Explaining the Genius of Lady Gaga—Using Music Theory

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 31 2014 11:25 PM

“Bad Romance,” Great Tritone

Explaining the genius of Lady Gaga—using music theory.

Lady Gaga
Roll over, Tchaikovsky.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Our mission: to dissect chart-topping pop singles and weigh their trembling flesh on the scales of Western music theory. Today I am typing about the unique genius of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

From her early singles onward—“Just Dance” (U.S. No. 1), “Poker Face” (U.S. No. 1), “LoveGame” (U.S. No. 5), “Paparazzi” (U.S. No. 6), “Bad Romance” (U.S. No. 2), “Alejandro” (U.S. No. 5), and “Judas” (U.S. No. 10)—Gaga and her primary songwriting partner, RedOne, set rigorous guidelines as to what Gaga singles would or would not do:

1. Gaga is meant to convey a sexy, spooky energy. Result: Gaga would not release any major-key singles. Minor keys only. None of these seven singles is in a major key.

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2. Gaga’s presence on the charts is monolithic, immovable. Result: Gaga would begin every verse (and most choruses) on the establishing i chord, that is, the root chord of the minor-key the song is in, suggesting permanence, an inevitability.

3. Gaga’s gaze upon the pop landscape is unflinching, unblinking. Result: Gaga would never do a single that modulated to another key. (Exception: “Paparazzi”)

4. Gaga is human, obeys her base impulses, with no uplifting effervescence or fluttery naiveté. So, despite the best advice of certain music writers, Gaga would never allow any of her dance-floor fillers to feature syncopated rhythms. Only repetitious juggernaut eighth-note patterns, please. (Exception: “LoveGame.”)

5. Gaga isn’t above high-fiving a stereotype once in a while. So, many of these singles feature spoken-word breakdowns with overtones of wide-eyed infantilism (“disco stick,” “bluffin’ with my muffin”) or French-maid fetishism (“Alejandro’s” intro, “j’veux ton amour et je veux ton revanche” [sic]).

6. Gaga has her sights set on the world stage, not just English-speaking countries. Result: All of these singles repeat the song title enough times so as to penetrate the language barrier. On her first five singles, she sings the song’s title 18, 30, 34, nine, and 36 times, respectively—I gave up counting by the time I got to “Alejandro.”

“But all of these songs sound the same,” you protest. You are correct. From song to song, Gaga likes simple, laserlike single-pitch melodies—compare “I want to hold them like they do in Texas please” with “I want your ugly, I want your disease” with “When he comes to me I am ready.”

She loves the interval of a perfect fifth—compare “Bad Romance’s” “Gaga ooh la” fanfare with “Paparazzi’s” “We are the crowd / We’re c-coming out” with “Judas’ ” “Judas Judaaaaas.”

Regarding her chord choices, well, I penciled them down, and I’ll give you the tl;dr version: She and RedOne keep it simple.

Some poppets may take this consistency of tone to be indicative of a “lack of creativity” on Gaga’s end. Me, I see it as strong branding. Yes, these seven singles are mechanically indistinguishable, but I hear L-A-D-Y on the left, G-A-G-A on the right, knuckles in your face, your inner ear is branded. Gaga is a fighter, not a lover.

I like this monomania, too, as it definitively establishes Gaga’s own voice as a songwriter. She works with co-writers, as do most pop singer-songwriters, but her own writing voice is indelible. I respect performing artists and songwriters equally, but I extend extra good will to those artists who take on both roles. This is not because of any desire for “authenticity of authorship,” but because I, as an audience member, like superheroes.

And you cannot deny the efficacy of her narrow compositional vocabulary. I use the word “genius” without reservation. She is one of the most successful participants in the culture industry, resonating worldwide with people in all walks of life. If you wish to debate the worth of this industry, or whether or not “genius” can exist within it, we can do so at another time. Here is a video of Haitian kids singing and dancing to “Poker Face”:

All of the scene-setting of The Fame was to prime the world for Lady Gaga’s best and (as time will surely show us) most enduring pop single: “Bad Romance.” “Bad Romance” is Gaga’s magnum opus, a summation of her musical vocabulary, that expands upon the foundation of her first singles, and towers over her more recent ones.

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