Lady Gaga’s ‘The Fame/ Monster’ exposed the bad romance of a celebrity crisis

Laveta Brigham

Lady Gaga’s ‘The Fame/ Monster’ exposed the bad romance of a celebrity crisis Welcome to 2000s Week! We’re exploring the pop culture that shaped us at the turn of the millennium, and examining what the films, shows, and games from the era say about us then and now. It’s a […]

Lady Gaga's 'The Fame/ Monster' exposed the bad romance of a celebrity crisis
Lady Gaga’s ‘The Fame/ Monster’ exposed the bad romance of a celebrity crisis

Welcome to 2000s Week! We’re exploring the pop culture that shaped us at the turn of the millennium, and examining what the films, shows, and games from the era say about us then and now. It’s a little #tbt to the days before #tbt was a thing.

Celebrity looked different in the year 2000. True superstars were actors and musicians whose work appeared fully formed in front of their audiences. Their private lives were only ever glimpsed through the window of interviews, news articles, and paparazzi photos, and the average person had no input on who or what became worthy of notice. Fame was a top-down process, with Hollywood and record labels selecting its stars and hanging them in the sky for the public to admire their shine.

With the new millennium came reality television, as cheap to produce as it was widespread in its novelty; Big Brother premiered for US audiences in the year 2000 and sparked interest in the ordinary people who managed to get their faces on TV. In 2002 American Idol took its namesake country by storm, mimicking the American obsession with democracy by allowing its audience to vote on which plucked-from-obscurity yokel deserved to become a star. 2002 also brought the Nokia 7650, one of the world’s first widely sold camera phones, which fit in with the proliferation of handheld digital cameras that turned everyone with enough pocket space into a potential paparazzo.

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By the time the mid-00s arrived, websites like Perez Hilton (founded in 2004), MySpace (2003), and shows like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie’s The Simple Life (also 2003) were an essential part of celebrity culture. Perez Hilton used carelessly snapped digital photos and gossip tips to strip stars of their veneer like a vicious, Gen X reincarnation of Hedda Hopper. MySpace, then the most popular social media network in the world, reduced the space between musicians and their fans while launching the careers of early influencers like Tila Tequila (once a Playboy model, now a literal Nazi) and Jeffree Star (once…something, now a makeup mogul, for better or for worse). The Simple Life, a “reality” show about fabulously wealthy heiresses trying to do normal people stuff, solidified a concept that would forever change the way celebrity existed — its stars were famous for being famous.

Those who are old enough to remember what famous people were like before social media might recall red carpets, fawning Extra interviews and Vanity Fair covers as the trappings of ultimate fame. Celebrities were products, delivered in public relations packaging and kept several arms’ length away from the rabble. Columns like Us Weekly’s “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” (founded in 2002) closed the gap between stars and their gazers, and increased access to digital photography and the early online foibles of celebrities on social media compounded the process. The 2000s dragged stars down to our level, exposing their flaws and vices as the internet grew ever hungrier for more access, more information, more blood.

While we feasted, a young artist named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta watched, learned, and at the end of the decade released an album+extension combo that encapsulated everything that had happened to fame — first to celebrate the false glitter of the public’s newfound access to the channels of celebrity, then to expose and predict the effects of our total cultural shift.

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is, of course, Lady Gaga. Those albums are The Fame and The Fame Monster, two banger-laden texts on the celebrity lifestyle she desired and what would happen when she got it. Together they define the allure of bedazzled Razr phones, poorly hidden drug habits, and the uniquely 2000s idea that fame is a reality show following those who chose the life of the rich and famous.

The Fame came out in 2008 as Lady Gaga’s debut album, and though The Fame Monster followed it in 2009 as an extended release, the 2009 edition has enough tracks to be viewed as a separate and second album. As separate albums they couldn’t be more different, with The Fame extolling the fun and glamor in wanting to be famous and The Fame Monster existing as a dark mirror image to its predecessor.

The title song of The Fame is a bouncy dance track with sharp lyrical edges, where a then-unknown Gaga cheerily declares “all we care about is pornographic girls on film and body plastic/I want to see television and hot blondes in odd positions.” Moments later, she admits to not knowing how exactly she’ll get the fame she desires, alluding to the previous decade’s confusion over what makes a person worthy of being famous in the first place: “Don’t ask me how or why, but i’m gonna make it happen this time.”

Gaga’s awareness of the dumb, fun, do-whatever-to-get-famous era proliferates many of The Fame’s biggest hits. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” has lines like “our hair is perfect but we’re all getting shit wrecked,” sung between choruses chanting about not having the money to live the real BDR lifestyle. For Gaga, the appearance of perfection is enough to fool the world that she might be famous, because who at that point could really tell? “Starstruck asks a metaphorical DJ to “blow her heart up,” analogizing her self to her music — bump her track and you bump Gaga a little higher up the ladder.

Though The Fame is poppier and brighter in sound than her later work, it’s not all sunshine and Swarovski in Gaga’s imagined Chateau Marmont suite. “Just Dance” reminds the listener that “roses have thorns, they say,” and the thorny tracks of The Fame Monster were predicted on The Fame’s best and most prescient single, “Paparazzi.”

“I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me/papa-paparazzi,” was an earworm of a chorus when it debuted, but the song itself is a two-sided audio illusion. It speaks of a fan’s love for a celebrity subject through the lens of a personal romance and serves as Gaga’s own treatise on needing to be admired. “Leather and jeans/garage glamorous/not sure what it means/but this photo of us it don’t have a price/ready for those flashing lights,” is as much about the parasocial benefits of eking one’s way closer to a celebrity obsession as it is about Gaga wrenching our attention until the flashing lights finally flash for her.

The Fame, with all of its Ace of Base-inspired pop and pool party glamor, was a hit. The lights flashed so brightly for Lady Gaga that within a year she was ready to proceed to phase two: The Fame Monster. If The Fame lays bare the mechanics of ’00s fame, The Fame Monster reveals there’s a ghost in the machine. It bites down on the era’s rhinestone-studded surface and spits out the glittering shards, mixed inescapably with tongue blood and chips of Gaga’s own teeth. Fame, as we learned watching our ’00s era heroes blanch under the scrutiny of the social media microscope, was a mephistophelian bad romance.

The first 19 bars of “Bad Romance” are as iconic as a song intro can get. Decades before Lady Gaga stunned the world with her big ‘ol “Aaahhhh” in A Star is Born, she doomed us all with the dark, lilting “Ohhhh” that begins The Fame Monster’s first track. With the promise of “Paparazzi” fulfilled, Gaga snarls what she really wanted, or perhaps what she realized she actually got. “I want your ugly/ I want your disease/ I want your everything as long as it’s free/I want your love love love love.”

Gaga’s furious “love love love” could be the beat of Britney Spears’ umbrella against a car window, the scrape of lawyers’ pens dissolving Bennifer in favor of Brangelina, the click of a jailhouse camera capturing Lindsey Lohan’s mugshot. The hungry public of the 2000s was at the end of the decade a ravenous force, and technology had turned one-off tales of celebrity self destruction into a 24/7 sideshow to the main event. In “Teeth,” Gaga dares listeners to bite even more out of her, since they’re already eating: “Don’t be scared/I’ve done this before/show me your teeth.”

“Telephone” and “Alejandro,” both singles from The Fame Monster, continue the metaphor that fame has become an inescapable beast. “Stop calling/stop calling/I don’t want to talk any more” she sings on “Telephone” (alongside Beyoncé, whose echelon of fame is an entirely different essay), and on “Alejandro” it’s “don’t call my name…just smoke my cigarette and hush.” Whereas on The Fame, she asked us to “blow my heart up,” in The Fame Monster’s “Monster” we “ate my heart/he a-a-ate my heart.”

Yet, in the middle of growling her way through the terrors of the decade’s constant exposure, Gaga’s brilliance emerges in her ability to comment on and conquer the duality. “So Happy I Could Die,” a dance track that would not be as out of place on The Fame as most of the other Monster songs, she sings about her own persona and how her own cult of personality soothes as it horrifies. “I love that lavender blonde,” she croons, potentially in reference her Lady Gaga” identity, “the way she moves/the way she walks/I touch myself can’t get enough. And in the silence of the night/through all the tears and all the lies/I touch myself and it’s all right.”

Later in “So Happy I Could Die,” which darkly vacillates between the “happy” and “die” parts of its title, she resolves the tension between the glamor of her persona and the tearful lies of a celebrity life. “Happy in the club, with a bottle of red wine/stars in our eyes ’cause we’re having a good time.” Through the darkness she finds happiness in the glow of her own star and accepts the constant effort of pulling herself together if that’s what it takes, a sentiment echoed when she lists dead, troubled celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, JonBenet Ramsay, Princess Diana) on “Dance in the Dark” and triumphantly swears to “never let you fall apart/together we’ll dance in the dark.”

Gaga’s early career was defined by her ability to keep all eyes on her, appearing at award shows in meat dresses and releasing sweeping, narrative music videos rife with startlingly inhuman imagery (the song “Bad Romance” is virtually synonymous with her Alexander McQueen lobster claw heels). Whatever her intentions at the time, those creepy, intentional stunts made her memorable at a time when the pool of celebrity had widened from a chosen few to a collection of random, hot rich people. A new generation of pop stars followed the playbook she laid out in The Fame and danced with the danger she alluded to in The Fame Monster to stay ahead of an industry where getting famous as as easy as being forgotten.

Katy Perry may have kissed a girl in 2008, but she didn’t dabble in wacky, Gaga-adjacent costumes for another year, when the videos for “California Gurls” and “E.T.” solidified her candy-covered alien vibe. Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday appeared in 2011, blending pop and rap with the bombastic costuming and large-scale “look at me” aesthetics that by then had become a requirement for a certain caliber of star. Celebrities got bigger, louder, brighter, and spikier after Gaga recognized what it took to keep an audience; the seeds of social change she gave voice to in The Fame/Monster bloom to this day as influencers on every platform grasp at the same concepts she sang about in 2008. We follow them until they love us.

Lady Gaga’s wholehearted embrace of the aspirational possibilities of The Fame summarize the technological and social shifts that gave way to our current, influencer-led, up-close-and-personal understanding of celebrity. She achieved that fame, grasped it tightly, and has not yet let go. It’s remarkable that it only took a year to also summarize, in a crack of musical lightning, the mirror world reflected in those very same shifts. Eleven years later, Gaga is one of the most celebrated musicians in the world because she got it from the start. She conquered because she understood the 2000s as they occurred, and could see the future of what they would create.

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