Album Review: Lady Gaga – The Fame/The Fame Monster

[Interscope; 2009]

I hated Lady Gaga. Reviled her. She appeared virtually out of nowhere, suddenly dominating popular music. She had an interesting image, sure; problem is, the music was nowhere near the same level. It’s as if she had spent a few years cultivating a deliberate and elaborate look and style, and then realized she needed some songs to go with it, so she sloppily worked up some scraps. Releasing her debut album The Fame in summer of last year, it proved an inimitable slow burner, with its singles “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “LoveGame,” and “Paparazzi” climbing the charts in an increasingly speedy manner. Now, in late 2009, she is re-releasing that smash success with a quickly recorded follow-up EP, The Fame Monster.

The music on The Fame is just plain uninteresting, generic and cloying with an annoying sense of apathy to boot. “Just Dance” features a chugging dance beat, the trashiest of Eurotrash, and is completely void of personality, replete with an unremarkable guest verse from a no-name rapper. “Poker Face” fares a little better, but the hooky chorus isn’t enough to save the pathetic verses and embarrassing lyrics like “Bluffin’ with my muffin.” “LoveGame” harbours a mindless beat with equally mindless vocals, lacking any melody or nuance, content to rest merely on its sloppily slutty lyrics. But something changed. The fourth single signaled a sea change. Even though it was recorded and written at the same time as all these other songs, “Paparazzi” was and is a breath of fresh air. A concise, catchy and clever song about stalking a Paparazzi rather than the other way around – the verse is underdeveloped, but the chorus absolutely soars and features one of the few examples of Lady Gaga showing the true extent of her vocal prowess.
Unfortunately, despite any good will engendered by “Paparazzi,” the rest of the album isn’t much better. Featuring song titles like “I Like It Rough,” “Money Honey,” “Beautiful Dirty Rich,” “Boys Boys Boys,” and the like, you can kind of guess what these songs sound like before ever hearing them. And they sound exactly like what you’d think – completely interchangeable and unforgivably boring. The only saving grace on the album is the one non-hit single “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say),” a charming bit of ’90s throwback featuring ebullient, airy vocals and an irresistible chorus.

So the album is generally trash, and not worth the 60 minutes it takes to listen. But The Fame Monster is another story entirely. There’s an unprecedented sense of melody and confident grip of structure on these songs. First single “Bad Romance” has an elaborate, jaw-dropping video, like the last few off of The Fame, but this time the music is able to hold its own. Almost five minutes long, “Bad Romance” is a veritable journey through hooks and wordless chants (a hallmark of hers that seems as if it’s going to remain a hallmark). Staying with producer RedOne, the song still sounds like that curiously timeless, vacuum-sealed (and vacuous) dance music of The Fame, but this time it has gigantic choruses, propulsive verses, and most importantly, personality.

Yes, Lady Gaga’s music as presented on The Fame Monster is still “unoriginal,” but it’s no longer uninspiring. It is a facsimile of various trends and sounds in popular music, from the ’80s to 2009, sometimes even stretching all the way back to the ’60s. But pop music isn’t about originality. On The Fame Monster she manages to ape herself and improve dramatically (the wordless vocalizations present in nearly every song, the chugging trance “Just Dance” beat of “Monster”), combine Ace of Base and “La Isla Bonita” perfectly on “Alejandro,” incorporate deeply uncool source material (Wham’s “Careless Whisper”) and turn it into modern-sounding retro dance music on “Dance In The Dark,” and even sounds convincing trying out late ’60s soul balladry and singing over George Harrison guitar lines on “Speechless.” I don’t even know where to begin discussing the futuristic production, swooping vocal lines and hilarious lyrics of “Telephone.” Featuring an over-the-top spot from an angry Beyoncé, the latter track has Gaga working out of her comfort zone with producer Darkchild, giving her the futuristic, avant-pop treatment she deserves instead of the usual dumbly populist production of RedOne. “So Happy I Could Die” and “Teeth” end the EP in slightly more predictable waters, the former an unconvincing anthem for hedonism, sounding more like a wistful lament than a party track, and the latter a bizarre marching track featuring lyrics about “bad girl meat.”

Two songs in particular deserve special attention; “Alejandro” and “Speechless” are both excursions, and unequivocal successes on all counts. The former is arguably her best and most complete effort yet, fusing all of the now-typical Gaga elements with a slight Latin element that not only manages to avoid the overzealous travel agent overtones of “La Isla Bonita,” but also perfectly recalls Ace of Base without ever sounding too derivative or uninspired. The latter track is simply stunning, with an inspired, passionate vocal performance featuring impressive gymnastics and an even more impressive ear for melody. Like “Alejandro,” it avoids sounding gimmicky and instead feels like a natural fit; but only Lady Gaga would be able to pull this off convincingly without sounding like an opportunist flake. Aside from these highlights, every song here features certain moments that are impossible to forget and almost as impossible not to return to, making for a hell of an eight-song sequence.

Lady Gaga has received quite a lot of attention for her androgyny – intentional or not – and it definitely forms an important aspect of her popularity, controversy-courting, and likability. But beyond gender infiltration, she plays with the very notion of personality – she is grounded in very little other than “weird,” a blank slate for her producers. But where, say, Britney exploits this and works herself in as a sort of emotionally disconnected, sexy robot, Gaga is clearly human, living and breathing. It’s this free-floating idea of her almost non-existent personality that allows her to explore all these genres while still remaining remarkably singular, and if she sometimes did fail to remain unique on her debut, that charge is easily dismissed with the release of The Fame Monster.

Now Lady Gaga is using her fluidity to attack every genre ruthlessly, with a suddenly acquired skill and finesse that feels as masterful as it is effortless. Her development in the past year is nothing short of astonishing, and excitement isn’t enough to describe my anticipation for what she does next. It’s clichéd to say things like “this generation’s Madonna,” but it’s hard to resist when that analogy is so painfully apt. One might even go as far to say she already exceeds Madonna, having more command of her career and image at such an early stage. One thing’s for sure: now that Lady Gaga’s music is catching up with her image, she is utterly unstoppable.

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