The Lady Gaga phenomenon is now a memory just distant enough that most of us can barely remember why we thought what we thought about it at the time. To be honest, I was one of the few relatively neutral parties—I never completely bought into either the people who proclaimed Lady Gaga a genius when she first came on the scene, or the people who excoriated her as some kind of musical abomination. Believe me, there’s a whole universe of far worse pop stars than Lady Gaga out there. But there is undeniably no shortage of better ones, as well (Adele, Pink, Taylor Swift, etc.), and at her peak of popularity, Lady Gaga was without question ridiculously overrated. I remember in 09-10 when the frenzy was at its peak, and even if you were aware that she had a certain measure of talent, it was hard not to get annoyed at the overinflated claims that she and her idolaters were making. Still, the honest truth is that, as pop stars of her sort go, she was above-average, at least early on, and there is plenty of good material on her first two sets to attest to that.
Indeed, if everything she had ever released was as good as her first two singles, I might have been calling her a genius along with everyone else. “Just Dance” is a superb dance song with a strong undercurrent of desperation and despair, and we wouldn’t see another club track this powerful until Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin In Love”. “Poker Face”, Lady Gaga’s original signature song until “Bad Romance” came along to steal that torch, is a distinctive and striking track with fascinating lyrics that deserves every bit of the success and acclaim it received. “Paparazzi”, while not featuring nearly the same degree of substance as those items, is also an effective combination of glamour and creepiness, especially if you’re willing to buy into the not entirely implausible alternate interpretation of its lyrical contents.
The problem is that, whether from uneven talent or from putting too much emphasis or her image and not enough on quality control, she can’t maintain this level of quality throughout the whole album. After about the eighth track, after the singles and the title-song, the album devolves into glitzy, empty filler. Some of this filler is pleasant, like the pretty ballad “Brown Eyes”, but it’s still extremely thin, featherweight material, and it kind of undercuts the comparisons to acts like Queen and Bowie people were making at the time…Gaga’s inability to actually fill out a wholly successful and consistent album really damaged the credibility of some of her claims.
Even some of the singles are of poor quality. “Lovegame” was easily the worst of Lady Gaga’s actual hits prior to the Born This Way album…it did capture an oddly arresting production sound, but it also features some of the stupidest lyrics in pop music history, with infamous quotes like “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick”, or “Got my ass squeezed by sexy Cupid”. “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” aren’t much better, the former sounding exactly like the kind of vapid Euro-Pop we quite rightly got rid of after the Nineties, while the latter is one of those songs where if you’ve heard the title, you’ve heard the entire song.
The title-song is the only album track on the original album that could have been a single…granted, it isn’t entirely clear whether she’s being satirical or whether this actually how she sees the world, but at least the materialistic credo is presented with enough cleverness and style to be genuinely intriguing. Unfortunately, most of the other attempts at luxury pop on the album (and there are a lot of them), are simply blatant indulgences in pointless materialism in an era that was known all too well for them. There’s nothing particularly ironic or clever about them, and they aren’t even gender-flipped like Kesha’s attempts at this kind of thing; their lyrics could just as easily be sung by a man. Still, even the lesser items on this disc feature distinctive production by Lady Gaga’s secret weapon RedOne that makes even the weakest compositions seem smooth and stylish, resulting in the album coming off as a triumph of style over substance…exactly the note Lady Gaga herself struck at that point, so I suppose it was if nothing else fitting.
A year after the album’s initial release, she released what was basically an unusually extensive version of the deluxe bonus discs that were starting to be popular at the time, but with the fanfare usually reserved for an entirely new album. This would inspire a surprising number of other artists to do the same thing over the next year or so (e.g. Kesha, Usher), but whether you think Lady Gaga’s eight-track ‘bonus EP’ counts as a ‘real’ album or not, the fact remains that The Fame Monster is her only album of original material prior to 2016’s Joanne to approach real consistency of quality. Perhaps this was partly because its shorter length translated into her spreading herself less thin, but it’s still an impressive achievement for her.
Interestingly, in this case the album tracks were actually more interesting than several of the singles. Some of the finest items Lady Gaga ever recorded, such as “Monster”, “Dance in the Dark”, and “Speechless” languished in relative obscurity on the album while pleasant but far from essential items like “Telephone” and “Alejandro” got the lion’s share of publicity. Granted, there’s nothing really wrong with “Telephone” or “Alejandro”…they’re both well-made, enjoyable pieces of fairly clever Pop pastiche. But they don’t exactly sound like the output of a visionary genius, and at the time they would both have been much easier to enjoy coming from a person who hadn’t essentially declared herself the Great White Hope of the pop music world.
And even The Fame Monster has one rank filler track on it…the closing track, “Teeth”, which barely qualifies as a song at all. But of course, The Fame Monster also has what would end up being the defining song of Lady Gaga’s Pop career…the iconic “Bad Romance”. Why this song is still instantly recognizable when even its former equal, “Poker Face”, is now little more than a punchline could be a subject of endless debate, but I’d say it’s because this song, and this song alone, actually fulfills the promise of Lady Gaga’s Pop persona. Lady Gaga was supposed to be this insane, wildly eccentric, iconoclastic visionary, but while her videos, live shows, and public behavior supported this position strongly, her actual music was always disappointingly bound by convention. Even the best of her other Pop-era material, such as “Poker Face”, “Just Dance”, and “The Edge of Glory”, ultimately sounds relatively normal…either standard, if above-average, late-2000s Pop music, or capable but conventional pastiches of earlier Pop styles. This song is the exception to all of that: with its hypnotically nonsensical chant of a chorus and random, out-of-nowhere references to old Hitchcock movies, this really does sound like the kind of music a person who goes to award shows wearing nothing but raw meat would make.
As much of a cultural sensation as it was at the time, it has become abundantly clear in this last three years that the phenomenon and frenzy that was Lady Gaga has disappeared almost completely. This may have been partly a result of the ill-advised timing of her ‘hiatus’ in 2012, but I imagine it’s primarily because once we had mainstream Pop stars like Adele and Taylor Swift who were actually making genius-level music, we really didn’t need her anymore.
I strongly suspect that the entire Lady Gaga phenomenon happened mostly because, at the end of the 2000s, Pop music had been so stale and uninteresting for so long that we were in desperate need of a genius to come and break through the barriers, much like Nirvana did in the early Nineties. We were so desperate for this visionary savior, in fact, that when none seemed to come along, we finally had to essentially make one up, ascribing that status to anyone who seemed slightly more interesting than the average Pop star. But once Adele broke the guardrails between mainstream Pop music and the various kinds of Alternative music, and the ‘New Grunge’, as some people used to call it back then, became a reality, that kind of make believe simply wasn’t necessary anymore
Still, all that aside, these two albums do contain several of the very best songs of two-year period they spanned, and even the worst material on them seems relatively harmless compared to most of the songs on her next album, the appalling Born This Way. Indeed, while she’s done much better stuff in her current career as a sort of high-class musician-of-all-work (Cheek to Cheek, Joanne, the A Star Is Born soundtrack), this is pretty much the undisputed highlight of her overt Pop phase. And if it doesn’t remotely compare to Adele’s 21 or Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Beyonce’s Lemonade, it’s still far from a disgrace and well worth hearing, although if you decide to skip the second half of the first disc, I’ll be the last one to blame you.