It’s been some time since I’ve written about Lady Gaga. Three years ago she was practically ubiquitous in American pop-culture, but a hip injury and a sub-par album have taken her out of the iris of the public spotlight – at least for the present. I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time now, and perhaps Mother Monster is not exactly at the top of anyone’s relevance list. But it’s late Sunday night and I’m feeling guilty for not posting in two weeks. Maybe I’m just treading water, but it’s fun to consider whence Lady Gaga came and how her early attempt to take over the world nearly succeeded.
After the massive and immediate success of her debut album The Fame (2008), which gave us such classics as “Poker Face” and “Just Dance”, Lady Gaga produced and released what was effectively a mere song-cycle meant to be a set of bonus tracks for a re-release of The Fame as its own separate album. The result is aptly titled The Fame Monster, perhaps the most insightful and important musical representation of my generation as we millennials are ever likely to get. There are plenty of runners-up, to be sure. Lorde’s recent Pure Heroine and Adelle’s 21 come to mind, but none is as truly millennial, as truly 21st-century as The Fame Monster.
The album is almost unrelentingly dark. Whereas The Fame was peppy, frivolous, and fun, The Fame Monster is seedy and disturbing. If we consider Gaga’s first three albums as a trilogy, The Fame Monster is the grim second act à la The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight. It is best listened to alone in a dark room illuminated only by the ethereal glow of an electronic screen, a practice far more common in our brave digital age than it was twenty years ago. It is a misanthropic album for a misanthropic time. “Bad Romance” may be fun background noise at a party, but it does not invite social appreciation the way other modern dance music might.
To this day, the magnificent success of The Fame Monster financially and in terms of popularity somewhat baffles me. All three of its singles went #1 at some point, which cannot be said for either The Fame or Born This Way. “Bad Romance”, “Telephone”, and even the thematically confused “Alejandro” are forever etched into the cultural memory of Generation Y, and yet The Fame Monster is in many ways an indictment of the very population which made it so popular.
In this respect it reminds me not a little of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, which scolded the society whence it arose while at the same time glorifying it. The Fame Monster builds on the concept of The Fame, which celebrated the raucous, larger-than-life Hollywoodized lifestyle of the internet age. This time around we’re shown how we’re afraid of and abused by “the fame” even though we love it and remain mired in it. Millennials are a generation of contradictions. We’re spiritual, but not religious. We’re socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. We hate politicians, but continue to vote. We’re obsessed with sex, yet repulsed by it and its consequences. The Fame Monster holds up a mirror and says, “Behold this miserable, flawed, beautiful masterpiece which is laid out before you.” Perhaps it is to the 21st-century’s credit that it is not offended by its own reflection.
The best thing about The Fame Monster is its rather tongue-in-cheek ability to make perversity catchy. It is a muck-raker of an album, delving deep into the dark parts of the human person. It is to pop music what Blue Velvet and Black Swan are to cinema: artsy, smutty goodness. And yet almost all of its tracks stick immediately in your head and compel repeated listening, which is convenient rather than annoying because of the album’s spare running time. It is short by any standard, a mere eight tracks clocking in at thirty-four minutes, even more unusual considering Gaga’s tendency toward length rather than brevity.
As I write this post I’m realizing that I’ve probably got enough material for a whole series, and since a few relatively short posts is more aesthetically pleasing than one gigantic swimming pool of words, it looks like that’s how it’s going to be. The easy way to do this would be to go through each song on the album individually, but this is a spurious method for several reasons. 1) Such an approach is uninventive and clichéd, 2) often one song’s mystery is revealed in one or more of its fellows on the album, and 3) this method betrays the really quite perfect cohesion of the album as a whole. I prefer we examine this magnum opus of pop culture along the lines the mystery of the whole album, specifically along the lines of religion/spirituality, postmodern Gnosticism, and addiction.