[22 November 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Back in May of this year, Kanye West made (as per usual) a somewhat outrageous claim: that Lady Gaga was our present-day Madonna. The fact that Kanye would make such a boast didn’t really come as that much of a surprise to anyone though. He had already announced a co-headlining tour with her (which has since been canceled), posted every single video and guest-appearance she made on his blog, and even sampled her vocals from an acoustic rendition of “Poker Face” to great effect on the Kid Cudi single “Make Her Say”. Yet even with West being ga-ga for Gaga, that very simple Madonna comparison has already stirred quite a bit of controversy. Could she really be our next Queen of Pop, despite having released only one album? Wouldn’t Britney have already claimed that title years ago? Also, can there really be a “next Madonna” when the current one is as lively and active as ever?
Truth be told, this isn’t really an issue that needs much debate. Madonna is Madonna and Lady Gaga has the distinction of being the first-ever Lady Gaga. Artists with strong personalities always tend to weather the pop music landscape better than their indistinctive peers, which is why we spill more ink over singers like Beyoncé and Robyn than one-hit wonders like 702 or Willa Ford. In a very short amount of time, Lady Gaga has achieved an incredible amount of stardom, and not just because she occasionally wears outfits that would make David Bowie blush.
Instead, the one aspect that has separated Gaga from the numerous (and anonymous) pop starlets that dote our landscape is actually one of the simplest things in the book: her songs. With a slew of top-notch producers in tow (RedOne being the best among them), Gaga immediately crafted a distinct sound based on shiny synths and club-ready beats, frequently marrying simple lyrical metaphors to towering hooks and doing so with total disregard for what “style” was presently “working” on the radio. While established artists like Madonna and Shakira eventually turned to producers like the Neptunes to deliver that surefire chartbusting tune, Gaga was smart enough to know that a sturdy pop song is a sturdy pop song no matter what the context, and just like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Britney’s “Toxic” before it, it wasn’t long before “Poker Face” began getting that rock band cover treatment, with everyone from Daughtry to Christopher Walken getting in on the action.
It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise, then, that Gaga (and her labels) would want to capitalize on the success of The Fame in as timely a manner as possible—especially after scoring four consecutive Top 10 singles in a row (which, for a debut album, is nothing short of incredible). What is a surprise, however, is the format that the Haus of Gaga decided to go with for releasing this new material. The Fame Monster comes in multiple editions, but the main “Deluxe” version houses not only the new Fame Monster EP, but also the complete original Fame album (and if you want to go mega-extravagant, there is a delightfully over-the-top limited edition that includes 3D glasses because hey—why not?). Though Gaga has stated in interviews prior that she herself is not a fan of repackaging material for fans to buy multiple times over, that notion is a bit of a hard sell given that some of those new songs on this “deluxe” version of The Fame are only available by purchasing The Fame Monster.
Yet the song/format confusion isn’t even this Monster‘s strangest feature. Although casual observers may think of Lady Gaga as the purveyor of dirty-strobe anthems like “Just Dance” and “Paparazzi”, anyone who’s listened to The Fame straight through may have been surprised to find Lady Gaga indulging in in the fine art of the homage, devoting entire songs to her influences like the B-52s (“The Fame”) and Blondie (“Summerboy”), these tribute tracks working much better than some of The Fame‘s singles, even. This tradition continues on during The Fame Monster, but in ways that are genuinely unexpected: here, Gaga winds up stealing from the stylistic templates of the Basement Jaxx, Shakira, Prince, and—in a rather surprising move—Queen ...
That’s right: Queen. “Speechless” is full-on Freddie Mercury pomp, replete with stacked vocal harmonies and top-notch Brian May guitar ripoffs (all of this proving to be frightfully fitting, too, given that Miss Stefani Germanotta reportedly got her stage name from a producer who likened her to the classic Queen track “Radio Gaga”). Although the resulting tune doesn’t have the same driving oomph of a peak-era Queen number, the imitation is admirable if not just for the fact that it manages to rub shoulders with such sacred company without once feeling like a gimmick. From that point onward, Gaga tries on a wide variety of identity masks: she steals Shakira’s open-air choruses wholesale during “Alejandro”, pulls off a remarkable imitation of the Minneapolis Sound on “Retro, Dance, Freak”, and—in her most remarkable turn yet—winds up crafting a thumping, acoustic-driven pseudo-sequel to Basement Jaxx’s “Supersonic” in the form of “Teeth”, her most sonically adventurous song yet.
Yet for those looking for more of Gaga’s trademark four-on-the-floor stompers, The Fame Monster does manage to reach a few new heights. Although the track “Monster” may occasionally fall apart on the metaphor front (having a boy eat your heart, sure—but eating your brain too?), the stuttering synths and ‘80s drum hits that surround this number creates a bit of a playful (and naughty) atmosphere, bumping up next to the delightfully dirty retro workout “Dance in the Dark” to make for one surprisingly effective pop cocktail. Then, of course, there’s the much talked-about Beyoncé collaboration “Telephone”, which—with its double-time beat and rapid-fire verses—proves to be one of the most adrenaline-pumped songs that Gaga has yet crafted, the whole thing feeling like it’s about to veer of the tracks at any moment simply due to the giddy excitement shared between the two divas, easily turning it into the unquestioned highlight of The Fame Monster (and that other Beyoncé/Gaga collaboration that appears on the new Deluxe Edition of I Am ... Sasha Fierce? Well, let’s just say that Gaga definitely got the better track of the two ...).
Yet even with all of this in mind, Monster—just like The Fame—does get weighed down by some regrettable filler tracks. Though wisely excising the pointless (and forgettable) guest excursions that marred some of The Fame‘s better moments, tracks like “Disco Heaven” work better as concepts than they do fully-formed songs, just as how “Bad Romance” feels like the lesser kid cousin of “Just Dance”, the towering synths in the verses serving as a pretty distraction from the fact that chorus just isn’t as distinctive as Gaga’s earlier hits. To top things off, the masturbation ode “So Happy I Could Die” is a plodding and repetitive drone of a song that takes an interesting lyrical bent and squanders any impact it could have with the single most sedated vocal performance Gaga has yet given. It’s a bit of a disappointment, too, because for someone who is so painfully deliberate in crafting their unique visual image, it’s a let down to see that some of that quality control couldn’t be applied to the song selection that will ultimately define their legacy.
When all is said and done, The Fame Monster isn’t going to win Lady Gaga any new converts, but it does prove something to her millions of fans: that she’s not complacent with doing the same thing over again. She’s willing to try new (and sometimes very unexpected) things, branching out at a time when it feels like every lone pop diva is more than willing to compromise their artistic growth just for the sake of having a radio hit. Even if we can’t agree with the notion that Lady Gaga is the next Madonna, at least we can take solace in the fact that just like Queen Madge before her, Gaga is allowed to make a few mistakes on her way towards pop nirvana—and judging what she’s aiming for with The Fame Monster, there’s a good chance she’s going to get there sooner than later.