By Shaun Loh (21A01A)
“Lady Gaga? The meat dress woman? The one from the movie with Bradley Cooper?” A classmate blurted out earlier this year when someone mentioned the singer.
“Ummm…yeah, both of those things.”
Somehow, in spite of Lady Gaga’s status as an omnipresent musical giant, there always seems to be a sense of doubt, a sense of uneasiness, in attempting to grasp the concept, or personhood, beneath the title “Lady Gaga”.
Many used to remember her by her odd theatrics. Now, people think of her as a prolific embodiment of musical versatility. Yet, few understand where her true power and place in the music industry lies. It’s only in tracing her discography that we discover the true source of her meteoric rise. Just a decade ago, with a poker face shrouded in mystery, she released her most revolutionary record to date, The Fame Monster.
A standalone EP, The Fame Monster is also a re-issue of Gaga’s first album, The Fame. While most singers would merely toss off a remix or two for a re-issue, Gaga took pains to carve a thematic juxtaposition to the materialistic cliches of fame in the EP’s predecessor, revealing the downsides she’s experienced while being famous. Specifically, her eight personal fears, the “fame monsters”, are fleshed out extensively.
These fears are given an airtime of one song each. The record begins with the ubiquitous Bad Romance, the track on Gaga’s fear of love. With a majestic choir starting the record, Gaga jumps straight into an unapologetic proclamation of love which drives her crazy. While her inability to actualise her romantic desires seemingly traps her in a position of vulnerability, she also indulges in this fear, paradoxically exemplifying autonomy.
She later continues with her fear of men in Alejandro, fear of suffocation in Telephone, fear of loneliness in So Happy I Could Die, and so on. However, beneath this semblance of unguarded candor and confession lies a powerful metafictional element of self-awareness. This sense of self is not only personal, but also professional: Gaga transcends her own role as a pop star and turns the concept of “celebrity” into an art form. Just like a monster, while her fears morph her into an unconventional, ostracised being, she still wields power.
This underlying self-determination is what makes The Fame Monster a trailblazing feminist work. Gaga unabashedly expresses women’s desires, rejecting any male representation of her by unapologetically expressing her wants and needs. The motif of monstrosity accentuates Gaga’s feminine power here: she does not care for satisfying the desires of heterosexual men or anyone else; she thinks and wants only for herself. On top of everything, the most marvelous aspect of Gaga’s empowerment isn’t her autonomy per se. It’s the sense that she is doing everything subconsciously and not attempting to pander to the masses. Without an explicit message like “Run The World (Girls)” by Beyoncé or “God is a Woman” by Ariana Grande, Gaga’s feminism shines even more luminously. The Fame Monster doesn’t feel propagandistic at all; it isn’t in-your-face, but one can feel Gaga’s overwhelming liberty as a woman throughout the record.
However, The Fame Monster’s lyrical and thematic prowess isn’t the reason for its legendary nature. In fact, its impact lies mainly in its musical genre. Gaga single-handedly revived electronic dance music (EDM) on the radio, a style that would subsequently define the music of the 2010s. Looking back, what preceded Gaga’s entrance into pop culture was a very bleak scene—R&B music that was getting more and more uninspired every year, a decline in the relevance of pop stars like Britney and Christina, and a downtrodden atmosphere following the 2008 Financial Crisis. Nonetheless, with the advent of Gaga and The Fame Monster, the whole industry followed suit in using upbeat thumping synths and dance beats. Gaga brought pop music out of its trenches, and paved the way for new artists. There wouldn’t have been a David Guetta, Calvin Harris or Ke$ha top ten hit without Gaga.
Interestingly, the sound of this record also incorporates many diverse influences while simultaneously sounding modern and fresh, hence exhibiting a great deal of postmodern intertextuality. With a wholesome Freddie Mercury pomp on Speechless, ABBA’s beats on Alejandro and Madonna-esque spoken word in Dance In The Dark, one would expect Gaga’s record to seem like a high school homage. Instead, these various facets and masks Gaga puts on present a performance both distinctive and outlandish.
That is, in fact, another reason why The Fame Monster is so revolutionary—not only did it push EDM into the mainstream, but it also propelled the pop industry vehemently into the uncharted realm of postmodernism. Gaga embodies every tenet of the postmodern movement in this record: just look at the self-referential metafiction in her repetition of her own stage name, “Gaga”, the intertextuality of her musical style, and most importantly, the creation of a hyperreality where one can never find a trace of the real person beneath the persona “Lady Gaga”. With the backdrop of hard rave beats and bass lines, she never once references her birth name, Stefani, and never once attempts to create faux authenticity through a slow ballad or whatnot. This extreme level of outrageousness and maximalism, further reinforced by her over-the-top outfits, has also transformed our current era of music into one that focuses on spectacle. Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and most if not all female pop stars have Gaga to thank for their eccentric style moments, whether in music, fashion or performance.
A decade later, the influence of Gaga’s magnum opus can still be seen all over the musical landscape, with Billie Eilish, alongside self-proclaimed “certified freaks” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, ruling the Hot 100. While the Xiao Mei Meis and Young Punks of today bask in their Gen-Z, Tiktok-gratified youth to Roddy Ricch and Ariana Grande, we must remember that the shadows of The Fame Monster will continue to permeate the very music they dance to.