As recently as 2008, Lady Gaga was a little-known songwriter and burlesque artist from New York. Her debut single, ‘Just Dance’, was released in the US that spring and spent five months in the Billboard Top 100, peaking at No 2 that summer. An album, The Fame, was released that autumn, finally reaching the UK in January 2009.
Since then, Lady Gaga’s rise to global stardom has proceeded at breakneck pace. The Fame is one of the most successful pop releases in years, winning a Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album and spawning an extended deluxe edition (The Fame Monster), the Fame Ball and Monster Ball tours, and a remix collection.
‘The Fame is about how anyone can feel famous,’ Gaga explains on her website. ‘Pop culture is art. It doesn’t make you cool to hate pop culture, so I embraced it and you hear it all over The Fame. But, it’s a shareable fame. I want to invite you all to the party. I want people to feel a part of this lifestyle.’
The opening four tracks are all hit singles, meriting the plaudit ‘all killer, no filler’. ‘Just Dance’ is an ode to the escapism of dance, recalling early Madonna. Electro-pop meets R&B in an interlude sung by Colby O’Donis. The lyrics capture a clubber’s dazed euphoria, with lines like ‘I love this record baby but I can’t see straight anymore…’
‘Lovegame’ is a funkier and more risqué track, boasting the campy refrain, ‘I wanna take a ride on your disco stick’. Gaga has said the song was inspired by her attraction to a stranger in a nightclub, and its air of breezy promiscuity combined with a thundering bass riff is worthy of Prince in his pomp.
With her bleach-blonde hair, day-glo tan and sunglasses, clad in skimpy leotards and sky-high heels, in The Fame Lady Gaga styles herself as a space-age Britney Spears, on a collision course with Andy Warhol.
‘Paparazzi’ is a more sophisticated, darker track that shows off Gaga’s impressive songwriting. It also introduces us explicitly to this album’s main theme – celebrity, but in its most voyeuristic sense. The video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, is an eight-minute mini-movie. In it, Gaga is thrown off a balcony by her lover, played by Alexander Skarsgard (best known for his role as a vampire in True Blood.)
Next up is ‘Poker Face’, another hit single and my favourite on the album. The lyrics have been dissected and interpreted as referring to everything from gambling and prostitution to oral sex and lesbianism.
However, the song’s true worth lies in its strong pop melody and lyrical ambiguity. The chorus includes the couplet, ‘Can’t read my poker face/She’s got me like nobody’. For all Gaga’s slickness, there is a vulnerability and loneliness here that speaks to a wide audience. In a nod to its huge impact, ‘Poker Face’ has even been spoofed on South Park.
The kinkiness continues with ‘I Like It Rough’, the best non-single on The Fame. Lyrically it is one of Gaga’s best, with lines like ‘And it’s a hard life, with love in the world/And I’m a hard girl, loving me is like chewing on pearls’. As with ‘Poker Face’, it reaches beyond sexual innuendo to express the frustration of wanting both to control, and be controlled.
‘Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)’ was released as a digital download in the UK, and failed to match the success of Gaga’s other singles. The production may be to blame, as it is rather sickly-sweet; however, the lyrics subvert expectations of a traditional love song.
‘Starstruck’, a tight, no-nonsense floor-filler featuring a guest rap by Flo Rida, is co-produced by Gaga’s personal DJ, Space Cowboy. After this interlude, Gaga returns to her main theme with ‘Beautiful, Dirty, Rich’, another hit. With lines like ‘Daddy I’m so sorry/We just like to party’, she channels the glib hedonism of the post-Bush generation. In the video, she wears a red hooded leotard, one of her most iconic looks to date.
Unlike many pop stars, Gaga has never hidden her privileged background. While recording The Fame in Los Angeles, she observed this lifestyle directly. But with her strong work ethic and lofty artistic goals, Gaga seems distanced from the likes of Paris Hilton, another graduate of New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart.
The Fame’s title track, with its insistent guitar hook, contains echoes of ‘Fame’, the classic 1975 hit by another of Gaga’s idols, David Bowie. ‘All we care about is runway models, cadillacs and liquor bottles…’ Gaga sings, deadpan, in a satirical commentary. ‘Money Honey’ runs with the materialistic vibe, but implies that love is ultimately more addictive: ‘It’s good to live expensive, you know it/But my knees get weak, intensive…’
Then with ‘Boys, Boys, Boys’, Gaga changes tack again. A homage to ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, the 1987 hit by glam metal band Mötley Crϋe, it’s joyously silly with provocative lines like ‘I’m not loose, I like to party/Let’s get lost in your Ferrari/Not psychotic or dramatic/I like boys and that is that’. Spoofing the Sunset Strip vibe of the soft rock anthem, Gaga asserts her own sexual prowess, refusing to be objectified.
‘Paper Gangsta’ is a more serious look at her early career, including her brief stint at Def Jam Records aged 19 (she was dropped by the label after just 3 months.) The repeated line, ‘Cuz I do not accept any less/Than someone just as real, as fabulous’, could also refer to a romantic dilemma, and it seems that for Lady Gaga, the split between love and work is often fuzzy.
The vague melancholy of ‘Paper Gangsta’ leads into a ballad, ‘Brown Eyes’. Though lyrically very simple, it is beautifully melodic, with piercing hints of regret for a lost love. Perhaps more than any other track on The Fame, ‘Brown Eyes’ betrays an emotional depth behind the surface glitter. If she is so inclined, in time Lady Gaga could even revive the power ballad.
But just as it seems she might drop her guard, in ‘Summer Boy’ Gaga pulls away from the listener and acts tough again. The wistful, sonorous melody evokes the garage sound of Blondie, with the same teasing cruelty that Debbie Harry perfected thirty years ago: ‘Don’t be sad when the sun goes down/You’ll wake up and I’m not around…’
The UK edition of The Fame includes two bonus tracks, plus Space Cowboy’s ‘LoveGame’ remix on enhanced versions. ‘Disco Heaven’ is a breathless, ecstatic dance workout, while ‘Again Again’ is a theatrical, piano ballad with autobiographical references (‘Born March of ’86, my birthday’s coming/And if I had one wish, yeah, you’d be it.’)
Inside the CD booklet, Gaga names Bowie, Prince and Madonna among her influences (as well as Warhol and Coco Chanel.) She includes two poems, one comparing her journey into the spotlight to that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the other a heartfelt dedication to her deceased aunt, with whom she shares the birth name, ‘Joanne’.
Though she wears her inspirations on her sleeve, Lady Gaga is already much more than just another pop hopeful. Through sheer talent, drive and sincerity, she has the potential to become a great star, and The Fame is one of the most thrilling debuts in recent years.