Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

On her new EP, Gaga tries several different styles, doing a Shakira imitation one moment before launching into a Queen homage the next.

Lady Gaga

The Fame Monster

Label: Cheerytree
US Release Date: 2009-11-23
UK Release Date: 2009-11-23
Label Website
Artist Website

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.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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