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While the residents of the UK attempt in vain to recover from the tsunami of pulsating charisma and brilliance which was Cheryl Cole’s ‘Three Words’, and whilst children sit next to the radios waiting impatiently for the DJ to drop some more sinuous and magnetic records from Pixie Lott and Kate Nash; it’s hard to pick out quite what it is about Lady Gaga that has made people so excited about pop music once more. Sure, she’s got a lot of talent and a consistent cultural aesthetic which plays into her music and envelops her entire world into the beat of European techno and traditional Queenesque lyrical flourishes on a frequent basis, covering herself in artistry whilst ensuring that her brand becomes a nu-revolution of neo-Warhol identity. And she does have an ability to combine high-end musical hooks with lowest-common-denominator sexual innuendos and celebrity cameos in order to entrance her fanbase – the demographic of whom includes everyone from kids to adults, gays to straights, blacks to whites and snobs to girls from Essex. At the same time, there’s none of the vacuous propaganda filth which abysmally seeps into her contemporaries’ shoes within her work – she dissects the ideas of fame whilst propagating her own celebrity, avoiding the Z-Circus of rags like ‘Now!’ and ‘Bella’ whilst making the journalists behind those wretched magazines adore her every high-heeled step into the public consciousness.
Every other artist is obsessed with their financial brand; while Gaga pours all her income into her creative brand, the woefully-named ‘Haus of Gaga’ who produce her shows and give her constant access to new fashions, sets, atmospheres and tones for her to immerse audiences in. What sets Lady Gaga apart from all these other musicians is that she has a whole-hearted belief in her own music and the importance of ‘the star’ which nobody else in music can match right now (with the possible exceptions of Rufus Wainwright, M.I.A., and Grace Jones). Her music may not back up her assertions in the slightest, but at least she’s damn well trying to elevate the meaning of celebrity so that it means something again. The Fame Monster is her second album, no matter what the UK chart industry or Ciao may think. A separate body of work with a very clear structure and set of themes all its own, The Fame Monster
stands apart from her shallow and not-that-great debut ‘The Fame’ as an advancement of her core ideals. She may not have managed to make many songs which deserve her brilliantly overblown reputation and colossal star-power, but she’s certainly starting to get there.
Now that Gaga has actually got fame, her comments on the industry have rather more ballast to them. Her habit of namedropping artists and true cultural revolutionaries in her interviews and songs – Warhol and Alexander McQueen come up A LOT – has been quietened as she now has her own fame to draw from, instead of the experiences of others. She’s still overtly sexual, to the point of idiosyncratic irony, but she’s clearly run out of euphemisms for sex because her terms are more explicit than before and as such have less impact as a whole. It seems that her fame has allowed her more creative control over her output, as seen in her surprisingly nerdy videos for the songs ‘Telephone’ and ‘Alexandro’, and this control over her work means that we have a set of eight songs in The Fame Monsters which are far more dense and unruly than before. Instead of a sophomore album which sticks to the same formula in the hopes of continued success, Gaga here tries her hardest to alienate anyone who wasn’t already a die-hard fan. And she starts with ‘Bad Romance’, which is one of the best, most intense, and single-mindedly violent pop songs ever made.
A full-throated rush into the dark heart of pop, Gaga attempts to do for bubblegum what Conrad did for Euro-African relations. The only real success she’s had in synthesising her avant couture into a single pop song, Bad Romance manages to combine hearty singalongs with dark ruminations on love and the pop industry; and still finds time to drop into French and sing a bit which goes “RAH-RAH-AH-AH-AH/GA-GA-OOH-LA-LA” with all the sardonic reflection of Sylvia Plath. Completely manic from start to finish, the song draws heavily on the clashing influences of Prince and European techno music in order to provoke a reaction from the listener, no matter what the reaction may be. Dropping a guttural croak as she states her verses almost as much as she sings them, her true voice gets showcased thoroughly upon hitting the choruses, which she catches cleanly and completely. Never has she managed to so neatly arrange her lyrics into one singular statement as here. Everything about the song needs to be listened to, in an encapsulation of her first album within five minutes with all the junk and studio-filler jettisoned. But hey, you’ve already heard Bad Romance.
The rest of the album – seven songs – obviously can’t come anywhere near to matching Bad Romance. It would be a mistake to try, so obviously Gaga tries it. ‘So Happy I Could Die’ is the most obvious casualty, a nearing-shambles of a song which tries to throw off an exploitative B-movie vibe without any of the controversy required. Tossed-out references to bisexuality and masturbation aren’t enough to shock audiences anymore, although there is a neat lyrical twist towards the end. It’s not enough to interest, however, and sounds like the sort of song that Alphabeat would happily discard. Whilst not close to ‘Just Dance’ in terms of banal Aguilera-ish mediocrity, the song certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs on the album. More successful is the nursery rhyme of ‘Telephone’, which attempts to rejuvenate the ailing ‘metaphors about how a poor telephone connection is a lot like a long-distance relationship’ genre of music. Already done brilliantly by Blondie and Rilo Kiley, Telephone doesn’t have anything new to add apart from zeal. But what a lot of enthusiasm there is, the song zipping along at short notice from a lullaby beginning into a thudding synth opening verse. And then Beyonce enters the fray, spitting out anger-flecked contributions which sit uncomfortably in-between Gaga’s indignation. As far as collaborations go, Gaga completely out-sings Beyonce, but at the same time the two combine to create a far more complete song than previous team-up song ‘Videophone’. While the song descends into a bit of farce towards the end, it’s the sort of farce which is at least entertaining – unlike, say, anything the Sugababes have released since Amelle took over their creative direction.
‘Speechless’ and ‘Alejandro’ provide the best two come-downs from the bombast of Bad Romance, in the forms of Freddy Mercury balladeering and Annie/ABBA pop confectionary respectively. While the overblown nature of Speechless is utterly entertaining in its camp one-more-for-the-road ability to top itself for melodrama and over-emoting with every passing minute, Alejandro proves to be perhaps the best ‘pure’ pop song that the singer has ever released. A tight, low-key track which has a lightweight keyboard refrain floating over the top of heavier underground synths, the song feels like a celebration of proper romance despite the oddity of her singing style. She doesn’t use her own accent for the song, instead putting in some kind of bizarre Eastern European thing instead which sounds suspiciously sub-Russian. The uplifting melody of the keyboards ensures that the song is an altogether more rewarding song than many of the others, and proves to be the song most worthy of replay over time. Bad Romance may be an amazing piece of work, but Alejandro has a fun bit that goes “ally-ally-andro” at the end and that’s brilliant.
While ‘Monster’ returns to the subpar vacuity of her first album (having been written very early on, this is hardly unexpected), what clings to the mind is the thought that Gaga is extremely detailed in her list of hipster references. Frequent references to her influences are invoked throughout the album, ranging from Hitchcock to Tarantino and Princess Diana. She works very hard to ensure that her image is reflective of the true auteurs within society, but she contrasts this with her range of perhaps lesser influences. In essence, the small cracks that she inadvertently creates within her musical armour expose her as a geek. The stomping finale ‘Teeth’, about bondage, sounds suspiciously like a homage to the zombie films of George A. Romero. And her constant use of European influences is interesting in the current market of American hip-hop, as German techno meets Cossack music during the grand finale. Spoken-word interludes appear in almost every song whilst the second-best song on the album, ‘Dance in the Dark’, is almost certainly inspired by Roxy Music and Spandau Ballet. Most blatantly, she rips off a section of Madonna’s Vogue in her spoken word listing of various cultural icons she admires and wishes to emulate. While it sounds at first a little too foggy and dense to be anything more than extra atmosphere to follow on with the dark mood of the rest of the album, relistens suggest a resurgent theme of triumph and sorority which sums up The Fame Monster as an album just as well as Bad Romance sums up Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta as an artist.