With six studio albums, nine headlining tours, and an upcoming role in the most recent reboot of A Star is Born under her belt, it’s fascinating to remember Lady Gaga’s start as a straight-up dancepop artist. After dropping out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Gaga made a name for herself while performing in New York’s Lower East Side club scene before releasing her debut album, The Fame. While the album ultimately went on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide combined with its 2009 re-release The Fame Monster, it took a few months to gain traction and make Lady Gaga a household name.
The Fame is a perfect pop album for many reasons, the most important being its honest respect for the genre itself and the culture surrounding it. “The Fame is about how anyone can feel famous…Pop culture is art. It doesn’t make you cool to hate pop culture, so I embraced it and you hear it all over The Fame. But, it’s a shareable fame. I want to invite you all to the party. I want people to feel a part of this lifestyle.” Gaga explained in her original website bio. The Fame is, of course, about fame itself, but also delves into topics like love, sex, money, and sexual identity with the help of Gaga’s clever, confident lyrics, a variety of tonal changes, and catchy, club-friendly beats.
Gaga herself was introduced to the world with “Just Dance,” a catchy synth-driven song that was written by a hungover Gaga with the help of Akon and RedOne. Gaga’s debut single is all about getting drunk and having a good time at the club, the perfect introduction to the dancepop world. While “Just Dance” had a relatively slow start in the United States (it was on the Billboard 100 for five months before finally taking the number one spot), it topped the charts in multiple countries, ultimately becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.
The Fame has plenty to say about the upside of fame. Songs like “Money Honey,” “The Fame,” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” give a frothy, bubbly look at being famous from different angles. “Money Honey” and “The Fame” discuss the obvious perks and materialism associated with stardom, while “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” examines Lady Gaga’s struggle to become famous in New York’s underground club scene, making the point that sometimes the right attitude is all you need. For a nation newly obsessed with pop culture institutions like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Gossip Girl, Lady Gaga’s The Fame came in at the perfect time.
In contrast, The Fame’s final single “Paparazzi” showcases the dark side of this notoriety: when admiration becomes obsession. “Paparazzi” takes a minor chord (though never losing that driving synth beat) to explore the relationship between fame, love, and obsession, creating one of the darker songs on the album without losing any club appeal. “I’m your biggest fan I’ll follow you until you love me/Papa, paparazzi/Baby there’s no other superstar/You know that I’ll be/Your papa-paparazzi/Promise I’ll be kind/But I won’t stop until that boy is mine/Baby you’ll be famous/Chase you down until you love me/Papa-paparazzi” Gaga sings, delivering the disturbing internal monologue of an obsessive fan. “Paparazzi” also provided one of the most memorable VMAs performances in 2009, with Gaga ending the song by eerily staring at the crowd with a fake, bleeding gunshot wound.
Fame soon gives way to love and sexuality as themes. The more traditional pop “Boys Boys Boys” discusses fun high school hookups in a bubbly way, while the darker blockbuster hit “Poker Face” uses a gambling metaphor to explore manipulation, sex, and bisexuality with a robotic chorus. “LoveGame” and “I Like it Rough” take on an overtly sexual message. Inspired by Gaga’s attraction to a stranger during her club days, “LoveGame” earned floods of attention–both positive and negative–for the line “I want to take a ride on your disco stick,” showcasing her distinct lack of coyness.
While The Fame, in all its dance-pop glory, showcases a different Lady Gaga than the one we’re used to seeing now, it has all the hallmarks of her work–her signature powerful vocals, tightly written songs, and an unconventional, provocative take on pop. Unlike her more recent art-pop/soft rock stylings, The Fame features no ballads–every single song is fit for a club’s playlist. Besides being one of the best dancepop albums out there, The Fame kept its promise, launching Gaga to international fame and topping charts around the world (though only reaching #2 on the Billboard Top 200 in America) and providing Lady Gaga with the fame and groundwork to further her art and make even more avant-garde moves in the future. The album proved to have a long tail, being the the 5th best-selling album in 2009 despite its 2008 release. Critics received the album well, praising Gaga for her vocal abilities and the album’s varied exploration of pop stardom, with Rolling Stone named it one of the 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All-Time in 2013. Ultimately, The Fame earned Lady Gaga her five Grammy nominations and two wins–one for Best Electronic/Dance Album, and one for Best Dance Recording (“Poker Face”), immediately giving Lady Gaga the cred she deserves.