I used to have a Twitter account where I’d rate things out of five stars. It seemed like less work to review something in 140 characters. It sure would have made this project a breeze. Goddammit. NOW I tell me.
I gave The Fame three stars. I forget what I wrote; probably something praising the catchiness and decrying the themes. I probably said it was shallow, thinking of songs like “Just Dance,” “LoveGame,” “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” and “Money Honey,” of which my initial impressions were that they were exactly what they appeared to be. I was even lukewarm on “Poker Face,” to be honest. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I listened a bit more, though, and I did find that a few of the songs were taking hold, especially the ones where she sounded more like Gwen Stefani. “Paparazzi” was pretty great; I liked “Starstruck,” “Brown Eyes,” and “Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say),” and both “Boys Boys Boys” and “Summerboy” were fantastic once I gave them another listen or two. And then, once “Bad Romance” hit, I was a goner. The cover art for The Fame Monster didn’t hurt either; it was the first sign that whatever was happening here was just a little different. And then there was this interview:
I mean, first of all, she was adorable. It wasn’t at all the look you’d associate with a bland pop clone; it was very clearly and deliberately chosen. And her claim that any guy with “one of those” had a chance with her was not only a clever joke at the interviewer’s expense, it was also clearly the sort of thing you say when you want people to talk about you. She seemed fearless and smart. Combined with songs like “Speechless,” “Dance In the Dark,” “Telephone,” “So Happy I Could Die” — really all of The Fame Monster, which is still probably her most solid disc, every song a winner — I was finally hooked. The charisma and sex of Madonna, the chameleon quality of Bowie, the alien fashion of Björk, all backed by the best songwriting talent money could buy (though “Speechless” proves that group includes her): how could she really top that?
By releasing an 80s tribute album, as it turns out.
There’s no way she looked at this cover and said “This is beautiful.” This isn’t a woman who does a record cover without careful attention. It’s tasteless, and it’s ridiculous, and it’s about the most perfect parody of a cheesy 80s pop/rock album as you could get. Anything less conspicuously terrible would have looked like an accident. It may be repulsive, this motorcycle with the head of a blow-up doll on it. But it’s also exactly right.
The music, too, is kind of all over the place, and it’s understandable that people were turned off by it. But, I mean, really: she’d just released the most perfectly crafted half hour of music of her career, most likely. Of course she’d want to fuck shit up a bit, take the opportunity to experiment, indulge some of her “uncool” impulses. Why else release a song called “Heavy Metal Lover” in 2011? What does she expect the casual “Poker Face” fan is going to make of “Scheiße”? Both are songs I love, two of my favorites, in fact, but there’s nothing obviously calculated or “tasteful” about them.
It’s a wildly, gloriously uneven album. Some of it is as grand and bland as 80s top 40 often was: the forgettable “Marry the Night,” the just-this-side-of-schlock “The Edge of Glory.” There are the obvious Madonna-isms: the blatant “Express Yourself” crib “Born This Way,” the less direct stab at negligible heresy “Judas.” There are the tracks I barely remember even now, like “Government Hooker,” “Americano,” “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love),” “Electric Chapel,” “You and I.”
But then there are what I think of as the key tracks, the reasons I wanted to write about this album: “Hair” and “Bad Kids.” On the face of it, they’re kind of embarrassing:
I’ve had enough, this is my prayer
That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair
I’ve had enough, I’m not a freak
I just keep fightin’ to stay cool on the streets
Even the shallowest lyrics on The Fame all felt fundamentally honest: so she got drunk at a party, lost her phone, put her shirt on inside out, fine. And I relate to what she’s talking about; I’ve always cared about my hair to an uncool degree and was aghast at the idea of cutting it short again after I grew it long. But even if the facts in this song are autobiographical, the language seems like someone else’s voice (“fightin’ to stay cool on the streets?”). The sense is that she’s speaking for someone else as much as for herself.
And the someone else is probably the “Bad Kids”:
I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it
Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this
I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd
I’m so bad and I don’t give a damn, I love it when you’re mad
When you’re mad, when you’re mad…
“Absurd” is the word — this is still not an especially vivid and faithfully rendered slice of life. The representative “bad kid” threat is “Give me your money or I’ll hold my breath.” She’s not talking about actual hooligans but some kind of cute, harmless “delinquent”: the misfits growing up in small towns who aren’t really that bad or that abnormal but are told they are for being “born that way.” What way? “Nerdy.” “Artsy.” “Dramafags,” or just plain “fags.” Nowadays, probably it’s the girls who are into superhero comics or the boys who are into fashion. It’s possible that we’re talking about young Stefani Germanotta here; I’m willing to believe it. But it’s a sure thing that we’re talking about the so-called “Little Monsters”: Gaga’s community of fans.
I love this. I love that Gaga came off a rule-the-world moment to make a deliberately uncool record with a deliberately uncool sleeve that at worst deliberately avows solidarity with the uncool kids. Is it a cynical move for an artist who’s sussed out who her core fans are going to be once the smoke clears? It’s possible, but to me it feels heartfelt. I haven’t seen or heard anything yet to make me suspect foul play.
I think she’s just made three — four, if you like — albums about the big things that matter to her. Fame/money; sex; freedom/individuality; and fashion (the bizarre but generally enjoyable ArtPOP). She’s done it with skill, talent, and a sure hand on the wheel. She’s done it as a larger-than-life pop star of the old school. She’s on the right track, baby. She was born for this.
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
I don’t love this record. The only St. Vincent album I don’t like, so far, so naturally the critics are playing third-time’s-the-charm with it. “She’s sticking around and people like her so we’d better pretend this is her big breakthrough.” But what do I know? I will say that “Cruel” is a stunningly awesome song. I’m not sure if or when I’m going to warm to the rest. I like that she doesn’t sound like every other guitar-based indie act out there, and I don’t see the point of having her sound like them here.
Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow
Kate Bush’s latest, oddest record. It’s almost ambient much of the time, which is not a bad thing, but has slowed me down in getting to know it. Stephen Fry recites the title track against her vocals, don’t you know.