying not only in the musical sequences—which were all performed live and feature many songs coauthored by her and Cooper—but in the rest of the picture as well. In many ways, it’s a natural continuation of what she began with Joanne, which was itself inspired by her work on “American Horror Story.” By removing each layer of artifice, Gaga is bringing us closer to the vulnerable truth of her soul—Stefani’s soul. Gone is her poker face in the breathtaking final shot, and that is ultimately what makes Ally a star.

“A Star is Born” will soon be playing everywhere, and you really should see it on the big screen. In the meantime, check out this moving Q&A session with Gaga and her cast members following their film’s TIFF premiere. For more info on Gaga, visit her official site.

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