Impossibly, Lady GaGa’s debut album The Fame came out ten years ago this week. Sam Brooks looks back at the album that launched an icon.
I remember where I was when I heard ‘Just Dance’ – and you might remember that ‘Just Dance’ was a hit in New Zealand about a year before it broke through across the world. I was sitting in a car, waiting for somebody to finish supermarketing or whatever it was adults did in 2008. I heard a thirty-second sample of it on my phone – you might also remember when you bought songs for your phone and could only play them on there – and I was hooked. I went home and bought it on iTunes, because in 2008 I was both seventeen and seventy years old.
I hadn’t ever heard of Lady GaGa. Before ‘Just Dance’, few humans had, and even fewer of those humans lived on our side of the world. As a result, both she and the song seemed to have come out of a self-created primordial ooze. There are songs you hear that sound significant the moment the first beats reach your ear holes – think ‘Royals’, think ‘Say My Name’, think ‘Gangnam Style’. This was one of those songs.
‘Just Dance’ had the unique effect of sounding like nothing else that had come before it, but also sounding familiar enough that it didn’t scare you. It was like Britney, but the beats were a little bit harder and a little bit colder. There was the space between the vocal and the production like the best of Nelly Furtado’s Timbaland work that gave the song a subtly depressing undercurrent, an aggressively and fakely optimistic flipside to Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’.
And there was that incredibly earnest vocal. Even though GaGa would later prove herself to be a tremendous, full-voiced belter of a vocalist, there was no trace of that here. Her voice was thin, but she conveyed the desperation of someone dancing in the club not because she wants to but because she feels like she has to.
There was something else, though. The song was weird. There was a rapped bridge that made literally no sense. It was also a lot darker than it seemed on the surface. “I love this record baby but I can’t see straight anymore” played less like a girl having fun in the club and more like a girl who put foundation on straight over the mascara she’d cried out the previous night. For everything about it that made it a simple pop hit, there was at least one other thing about it that made it distinctive and strange.
Listening to it ten (really, eleven years) on, it still doesn’t really sound like anything else since.
‘Just Dance’ opens GaGa’s debut album, The Fame, which turns ten this week. It’s sold 15 million copies in those ten years (if you combine it with remix album The Fame Monster, which you really should). It’s the debut album of arguably the biggest ‘new’ popstar of the past ten years.
Does any of it hold up as well as ‘Just Dance’ does?
The answer is… yes and no.
Fourteen songs strong (with the requisite ballad which aged like a canned vodka-soda – immediately and poorly), it was an electro-pop album that was less an artistic statement, more a hit generating machine. That’s not to say the entire thing is a write-off – there are plenty of amazing pop albums that came out of the desire to generate hits, and a lot of absolutely terrible ones. This is neither.
To be straight up, The Fame is full of fluff and curios. The less said about ‘Eh Eh (Nothing More I Can Say)’ for example, the better – the fact that this was even considered a single release is embarrassing to everybody involved. If you’re a diehard fan of GaGa, and I understand that a few of these exist, then these songs will be of interest to you. To the rest of humanity, they’re just electro-pop bangers that are a few steps above the generic filler that you might find on a Hilary Duff album from around the same time. GaGa’s sincerity and talent as both performer and songwriter allows for a few peaks here and there – ‘Beautiful, Dirty, Rich’ and ‘Boys Boys Boys’ are empty-calorie pop at its finest – but these aren’t significant songs by any stretch of anybody’s imagination.
Which brings me to the first four songs on the album: the four big singles, and four of the biggest songs of GaGa’s career. These are ‘Just Dance’ plus ‘LoveGame’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Paparazzi’. Who the hell starts their debut album with the four best songs of their career? Very few people, and even fewer pop stars.
‘LoveGame’ is the strangest of these to listen to now; it doesn’t sound like a monster hit, which it wasn’t at the time. But it’s catchy as hell – the glitchy beats work, GaGa’s affected OmniAccent makes hooks out of phrases that really shouldn’t work, and the chorus makes the phrase ‘lovegame’ into a refrain that claws its way into your brain and never leaves.
‘Poker Face’, deftly sampling Boney M’s ‘Ma Baker’, remains one of the biggest hits of her career. It builds hooks upon hooks – the ‘ma-ma-ma’ on the ‘po-po-po’ on the ‘can’t read my can’t read my’ – and it sounds like an arena-filling song regardless of how you’re hearing it or what you’re listening to it on. I’m listening to it on tinny headphones right now, and it still feels like it should be in a club.
Which brings me to ‘Paparazzi’.
If anything, this is the most significant song on the album, largely because it serves as the best early display of what Lady GaGa was trying to do at one point in her career (I have no words speak for Joanne, and I refuse to look for them). She was trying to do pop and trying to do art.
The other three significant songs from the album are all ‘about’ something, sure – but ‘Paparazzi’ is the first song where GaGa played with fame (the title of the album, hey!), personality and artistry in a way that felt intellectually and artistically deep. She sings about her love affair with fame like it’s a boy she’s in love with and describes what is essentially an abusive relationship. The best pop songs are always about more than one thing – see also, ‘Like A Prayer’ – and this fun interplay between the obvious meaning and the only-slightly-less-obvious meaning was the first hint that GaGa was going to do more, and be more.
‘Paparazzi’ is the bridge that leads from The Fame into The Fame Monster. It’s the diving board before Lady GaGa leapt into the meat-dress, egg-hibernating pool of weirdness that would define that album/reissue/expansion/whatever, and then Born This Way and Artpop. It’s hard to think it’s ten years since this album, and this song in particular, came out – it still doesn’t really sound like any definable era in pop, let alone anything since then – but it’s also hard to think of another pop star who splashed as big as this, and hasn’t stopped moving since.
The other hint? This VMAs performance:
I’d argue this is by far the most significant live performance of Lady GaGa’s career. It came around the time she was making it huge with both ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’; ‘Paparazzi’ was no less catchy than either of those songs but lent itself well to a big live performance. Everything about this performance – the huge set, the complicated Fosse-esque choreography, the stunt queen nature of it – was the sign of a pop star making her mark on the world in the biggest and brashest way she knew how, and every moment of it was calculated as hell. Just listen to the audience literally scream at 3:17, and realise that you’re in the manicured-fake-nail hand of a pop artist who knows what the hell she was doing.
There were snatches of this GaGa in her music videos throughout this era; all her videos had a visual inventiveness and audacity that suggests a thematic through-line that isn’t present in a lot of the forgottens from 2009. But this was the first time we got a sense that this was a Significant Pop Artist doing Significant Things.
The Fame isn’t a significant album, but it’s a significant diving board. To compare her to Madonna, as one inevitably and reductively must when it comes to these articles, it’s her Madonna, and ‘Paparazzi’ was her ‘Holiday’.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.