Ace of Base, Alex Petridis, Alexander McQueen, Beyonce, Blond Ambition, Blondie, Born This Way, Bruce Springsteen, Caitlin Moran, Camille Paglia, Dance in the Dark, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Elton John, Grace Jones, Heather Chassils, Hedi Slimane, Kill Bill, Lady Gaga, Lissi, M.I.A., Madonna, Monster Ball, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Klein, The Fame Monster, Thelma and Louise, Tyrese Gibson
“I think re-releases are unfair,” Lady Gaga told Rolling Stone in 2009. “It’s artists sneaking singles onto an already finished piece of work in an effort to keep the album afloat.” So-called ‘deluxe editions’ of high-selling albums have become common in recent years, and Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut, The Fame, was indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within a few months of its release, Gaga had topped charts worldwide with hits like ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Paparazzi’, transporting her from near-obscurity to household name.
With eight tracks, including three singles, and some rave reviews, The Fame Monster is a very different animal from most re-releases. It has been categorized as an EP, and not so long ago might have been classed as an album in its own right (Michael Jackson’s Thriller was only seven tracks long, while Madonna’s Like a Virgin ran to nine.)
In a press release, Gaga claimed that unlike its sister album, The Fame Monster contains “no songs about money, no songs about fame.” It was written “on the road” and deals with her fears: “my fear of sex monster, my fear of alcohol monster, my fear of love monster, my fear of death monster, my fear of loneliness monster, etc.” Musically, her concept was “a pop experimentation with industrial/Goth beats, 90s dance melodies, an obsession with the lyrical genius of 80s melancholic pop, and the runway.” Her influences ranged from “monster movies” to the underground club and fashion culture of Eastern Europe.
The cover art, by Hedi Slimane, is surprisingly somber, given Gaga’s high-octane persona. In stark black and white, she poses for one shot in a blonde wig and outsized shoulder-pads, her face partly hidden behind her collar. In an alternate image, Gaga’s hair is long and dark, and a mascara teardrop is painted on her cheek.
‘Bad Romance’ opens with a resounding wail, closely followed by a rococo chant, with screeching synth chords and a pounding bass in the background. The somewhat uncool, Euro-disco style, combined with operatic grandeur, is an unlikely path for any pop starlet, especially in contemporary America. The title implies danger (‘You and me could write a bad romance’) and impending doom (‘Caught in a bad romance’.) Amid all the pomp, a note of heartbreak is struck when Gaga pleads, ‘I don’t wanna be friends…’
Released in October 2009, ‘Bad Romance’ was a runaway hit. The video, directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) shows a pale, vulnerable Gaga, abducted by mobsters and forced into slavery. She rebels and finally triumphs, and the story seems to reflect an internal conflict between art and fame. Set in a bath-house, the aesthetic is muted, wintry, but Gaga – fleetingly shorn of artifice – is electric. The video inspired more than one fan-made homage, while an acoustic cover by folk singer Lissi evokes the haunting beauty of Gaga’s original composition.
‘Alejandro’, the third and final single, comes next. The mournful string intro, accompanied by Gaga’s speaking voice, suggests a Latin love song. But though Gaga’s passion may be ‘hot like Mexico’, the heart of this song is North European. Melodically it echoes Abba’s ‘Fernando’, while structurally it recalls Ace of Base, the Danish band whose ‘All That She Wants’ was a smash hit in the summer of ’92.
Released in April 2010, ‘Alejandro’ brings to mind a teenage holiday fling. However, the video highlights its deeper melancholy, with Gaga the outsider, watching her male dancers. She becomes, like her audience, a voyeur, and the unity of the gay subculture is contrasted with her own tortuous relationships with men. Even stripped down to her underwear, Gaga is a sexually ambiguous figure. In one sequence, she becomes a nun in a red vinyl habit.
The film lasts just under nine minutes and ends with an empowered Lady Gaga, donning a black bullet bra and joining the other dancers. This scene is reminiscent of Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, and references to La Ciccone’s other works (such as ‘Express Yourself’) appear throughout the promo. Ingrid Casares, a longtime friend of Madonna, tweeted that M had asked privately, “Is that the video where she tries to be me?”
In public, however, Madonna has been solidly supportive of Lady Gaga. It should be noted that both women come from Italian-American families, so the Catholic references in ‘Alejandro’ may not be simply a tribute to Madonna. Steven Klein, who directed ‘Alejandro’, is a longtime Madonna collaborator, so the similarities in style may be partly credited to him. Finally, it should be noted that Madonna has always worn her influences on her sleeve, so it seems rather unfair to dismiss Gaga as a mere copycat.
‘Monster’ is a light, undemanding pop song, with some distinctive motifs that place it at the heart of The Fame Monster. It begins as a giggly, gossipy ode to a casual lover, but is undercut with the edgy refrain, ‘He ate my heart.’ The lyrics showcase Gaga’s gifts as a storyteller (‘We French-kissed on a subway train/He tore my clothes right off/He ate my heart and then he ate my brain…’)
‘Speechless’, a highly theatrical, rock ‘n’ roll ballad, is Gaga’s favourite on the album, and is said to be based on her parents’ long-standing marriage – although with its allusions to failed relationships, may also have an even more personal resonance. Lines like ‘I can’t believe how you looked at me/With your Johnnie Walker eyes’ reminded me of Bruce Springsteen, whose records were played constantly by Gaga’s father, Joseph Germanotta, throughout her childhood.
For all the grit of ‘Speechless’, though, it is every bit as vivid and imaginative as Gaga’s other work, and has the feel of an epic, glam ballad. Fittingly, Gaga performed the song as a duet with Elton John at the 2010 Grammy awards. ‘Speechless’ reveals Gaga’s love of old-fashioned rock (albeit with an upbeat, disco twist), and may even hint at where her future really lies.
‘Telephone’, the second single, features guest vocals from Beyonce, and complements the technological theme of an earlier Gaga duet, ‘Videophone’, that was included on Beyonce’s ‘I Am Sasha Fierce’. It seems fair to say that Gaga got the better end of the deal. Opening with a tinkly piano melody, ‘Telephone’ builds into a frantic dance workout.
The premise, of a girl dancing in a club, interrupted by unwanted phonecalls from her boyfriend, is an experience any teenager in 2010 can relate to. But when Gaga sings ‘Stop calling…I don’t wanna talk anymore/I left my head and my heart on the dancefloor’, it is tempting to wonder if she is thinking of her own loss of privacy in the midst of sudden fame.
Jonas Akerlund’s nine-minute video takes endless liberties with ‘Telephone’, often breaking into dialogue for long periods before resuming the music. (Akerlund previously directed Gaga’s 2009 hit, ‘Paparazzi’.) Filmed in lurid colour, with corny lines and ludicrously exaggerated acting, the ‘Telephone’ promo owes much to the seamy aesthetic of 70s exploitation movies. The yellow ‘Pussy Wagon’ driven by Gaga is borrowed from Quentin Tarantino’s own homage to the genre, Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003.)
The action begins in a women‘s prison with a near-nude Gaga incarcerated for being ‘too sexy’. Product placement is blatant, with Virgin Mobile and Polaroid both prominent. In one scene, Gaga is kissed by the Canadian performance artist, Heather Chassils. She changes costume incessantly, from a Madonna-esque biker jacket to sado-masochistic chains, while a pair of sunglasses made from cigarette butts and a hat adorned with Coke cans crown her as the queen of ‘trash couture’.
Some time later, Gaga is bailed by Beyonce, and they take to the road. Stopping in a truckstop diner, Beyonce slips strichine into Tyrese Gibson’s coffee, while Gaga liberates the kitchen staff by poisoning the food. Both stars overstep their boundaries – Beyonce calls Tyrese a ‘motherfucker’, while Gaga commits mass homicide – and as the two stars dance in skimpy outfits made from the American flag, ‘Telephone’ resembles an unhinged parody of the 1991 road movie, Thelma and Louise.
In allying herself with Beyonce, Gaga has paid homage to the only female artist of her generation who can rival her. While Gaga’s appearance is almost a spoof of commoditised sexuality, Beyonce is the true romantic object of this film. Like a Creole Rita Hayworth (or maybe Bettie Page), she is serenely beautiful.
So entertaining was the ‘Telephone’ video that – as with ‘Alejandro’ – the song got left behind. While Gaga has undoubtedly brought a sense of spectacle back into music, this sometimes overshadows her prowess as a singer-songwriter. But she insists that her image is no mask, but an expression of her deepest self. Perhaps it is not her job to show that style and substance can co-exist, but ours.
‘Dance in the Dark’ was rumoured by fans to be the fourth single, but this never materialised. In many ways it is a stronger track than ‘Telephone’ or ‘Alejandro’. It deals with negative body image, and tells the story of a woman who prefers to make love with the lights off (‘Baby likes to dance in the dark/’Cos when he’s looking she falls apart’.) Once again, Gaga touches on dysfunctional relationships (‘She looks good but her boyfriend says she’s a tramp’.)
In a spoken verse, Gaga mentions some iconic names from the past – Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, Liberace, Princess Diana, and Jon-Benet Ramsay. This recalls (and not for the first time) Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, but whereas Madonna rapped a roll-call of classic Hollywood stars, Gaga’s list is quirkier. It’s notable that the influences Gaga cites have often been linked with suffering, drawn from a well of art, fame and tragedy.
At first glance, ‘Dance in the Dark’ could be seen as an ode to martyrdom. But Gaga has found something unspoken in our hyper-sexualised culture – a sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth – and transformed this into a rallying cry for women, and others who feel excluded.
Challenging ‘Bad Romance’ as the album’s other standout track, ‘Dance in the Dark’ has a new wave aesthetic, worthy of Debbie Harry in her prime (Blondie’s Parallel Lines, 1978.) It is the opening song on Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour, and she also performed it at the Brit Awards after the death of her friend and collaborator, English fashion designer Alexander McQueen, in February 2010.
‘So Happy I Could Die’ returns to the hedonistic, carefree mood of The Fame. Lines like ‘Happy in the club with a bottle of red wine/Stars in our eyes ‘cause we’re having a good time’ could have been lifted from any raver’s diary. References to lesbian crushes (‘I love that lavender blonde’) and masturbation (‘I touch myself and I’m on track’) are spontaneous and real. Gaga captures perfectly the sensation of being alone and yet part of something universal that marks the party experience.
Finally, ‘Teeth’ brings the monster theme full circle. Gaga’s dual fascination with flesh and fear is evident in her blood-soaked live performances, and she made headlines by appearing at the MTV Awards last September in a dress made from slabs of meat. ‘Teeth’ combines lust and spirituality, with stomping military beats, eerie bass guitar and strident, bad-girl lyrics.
‘Got no religion,’ Gaga purrs, ‘My religion is you.’ Musically, ‘Teeth’ looks back towards blues and gospel, while its theme is aggressively sexual. ‘Show me your teeth’, she demands, ‘Need a man, now show me your fangs.’ To the man who can satisfy her desires, she offers submission: ‘I’m gonna love you with my hands tied.’
The Monster Ball
Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour began in November 2009, a month after The Fame Monster’s release, and is set to end in May 2011, in advance of her third album, Born This Way. She has described the show as ‘a pop-electro opera’, and it’s sheer inventiveness has been compared to Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour of 1990, which rewrote the rule book for live performance.
What makes Gaga’s shows unique is her intense relationship with audiences. “It’s also difficult to think of any pop star of her stature who interacts with her fans in quite this way,” Alex Petridis wrote in The Guardian after Gaga’s London show in December 2010. “She appears to know the front row by name. When someone throws a book onstage, she opens it, stops the show and begins reading out selected passages.”
Gaga’s growing status as cultural icon enabled her to campaign against ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, the policy that prevented openly gay soldiers from serving in the US military. She spoke at a rally in Maine during September of 2010, and made a further speech at the MTV Awards. The policy was finally repealed in November 2010. While the campaign (supported by President Obama) has been longstanding, Gaga undoubtedly helped to bring it into wider focus.
Nonetheless, a small but audible minority have begun to resent Gaga’s success. Asked if she would consider a duet with Gaga, Grace Jones (an oft-cited influence on the younger star) retorted: “I’ve seen some things she’s worn that I’ve worn, and that does kind of piss me off…I’d just prefer to work with someone who is more original and someone who is not copying me, actually.”
Rapper M.I.A. complained, “People say we’re similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music’s reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She’s not progressive, but she’s a good mimic.”
“Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android,” argued the cultural critic, Camille Paglia. “How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution?”
It’s rather depressing to find a feminist writer like Paglia scolding Lady Gaga for not being ‘sexy’ enough. It seems not to occur to her that Gaga may not want to be a sex object. Despite her risqué outfits and brazen behavior, Gaga is not afraid to appear ugly. In her more reflective moments, Lady Gaga is as pretty and alluring as her peers, with added charisma and intelligence. Unlike, say, Britney Spears, there is little doubt that Gaga is in control of her career.
As for M.I.A.’s charge that Gaga’s music is not ‘progressive’, it should be noted that Gaga, unlike some other artists, is a proud populist. While her feet may be firmly in the mainstream, she draws from a wide range of influence and her songs are often slyly subversive.
“Grace (Jones) is such an inspiration to me, which is why with all the rumors that have flown around over the year, I was always excited because of the androgyny of the woman,” Gaga told the FUSE TV Network in November 2009. If she was hurt by Jones’ response, she has not said so. Not yet twenty-five, Gaga already has a shrewder grasp of publicity than many show-business veterans.
“Two things strike you about (Gaga) immediately,” Caitlin Moran wrote in The Times last year. “First, that she really isn’t dressed casually. In a breast-length, silver-grey wig, she has a black lace veil wound around her face, and sits, framed, in an immense, custom-made, one-off Alexander McQueen cloak. The effect is one of having been ushered into the presence of a very powerful fairytale queen: possibly one who has recently killed Aslan, on the Stone Table….The second thing you notice is that she is being lovely. Absolutely lovely. Both literally and figuratively; what’s under the veil and the cloak is a diminutive, well brought up, New York Catholic girl from a wealthy middle-class family, with twinkly brown eyes and a minxy sense of humour.”
Of course, with just one album and an EP under her belt, Gaga still has a long way to go. The much-anticipated Born This Way will challenge her on many levels. Gaga must prove her mettle as an artist while holding her notoriously fickle audience’s approval. Whether she will leave a legacy to match her idols – Bowie, Madonna – remains to be seen, but if The Fame Monster is an omen, then Lady Gaga is on her way.
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