It is hard now to remember back to a time before Lady Gaga, the former New York University arts student turned pop star. She has made such a splash in the worlds of music and movies during the past decade that it feels as if she has always been here.
In recent years she has transitioned very successfully into acting, winning multiple awards for her role in the 2018 remake of ‘A Star Is Born.’ Gaga actually launched her career in 2009 though, with an album called ‘The Fame’ that produced hit singles ‘Paparazzi’, ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’.
That latter song is probably her signature hit and sounds like it is about keeping a straight face to win poker games. Gaga has revealed a more personal meaning to it though.
The Success of the Song
‘Poker Face’ was the second single to be taken from her debut album and helped to establish her as a hit artist. Given the title, many people assumed at the time that it was a song related to playing poker.
After all, poker face is a widely recognised tactic in the game. The idea behind it is to keep your countenance as expressionless as possible to avoid giving the other players any clues about your hand of cards.
That might sound like a strange thing for a pop star to write and sing about. People do not often pay really close attention to lyrics though and in the years since, Gaga’s liking for casinos has become known, suggesting she might just have been referring to that.
However, five years after the song first hit the charts; the singer opted to clarify its meaning during a live show. She was playing a concert at an ultra-exclusive private member’s club in the Mayfair district of London at the time.
Gaga performed a slow, stripped-down version of her hit song and announced to the audience that it was really about her struggles with her sexual orientation. She stated that she was involved with a man at the time that the song was written, but harboured feelings for women that she was keeping to herself.
A Gambling Metaphor
The fact that the song deals with the singer’s closet bisexuality does not mean that it has no relation to the subject of poker or gambling at all though. What is really happening is that she is using them as a metaphor.
‘Poker Face’ refers to not giving away your true feelings about your sexuality to the person you are in a relationship with. That connects it with the idea of trying to conceal your emotions during a game of poker by hiding behind that calm poker face.
It seems as if Gaga was drawing on her appreciation for the world of Las Vegas casinos and the thrill of the games as a creative way to make her point. That is the sort of move that earned the lyrics to ‘The Fame’ critical praise upon release.
The True Meaning
However it also ensured that the true meaning of the song remained obscure to most listeners at the time. Given her closeted status in that period and the impact it may have had upon her career at such an early stage, using a metaphor may also have been a practical decision.
Her public statement at the Belvedere Club back in 2013 did not generate any really major news headlines either. People began to pick up on its hidden meanings more than a decade after the original release, causing it to go viral on social media sites used by young people, such as Tik Tok.
The Song That Made a Star
Even all these years later, ‘Poker Face’ is still one of the songs that everyone identifies with Lady Gaga. Composed by the singer in collaboration with RedOne, a top producer, it became the global biggest selling single of 2009, shifting more than 9.8 million in that year alone.
It is now considered one of the biggest sellers in pop history and can be said to have made Gaga a fully-fledged star. That commercial success was combined with critical acclaim, as the song earned Grammy Record of the Year and Song of the Year nominations.
The question is: would it have conquered the world so decisively had people known at the time what it was actually all about? Some will say the answer is yes, but the culture has advanced a lot since 2009.
What would be viewed as a celebration of a marginal identity now may not have been back then. Its hidden meaning has ensured ‘Poker Face’ has stayed relevant in this current era.
This song helped to make Lady Gaga a star and she has built on it ever since.