It’s been over a year since the Reign of Gaga really started, and I still don’t know how I feel about her. She’s a pop star with honest-to-God musical talent, but insists on “Let’s have some fun/This beat is sick/I wanna take a ride/On your disco stick”. I will say that a year ago she was a lot easier to hate, though. Remember “The Fame”? That album had about three great tracks buried with ten so-so to misfires. Even with Poker Face showing up everywhere in the spring of ’09, we could still write Gaga off as a one-hit wonder capitalizing on that hit. Lovegame didn’t do much in the way of changing that. But dammit, then came Paparazzi, and she started getting genuinely weird. But the pop snobs and music misanthropes (such as myself) could still say that she simply played the pop star game well and would be gone soon. Hopefully.
Then “The Fame Monster” happened, and we couldn’t even hope to call her a one-hit wonder again.
“The Fame Monster” is an 8 song EP released late last year, and it solidifies Gaga as a pop staple instead of a mere novelty act. Nothing on “The Fame” sounds quite as huge as the synth onslaught of “Bad Romance”, which never loses any steam or urgency during its five minute run. Sure, it still follows Gaga’s patented “intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-breakdown-bridge-chorus” formula to the t, but it she brings her A-Game. The music is dense, the beat is massive, and Gaga sounds more sure of herself than she ever has before.
On other highlight, “Dance in the Dark”, Lady Gaga improves on her lyrics. “Baby loves to dance in the dark/Because when he’s looking she falls apart” is the main chorus line, and elsewhere the song mentions those who paid the price for being young and famous (foreshadowing?). Musically, “Dance in the Dark” is a total pop romp with extra flourishes to help it stand above other cuts (“So Happy I Could Die”, for example). Then there’s “Speechless”, a song that’s as Queen as you can get without the band being there. And it’s good. If anyone needs proof that Gaga can stand on her own without preprogrammed beats or RedOne’s production savvy, here’s four and a half minutes of it.
A few other quick play-by-play highlights/notes. Every song here has a hook (save Speechless, which is really more classic rock than pop), and most of these hooks are pretty memorable in some way or another. In fact, it could be argued that “Monster”‘s odd hook “He ate my heart” is the redeeming quality in an otherwise middling song. Another plus is that I could easily imagine hearing all of these songs on the radio, although that was probably the intention. And even though the average song length is over four minutes, Gaga doesn’t run out of momentum until the very end with the frankly annoying “Teeth”.
All that said, “The Fame Monster” still isn’t without its ugly parts. The spoken word intros on “Monster”, “Dance in the Dark”, and “Teeth” are all wince-worthy, while that of “Alejandro” jives with the song’s Latin flare. But then “Alejandro” has problems of its own; namely being uncomfortably close to Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” and relying too much on a barely interesting chorus. “Telephone”, while energetic and begging for club/radio play, is the most predictable number here, and only saved by Beyonce’s frenzied delivery. “So Happy I Could Die” is a fine song on its own, but suffers by being pinned between “Telephone” and “Teeth”, as well as lacking any defining qualities other than Gaga talking about diddling herself. “Teeth”, the worst song here, wouldn’t have been out of place on “The Fame” since it comes across as Gaga parading as Christina Aguilera and failing (which from what I hear is a role reversal of Christina’s new one, “Bionic”) with “shock” sex lyrics.
In the end though, “The Fame Monster” points to good more than bad. At her best, Gaga shows why she deserves most of the hype and continues to be one of the more promising figures in modern pop. At the worst, you can still see she’s trying to work out the kinks in what does and doesn’t work. With little news on a second full length album, “The Fame Monster” exists as Gaga’s artistic proving ground.
tl;dr: Fame is a dish best served monstrous. Four stars.