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.
Lightning crackles through the clouds as Lady Gaga rises, in slow motion, from a swimming pool. Gaga’s face is covered by a mask made from crushed-up disco balls. There’s a spiky black-metallic shoulderpad on her vinyl bodysuit. In front of her, two Great Danes sit at attention, like Egyptian statues. Gaga looks like Gozer appearing on the rooftop at the end of Ghostbusters, if Gozer was ready to party. She’s a dance-music wraith from another dimension, and the world is not ready for her.
The opening shots of the “Poker Face” video were disorienting for any music snobs who heard “Just Dance” and wrote Lady Gaga off as an assembly line club-pop singer. If Gaga seemed slightly eccentric in the “Just Dance” video, the “Poker Face” clip revealed her to be some kind of sci-fi demon. The music was still pulsing, infernally catchy dance-pop, but the imagery reflected something grander and more ambitious. This was just the beginning. In the months that followed, every Gaga video and TV show appearance revealed some wild, theatrical new twist. This mysterious figure took pop stardom very, very seriously, and she was going to make sure that people knew her name.
Any discussion of “Poker Face,” or really with that first Lady Gaga era, has to start with the videos. It all happened so quickly. A few years earlier, videos had been something that might be on MTV when you got home from school. Suddenly, you could pull videos up again and again on YouTube, as long as the videos gave you something sufficiently interesting to look at. Lady Gaga always gave some kind of berserk visual feast. Soon enough, every new Lady Gaga video became an event, even if you didn’t like the music. And if you started to consider the music as a vehicle for that kind of image-play — and Lady Gaga clearly hoped that you would — then the songs soon came to sound much more powerful. That’s what happened with me and “Poker Face.”
Lady Gaga had just met producer RedOne when the two of them wrote “Poker Face.” In their first week working together, Gaga and RedOne wrote and recorded “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and at least one other hit. RedOne later claimed that “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” took about one hour apiece. That probably worked to Gaga’s benefit. Gaga tracks tend to be messy and maximalist, so full of ideas that it can be hard to wrap your head around whatever’s happening. The “Poker Face” video reflects that sensibility, but the the song itself is powered by pure, direct horniness.
Gaga recorded “Poker Face” just after the mid-’00s poker boom, when various cultural forces conspired to turn gambling into a gigantic mainstream thing. Anytime I’d go to another dude’s house, there was a good chance that he’d have a celebrity poker tournament on the TV. People younger than me were making healthy livings by gambling online. A 2006 law shut down a lot of those gambling websites, but poker itself was still bouncing around in the zeitgeist. In 2006’s Casino Royale, for instance, Daniel Craig, the newly anointed James Bond, played Texas hold ’em, which did not seem like a particularly Bondian thing to do. Gaga can’t have been the only person who turned poker into a barely veiled sex metaphor, but she did it more successfully than anyone else.
At first, Gaga said that “Poker Face” was a song for her past “rock ‘n’ roll boyfriends,” who were all big into gambling. Soon after the song blew up, Gaga said that the song had a hidden meaning — that it was really about bisexuality, about fantasizing about a woman when she’s with a man. The guy doesn’t really know what she’s thinking. He can’t read her poker face. That hidden meaning is really hidden; you probably wouldn’t pick it up without Gaga pointing you in that direction. Instead, her “Poker Face” lyrics work as single entendres: “I wanna roll with him, a hard pair we will be/ A little gamblin’ is fun when you’re with me.”
Those are some profoundly silly lyrics, but the lyrics aren’t the point of “Poker Face.” If they were, Gaga probably would’ve sung them more clearly. Instead, she howls the chorus so hard that she turns it into ecstatic gibberish: “Carried ma! Carried ma! No we carried a-ma! Pow-kah face!” Instead, the grimy, pulsing synthpop texture is the star. Gaga and RedOne take their goofy-ass gambling-as-sex jam and turn it into something that sounds enticingly sinister.
I love the “Poker Face” intro. It starts out with an ominous, foggy keyboard that reminds me of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator score. Then we get some more overtly stabby ’90s-house synths and RedOne’s deep-as-hell backing vocals, murmuring a nonsense line: “Ma-mum-mum-mah!” That bit comes straight from “Ma Baker,” a single that the gloriously silly German disco project Boney M released in 1977.
Boney M, the brainchild of future Milli Vanilli mastermind Frank Farian, have been having a big TikTok moment lately. My kids, I am happy to report, put “Rasputin” on in the car all the time. In their ’70s heyday, though, Boney M were mostly a European phenomenon who never had much of an impact on the US charts. (“Ma Baker” peaked at #96 over here. Boney M’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, their 1978 version of the reggae classic “Rivers Of Babylon,” peaked at #30.) When Lady Gaga recorded “Poker Face,” that Boney M quote would’ve been a deep pull — a clear sign that Gaga and RedOne were immersed in the campiest sounds of a bygone era.
Like “Just Dance” before it, “Poker Face” pointed to a new chart reality when Euro-club sounds were ascendant in America. We call it the EDM era these days, even though the songs that charted weren’t necessarily the same tracks that you’d hear at corporate mega-raves like Electric Daisy Carnival. Most of the dance-adjacent pop songs that took over the charts were big and bright and silly. “Poker Face” is big and silly, but it’s not bright. Instead, it throbs with a kind of sleazy, forbidden energy. There’s something predatory about it — the eerie minor-key synth notes, the panting beat, Gaga’s own growl.
On “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga’s voice is a husky rasp. She sounds extremely New York. When she does the “puh-puh-puh-poker face” thing, she reminds me a bit of Natasha Lyonne, and I don’t think that’s entirely because Natasha Lyonne is now starring in a TV show called Poker Face. On the verses, Gaga chants more than she sings, and her multi-tracked whoa-uh-ohs sound like something that cyborg soldiers might belt out while marching. On the bridge, Gaga goes all the way into the quasi-rap style that I associate with electroclash artists like Peaches, though she puts a little more theater-kid mustard on her delivery: “I’m bluffin‘ with my muffin! I’m not lyin’, I’m just stunnin’ with my love, glue-gunnin’!” But the chorus itself is a massive disco earworm, as Gaga’s suddenly-clean wail contrasts with RedOne’s murky call-and-response backup vocals.
“Poker Face” sounds naughty, and there’s still some online debate over whether Gaga turns the “puh-puh-puh-poker face” bit into “fuh-fuh-fuh-fuck her face.” (It does kind of sound like that.) But most of the dirtiness is implied. There are so many hooks on “Poker Face” that the song annoyed a whole lot of people. Maybe it was too catchy. If you heard “Poker Face” once, it would be jammed in your head for the rest of the day. That ruthless catchiness is its greatest weapon, and it’s what allowed Gaga to become a cultural phenomenon. All of Gaga’s wild costumes and productions were able to connect because she had these ridiculously sticky songs that instantly seemed omnipresent. “Poker Face” might’ve been the stickiest, which made the song an ideal Trojan horse for the whole Gaga persona.
Lady Gaga released the “Poker Face” single in September 2008, soon after “Just Dance” finally cracked the Hot 100. Maybe Gaga’s Interscope bosses thought that “Just Dance” wouldn’t last long on the charts. As a result, those two singles seemed to hit at the same time, more or less. Gaga’s profile rose quickly, and she used every platform at her disposal to push her art-freak style. “Poker Face” got its biggest boost in April, when Gaga gave a truly wild performance on American Idol.
Gaga started out her Idol performance bathed in purple light, sitting at a piano while a violin player hovered over her. She seemed to be doing a kind of American Idol drag. She transformed the song into a demonstrative showtune, oversinging it in what must’ve been an Amy Winehouse impression. She looked crazy — metallic dress, zipper over her eye — but she was belting harder than she ever did on record. After she got through the first chorus, though, the beat dropped, and Gaga leapt up and got into some utterly berserk cyborg-zombie choreography. It was ridiculous, and it was amazing. When the camera panned over to the Idol contestants, their befuddled disbelief was visible. Even if they won the show, even if they got a shot at pop stardom, they would have to compete with this. They never had a chance. A week after the Idol performance, “Poker Face” was the #1 song in America.
That Idol performance revealed something important about Gaga. She didn’t think of her songs as perfect, finalized creations. Instead, those songs existed in constant flux, and she would switch them up to fit the situation. There were lots of different versions of “Poker Face” out there — not just remixes but entirely different recordings. In February 2009, Gaga released a live-in-studio EP called The Cherrytree Sessions, and it included a playful solo-piano version of “Poker Face” that stripped away all of its dance-music trappings. Gaga sang “Poker Face” as the kind of cabaret song that Sara Bareilles or Ingrid Michaelson might’ve sung. That Cherrytree Sessions version of “Poker Face” never charted, but I heard it a lot.
Gaga did something very, very different with “Poker Face” when she opened the 2010 Grammys, where the single was nominated for Record and Song Of The Year. (It lost both.) On the Grammys stage, an over-the-top MC literally dragged Gaga onstage, cackling that “she has no soul.” The stage was done up in steampunk fashion and labeled as “the Fame Factory.” Then Gaga sang “Poker Face,” starting it out as a Broadway ballad before doing the canonical version with her claws-up monster dance. The MC yelled that Gaga’s “mind-controlling pop music is ruining my business,” and her dancers threw her into a flaming hole. Then Gaga, covered in soot, emerged on a two-sided piano, across from a similarly made-up Elton John. Together, Gaga and Elton sang Gaga’s ballad “Speechless” and Elton’s own “Your Song.” (Elton John has been in this column a bunch of times. “Your Song” peaked at #8 in 1970. It’s an 8.)
Lady Gaga was able to open the Grammys with that whole elaborate, vaguely pretentious production and that Elton John torch-passing moment because she’d become an inescapable pop figure. She was probably the marquee attraction at that year’s Grammys. When “Poker Face” spent its week at #1, Gaga’s debut album The Fame hadn’t even gone platinum yet. Now, that LP is sextuple platinum. The “Poker Face” single went diamond in 2015, which means it did most of its numbers in the pre-streaming era, when people still had to pay for the individual downloads. Gaga had more hits on deck, and she made increasingly elaborate and bugged-out videos for each of them. She followed “Poker Face” with “LoveGame,” her ode to having some fun, this beat is sick, and wanting to take a ride on your disco stick. (“LoveGame” peaked at #5; it’s an 8.)
The “LoveGame” video, with its ultra-butch dancers and cops, went hard on queer imagery, and it featured Gaga making out with a man and a woman. Gaga flaunted her connection to her gay audience like no pop star before her; even Madonna, Gaga’s obvious progenitor, seemed to play it coy in comparison. Gaga embraced camp aesthetics with unprecedented glee, too. The video for “Paparazzi,” her next single, is a seven-minute melodrama, with Gaga getting her revenge against murderous scheming lover Alexander Skarsgård. “Paparazzi” made it as high as #6, thanks in part to the wild VMA performance that ended with Gaga covered in blood. (“Paparazzi” is another 8.)
By the end of 2009, Gaga was the figure at the center of pop music, the main character driving the story. She also had a bunch more songs. Gaga initially planned to release a deluxe version of The Fame, but instead, she dropped an eight-song companion-piece EP called The Fame Monster. Some of those songs pushed Gaga even further over the top, and one of them remains her greatest, most iconic moment to this date. “Bad Romance” is an absolute fucking banger, and its bewitching, bewildering video remains one of this century’s most perfect pieces of mass-culture art. “Bad Romance” racked up unprecedented YouTube numbers, but it somehow only made it to #2 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 10.)
The Fame Monster had other hits, too. “Alejandro” drew on both ABBA and Madonna, and its video is full of religious BDSM imagery. When Gaga made transgressive moves like that, it rarely felt like forced provocation. Christian groups tried to make a fuss, but Gaga didn’t inspire the same kind of moral panics as past-generation stars like Madonna. Maybe cultural mores had shifted, or maybe Gaga’s music was just too much fun to seriously threaten anyone. Either way, a video like “Alejandro” might’ve made helped usher a certain level of freakiness into the fast-splintering mainstream. (“Alejandro” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
Lady Gaga definitely had an effect on her pop-star peers. You could see that in her bugged-out epic video for “Telephone,” the song where Gaga joined forces with Beyoncé, whose “Single Ladies” defeated “Poker Face” for Song Of The Year at the Grammys. With the “Telephone” video, Gaga and director Jonas Åkerlund brought Beyoncé into their heightened, surreal world, and the two singers conspired to murder Tyrese and everyone else in their diner. (“Telephone” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
In about a year, Lady Gaga went from major-label also-ran to vivid, stratospheric, game-changing pop star. She captured millions of imaginations, and she moved pop’s Overton window. It was one of the wildest, most successful opening runs that any star has ever had. Gaga has never quite reached those omnipresent heights again, but she’s made plenty more hits, and we’ll see her in this column again before long.