She was just doing it for the fame, and though it was a slow start, she succeeded. Lady Gaga’s ascent to pop stardom began with her debut album “The Fame” which turned 10 years old last week. Though she did a complete 180 visually and sonically on her most recent release, “Joanne,” it was “The Fame” that made her a household name. It introduced a new approach to stardom and ushered in the wave of dance music taking over the radio.
When “The Fame” first dropped it didn’t make a big splash. The dark eurodance pop sound that she created with producer RedOne was nowhere on the American airwaves. Radio programmers and record buyers couldn’t see it working out so they didn’t push it to the public.
It wasn’t until “Just Dance” managed to crack into public consciousness that the album started to gain traction. Released in April before the album, “Just Dance” was meant to be a fun song about letting go of your problems for a night. It was a message that clicked with the public which was struggling to stay optimistic during the financial crisis.
Though the radio had pushed Lady Gaga to the side, the club scene and the internet embraced her immediately. And it makes sense, she had come up through the club culture. Lady Gaga was a stage name she had adopted while performing at cabaret clubs and neo-burlesque shows in Manhattan with her friend Lady Starlight. She was posting songs to MySpace before she had the record deal that would allow her to release “The Fame.” By the time her debut single was released she had already started harnessing the power of Twitter and Facebook which many established artists weren’t even doing yet. She knew how to make a splash in these new frontiers, the old guys would just have to catch up.
Months later they did. After five months of climbing, “Just Dance” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 2009. It was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Dance Recording category.
If “Just Dance” had been the only song able to breakthrough to the airwaves, Lady Gaga could have been forgotten by the time a second album could be made. But, “The Fame” was full of radio ready hits. Once she had proven to radio that dance music would connect with the public, the rest was easy.
“Poker Face” was the second single and surpassed the massive success of “Just Dance.” It was darker, and the lyrics were full of innuendos. The hooks though, were undeniably catchy. There are so many motifs in the song that burrow into your head. Whether it’s the chorus melody or the “mu-mu-mu-maw” that starts the song or the vampy “p-p-p-poker face, p-p-p-poker face” outro. The song also made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and is one of the best selling singles of all time with over 14 million copies sold.
As “Just Dance” started to gain attention, so did Gaga herself. “The Fame” presents Lady Gaga as if she is already a star. The songs talk about money, drugs, sex, the paparazzi and other symbols of wealth and celebrity. Though no one knew her, it was as if she was an established diva you should have been aware of. “How have you not heard of Lady Gaga?” the songs seem to beg.
Her willingness to play the part was most present in her fashion choices. There was no need for a red carpet, she would dress outlandishly whenever and wherever she might be seen. It would be years before the infamous meat dress or showing up in an egg, but still she was attracting attention with crazy shiny patterns, extremely high heels and hair bows. Pictures of her outfits would fill tabloids for years.
It was the last single from “The Fame,” “Paparazzi,” that best showed how Lady Gaga could manipulate fashion and visual arts to further her career. Jonas Akerlund directed a narrative music video for the song telling a story of fame, revenge and full of avant-garde outfits. It is probably the most memorable music video from this era of Gaga.
It was followed by a memorable performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, in which she adapts parts of the music video on stage and ends up hanging from the ceiling covered in blood. It had everything that Lady Gaga was about: avant-garde fashion, pumped up theatrics and shock factor that would get the internet and the media talking.
Beyond the singles, “The Fame” holds strong. There isn’t a moment where she gives up the act or tries to veer into another genre. There are few, if any, songs that sound out of place among music today.
“The Fame” gave Lady Gaga a strong foundation to build off of, and it remains her most influential work. The sound of “The Fame” would lead the way for the music that defined the early 2010s. It made space on the radio for EDM artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, and broke down barriers for queer people in the mainstream.