Pop: grab your old girl with her new tricks; if this was Gaga’s first and last album, it would be just as complete as it is in context as a dynasty starter.
The Fame is nothing more and nothing less than a perfect Pop debut through and through. Visceral, catchy, panoramic, reflective, progressive, chock full of hit singles, formidable filler, and fun; foreshadowing or foreboding depending on how you look at it – and yet, so very simple. The Fame is merely a skeleton, and the beats are nothing more than an atmosphere. In Britney’s wake we saw a sea change: where Spears’ story was plot-driven – a tale of a singer at the whim of heavy production, and a girl at the whim of a weighty world – Gaga’s voice is the fuel behind The Fame. She gives life to the beats, as much as she injected the joie de vivre back into Pop’s consciousness.
The sound is underground and mainstream, simultaneously past and present. “Just Dance” couldn’t be more straightforward as it rips the disco skeleton from the past, fleshes it out with simple synth layers, and slaps an electro-futuristic veneer on for 21st Century tech propulsion. The beat is a night out: airy synth, simple percussion, minimal layers, basic four-count – nothing crazy, nothing coercive, just dance music. The lyrics are universal: just dance, gonna be okay – and repete after moi.
Gaga is “that girl” from the club. This is the first step of the journey through a tumultuously memorable relationship between lovers, the celebrity and the scene, the artist and the industry, the author and the audience. It all starts with “Just Dance.” You just dance to get to know their name, you just dance to get on Page Six, you just dance to get that record deal, you just dance for reassurance that it’s going to be okay – and this is The Fame.
Beyond that, at first listen, “Just Dance” is any other Pop track, a brilliantly choreographed debut. It couldn’t be more literal, and at a time where the world is a collective skeptic for good reason – the truthiness behind WMDs – that clear transparency was a trailblazing mindfreak in and of itself. Everything the track is not makes it everything it is. It is not new, it is not groundbreaking, it is not particularly deep or profound – and yet, coming from a world of life under-rug-swept it was that very transparency that broke America out of its shell. Just. Dance. No more, no less, no hidden agenda. Before auto-tune and vocoders, before ice and chains, there was lighthearted, carefree disco – the most basic, infinite, constant, life stream of music by method.
The weight of modern Pop’s heavy production reflected a population beneath the barrage of their own environment. Britney’s voice battled to break over Danja’s basslines, Nicole Scherzinger and Co.’s voices were as empty as the stars they aspired to be, and this was the subtle soundtrack of our daily lives – conversing and communicating in a modified tone, rehashing dialogue gathered from the news, the Facebook, The Hills, the White House; we had no control. Everything was entirely too complex, and we gave up. We woke up waiting to see which institution had failed us now, which neighbor lost their home, or which coworker lost their job; meanwhile, Gaga woke up to see which club she had failed to name last night, which bartender found her keys, and which bouncer found her phone. It could all be so simple, and even though you made it hard, it can all be so simple again – just dance, gonna be okay.
The signature sound is as apropos a sonic aesthetic for Gaga as any you could possibly fathom. Disco: the rainbow coalition rallying cry emerging as the pulse of the marginalized and socially-oppressed communities. Disco, the uber-derivative genre that pulled its identity from soul, jazz, Calypso, funk, rock, Latin, and infused those indigenous sounds with new synth technology. Disco, the cultural anomaly with which to be reckoned, that self-contextualized subculture hidden-in-plain-view, the Anti-Red-Blooded America full of the gays, the blacks, the women, the progressive post-hippie problem. Gaga: the rainbow-haired bad romancer emerging as the pulse of the Generation Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fringe networks. Gaga, the uber-derivative artist that pulled her identity from Lorca, Queen, Motley Crue, In Living Color, Peggy Bundy, Kardinal Offishall, Stanley Kubrick, Yoko Ono, and infused those influences with a modern Pop veneer. Gaga, the cultural anomaly with which to be reckoned, that self-contextualized subversive supernova hidden-in-plain-view, the bleeding red corpse of American celebrity hanging from the rafters. Disco and Gaga, the liberating voice, the heartbeat and pulse; when Nixon put the fringe elements away, when Bush put the freaks in the doghouse, Disco and Dance music are what the subculture whistled while they werqed.
They turned the basement into the big house, they made the freak fabulous, they Studio 54ed on the floor and Monster Balled out of control. They took the clandestine and made it social currency. That ironclad community, that bond of the oppressed, is what fueled the funk. Metal heads hated Disco, but the genre bordered Glam Rock and birthed Hair bands; rappers are notoriously homophobic, but the genre birthed hip-hop; Wale dropped out of a show because of said homophobia, but just a few months prior he was chillin’ with Gaga like his middle name was Perez. Disco – Electronic Dance music – is universal, it is liberating, it is innate, it is self-made, it is the high-hated, it can’t pay rent but it is gorgeous, and it’s never dead – just beautysleeping in a trance, but never sleeping to dream: and this is The Fame.
The Fame is Pop; Pop is as personal, as it is political, as it is a commercial vehicle. The Fame is exactly the same; each song is a scene from a story, and it means whatever you want it to mean. “LoveGame” is the classic tale of a one-night mayhaps, and so very distinctly the sample-come-surrender story of a star and her beloved Pop. “I wanna kiss you, but if I do then I might miss you babe,” considers the struggling artist as she wedges her foot in the door: I want fame; I want to taste that beautiful life, like Paris, Lindsay, Britney, but like that harrowing hat-trick I know it’s a one-kiss-to-commit sitch. Fame is a drug, like Cocaine the champagne, one line is too much and a million is never enough. So, we venture along as the Lady reminds us of the lovelorn path most stumbled: the path of Pop stardom, the little boy monster. “Hold me and love me, just wanna touch you for a minute; Maybe three seconds is enough for my heart to quit it.” It all comes down to one question: “Do you want love, or you want fame?” Art is passion, fame is vapid: vanity please, Ladies first.
Then come the Paparazzi, and with the fatal flashes come the fans, the fiends, the frenemies, the cold cruel world beneath the hot, hot lights. Fame is crumbling beneath the weight of your own ego, The Fame is making it work and faking it until then – fight flash with the facade; you don’t hustle this hard to fall harder. Gaga just danced her way into a love game with the industry, willy-nilly and aloof, but beneath the pink haired My Little Pony shell was a Trojan Horse. “Poker Face” was just that, a bluff and a front. Two number one singles later: we still weren’t sure whether or not Lady was a Lord, whether he/she/it was from Yonkers, Mars, Sweden, or Manhattan, whether or not her pants allergy was contagious, what her “real voice” sounded like, or how in God’s name she got the name Gaga – and no, the interviews didn’t help, they just further hindered a clear view of this character and where her Achilles’ was (we later found out it was in the back pocket of that pair of pants she wore in seventh grade, along with her keys and phone), barring the ease in our building and breaking of her accordingly. Fame is Britney’s fate, The Fame is treating that as a cautionary tale instead of a crystal ball; as the Lady herself said: “They can’t scare me if I scare them first.” Russian Roulette isn’t the same without a gun, and baby when it gets to that: Didi Mao, cut, and run. Meanwhile, in real life, every major institution had crumbled beneath our very feet, the world was in a tailspin, running about like headless KFC chicken-products; and while we sat dumbfounded atop our collapsed house of cards, Gaga took that very same hand and made it marvelous. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, when you’ve only got stripper heels to pay your way through college: and this is The Fame.
“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” is the soul of The Fame. It builds from the rich rasp of funk percussion, hard piano, wailing synth, and rock guitar riffs, reflective of the eclectic gritty sounds of a New York block or brownstone. The sound builds into a scene. It’s Gaga’s signature scene: back for the first time. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” was the promo-single-that-couldn’t-quite, the track that got Gaga voted off the island of Def Jam, was why she had to just dance to be okay. Where before she knocked on fame’s door with a formal request for entry into the house, she now knocks down the door; riding in on the four singles of the Pop Apocalypse, her own Haus in tow. The kids do the dance right, they have got it made like ice cream topped with honey; they’ve got the red light scope dead set on two things: the father and the fame; Daddy I’m so sorry: bang, bang.
“The Fame” is the epitome. It is a vapid title track, a decoy focal point. Just like “Telephone,” just like the meat dress, it is what is the assumed “moment,” the expected apex, the exalted “to what end” – and because of that it is the typification of perception: “Doin’ it for the Fame ‘cuz we wanna live the life of the rich and famous. Fame: doin’ it for the Fame, ‘cuz we gotta taste for champagne and endless fortune. We live for the fame fame baby, the fame fame, isn’t it a shame.” It’s the veneer, but like everything else it has as much value as you give it. It begs the question: what is fame? More importantly, does it matter what you call it? A fish trap only matters because of the fish: once you have the fish, forget the trap; words only matter because of the meaning: once you have the meaning forget the words – fame is just a title. The beautiful, dirty, rich ones want nothing more than to overthrow the entitled in a Clockwork Orange County coup: “I want to see television and hot blondes in odd positions,” Fame is hot blondes, The Fame distorts them in odd positions; “All we care about is pornographic, girls on film in body plastic,” Fame is girls on film, The Fame wraps them in body plastic. There’s fame, and there’s the killers: Fame is Jillian, The Fame is Jack the Ripper. If New York is where stars are born, and L.A. is where they go to die, the beautiful, dirty, rich are infantile, and the famous are a beautiful lie.
Of all the scenes and teams, of all the things that make The Fame great there are those that make it a great disaster. The Fame is a mockery of its own alter-ego, its own false perception, its own diminished reputation branded true by those who have no clue. What is the weak point in The Fame, what is the fluff and the filler? “The Fame,” “Money Honey,” “Starstruck,” “Boys Boys Boys,” ride through like a ringtone rendevous. The Fame Boys and their money, honey. The third quarter of the album is an embodiment of the expected artificial. Deep bass beneath basic heavy guitar chords and dense airy synth exude a sense of nightmarish fantasy. Yet, this is Gaga being what it means to be a pop star. The lightest tracks are the most famous, it’s what you live and die for, it’s what you fell into the LoveGame hoping to attain: bad boys, fast cars, delicious dollars, star partners, the works. It’s so ridiculously realistic, and again with the transparency, it is the called spade that knocks the cynicism out of the skeptic. The Fame is funny because it’s true, but funnier if it weren’t. Gaga wrote it into being, and if this was her first and last album she would have a famous obituary; but her inevitably legendary career will be looked back on with The Fame as the starting point – the catalyst, not the final mark of success: and this is The Fame.
“I’m shiny and I know it, don’t know why you want to blow it; you got me wondering why I like it rough,” maybe because love is a losing game. As Gaga eases out the album with “I Like It Rough,” it’s the track that reminds us there is no end; we always want what we can’t have, and once we have it we’re on to the next, and after it leaves we’re standing missing it only because it’s gone… and so it goes. Christians are born-again if only to sin, celebrities sober up if only to get that much closer to the dragon, lovers part if only to make up, and the industry kills stars if only to resurrect them for a comeback tour. As always, from the night can arrive the sweet dawn, but “don’t be sad when the sun goes down, you’ll wake up and I’m not around.” “What time is it?” Fifteen minutes, and a lifetime, later we hit “Summerboy,” the sweet sendoff as Gaga heads to meet with the wild things. As she says “we’ll still have the summer after all,” you can’t help but miss June. Aside from you, or anyone else, this is Gaga looking in the mirror and saluting goodbye to her summer self; while the world was riding her disco stick, she made her way to the bath haus to get clean with the beautiful, dirty, rich.
So here we find ourselves looking back on 2008. The institutions had crumbled, the celebrities had collapsed, the grand old party had ended, Hamptonite billionaires became slumdog millionaires: the top dropped. Yet with their last ounce of influence, they gave the false American ideal to us: that their reality check was our dream deferred, that we had failed – but when the everyman had nothing, it was nothing new, and for those who had nothing again we had nothing to lose.
The Fame is as stylishly substantial as you want it to be. It gauges only against itself, and so does Lady Gaga. The Fame is a skeleton, the album is Gaga’s face; but her story is a tale of how to go carve out your own space:
I did this the way you are supposed to. I played every club in New York City and I bombed in every club and then killed it in every club and I found myself as an artist. I learned how to survive as an artist, get real, and how to fail and then figure out who I was as singer and performer. And, I worked hard.
It’s the hedonistic Apocalyptic sendoff, an ode to the past life that built this live and die fast life, and 2008 was the post-party dawn. It was over, we were done, fame was dead, but in its wake a child was born unto us: The Fame. The Fame is everything fame is not; The Fame takes time, fame isn’t worth it. Fame is what killed the country, The Fame is here to bring it back. Fame is the artifice, The Fame is the artist. When the history books are burnt beneath the rubble, you write your own tale. Britney fell, up for grabs goes Pop; Bush was gone, oh hai politics: meet Barack. What the famous lost was our gain – and this is The Fame. It is timeless, and senseless, with no direction, just vamp; here today, gone tomorrow, if you want it: just dance.