By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Poker Face’ is a 2008 song by Lady Gaga, written by Lady Gaga and the Moroccan singer and record producer RedOne. But although the song was recorded and first released in 2008, it was in 2009 that it became a worldwide smash hit – and it was also in 2009 that Lady Gaga herself revealed the true meaning of ‘Poker Face’.
But what is that meaning? Let’s take a closer look at the song’s lyrics and what Lady Gaga said about them …
‘Poker Face’: song meaning
The song is about someone hiding their true feelings from others, much as skilled poker players maintain an impassive expression which doesn’t reveal their emotions to those they are playing against. The allusion to Texas hold ’em, a popular form of the game of poker, in the song’s first line establishes the song’s gambling conceit.
But as the reference to love games in the third line makes clear, the singer’s ‘poker face’ is being deployed to hide her feelings from her lover – or lovers. She manages to arouse her male partner (or string of partners), and she remains very much in control, not least because he cannot read the poker face she has adopted.
She later refers to cleaning the guy out, like someone who fleeces another gambler by winning their money off them in a game in a casino. Although this can be interpreted literally (she wants the men to spend all their money on her and then she’ll dump them), the overall motif of the song begs to be analysed metaphorically, so we should read this verse in that way, too: she wants to take whatever she wants from the men (their adulation, their desire, their bodies) but she will give up nothing of herself – or at least, none of her real emotions.
But there’s a twist: an unexpected development, a line that gives us a clue to something else that’s going on in the song.
What’s the reference to a mysterious ‘she’ who has ‘got’ the singer of the song ‘like nobody’ else? Is ‘Poker Face’, then, a homosexual or at least a bisexual song, celebrating same-sex attraction?
It was on April 11, 2009 that Gaga revealed the true meaning of ‘Poker Face’. During her Fame Ball Tour performance at Palm Springs, she hinted that the song dealt with her own bisexuality. The female ‘speaker’ in the song (whether Gaga herself or an invented persona) is having sex with men, but fantasising about being with a woman.
So, she has to keep a ‘poker face’ so that the man doesn’t suspect she’s actually thinking about being with a girl rather than with him. It’s worth remembering that ‘Poker Face’ came out (as it were) in the same year as Katy Perry’s anthemic ‘I Kissed a Girl’, which also explores the idea of a young woman discovering her same-sex attraction to other girls.
‘Poker Face’: analysis
In light of what we said above, then, should we analyse and interpret ‘Poker Face’ as a paean to same-sex attraction, a celebration of bisexuality?
Perhaps, although it’s worth questioning why the singer feels she has to keep her true feelings from the guys she takes to bed. Is it because she’s enjoying the power she has over them, the sense of I know something that you don’t? Is this a song about female empowerment?
After all, one question the song might lead us to ask is what motivates the singer to keep her true desires from her beaux. Is social pressure somewhere behind her reluctance to tell them all? One can imagine many male lovers being more than happy to share that bed with Gaga (or the fictional ‘singer’ of the song) and another woman of her choosing. Is there still a stigma surrounding female same-sex desire, which the song simultaneously crushes but also draws attention to?
And if she is fantasising about bedding a woman rather than the men she’s with, what’s stopping her from going and finding some willing female lovers to take to that bed? Or does she enjoy the thrill, the ‘love game’ of toying with men’s emotions while hiding her own?
One line in ‘Poker Face’ has attracted considerable comment, its internal rhyme making it stand out in the song even more. When Rolling Stone magazine asked Gaga about the meaning of ‘bluffin’ with my muffin’, she clarified that ‘muffin’ is meant to refer to a certain part of her anatomy, shall we say. Or to put it another way, it isn’t just her face that’s playing poker …