56:27 min • Polydor • January 9th, 2009
Pop albums, eh? Two amazing singles, a further not-so-amazing single, a dud cover version or two and a heck of a lot of filler. All wearingly predictable. With a handful of glaring exceptions, the decade we know as the Noughties has been more heinously unkind to the Pop Album than any other in rock ‘n’ roll history. No wonder, then, that their target audiences have so heartily embraced both the all-killer-no-filler compilation CD – the last Now That’s What I Call Music! was the fastest-selling ever – and the sturdy and reliable single download – the UK singles market in 2008 was up 33%, thanks almost entirely to iTunes. Pop albums? We won’t get fooled again, thanks.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached the debut album from US Pop sensation Lady GaGa. Sure, I liked her street-smart look and kooky Bowie Aladdin Sane face make-up. I liked her gimmicky Disco Stick and it would be a hard heart indeed who didn’t downright love the slinky, sinuous first single ‘Just Dance’ (almost certainly Number 1 by the time you read this). With its icy synth swirls and de rigeur Autotuned vocal stylings it garnered a certain amount of Brownie points simply for threatening to blow away the memory of several mouldy old covers of ‘Hallelujah’. It’s also the only Pop record in memory, if not all time, that begins with the words “Oh red wine!” More Brownie points.
But a whole album of GaGa? Surely, it would turn out to follow the same tired old formula of re-heated R&B, tired two-years-old Electro, a couple of naff ballads and – most cringing of all – a balls-out, girl power rocker a la Avril and Pink. The fact that The Fame also weighed in at a hefty sixteen tracks did absolutely nothing to fire up the old enthusiasm either. With a heavy heart I plopped it in my rucksack, went off for an operation and mumbled something to the record label about “giving it a listen some time over Christmas”.
But the great thing about Pop music is that a good record can come from absolutely anywhere and I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never been so wrong-headedly prejudicial in my life. Quite simply, The Fame is the most life-affirming, diverse, accomplished and downright entertaining debut Pop album since the Scissor Sisters – and that feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? It’s also every bit as exceptional as any of the rare, consistently great albums released by established Pop divas in recent years – and here we’re talking the calibre of Madonna’s ecstatic Confessions, Gwen’s technicolour Love Angel Music Baby, and even Britney’s lost weekend masterpiece Blackout. Like all of them it’s shares that ultra scarce quality whereby you could literally lift any track for radio and it would become a massive hit single. I’ve played it several times over the past month and every time a new favourite presents itself. I’ve played it to all sorts of different people with varying tastes– from Indie fans to Dance heads – and the response at the end has always been the same. “Encore! Again!”
A closer look at the precocious GaGa’s shockingly eventful career to date throws up some answers as to exactly why she manages to so proficiently weave contemporary musical elements with edgy bits of Glam Rock, Show Tunes, classic 80s Pop, you name it. She might still only be on the good side of twenty three but she’s crammed a lot into her tender years – self taught on the piano by the age of four (!), adventures in performance art and Punk bands on New York’s Lower East Side in her teens, an in-house songwriter for the mighty US Interscope record label at aged twenty… it’s a CV to make the rest of us mortals feel both inadequate and exhausted. While she certainly gets by with a little help here and there – a DJ, producers, co-writers, the odd rapper – you never ever get the impression on The Fame that it’s anybody else’s vision but GaGa’s.
Now what was I saying about Pop albums again?