In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
I wrote a whole book about #1 hits that served as cultural turning points, but not every trend can be encapsulated in a single track. You can point to a specific historical moment when disco became a cultural force, for instance, but there’s no equivalent moment for the EDM boom of the late ’00s and early ’10s. Instead, the electro-pop takeover was a gradual thing. You could hear the early seeds in tracks like Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” You can see it in Kanye West sampling Daft Punk on “Stronger,” in Flo Rida rapping over a house-adjacent beat on “Low,” in the AutoTuned robot voices that T-Pain brought to the game. Rihanna’s “Disturbia” and Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” don’t really sound that different from Lady Gaga’s early tracks. But when the actual Lady Gaga finally elbowed her way to #1, you could still take that success as a sign. Things were shifting.
I knew how Lady Gaga looked before I knew how she sounded. This simply came from living in New York City in 2008. New York is Gaga’s hometown, and for a few months, her face was everywhere. You’d see whole walls of her picture — giant sunglasses, gold-lamé hood — plastered on every available surface. There was a reason for this. That kind of street-team marketing was the cheapest way that a record label could promote a new artist. When Lady Gaga first started out, she had to hustle hard. Radio didn’t care. MTV didn’t care. Her label wasn’t sure that it cared. Gaga was making a kind of glossy, campy, thump-happy club-pop that, even with the subtle shifts described in that first paragraph, was nowhere near the cultural mainstream. But Lady Gaga’s image was striking and memorable. In the years that followed, it would only become more striking, more memorable.
When I first heard the music, I didn’t get it. I’d lived in Greenpoint when it was still an overwhelmingly Polish neighborhood — street signs in Polish, pictures of Pope John Paul II everywhere, passing cars blaring euphoric Euro-house out of open windows. From her posters, I could tell that Gaga was consciously echoing the icy, cooler-than-thou electroclash that had been huge in New York hipster circles a few years earlier. Musically, though, Gaga sounded closer to Polish disco-pop than to anything that I recognized as cool. This would turn out to be Lady Gaga’s great power. Like Peaches and Fischerspooner and all the other electroclash performance-art types, Gaga was interested in artifice and larger-than-life camp iconography. Unlike those artists, though, Gaga embraced big, cheesy melodies — the kinds of melodies that would eventually take over American pop radio.
At a certain point, everything just lined up perfectly. In January of 2009, Barack Obama took the oath of office. For the young people of America, this was a moment of celebration. We’d mobilized, we’d embraced mystical ideas about hope and change, and we’d pushed our guy to the highest office in the land. At the same time, the economy had been freshly obliterated. Kids who were still in college had to get used to the idea that they were not getting good jobs when they graduated. Young people already in the workforce either got laid off or clung to whatever low-paying jobs they already had. Everything was fucked. When you’re in that circumstance, you might find yourself wanting to go out clubbing and get so intoxicated that you can’t see straight. As it happened, there was a steadily-rising song about doing exactly that.
Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” came out in April 2008, when the world was completely different. Gaga had to work to put herself into a position where that song could even come out, and then she had to push the track relentlessly, performing it anywhere that someone might point a camera in her direction. She kept grinding, and the world eventually caught up to the song. There’s no chapter in my book about the EDM boom, since that whole era was so nebulous, its borders so porous. But if I had to pick one song to represent the shift, then the song would’ve been “Just Dance.”
When “Just Dance” finally hit, Lady Gaga’s takeover seemed sudden. She came off as a monocultural supernova who’d seemingly come out of nowhere. But it took years of work to make Gaga into an overnight success. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta grew up in a well-off family on New York’s Upper West Side, and she went to Catholic school with socialite types like Nicky Hilton. (When Gaga was born, Heart’s “These Dreams” was the #1 song in America.) Unsurprisingly, the young Gaga was a huge theater kid. She started playing piano at four, went to creative arts camp, sang at open mics, and acted in musicals. In 2001, when she was 15, Gaga was an extra in one scene on The Sopranos — one of those great pause-and-rewind moments when you’re rewatching the show and you suddenly realize that you’re looking at Perez Hilton or Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In 2003, Gaga started studying music at Tisch and living in an NYU dorm. After her sophomore year, Gaga dropped out of school and went into music full-time. She led a kind of cabaret-rock group called the Stefani Germanotta Band, and she played clubs around town. (I was out in New York clubs multiple nights a week at this point, but I’m pretty sure I never saw the Stefani Germanotta Band. That wasn’t my scene.) Eventually, Gaga met producer Rob Fursari at a songwriting showcase. Fursari, who’s been in this column for producing Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious,” says that he’s the one who gave Lady Gaga her name. Apparently, she’s named after the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.” (“Radio Ga Ga” peaked at #16 in 1984.)
Rob Fursari and Lady Gaga dated for a while, and he shopped her around to a few different labels. Def Jam signed Gaga in 2006, and then the label dropped her a few months later. Gaga kept performing in clubs, and she shifted her live show toward a more burlesque theatricality. In 2007, she brought that live show to one of the tiny stages at the Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago. Three years later, she would headline the whole thing.
While she was playing those club gigs, Lady Gaga signed a songwriting deal. She pitched songs to big pop stars, but only a few of them recorded her tracks. Gaga’s first real songwriting credit is on “Full Service,” a deep cut from The Block, the 2008 reunion LP from the reunited New Kids On The Block. (The New Kids have been in this column a few times.) When she was pitching songs, Gaga met Akon, another artist who’s been in this column a few times. Akon was impressed enough to sign Gaga to KonLive, his imprint at Interscope.
When Lady Gaga finally got to work on her own music, her main collaborator was another relative unknown who’d been trying to break through for a long time. Nadir Khayat, the producer known as RedOne, grew up in Morocco, and he moved to Sweden as a teenager, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. RedOne — or, as Gaga put it on the “Just Dance” intro, HrrrredWaaahhn — wanted to make pop music, and he knew that a lot of the best pop came from Sweden. After a few years, RedOne got to know Rami Yacoub, the Palestinian-Swedish musician who co-produced Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” with Max Martin. That association opened doors, and RedOne became part of the Swedish pop industry.
RedOne worked on tracks from Swedish pop stars like the A*Teens and Daniel Lindström, but those tracks didn’t really make any noise outside Scandinavia. In 2007, RedOne moved to New Jersey, hoping for better opportunities, and he ended up producing all of 9 Lives, the debut album from Bronx-born teenage pop singer Kat DeLuna. DeLuna only ever made one hit; that hit, the dancehall-inflected Elephant Man collab “Whine Up,” made it to #29. After that success, RedOne wanted to work with bigger stars. Instead, his management introduced him to Lady Gaga, and they clicked immediately.
“Just Dance” is one of the tracks that came from Gaga and RedOne’s early songwriting sessions. They’d gone to Los Angeles to work together, and it was Gaga’s first time in a Hollywood studio. She’s said that she wrote “Just Dance” in 10 minutes while hungover. You can kind of tell — not because the song is tossed-off but because it comes from the perspective of someone who parties hard. Gaga’s narrator is out at a club, and she’s hearing a song that she likes. Beyond that, everything is blurry. She can’t remember the name of the song. Come to think of it, she can’t remember what club she’s at. She’s drunk enough that she can’t keep a single thought in her head for too long, but she knows how to respond in this situation. When you realize that you’re too drunk, that you’re sloppy and incoherent, you can try to fight it and sober up, or you embrace the blur. You can just dance. Lady Gaga goes with the latter.
God, I miss nights like that — the ones where I’m not really sure what happened after the seventh drink, the ones where I’m not even sure how I got home at the end of the night. That kind of night might be the best reason for living in a major city when you’re young. If you live close enough to decent clubs or bars that you can stagger your way home, it really simplifies your life. (“Just Dance” feels like a specifically New York record, since the 24-hour subway makes it so that you can always make your way back home, even if it’s sometimes a drawn-out odyssey that involves frantic searches for places to pee.) That partied-out lifestyle might not be safe, but it’s fun. “Just Dance” seems to understand both the danger and the exhilaration of that kind of evening.
Earlier this year, RedOne told Entertainment Weekly what he was trying to do with the “Just Dance” beat: “I wanted to do a rock song with big drums, but instead of guitars, it’s synths.” That concept wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it tracks. Like “I Kissed A Girl” and “So What,” the big Max Martin hits of 2008, “Just Dance” channels stomping glam-rock hedonism into a production style that’s entirely electronic. Upon reflection, it makes perfect sense that RedOne and Max Martin came from the same system; they both organize their tracks around hard, immediate hooks. Lady Gaga sounds a little bit like a rock singer, albeit an extremely Auto-Tuned one. But those Max Martin tracks never sounded anything like house music, while “Just Dance” does evoke that feeling. I don’t think that’s just because it has the word “dance” in its title.
Those RedOne keyboards on the “Just Dance” intro sound cheap. They’re commanding, but they’re also tinny and brittle. Gaga’s voice is throaty and determined, but it’s not effortless. At the time, you could’ve confused her with an anonymous club diva, though she would quickly establish a strong enough persona that you couldn’t do that anymore. She sings in a raw, intense bleat without really opening her voice up. We would later learn that this was an artistic decision, that Lady Gaga is a beast of a singer. At the time, though, Gaga came off like someone who was finding smart ways to deploy a limited range.
“Just Dance” has one of those ingratiating, repetitive earworm hooks that, depending on your mood, can quickly grow oppressive. It’s bright and sharp and clean, and it can really get stuck in your head. That hook feels a little too smooth and precise to capture the oblivion that Gaga describes on the song. My favorite part of “Just Dance” will always be the bridge, when the squelchy ’80s keyboards come in and Gaga chants about being “half-psychotic, sick, hypnotic” with so much echo on her voice that you couldn’t possibly understand what she’s saying. That’s the moment where the song itself sounds drunk, where Gaga comes closest to the electroclash weirdos who obviously influenced her.
Gaga and RedOne co-wrote “Just Dance” with Gaga’s new label boss Akon, and Akon’s backup vocals are all over the track. Akon also wrote himself a verse about walking onto the dancefloor and seeing “so many women without a flaw.” “Just Dance” is not a horny song; it’s about the vaguely terrifying euphoria of getting lost in the moment. Akon’s verse is more calculating, and it’s infinitely less charming. Gaga and Akon recorded a “Just Dance” demo together, but Akon’s label wouldn’t clear his appearance on the track. Akon was signed to Universal, and Interscope was under the Universal umbrella, but there was apparently too much competition among the different corporate branches for Akon to show up on his own artist’s track. Maybe that’s why people don’t really think of Lady Gaga as an Akon protege, or maybe it’s just that Gaga’s star has utterly eclipsed Akon’s.
In any case, Akon handed his “Just Dance” verse over to Colby O’Donis, another artist he’d signed to his KonLive imprint. To me, that’s the funniest thing about “Just Dance.” The song is the introduction of Lady Gaga, a game-changing superstar in the making, and it’s also the introduction of Colby O’Donis, who is just some guy. O’Donis, the son of New York DJ and a Puerto Rican beauty queen, grew up between Queens and Florida. (When O’Donis was born, the #1 song in America was Debbie Gibson’s “Lost In Your Eyes.”) As a kid, O’Donis sang a song on the Stuart Little soundtrack. As a teenager, he signed with Akon. O’Donis brings absolutely zero personality to his “Just Dance” voice; he just sounds like he’s doing Akon karaoke. Colby never worked with Lady Gaga again, and his career didn’t really benefit from that extremely forgettable “Just Dance” verse. After “Just Dance” blew up, O’Donis got to #14 with his debut single, the Akon collab “What You Got,” and then he never charted again.
When Akon played “Just Dance” for Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, Iovine agreed that the song was a hit, but he wanted to give it to a proven hitmaker, and he thought Gaga was a little too similar to former Number Ones artist Gwen Stefani. Iovine figured that “Just Dance” might do well for Interscope girl group the Pussycat Dolls, and that’s a real sliding-doors moment to consider. Lady Gaga actually pitched a lot of songs to the Pussycat Dolls, but they always got shot down. Akon insisted that “Just Dance” should be Gaga’s song, and he got his way. (The Pussycat Dolls’ highest-charting single, the 2005 Busta Rhymes collab “Don’t Cha,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)
Looking at the “Just Dance” video, you can’t really tell that Lady Gaga was about to become her era’s premier music-video artist. Future Queen & Slim auteur Melina Matsoukas pretty much just films a sweaty, decadent party scene that fits into the style of that moment. Akon is in there, looking handsome and comfortable. Colby O’Donis is in there, looking like a true rando. Lady Gaga stands out, with a Bowie-style lightning bolt painted on her cheek, but she doesn’t look like an alien yet. Instead, she comes off as a drunk club kid, which is the character that she plays in the song. She splashes around in a kiddie pool. She crawls around on the floor. She licks her finger theatrically. She snuggles up to two dudes at once. She hits choreographed moves that don’t make her look entirely sober. She hasn’t quite transformed herself into an art creation. That would come soon afterward.
Still, the Lady Gaga of the “Just Dance” video does not look like a circa-2008 pop star. Most of Gaga’s contemporaries in that era — Katy Perry, Britney Spears, even Beyoncé — went for some version of wholesome all-American sexiness. Gaga’s not like that. She might wear skimpy clothes in the “Just Dance” video, and she’s certainly very pretty, but she doesn’t look like she’s trying to appeal to some imagined male gaze. This distinction would soon become hugely important. After Gaga went supernova, pop stars quickly became much more comfortable presenting themselves as out-and-out freaks. In the end, nobody could outfreak Gaga.
“Just Dance” picked up momentum for months. The song couldn’t get any traction at radio, but it caught in on different pockets. The track blew up in Sweden, then in Canada. Gay clubs loved it. Gaga performed the song on every TV show that would have her, up to and including the Miss Universe pageant. Gaga’s album The Fame came out in August 2008, and it didn’t even chart for a couple of months. Eventually, though, the dominoes fell. “Just Dance” broke through the noise and conquered the Hot 100. The song became a cultural force. A long-running, extremely fun series of videos games is named after “Just Dance,” even though “Just Dance” itself isn’t in the first Just Dance. Just last month, the “Just Dance” single finally went diamond. Gaga hadn’t fully captured the public’s imagination yet, but she was on her way. We’ll see Gaga in this column again soon.