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BLACKPINK Talk 'The Album': "The Spotlight Shed On K-Pop Is Just The Beginning"

Ahead of the release of 'The Album,' GRAMMY.com sat down with the K-pop superstars to discuss their career, achievements, motivations and future

GRAMMYs/Sep 29, 2020 - 08:11 pm

At some point during the conversation, the topic of the pressure of being BLACKPINK comes up. There’s a short silence on the other end of the call. Starkly different from the effervescent laughs until then, it’s pregnant with introspection as the four members of BLACKPINK—Lisa, Jennie, Jisoo and Rosé—think about the title that’s most often associated with their name: "The Biggest Girl Group In The World."

It isn't hyperbole, either. A look at the numbers is enough to prove that. Within 24 hours of its release earlier in June, the first pre-release single from The Album, "How You Like That," broke five Guinness World Records. With 86.3 million views in that time, it became the most viewed YouTube video and the most viewed music video in the world. "How You Like That" also debuted at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, tying with Lady Gaga’s "Sour Candy"—a song the group featured on—making BLACKPINK the highest-ranking female Korean act at the time.

Earlier in 2019, the quartet became the first K-pop group to hit 1 billion views on Youtube with their single "Kill This Love." They followed it up with a sizzling performance of the single at Coachella, making history again as the first K-pop girl group to do so.

Along with the weight of the epithet, thus, the title encompasses a vast journey that the quartet has covered in just a fraction of the time it takes established acts—four years to be precise. So, excuse the members of BLACKPINK for taking a couple seconds to reflect, please.

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"It's very surprising to us," Jennie says at last. "Every day we try to acknowledge how grateful we are, but more than the pressure, we are ready to give them back as much as they [their fans, BLINKs] gave us. It just gives us more motivation to go further than we ever dreamed of."

If you’ve been acquainted with the BLACKPINK ethos, you will have seen this coming. For the better part of four years, the members of BLACKPINK have stood tall on the backs of the self-assured, self-aware messages in their music. Whatever the challenge, the BLACKPINK way is to always go up. Now, as they get ready to reacquaint themselves with the world with their first full-length release, The Album, the same determination abounds.

"We tried to put more colors into our music, say black and pink," says Lisa. "I wish each member has a stronger presence on the stage and explores more various genres. I hope people don’t know what to expect from us, except for something better than before. We want to be unpredictable."

Ahead of the release of The Album, GRAMMY.com sat down with BLACKPINK to discuss their career, achievements, motivations and future.

This is going to be your first full-length album after your debut, so the hype is very real. What was the mood when you heard it was happening?

Rosé: At the very start, when they said that we were going to [be releasing] our first album, we were very stoked, because we do know that our fans have been waiting for this moment for a very, very long time. We were very excited but also nervous at the same time because we do know that it is a big deal. It's the first time we were able to put all of our colors into something. We had mixed feelings, but overall it was very positive vibes, and we were very stoked to be able to finally release the full album.

The Album is coming after almost four years of your debut, which is a long time. Why do you think that this is the right moment for it?

Rosé: We had four years to kind of build our own colors as BLACKPINK. Throughout the four years, we got to explore different genres and really find out our exact, distinct colors. So, I feel like [in] this album, we were able to put our prepared music style and contribute with new music genres that we're still exploring recently. [That's why] I think now is the best time to come out, because any later would be too late and any earlier, we might have been in a rush. We definitely feel like, right now, we are fully ready to put out a full completed album.

How do you think this album represents the kind of artists you are? How does it represent your colors?

Jennie: I think we've said this before, but our new album is full of surprises. We like to believe that it's something no one has tried before. We just want to bring something new. The album is cool, you know, and we tried to put together all the colors of BLACKPINK that we've built before into one.

You started this year with some amazing collaborations. What do you look for while working with other artists? Where is that middle ground between your style and their style?

Jennie: Since there are already four of us, we're very adjusted to working with people, so somebody new is always welcome. They bring a new perspective to the group, and it's an amazing experience. It's like stepping outside of our usual boundaries and into a world that we haven’t been to. To create something new with a great artist, like Lady Gaga and Dua [Lipa] and much more to come, it's just a great chance for us as artists and groups.

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How was working on The Album different to working on your previous EPs? The Album is more cohesive, it's longer; there are more songs, more opportunities. What was that like?

Rosé: Definitely, because it's not like separate projects that we were working on. In the past, when we were working on individual projects, it was mainly all about that "one" song or that "one" concept that we were coming out with. But, because this was an album, we really had to think about the flow and the meaning behind this. I feel like this time around, we do have personal songs in there, something that tells our story, something that is fun.

And since our name is BLACKPINK, we represent the diversity in our personalities as individuals and as artists. So, we feel like we really had to put that forward and address that as well as we could.

You told me how the album went from concept to final form and how you showed your colors; are there any parts of the production process that you paid special attention to?

Rosé: I feel like we stayed in the studio for a while. We didn't want to just have a bunch of tracks and songs written for us and for us just go and record. We did spend a lot of time in the studio trying to find what we really wanted to sing about, what kind of music we wanted to put out. It took us a while to get together a list of good songs so we could get into recording mode. That's the really big process: just hanging out in the studio and making sure we have fun there so we can be honest.

Let's talk a little bit about your recent achievements. You've broken records that at one point a lot of people thought were unachievable, especially for Asian artists. You performed at Coachella, you’re the most followed K-pop act on YouTube, "How You Like That" broke so many records right after its release. In context of all that, the pressure of being BLACKPINK must be so intense.

Jennie: It's very surprising to us. All the records are the results of our fans, BLINKs, and their unconditional support. Every day we try to acknowledge how grateful we are, but more than the pressure, we are ready to give them back as much as they gave us. It just gives us more motivation to go further than we ever dreamed of.

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There's always a line between the persona and the person, so how do you make sure that the expectations people have of you are realistic, that what is going on in your professional life is either a reflection of who you are or a separation from it?

Jisoo: We are grateful, as artists, as individuals, that people have such big expectations of us, and we are ready to take on the burden that comes with the expectations. We chose to do this: we try to send that message in our music, to show our confidence and the boldness to take on the challenge.

I feel like you’ve gone beyond the concept of a traditional girl group now. BLACKPINK is not just a name, it’s sort of become a force of nature where everybody knows who you are. With a position like that, there's always a danger of thinking: "I'm fine here. I'm good. This is comfortable." The position limits growth. How do you guys ensure that you always keep on reinventing?

Rosé: While we are very grateful for the amount of things that we have achieved and everything that follows this, we are just four girls who always really loved music and we just enjoyed performing. So [staying] creative is not too hard, because once we do one thing, we are always looking at the next thing, always dreaming of things that we have always wanted to do. But we definitely don't settle with what we have right now. We're all very greedy when it comes to. [Laughs.]

Jennie: We have each other to look and be inspired by. We let each other know what we're doing and where to head.

Lisa: We're like the same person.

Rosé: I think all of our members try to remind each other of how we're all just human. The hype, we try not to let it get to us. We don't really go: "Oh my god, we broke these many records or da di da..." We just look at each other and like…

Jisoo: We're just happy with how far we've come.

How do you think you've grown since your trainee days?

Rosé: We definitely have become a little more professional when it comes to this job, I guess? When we were trainees, we were only training for the music. This job is actually a job.

Jennie: There is much more stuff to care about than just music, but to carry ourselves as somebody to influence or [somebody to] look up to.

Lisa: We just enjoy every little step of it, and when we're off camera, we're pretty much like, still four girls.

Rosé: Teenage girls. [Laughs.]

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Tell me how you're going to relax after the album comes out. Will there be a party, or a girls' night in?

Rosé: The crazy thing is right after our album releases, we're going to be promoting it and trying to get as much content out there for our fans. Definitely there will be a celebration at some point, but I still think we will be at working mode.

Jennie: But an excited working mode, since our fans have the album in their hand.

Lisa: [From the back] We're workaholics!

Rosé: And our biggest celebration is kind of like, staying at home in bed. Sleeping all day, so that's going to happen, hopefully.

A lot of your plans for promotion might have been thrown off course with COVID. How does this synergy with fans affect your performance? What are you expecting this time around?

Jisoo: Even though the opportunity for us to meet our fans in person has decreased, we're very grateful for social media at this point. I actually feel like since we do have social media we have more of a platform to connect with our fans on a bigger scale, so we're grateful for that at this point in time. We just hope to reach out to our fans and give them more hope through our music and content.

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You guys are in a position where you are some of the people spearheading the modern K-pop expansion. Since your debut, we have seen K-pop grow so much. What kind of responsibility do you think you personally have towards its global expansion?

Rosé: It's amazing that K-pop is spreading around the world as a culture in itself. There are a lot of other K-pop artists out there who are trying to put out their music right now, and we are really grateful that we get to step in and be a part of that.

Jennie: Since we get such amazing opportunities and records because of the people that are interested in watching K-pop right now, we'd like to take the responsibility. We are fully committed to the work. We want to be proud when we look back on our history when we grow old.

[Rosé laughs.]

Jennie: We want to be proud of ourselves. I don't want to let ourselves down, so we put extra time, extra effort into every single thing we put out. I think that's why it takes a bit of time for us, but we really want to perfect the quality of the stuff we put out, so we can be represented to the world as a K-pop group.

Rosé: It's amazing how things are going. It's a big responsibility but a good responsibility that we have.

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Billie Eilish performs at Lollapalooza Chile 2023.
Billie Eilish performs at Lollapalooza Chile 2023

Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

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The Environmental Impact Of Touring: How Scientists, Musicians & Nonprofits Are Trying To Shrink Concerts' Carbon Footprint

"It’s not just [about] a single tour, it’s every tour," singer Brittany Howard says of efforts to make concerts more sustainable. From the nonprofit that partnered with Billie Eilish, to an MIT initiative, the music industry aims to curb climate change.

GRAMMYs/Jun 10, 2024 - 01:30 pm

Beloved by fans around the globe, yet increasingly unaffordable for many artists, concert tours are central to the world of entertainment and local economies. After the pandemic-era global shuttering of concert venues large and small, tours are back, and bigger than ever.  

Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour is smashing records, selling more than four million tickets and earning more than $1 billion. But that tour made headlines for another reason: as reported in Business Insider and other outlets, for a six-month period in 2023, Swift’s two jets spent a combined 166 hours in the air between concerts, shuttling at most a total of 28 passengers. 

Against that backdrop, heightened concerns about the global environmental cost of concert touring have led a number of prominent artists to launch initiatives. Those efforts seek both to mitigate the negative effects of touring and communicate messages about sustainability to concertgoers. 

A 2023 study sponsored by Texas-based electricity provider Payless Power found that the carbon footprint of many touring bands was massive. In 2022, concert tours in five genres — country, classic rock, hip-hop/rap, metal and pop — were responsible for CO2 emissions totaling nearly 45,000 metric tons. A so-called greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide contributes to climate change by radiative forcing; increased levels of CO2 also contribute to health problems.  

No serious discussion of climate issues suggests a worldwide halt to live music touring, but there exists much room for improvement. Both on their own and with the help of dedicated nonprofit organizations, many artists are taking positive steps toward mitigating the deleterious effects that touring exerts upon the environment.  

Smart tour planning is one way to lessen an artist’s carbon footprint. Ed Sheeran’s 2022 European run minimized flights between concert venues, making that leg of his tour the year's most environmentally efficient. Total carbon dioxide emissions (from flights and driving) on Sheeran’s tour came to less than 150 metric tons. In contrast, Dua Lipa’s tour during the same period generated 12 times as much — more than 1800 metric tons — of CO2 

In July, singer/songwriter and four-time GRAMMY nominee Jewel will embark on her first major tour in several years, alongside GRAMMY winner Melissa Etheridge. During the planning stage for the 28-city tour, Jewel suggested an idea that could reduce the tour’s carbon footprint.

"I always thought it was so silly and so wasteful — and so carbon footprint-negative — to have separate trucks, separate lighting, separate crews, separate hotel rooms, separate costs," Jewel says. She pitched the idea of sharing a backing band with Etheridge. "I’ve been trying to do this for 25 years," Jewel says with a laugh. "Melissa is the first person who took me up on it!" 

The changes will not only reduce the tour’s carbon footprint, but they’ll also lessen the cost of taking the shows on the road. Acknowledging that there are many opportunities to meet the challenges of touring’s negative impact upon the environment, Jewel emphasizes that “you have to find [solutions] that work for you.”

Sheeran and Jewel aren’t the only popular artists trying to make a difference. A number of high profile artists have become actively involved in creating the momentum for positive change. Those artists believe that their work on sustainability issues goes hand in hand with their role as public figures. Their efforts take two primary forms: making changes themselves, andadvocating for action among their fans.  

The Climate Machine 

Norhan Bayomi is an Egypt-born environmental scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a key member of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, a program launched to address sustainable climate action. She’s also a recording artist in the trance genre, working under the name Nourey 

The ESI collaborates with industry heavyweights Live Nation, Warner Music Group and others as well with touring/recording acts like Coldplay to examine the carbon footprint of the music industry. A key component of the ESI is the Climate Machine, a collaborative research group that seeks to help the live music industry reduce carbon emissions. "As a research institution, we bring technologies and analytics to understand, in the best way possible, the actual impact of the music industry upon climate change," says John Fernández, Director of the ESI.  

"I’m very interested in exploring ways that we can bridge between environmental science, climate change and music fans," Bayomi says. She explains that the tools at the ESI’s disposal include "virtual reality, augmented reality and generative AI," media forms that can communicate messages to music fans and concertgoers. Fernández says that those endeavors are aimed at "enlisting, enabling and inspiring people to get engaged in climate change." 

The Environmental Solutions Initiative cites Coldplay as a high-profile success. The band and its management issued an "Emissions Update" document in June 2024, outlining its success at achieving their goal of reducing direct carbon emissions from show production, freight, band and crew travel. The established target was a 50 percent cut in emissions compared to Coldplay’s previous tour; the final result was a 59 percent reduction between their 2022-23 tour and 2016-17 tour.  

A significant part of that reduction came as a result of a renewable-energy based battery system that powers audio and lights. The emissions data in the update was reviewed and independently validated by MIT’s Fernández.  

Change Is Reverberating 

Guitarist Adam Gardner is a founding member of Massachusetts-based indie rockers Guster, but he's more than just a singer in a rock band. Gardner is also the co-founder of REVERB, one of the organizations at the forefront of developing and implementing climate-focused sustainability initiatives.  

Founded in 2004 by Gardner and his wife, environmental activist Lauren Sullivan, REVERB  began with a goal of making touring more sustainable; over the years its focus has expanded to promote industry-wide changes. Today, the organization promotes sustainability throughout the industry  in partnership with music artists, concert venues and festivals.  

REVERB initiatives have included efforts to eliminate single-use plastics at the California Roots Music & Arts Festival, clean energy projects in cooperation with Willie Nelson and Billie Eilish, and efforts with other major artists. Gardner has seen sustainability efforts grow over two decades 

"It’s really amazing to see the [change] with artists, with venues, with fans," Gardner says. "Today, people are not just giving lip service to sustainable efforts; they really want to do things that are real and measurable."  

The Music Decarbonization Project is one tangible example of REVERB’s successes. "Diesel power is one of the dirtiest sources of power," Gardner explains. "And it’s an industry standard to power festival stages with diesel generators." Working with Willie Nelson, the organization helped switch the power sources at his annual Luck Reunion to clean energy. At last year’s festival, Nelson’s headlining stage drew 100 percent of its power from solar-powered batteries. "We set up a temporary solar farm," Gardner says, "and the main stage didn’t have to use any diesel power."  

Billie Eilish was another early supporter of the initiative. "She helped us launch the program," Gardner says. Eilish’s set at Lollapallooza 2023 drew power from solar batteries, too.  

With such high-profile successes as a backdrop, Gardner believes that REVERB is poised to do even more to foster sustainable concerts and touring. "Our role now," he says, "isn’t just, ‘Hey, think about this stuff.’ It’s more how do we push farther, faster?"  

Adam Gardner believes that musicians are uniquely positioned to help make a difference where issues of sustainability are concerned. "When you’re a musician, you’re connecting with fans heart-to-heart. That’s what moves people. And that’s where the good stuff happens."  

Small-scale, individual changes can make a difference — especially when they’re coordinated and amplified among other concertgoers. Gardner provides real-world examples. "Instead of buying a plastic bottle, I brought my reusable and filled it up. Maybe I carpooled to the show." Conceding that such steps might seem like drops of water in a giant pool, he emphasizes the power of scale. "When you actually multiply [those things for] just one summer tour, it adds up," he says. "And it reminds people, ‘You’re not alone in this; you’re part of a community that’s taking action."  

Gardner understands that REVERB’s arguments have to be framed the right way to reach concertgoers. "Look," he admits, "It’s a concert. We’re not here to be a buzzkill. Our [aim] now is making sure people don’t lose hope." He says that REVERB and its partners seek to demonstrate that, with collective action and cultural change, there is reason for optimism.  

"There’s a wonderful feedback loop between hope and action," Gardner says with a smile. "You can’t really have one without the other."  

Sustainable Partnerships 

Tanner Watt is Director of Partnerships at REVERB; he works directly with touring artists to develop, coordinate and implement initiatives that bring together his organization’s objectives and the specific personal concerns of the artists. "I get to come up with all the fun, big ideas," he says with a wide smile.  

Watt acknowledges that like every concertgoer, each touring artist has a certain level of responsibility where sustainability is concerned. "And everyone can be doing something," he says, noting a number of straightforward actions that artists can put in place while on tour. "They can eliminate single-use waste. They can donate hotel toiletries that [would otherwise] hit the landfill."  

Watt stresses that artists can lead by example. "Nobody wants to listen to an artist telling them what to do if they’re not doing it themselves," he says. "But we believe that everybody cares about something." He suggests that if an artist has cultivated a following, "Why not use [that platform] to be that change you want to see in the world?"  

Each artist has his or her own specific areas of concern, but Watt says that there’s a base level of "greening" that takes place on every REVERB-affiliated tour. Where things go from there is up to the artist, in coordination with REVERB. Watt mentions Billie Eilish and her tour’s sustainability commitment. "The Venn diagram of food security, community health, access to healthy food, and the impact on the planet is a big cause for her," he says. "So there’s plant-based catering for her entire crew, across the entire tour." 

Speaking to Billboard, Eilish's mother Maggie Baird said championing sustainability starts with artists. "If artists are interested, it does really start with them telling their teams that they care and that it’s foremost in their thoughts." In the same conversation, Eilish called the battle for sustainability "a never-ending f–king fight."  

Watt acknowledges that with so many challenges, it’s important for a concerned artist to focus on the issues that move them the most, and where they can make the biggest difference. "Jack Johnson is a great example," he says. While Johnson is a vocal advocate for many environmental issues, on tour he focuses on two (in Watt’s words) "cause umbrellas": single-use plastics solutions and sustainable community food systems. Each show on the tour hosts tables representing local nonprofit organizations, presenting concertgoers with real-world, human-scale solutions to those specific challenges.  

Four-time GRAMMY winner Brittany Howard is another passionate REVERB partner. "Knowing that I wanted to make my tours more sustainable was a start," she tells GRAMMY.com, "but working with REVERB really helped me bring it to life on the road. REVERB has helped us with guidelines and a green rider to keep our stage, greenrooms and buses more sustainable." 

After listing several other specific ways that her tour supports sustainability, Howard notes, "By supporting these efforts, I am helping ensure future generations have access to clean water, fish, and all that I love about the outdoors." A dollar from every ticket sold to a Brittany Howard concert goes toward support of REVERB’s Music Decarbonization project. "I’m also excited to see industry-wide efforts that are reducing the carbon pollution of live music," Howard continues. "Because it’s not just [about] a single tour, it’s every tour." 

There’s a popular aphorism: "You can’t manage what you can’t measure." From its start, REVERB has sought not only to promote change, but to measure its success. "As long as I’ve been at REVERB, we’ve issued impact reports," says Tanner Watt. "We include data points, and give the report to the artists so they understand what we’ve done together." He admits that some successes are more tangible than others, but that it’s helpful to focus on the ones that can be quantified. "We’re very excited that our artists share those with their fans."  

Watt is clear-eyed at the challenges that remain. "Even the word ‘sustainable’ can be misleading," he concedes, suggesting that the only truly sustainable tour is the one that doesn’t happen. "But if folks don’t step it up and change the way we do business in every industry — not just ours — we’re going to get to a place where we’re forced to make sacrifices that aren’t painless." Getting that message across is REVERB’s aim. "We can’t stop the world," Watt says. "So we find ways to approach these things positively."  

Watt says that the fans at concerts featuring Jack Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band — both longtime REVERB partners — are already on board with many of the sustainability-focused initiatives which those artists promote. "But there are lots of artists — and lots of fan bases — out there that aren’t messaged to, or have been mis-messaged to," he says. "I’m really excited to find more ways to expand our reach to them, beyond mainstream pop music. Because these are conversations that are meaningful for everyone, regardless of political affiliation or other beliefs."  

Reimagining The Planet’s Future 

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adam Met does more than front AJR, the indie pop trio he founded in 2005 with brothers Jack and Ryan. Met has a PhD in sustainable development and is a climate activist; he's also the founder/Executive Director of Planet Reimagined, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability and activism through its work with businesses, other organizations and musicians.  

"I’ve spent years traveling around the world, seeing the direct impact of climate change," Met says. He cites two recent and stark examples. "When we pulled up to a venue in San Francisco, the band had to wear gas masks going from the bus into the venue, because of forest fires," he says. AJR’s road crew had to contend with a flash flood in Athens, Greece that washed out their hotel. "And in Rome, some of our crew members fainted because of the heat."  

Encouraged by representatives from the United Nations, Met launched Planet Reimagined. Met’s approach focuses on tailored, city-specific actions to empower fans and amplify diverse voices in the climate movement. Through social media and live shows, Met strives to galvanize climate activism among AJR fans. And the methods he has developed can be implemented by other touring artists.  

Met points out that one of the most climate-unfriendly parts of the entire concert tour enterprise is fans traveling to and from the concerts. And that’s something over which the artist has little or no control. What they can do, he says, is try to educate and influence. Working closely with Ticketmaster and other stakeholders, Met’s nonprofit initiated a study — conducted from July to December 2023, with results published in April 2024 — to explore the energy that happens at concerts. "In sociology," he explains, "that energy is called collective effervescence." The study’s goal is to find ways to channel that energy toward advocacy and action.  

Polling a quarter million concertgoers across musical genres, the study collected data on attitudes about climate change. "Seventy-three percent of fans who attend concerts believe that climate change is real, and that we need to be doing more about it," Met says. "Seventy-eight percent have already taken some sort of action in their lives." He believes that if his organization can activate even a fraction of the estimated 250 million people annually who attend concerts around the globe, "that’s the ballgame."  

Met’s goal is to do more than, say, get concertgoers to switch from plastic to paper drinking straws. "At scale those things make a difference. But people want to see actions where there’s a track record," he says; a return on investment.  

AJR will be putting a plan into action on the second half of their upcoming arena tour. Part of the initiative is encouraging concertgoers to register to vote, and then actually vote. Beyond that, Met has specific actions in mind. "At every single stop, we’re putting together materials around specific policies that are being debated at the local level," he explains. "We give people a script right there, so they can call their elected representative and say, ‘I want you to vote [a certain way on this issue].’"  

He believes the initiative will lead to thousands of people contacting – and hopefully influencing – their representatives. With regard to sustainability issues, Met is convinced that "the most impact that you can have as an artist is when you give fans ways to pick up the mantle themselves." 

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Photo of Lady Gaga performing during The Chromatica Ball in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 2022. Lady Gaga is wearing a pink costume pink head dress with goggles.
Lady Gaga performs during The Chromatica Ball in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 2022.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

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Lady Gaga's Biggest Songs: 15 Tracks That Show Her Avant-Garde Pop Prowess

As fans relive the exhilarating spectacle of Lady Gaga's 2022 stadium tour with a new HBO Max concert film, 'GAGA CHROMATICA BALL,' jam out to 15 of her signature songs, from "Poker Face" to "Rain on Me."

GRAMMYs/May 23, 2024 - 07:29 pm

Nearly two years after bringing her 2020 album Chromatica to life with a sold-out stadium tour, Lady Gaga is bringing The Chromatical Ball to your living room. GAGA CHROMATICA BALL, an HBO Original special that premieres May 25 exclusively on MAX, will take Little Monsters into the mesmerizing, colorful world the 13-time GRAMMY winner crafted with her sixth studio set. 

The Chromatica Ball was a joyful cultural triumph as the world emerged from lockdown, hitting 20 stadiums across Europe, North America and Asia in the summer of 2022. While it was named after Chromatica and featured the majority of the dance-driven album's track list — including the smash Ariana Grande duet, "Rain On Me," and lead single "Stupid Love" — the tour was a celebration of the breadth of her acclaimed career as a whole, which has spanned decades, genres, styles, and entire industries. 

GAGA CHROMATICA BALL documents Lady Gaga's sold-out September 2022 show at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which was one of the biggest venues on the tour. Showcasing a stage inspired by brutalist architecture and a set list stretching from the pop star's 2008 debut album, The Fame, to her Top Gun: Maverick track, "Hold My Hand," the film will also take fans inside the raw passion Gaga brings to each and every live show. 

In celebration of the concert film, GRAMMY.com revisits 15 of Gaga's most career-defining songs to date, from early hits like "Poker Face" to stunning deep cuts like Chromatica's "Free Woman."

"Just Dance" (feat. Colby O'Donis), The Fame (2008)

Lady Gaga burst onto the scene in 2008 with a fully realized point of view and pop star persona, but her debut single actually wasn't an immediate smash on the charts. Instead, "Just Dance" served as the sleeper hit that kick-started Gaga's legendary career, landing at the precipice of the Billboard Hot 100 after a 22-week climb from its initial entry at No. 76 to the nascent pop star her very first No. 1 hit. 

A polished dance floor banger produced by RedOne and co-written with Akon, "Just Dance" perfectly crystallizes the dance-pop resurgence of the late 2000s that Gaga not only helped spearhead, but masterfully rode into the upper echelon of 21st century pop stardom. Notably, the song also earned Gaga the first GRAMMY nomination of her career for Best Dance Recording in 2009 — a full year before her debut album would announce itself as a major force at the 2010 ceremony.

"Poker Face," The Fame (2008)

If "Just Dance" set expectations sky high for the music Gaga had up her well-manicured sleeve, "Poker Face" majorly surpassed them — and subsequently, became one of the defining pop songs of the decade. With its relentless rhythm, sing-song  "Po-po-po-poker face, po-po-poker face" refrain, and winkingly naughty lyrics ("'Cause I'm bluffin' with my muffin," anybody?), the song proved Gaga knew how to expertly construct an earworm while delivering a high-concept visual spectacle in spades. 

"Poker Face" became the singer's second consecutive No. 1 single on the Hot 100, marking the first time a brand-new artist had accomplished the feat since Christina Aguilera's one-two punch of "Genie in a Bottle" and "What a Girl Wants" a full decade prior. By year's end, "Poker Face" had become top-selling single of 2009 across the globe, and the following year, it earned Gaga her first nods for both Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year at the 2010 GRAMMYs, with The Fame also being nominated for Album Of The Year.

Though the song and LP ultimately lost in the major categories, they respectively took home the golden gramophones for Best Dance Recording and Best Electronic Dance Album, officially making Gaga a GRAMMY-winning artist after less than two years in the industry. 

"The Fame," The Fame (2008)

While it was never released as an official single, the title track off Gaga's 2008 debut album serves as something of an early thesis statement for the avant garde star who so confidently declared, "POP MUSIC WILL NEVER BE LOWBROW" as she burst from New York City's underground scene to the global stage.

Gaga lays bare her ambitions with brazen clarity on the punchy electronic track, as she gushes over her single-minded love for "runway models, Cadillacs and liquor bottles" and sings, "Give me something I wanna be/ Retro glamor, Hollywood, yes we live for the fame/ Doin' it for the fame/ 'Cause we wanna live the life of the rich and famous." Later on the song's bridge, the pop star vows, "Don't ask me how or why/ But I'm gonna make it happen this time," and in retrospect, there's no denying Gaga accomplished everything she set out to achieve at the start of her career. 

"Bad Romance," The Fame Monster (2009)

The Fame heralded Gaga as the next big thing in pop music. But rather than spend a couple years fine-tuning her follow-up, the newly minted star decided to double down while the iron was red hot by reissuing the album as The Fame Monster, complete with eight new songs. And in doing so, she catapulted herself to superstar status with just five syllables: "Ra-ra-ah-ah-ahh." 

If the Gaga of "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" was a flashy striver fighting her way to the center of the cultural zeitgeist, "Bad Romance" presented Gaga as a high-fashion pop queen ready to turn her coronation into a victory lap. Not only did "Bad Romance" score Gaga her fifth consecutive top 5 hit on the Billboard 200, it also won her the GRAMMYs for Female Pop Solo Performance and Music Video/Short Form in 2011. (The Fame Monster, meanwhile, took home the golden gramophone for Pop Vocal Album — the first of Gaga's four nominations and counting in the category.)

"Telephone" (featuring Beyoncé), The Fame Monster (2009)

"Hello, hello, baby, you called, I can't hear a thing…" On its face, "Telephone" may sound like a garden variety electro-pop bop, but Gaga turned the track into an unforgettable club banger of the highest order by recruiting the one and only Beyoncé. The two superstars play off one another with panache as they shrug off responsibility and incessant calls from home in favor of giving into the music.

The single's murderous, Jonas Åkerlund-directed visual remains one of the most iconic in Gaga's storied visual history. Fourteen years after Gaga and Honey B drove off in the Pussy Wagon with the promise to never come back, Little Monsters and the Beyhive are still clamoring for a follow-up. Need proof? Just look at the internet frenzy Queen Bey caused when she appeared driving a similarly hued taxi in a teaser for the album that became COWBOY CARTER earlier this year.

"Born This Way," Born This Way (2011)

Almost from the moment she emerged onto the national consciousness, Gaga was considered a gay icon in the making, proudly advocating for the queer community — and in turn, cultivating a passionate, devoted LGBTQ+ fan base who worshiped at the feet of Mother Monster. So, naturally, she used her 2010 sophomore album to gift the masses with the Pride anthem of a generation

Drawing comparisons to Madonna's "Express Yourself," "Born This Way" became a defining hit of the 2010s and helped empower listeners from the clubs, to the streets, to the inside of the closet to embrace what makes them special and fearlessly declare, "Baby, I was born this way!" Additionally, the gay anthem holds the distinction of being the 1,000th No. 1 hit in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, as well as Gaga's first single to bow at the top of the chart upon its debut.

"Yoü And I," Born This Way (2011)

Though she would go on to explore the genre further in 2016's Joanne, Gaga pretty much perfected her interpretation of classic Americana with the country-rock stomp of "Yoü and I" in 2011. Released as the fourth single from Born This Way, the gutsy power ballad found the singer driving a muscle car right through the glitzy, electro-pop aesthetic of her past as she wailed, "This time I'm not leavin' without you" over a sample of Queen's "We Will Rock You" and an original electric guitar line by none other than Brian May himself.

The music video for "Yoü And I," meanwhile, was classically high-concept in the most Gaga of terms. It saw the star transform into a number of alter egos including Yüyi the mermaid and the snarling, chain-smoking Jo Calderone. Whether running through the Nebraska cornfields of the song's setting or being brought back to life a la bride of Frankenstein by future ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney, Gaga proved that she could make a visit to America's heartland as avant-garde as ever.

"Marry The Night," Born This Way (2011)

Among Born This Way's litany of hits, "Marry the Night" is widely regarded among Little Monsters as something of a cult favorite. Though it didn't ascend quite as high up the charts as preceding singles like "Judas" or "The Edge of Glory," the track's music video might just be the most autobiographical visual the New York City native has ever released. 

As the fantastical clip opens on an unconscious Gaga lying prone in a hospital bed wearing "next season Calvin Klein" and custom Giuseppe Zanoti, the singer lays out her entire approach to her artistry. "When I look back on my life, it's not that I don't want to see things exactly as they happened, it's just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way," she explained. "And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it…

"It's sort of like my past is an unfinished painting," she continues. "And as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again. It's not that I've been dishonest; it's just that I loathe reality." Gaga's rejection of the ordinary in favor of artistic reinterpretation has given fans not only the creative explosion of "Marry the Night," but the entirety of the pop star's avant-garde oeuvre.

"The Lady Is a Tramp" (with Tony Bennett), Duets II (2011)

Smack dab in the middle of Gaga's Born This Way era, Tony Bennett invited Gaga to duet on his 2011 album, Duets II. The pair's charming, spunky rendition of the Rodgers and Hart classic "The Lady is a Tramp" not only opened the album, but it showcased an irrepressible chemistry between the two stars that led to two more collaborative full-length albums, 2014's Cheek to Cheek and 2021's Love For Sale — both of which won GRAMMYs for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. 

The song ultimately became something of a cheeky hallmark to how much Gaga and Bennett adored one another; even after they'd released an album full of jazz standards like Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" and Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," the young pop ingénue chose to sing "The Lady Is a Tramp" for Bennett's 90th birthday celebration at Radio City Music Hall, dedicating it to her friend as he beamed from the front row.

The pair's sweet friendship would continue on all the way until Bennett's death in 2023 following a years-long battle with Alzheimer's disease. In a heartfelt social media tribute, Gaga shared the impact of Bennett's friendship: "Sure he taught me about music, about showbiz life, but he also showed me how to keep my spirits high and my head screwed on straight."

"Applause," ARTPOP (2013)

She lives for the applause! For the lead single for her 2014 album ARTPOP, Gaga shined a spotlight back on the parasocial relationship and adoration that comes with fame. This time, though, the pop star demands listener participation rather than simple voyeurism as she belts, "Give me that thing that I love/ Put your hands up, make 'em touch!" 

In the song, Gaga also shares the complex philosophy behind the album's title ("Pop culture was in art, now art's in pop culture in me.") But between shouting out famed sculpturist Jeffrey Koons (whom she commissioned to create the iconic ARTPOP cover art) and referencing everything from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus to the pop iconography of Andy Warhol in the surrealist music video, Gaga's message was deceptively simple: She lives for the A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E, baby.

"Aura," ARTPOP (2013)

When it came time to present the highbrow themes of ARTPOP to the masses, Gaga chose to open the 2013 iTunes Festival with "Aura," a frenetic exploration of fame, celebrity, suppression and identity built over a skittering sonic palette inspired in equal parts by Middle Eastern music, spaghetti Westerns and mariachi.

Though she initially faced some backlash over accusations that she had appropriated the wearing of a Muslim burqa in the song's lyrics, "Aura" effectively set the stage for ARTPOP as a piece of sophisticated performance art unlike anything Gaga had created before — all while promising fans a glimpse "behind the curtain" at the girl underneath the camp and artistry. And though ARTPOP may have been more than a bit misunderstood at the time of its release, it arguably remains the boldest and bravest album in Gaga's manifold discography.

"Joanne," Joanne (2016)

Gaga found inspiration for her fifth studio album from the life and death of her late aunt (and namesake), Joanne Stefani Germanotta. The singer never met her relative, but Joanne's spirit was imbued throughout the album, from its homespun lyricism to its stripped-back sonic palette that found the singer exploring the sounds of country, soft rock and Americana.

Nowhere on the record is Gaga's profound connection to her aunt more evident than the title track, which she recorded two different versions of and released as the album's third and final single. "Take my hand, stay Joanne/ Heaven's not ready for you/ Every part of my aching heart/ Needs you more than the angels do," she sings softly over a spare piano line on "Joanne (Where Do You Think You're Goin'?)."

With its roots in her family tree, the song clearly holds a special place in Gaga's heart — especially considering she chose to mix it with "Million Reasons" for her performance at the 2018 GRAMMYs. (A full year later, she took home the GRAMMY for Best Pop Solo Performance in 2019 for the acoustic piano version.)

"Shallow" (with Bradley Cooper), A Star Is Born (2018)

"I can see myself in the movies/ With my picture in city lights," Gaga memorably sang in "The Fame." And a decade later, she manifested her dream into reality with a starring role in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born

Opposite Bradley Cooper, the singer proved she had plenty of star quality on the silver screen on top of her status as a pop supernova. The movie musical's soundtrack was also dominated by Gaga's vulnerability and vocal abilities, fully giving herself over to the story of a star-crossed love that ends in superstardom and tragedy — particularly on the emotional keystone that is "Shallow." In fact, by the time she lets out her famous, guttural wail in the song's emotional bridge, it's easy to forget that "Shallow" is, in fact, a duet rather than a dazzling showcase of Gaga's chops. 

On top of being an essential touchstone in Gaga's canon, "Shallow" is also memorable for being the song that turned Mother Monster into an Oscar winner after she, co-writer Mark Ronson and the rest of their collaborators took home the trophy for Best Original Song at the 2019 Academy Awards. (The song also won a GRAMMY for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance that year.)

"I've worked hard for a long time," Gaga said through tears while accepting her Oscar. "And it's not about winning, but what it's about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There's a discipline for passion, and it's not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down or you're beaten up. It's about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going." 

"Rain On Me" (with Ariana Grande), Chromatica (2020)

Gaga's Chromatica era began with "Stupid Love" and its colorful, Power Rangers-chic video, but the star hit peak pop excellence by joining forces with Ariana Grande on the album's second single "Rain on Me." 

"I'd rather be dry but at least I'm alive/ Rain on me, rain, rain," the two superstars harmonized on the house-fueled disco fantasia's upbeat refrain, before letting the beat drop and giving in to the impulse to dance it out. Released in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the track provided hope, joy and a message of hard-fought resilience at a scary, unpredictable and unprecedented time when it felt like the world was ending as we knew it.

The following year, Gaga and Grande won the GRAMMY for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance at the 2011 ceremony, becoming the first female collaborators to take home the award in GRAMMYs history. 

"Free Woman," Chromatica (2020)

"Free Woman" was a bit overlooked when it was released as Chromatica's fourth and final single in the spring of 2021, but the narrative Gaga shares on the jubilant track is central to her personal history and experiences in the music industry. Over a thumping Eurodance-leaning beat, she recounts the PTSD she suffered from after being sexually assaulted by an unnamed producer early in her career.

Gaga also offers a rallying cry for her beloved LGBTQ+ fan base on the song, particularly those in the trans community, as she belts, "This is my dance floor I fought for/ Ain't hard, that's what I'm livin' for…We own the downtown, hear our sound." Ultimately, that empowering lyric is a notion that encapsulates the overarching theme of Gaga's career thus far — one that fans around the world can revel in again and again with GAGA CHROMATICA BALL.

Explore The World Of Lady Gaga

Amy Winehouse performs "Rehab" during 2007 MTV Movie Awards
Amy Winehouse in 2007

Photo: Chris Polk/FilmMagic

list

How Amy Winehouse's 'Back To Black' Changed Pop Music Forever

Ahead of the new Amy Winehouse biopic 'Back To Black,' reflect on the impact of the album of the same name. Read on for six ways the GRAMMY-winning LP charmed listeners and changed the sound of popular music.

GRAMMYs/May 17, 2024 - 01:05 pm

When Amy Winehouse released Back To Black in October 2006, it was a sonic revelation. The beehive-wearing singer’s second full-length blended modern themes with the Shangri-Las sound, crafting something that seemed at once both effortlessly timeless and perfectly timed. 

Kicking off with smash single "Rehab" before blasting into swinging bangers like "Me & Mr. Jones," "Love Is A Losing Game," and "You Know I’m No Good," Black To Black has sold over 16 million copies worldwide to date and is the 12th best-selling record of all time in the United Kingdom. It was nominated for six GRAMMY Awards and won five: Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album. 

Winehouse accepted her golden gramophones via remote link from London due to visa problems. At the time, Winehouse set the record for the most GRAMMYs won by a female British artist in a single year, though that record has since been broken by Adele, who won six in 2011.

Written in the wake of a break-up with on-again, off-again flame Blake Fielder-Civil, Black To Black explores heartbreak, grief, and infidelity, as well as substance abuse, isolation, and various traumas. Following her death in 2011, Back To Black became Winehouse’s most enduring legacy. It remains a revealingly soulful message in a bottle, floating forever on the waves. 

With the May 17 release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new (and questionably crafted) Winehouse biopic, also titled Back To Black, it's the perfect time to reflect on the album that not only charmed listeners but changed the state of a lot of popular music over the course of just 11 songs. Here are five ways that Back To Black influenced music today.

She Heralded The Arrival Of The Alt Pop Star

When Amy Winehouse hit the stage, people remarked on her big voice. She had classic, old-time torch singer pipes, like Sarah Vaughn or Etta Jones, capable of belting out odes to lost love, unrequited dreams, and crushing breakups. And while those types of singers had been around before Winehouse, they didn’t always get the chance — or grace required — to make their kind of music, with labels and producers often seeking work that was more poppy, hook-packed, or modern.

The success of Back To Black changed that, with artists like Duffy, Adele, and even Lady Gaga drawing more eyes in the wake of Winehouse’s overwhelming success. Both Duffy and Adele released their debut projects in 2007, the year after Back To Black, bringing their big, British sound to the masses. Amy Winehouse's look and sound showed other aspiring singers that they could be different and transgressive without losing appeal.

Before she signed to Interscope in 2007, "nobody knew who I was and I had no fans, no record label," Gaga told Rolling Stone in 2011. "Everybody, when they met me, said I wasn’t pretty enough or that my voice was too low or strange. They had nowhere to put me. And then I saw [Amy Winehouse] in Rolling Stone and I saw her live. I just remember thinking ‘well, they found somewhere to put Amy…’" 

If an artist like Winehouse — who was making records and rocking styles that seemed far outside the norm — could break through, then who’s to say someone else as bold or brassy wouldn’t do just as well? 

It Encouraged Other Torch Singers In The New Millenium

Back To Black might have sounded fun, with swinging cuts about saying "no" to rehab and being bad news that could seem lighthearted to the casual listener. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s clear Winehouse is going through some real romantic tumult. 

Before Back To Black was released, Fielder-Civil had left Winehouse to get back together with an old girlfriend, and singer felt that she needed to create something good out of all those bad feelings. Songs like "Love Is A Losing Game" and "Tears Dry On Their Own" speak to her fragile emotional state during the making of the record, and to how much she missed Fielder-Civil. The two would later marry, though the couple divorced in 2009.

Today, young pop singers like Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez are lauded for their songs about breakups, boyfriends, and the emotional damage inflicted by callous lovers. While Winehouse certainly wasn’t the first to sing about a broken heart, she was undoubtedly one of the best.

It Created A Bit Of Ronsonmania

Though Mark Ronson was already a fairly successful artist and producer in his own right before he teamed with Winehouse to write and co-produce much of Back To Black, his cred was positively stratospheric after the album's release. Though portions of Back To Black were actually produced by Salaam Remi (who’d previously worked with Winehouse on Frank and who was reportedly working on a follow-up album with her at the time of her death), Ronson got the lion’s share of credit for the record’s sound — perhaps thanks to his his GRAMMY win for Best Pop Vocal Album. Winehouse would even go on to guest on his own Version record, which featured the singer's ever-popular cover of "Valerie."

In the years that followed, Ronson went on to not only produce and make his own funky, genre-bending records, but also to work with acts like Adele, ASAP Rocky, and Paul McCartney, all of whom seemingly wanted a little of the retro soul Ronson could bring. He got huge acclaim for the funk-pop boogie cut "Uptown Funk," which he wrote and released under his own name with help from Bruno Mars, and has pushed into film as well, writing and producing over-the-top tracks like A Star Is Born’s "Shallow" and Barbie’s "I’m Just Ken."  To date, he’s been nominated for 17 GRAMMY Awards, winning eight.

Ronson has always acknowledged Winehouse’s role in his success, as well, telling "BBC Breakfast" in 2010, "I've always been really candid about saying that Amy is the reason I am on the map. If it wasn't for the success of Back To Black, no one would have cared too much about Version."

Amy Showcased The Artist As An Individual

When the GRAMMY Museum hosted its "Beyond Black - The Style of Amy Winehouse" exhibit in 2020, Museum Curator and Director of Exhibitions Nicholas Vega called the singer's sartorial influence "undeniable." Whether it was her beehive, her bold eyeliner, or her fitted dresses, artists and fans had adopted elements of Winehouse’s Back To Black style into their own fashion repertoire. And though it’s the look we associate most with Winehouse, it was actually one she had truly developed while making the record, amping up her Frank-era low-slung jeans, tank tops, and polo shirts with darker eyeliner and much bigger hair, as well as flirty dresses, vibrant bras, and heels.

"Her stylist and friends were influential in helping her develop her look, but ultimately Amy took bits and pieces of trends and styles that she admired to create her own look," Vega told GRAMMY.com in 2020. While rock ‘n’ rollers have always leaned into genre-bending styles, Winehouse’s grit is notable in the pop world, where artists typically have a bit more of a sheen. These days, artists like Miley Cyrus, Billie Eillish, and Demi Lovato are willing to let their fans see a bit more of the grit — thanks, no doubt, to the doors Winehouse opened.

Winehouse also opened the door to the beauty salon and the tattoo studio, pushing boundaries with not just her 14 different vintage-inspired tattoos — which have become almost de rigeur these days in entertainment — but also with her signature beehive-like bouffant, which hadn’t really been seen on a popular artist since the ‘60s.It’s a frequent look for contemporary pop divas, popping up on artists like Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, and Dua Lipa.

The Dap-Kings Got The Flowers They Deserved

Six of Back To Black’s 11 songs, including "Rehab," got their "retro" sound via backing from the Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn-based soul act Ronson recruited for the project. 

While Winehouse’s lyrics were mostly laid down in London, the Dap-Kings did their parts in New York. Ronson told GRAMMY.com in 2023 that the Dap-Kings "brought ['Rehab'] to life," saying, "I felt like I was floating because I couldn’t believe anybody could still make that drum sound in 2006." Winehouse and the Dap-Kings met months later after the record was released, and recorded "Valerie." The band later backed Winehouse on her U.S. tour. 

Though the Dap-Kings were known in hip musical circles for their work with late-to-success soul sensation Sharon Jones, Back To Black’s immense success buoyed the listening public’s interest in soul music and the Dap-Kings' own profile (not to mention that of their label, Daptone Records).

"Soul music never went away and soul lovers never went away, but they’re just kind of closeted because they didn’t think it was commercially viable," Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite said in the book It Ain't Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st Century Soul Revolution. "Then, when Amy’s record hit, all the undercover soul fans are like, I’m free. And then that’s when everybody’s like, Oh, there’s money in it now."

The success of Back To Black also seems to have firmly cemented the Dap-Kings in Ronson’s Rolodex, with the group’s drummer Homer Steinweiss, multi-instrumentalist Leon Michaels, trumpeter Dave Guy, and guitarist/producer Tom Brenneck appearing on many of his projects; the Dap-Kings' horns got prominent placement in "Uptown Funk."

Amy Exposed The Darker Side Of Overwhelming Success

Four years after Winehouse died, a documentary about her life was released. Asif Kapadia’s Amy became an instant rock-doc classic, detailing not only Winehouse’s upbringing, but also her struggles with fame and addiction. It won 30 awards after release, including Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards and Best Music Film at the 58th GRAMMY Awards.

It also made a lot of people angry — not for how it portrayed Winehouse, but for how she was made to feel, whether by the British press or by people she considered close. The film documented Winehouse’s struggles with bulimia, self-harm, and depression, and left fans and artists alike feeling heartbroken all over again about the singer’s passing. 

The documentary also let fans in on what life was really like for Winehouse, and potentially for other artists in the public eye. British rapper Stormzy summed it up well in 2016 when he told i-D, "I saw the [documentary, Amy] – it got me flipping angry... [Amy’s story] struck a chord with me in the sense that, as a creative, it looks like on the outside, that it’s very ‘go studio, make a hit, go and perform it around the world, champagne in the club, loads of girls’. But the graft and the emotional strain of being a musician is very hard. No one ever sees that part." 

These days, perhaps because of Winehouse’s plight or documentaries like Amy, the music-loving population seems far more inclined to give their favorite singers a little grace, whether it’s advocating for the end of Britney Spears’ conservatorship or sympathizing with Demi Lovato’s personal struggles. Even the biggest pop stars are still people, and Amy really drove that point home.

We Only Said Goodbye With Words: Remembering Amy Winehouse 10 Years Later

Danny L Harle attends Last Days Opera After Party at Chateau Marmont on February 06, 2024 in Los Angeles
Danny L Harle

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Photonia

interview

Danny L Harle's Quest For Pop Euphoria: How Working With Dua Lipa Led To A New Level Of Creative Joy

The songwriter and producer talks about crafting Dua Lipa’s ‘Radical Optimism’ and the UK’s Eurovision entry for 2024. "It was all about making space for the great emotion of the song," Harle says.

GRAMMYs/May 6, 2024 - 01:51 pm

**"I’ve got an obsessive mind," admits producer Danny L Harle. "I often can't sleep at night because I've got melodies circling in my head. I get haunted by melodies, and I think that's why some people trust me, because they know that I will not let it go unless I think it's absolutely perfect."

That dedication to crafting powerful pop melodies has resulted in a treasure trove of earworms on Dua Lipa’s new album Radical Optimism. Harle was recruited by Lipa as one of the album’s co-producers, alongside Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and songwriters Tobias Jesso Jr and Caroline Ailin.

It's no surprise that Harle was recruited to craft a record that seeks to find light and happiness where darkness prevails. Since his 2015 debut EP Broken Flowers, Harle has created dance-pop that examined the relationship between melancholia and euphoria, as well as the grandeur and escapism of a rave. 

After releasing a string of singles via PC Music, Harle dropped his first album, Harlecore, in 2021 with Mad Decent. The ecstatic spirit of Harlecore, which is centered around a virtual rave headed by four imaginary DJs, echoes in Harle’s latest collaboration as co-writer and producer of the UK’s Eurovision song, "Dizzy" by Olly Alexander. 

"There is good pop music and more algorithmic pop music, pop music which is more guaranteed to work and is less interesting," Harle says. "I just really like good pop music, and that, for me, always seems to start from my research with people."

It was Harle’s naturally synergistic approach to collaboration that led to his work with Lipa. He has also worked with yeule on their album Glitch Princess, and the likes of Charli XCX. But it was his production and writing on  singer Caroline Polachek's  debut solo album that caught Dua Lipa's ear. "She appreciated the spirit of collaboration with that album and wanted me to make her album."

Read below to get a taste of how Danny Harle made Radical Optimism and other earwormy, dancefloor hits.  

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Hey Danny! What’s that cool instrument behind you?

It’s an electric double bass, which is my main instrument: bass guitar and double bass. I use that on some of the Caroline Polachek stuff. There's certain artists who come into the room and see that and they're like, "We have to use that." And some people try to pretend it doesn't exist.

It’s fascinating; I used to play that instrument when I was younger, and then gave it up. There was a 10 year gap, and then I found a place much later in my life where it could fit in. I stopped playing bass guitar at one point as well. 

Then I found myself in a session with NAO, and she was like, "Can you play bass guitar?" There was one literally on display outside, the Squire bass, so I picked it up and we made a track together. She was in a session with Nile Rodgers the next day playing it to him, and he loved it, and then it was on the Chic album [It’s About Time]! At that point I lost any preconceptions I had about needing good gear to make a great sounding music.

Did you do a lot of the bass work on Dua’s album?

I did a fair amount of it, but a lot of it is a collaboration with me and Kevin Parker. All that time he's spent touring and playing the bass live is time that I've spent in front of a computer. So it's hard to compare bass skills, as much as it's my instrument. 

Alongside being a great live player, Kevin has a particular skill for making an instrument sound great when it is recorded, which is a completely different thing. There were some times where I was like, "I prefer the way that it sounds when you do it." And then sometimes he would ask me to do it as well. It was a really nice, trusting partnership. 

The process of the album was very trusting; a sense of being able to say when you think something could be better, but also understanding that trusting someone else is good at what they're doing. It was a very rare environment, but the atmosphere of respect and trust was quite an incredible thing to experience. If you hear what anybody says involved in that process, they'll say those are some of the best sessions they’ve ever had in that respect. 

We were talking about this key Motown idea, which is that happy songs go best over a sad melody. It doesn’t have to be the melody, it can be the music sounding sad; "Tears Of A Clown" by Smokey Robinson is a good example. There's something very resonant in that combination. 

"Houdini," "Training Season" and "Illusion" are all in minor keys, aren’t they? It makes for such melodically rich stuff that’s different from your average four chord pop progression.

Yup. It’s not as simple as happy song, happy chords. It adds richness to the emotional landscape of the song, and that was a key element in that. 

It was a room full of people who are excited by hearing new melodies and approaches and structures. That’s why you don’t really hear the same melodic patterns that music’s fallen into these days on the album. I find that particularly inspiring. 

You’ve written with stars like Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama before, but this is your first extended project with a pop star. You first made pop music to engage people as a virtually unknown musician, but now that attention is guaranteed. Did that change the way you think about pop?

Not at all. My approach to this stuff, especially these days, is that I can just do my thing. I'm very honored to work with the people I've been working with. Very early on in my career when I was trying to make pop music in that way, it would always go horribly wrong. Whereas now I just try to make good music. 

Some people can just make a pop song and I can't do that. I'm like, "Let's make a good song." I personally believe that there is good pop music and more algorithmic pop music, pop music which is more guaranteed to work and is less interesting. I just really like good pop music, and that, for me, always seems to start from my research with people just trying to make the best music. 

How did you make this record more personal to Dua in terms of influences and not just lyrically?

It all stems from her at the center of it; so much stuff happens to her. It’s insane, the amount she’d have to say before every session — [like] "These tracks are actually making points." 

Then it would be a case of finding an instrumental with a certain emotion, and out of natural conversation, there’d be a sense of connection [from] a phrase someone would hit on. [But] it would always stem from her as the center of the whole thing. It was just a very organic way of writing and we were very privileged with the rich life Dua leads to draw from. 

This record was a tight songwriting team — where did you fit into it?

I was contributing to all of the tracks in all factors: lyric ideas most rarely, but also melodic ideas, songwriting ideas, mainly from a production standpoint.  

I would be in the corner on my computer, and I would constantly be in conversation with everybody. We might have Kevin on a guitar, and then I’d be making some electronic arpeggios to go with that. I’d be constantly AirDropping stuff to Cam Gower, the greatest vocal engineer in the world, and he would be stacking what we had in ProTools. Sometimes I would take Cam’s session and put it into my computer — like with ‘Illusion’, because there’s stuff that goes on that affects the whole track in a way that I needed to do to get that dancey feel. 

It's quite a global, almost old-fashioned producer role I was taking. I think that was a valuable thing for Dua in certain cases, because I would know about every song on the album. If we were writing with new writers, I'd be like, ‘we already said this idea in that song.’ I would have an eye on the whole thing and be a soundboard for the overall project. 

Let’s start with the opening track, "End Of An Era" is unexpectedly calming and gentle. What prompted you guys to make this the opener?

I just love the idea of starting an album with the track called "End Of An Era"; it is quite an alarming thing to see. I love the tone of the track, the joy of it, but also the fairy-godmother-style commentary going over it as well. 

It's about that heart-eyes emoji feeling of knowing you're irrationally in love in the moment where you rethink everything about your life. I just thought the emotion fit really well. The album has a story to it, and it's a great opener for that story.  

The track "These Walls" expands Dua’s voice in a way I haven’t heard her sing before. Could you walk me through the production of that song?

With that song, I didn't want to get in the way of the purity of the message. It’s very important to understand when a track does not need to be a production showcase, you are in service of the storytelling. 

It was all about making space for the great emotion of the song and having occasional moments of departure, and always being relevant to what is being said. When she says "Did you really mean it when you said forever?", the track disappears into a strange fantasy synth moment. That idea is [that] your mind might get taken away by the thought of forever, just for a moment, as a sort of impossible idea. That's what the music's doing — it takes you out and it lands you straight back into the track.

There’s also a moment of self-deprecating humor: "If these walls could talk / they’d say you’re f—ed.". Was that humor fostered by the close relationship all the songwriters had?

Absolutely. That kind of thing is often the most memorable bit of a song, if placed correctly in the most tasteful area. There’s a track on the yeule album Glitch Princess, where it’s these big Charles Ives chords I wrote. It sounds like it’s gonna be a nice piano ballad, but the first line is "feels like s—." [Laughs.] It takes you by surprise, but it fits with the mood of the track. 

With Dua, it’s tastefully placing it where it fits in the story, and that point in the chorus, it felt perfect. It also reminds me of this idea in the [software] engineering world: the rubber duck principle. They have a rubber duck there because engineers will want to ask a question, but often when you’re asking the question, you’ll realize the answer to it. The rubber duck is there so you can ask the question and it’ll tell you the answer because you already knew it. ‘These Walls’ reminds me of that; if these walls are saying I’m f—ed, you know you’re f—ed. 

The climax of the album is "Falling Forever." It’s super ballsy, and the drums are mixed so loudly. Tell me about how this track came to be.

It’s a beautiful one, that one. A great thinker said it sounds like a thousand galloping horses. That one came about in the sessions with [producer and songwriter] Ian Kirkpatrick. He came in with the chords you hear at the beginning, and I really enjoyed the idea of having a galloping rhythm. You don’t hear the gallop very often, I can’t think of one other song that’s done that in recent history. 

I also thought up the "how long" thing — I thought it would be fun to make the word ‘long’ really long. Those were my key contributions to the song. Ian Kirkpatrick, his drums are so fantastic. You’ve gotta let him get on with it. 

The vocals are also so close there’s subtler production going on earlier in the album, but this song punches you right in the face.

It’s so great. It’s very much an approach that I have with singers where I want them to do a thing that makes their voice sound f—ing amazing. The first time I thought I achieved that with Caroline was with "Parachute," using everything her voice can do: the runs, the high register, the emotional low register. This is a showcase. "Falling Forever" does that with Dua. "These Walls" is an interesting comparison as well, it shows a real range of emotion that Dua is capable of in a way I find really exciting. 

It’s indescribable to hear her sing in the room. I had the privilege of having her recording demo vocals on an SM-7 [microphone] like this sitting in front of her. It is unbelievable to hear that: just a human making that sound in front of you, it’s like nothing else. It’s like witnessing a wonder of the world. Also to use the specific, occasionally metallic sound she can make with her voice, to use it when necessary as part of an expression of something, the way she phrases things is incredible as well. 

Does the message of Radical Optimism — of finding grace in the chaos — match the euphoria you want to explore in music?

There is a sense of melancholic euphoria as well, the Elizabethan side of things. I would say there's a Venn diagram of euphoria that fits with Dua. 

On the track "Happy For You," there are certain ravey things going on where Dua was like, "What’s that sound?" It’s these chords Kevin wrote, and I start stuttering them. 

Also the flute mellotron in the song "Maria," she was immediately like, "Yep: I love it." I was so happy because it’s so my thing, that cyclical melody. Also, the bit in "Illusions" before the chorus where it goes to a major chord before the chorus, I love the sound of the unexpected major chord. Having repeated moments like that, I think, was the reason why I was asked to stay on the project; we clearly had chemistry, but it was interesting how macro it was. 

That unexpected major chord moment also appears in your Eurovision song with Olly Alexander, doesn’t it?

I've written some more tracks with him that do that. I've really been enjoying that with Olly because his voice is so agile and can really make sense of more complicated chord sequences. 

Another thing I've been enjoying with him is when there's sparseness and letting the vocal melody spell out the harmony and maybe occasionally go minor and major over one bass note, which is something I really, really enjoy. 

I've always been a big fan of Olly Alexander, I’ve wanted to work with him my whole career. I believe I tweeted at him in 2009 saying hi. But I think people who like my stuff could hear that he has the kind of voice that I really like: a very virtuosic, melodic voice. [We] just had immediate chemistry, musically. We've written a fair amount of music and he’s a very exciting artist to be involved with. 

The UK has a pretty shaky track record with Eurovision. Did you feel any of that pressure?

No, there wasn't that thing in my head. I just love Olly’s voice. And collaborating with him is just fantastic. I've had ideas for Olly for years now, and it was a dream to be able to actually enact some of them.

What’s next in store for you?

My own album. I've got another one that I'm finishing up at the minute that I'm very excited about. It was delayed by two and a half years because I got all of my dream projects offered to me at the same time and I wanted to make sure that I did them all properly. But now I can get back to doing my own stuff. 

It feels so good to be back at the grindstone, sitting in my studio writing beautiful things, making beautiful objects to present to the world. It’s the dream, really.

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