I can admit when I’m wrong. On almost every Lady Gaga page on Wikipedia I’m quoted as calling The Fame “drivel,” “obscene,” or “trash”; I might have even used the word “monster” to describe the lady herself. But thanks to its string of knockout singles, the album turned out to be one of the most spun discs on my stereo this year (yes, I still use a stereo). I still think the album is patchy, garish, and grossly materialistic, and I find Gaga herself to be alternately the best thing to grace the late-night circuit since Madonna and insufferably self-important. But there’s no denying her p-p-p-poker face—the sense that something real, maybe even poignant, lurks beneath all that gothic makeup and those elaborate headdresses, and if given enough time, she might even reveal it to us.
Originally conceived of as a bonus disc for the re-release of The Fame, the eight-song The Fame Monster is now being released as a standalone EP as well. Gaga probably should have tacked on a few more tracks (and if YouTube is any indication, she’s got the material), titled the thing Monster, and released it sometime next year as her official sophomore effort. As it is, it’s not a huge leap forward for Gaga (several songs ape the sound of her first two chart-toppers, “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”), but songs like “Bad Romance” and “Dance in the Dark” are stacked with towering new-wave synths and seemingly endless hooks; if melodies could be time-stamped, these would have “’80s” branded on their asses.
And Fame Monster does provide some small, if fleeting, glimpses behind the pretense. There’s something instructive about the way Gaga rejects any and all intimacy with others. “So Happy I Could Die” is a love song, but the object of her affection is herself—looking at herself, drinking with herself, dancing with herself, touching herself. “Alejandro,” an ostensible homage to ABBA by way of Ace of Base, finds the singer fending off a harem of Latin men, while she opts for the dance floor rather than answer a lover’s calls on “Telephone.” When she does finally let someone in (or near), it’s a “bad romance,” or he’s a “monster.” “Teeth,” which sounds like something from Michael Jackson’s last studio album as sung by Christina Aguilera, is essentially a gospel ode to S&M; that the closest she gets to another human being involves being tied up and bitten is revealing.
Gaga seems as influenced by Marilyn Manson as she is by Madonna. One of the EP’s highlights, “Dance in the Dark,” includes a spoken, “Vogue”-style roll call, only Madge’s Hollywood glamour and style icons are replaced with famous people who met a tragic end: Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, and, in a reference only Gaga could pull off, Jon-Benet Ramsey. The song isn’t a cautionary tale per se, but a call to arms to misfits everywhere. “Speechless,” the kind of blues-rock balladry Gaga’s been flaunting on stage, is the only dud here, not because it’s a bad song or poorly performed, but because, like on The Fame, when she does try to show her softer side, it comes off as a fraud—at least alongside the rest of her material. Maybe when she finally drops her poker face, she’ll be able to find a way into our hearts and our stereos.