Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster at 10: Five Reasons Why the Album Still Matters
Deluxe editions of successful albums with a few half-baked bonus tracks are common enough cash grabs. But most artists don’t bring 40 minutes of substantial new material, conceived and sold as a standalone project, with multiple future hits on it. Lady Gaga isn’t most artists, and The Fame Monster isn’t most albums. Instead of basking in the glow of her 2008 breakout The Fame and merely inserting bonus electronic-synth dance tracks a la “Paparazzi” and “Poker Face,” she decided to take control of her music and evolve into a fully rounded 23-year-old pop star. It took a grand total of 15 months.
The Fame Monster, a 22-song collection released November 18, 2009, featuring eight originals alongside the 14 tracks of her 2008 debut The Fame, is Gaga’s magnum opus. (The eight new songs were also released separately as an EP.) She conceived The Fame Monster during the European leg her of Fame Ball tour, when she spent long nights ruminating in her hotel suites and confronting her anxieties around sex, love, and alcohol. “This album is a pop experimentation with industrial/Goth beats, 90s dance melodies, and obsession with the lyrical genius of 80s melancholic pop and the runway,” she declared in the album’s press release.
Indeed, building on the catchy, decadent sound of her debut, the album is an edgy and forward-thinking audio-visual extravaganza. With this work, the talented performer born into this world as Stefani Germanotta showed that she wasn’t afraid to turn old-school Hollywood glamour into something a bit more vampy and campy. She wasn’t just a leading lady; she was a femme fatale in a meat dress.
Critics took notice, as the album received near-universal acclaim. (A Billboard sample: “Gaga has raised the standards of ambition in pop.”) It reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200, and topped the charts in 10 countries. It was nominated for six categories at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards and took home three trophies, including Best Pop Vocal Album.
But while dusty hardware is nice, long-term impact is the more impressive feat. And a decade after The Fame Monster, Gaga and her prized work continue to serve as a steady influence in the rapidly taste-shifting industry.
Here are five reasons why the album still matters.
1. It Reintroduced Glam-Rock Theatrics and High-Art Presentation to the Pop Mainstream
On The Fame Monster, Gaga solidified an arty, ambitious, theatrical approach that would influence a generation of pop stars. She drew heavily from the glam-rock era of the 1970s: She credits her stage name to Queen’s 1984 hit “Radio Gaga”; she followed David Bowie’s footsteps in placing importance on the performance and presentation of a persona as a holistic extension of the music; and she dipped into Elton John-style sweeping piano-rock balladry on Fame Monster highlight “Speechless.” (She and John dueted on that number and “Your Song” at the 2010 Grammys.)
It’s hard to imagine some of Nicki Minaj’s wilder visual moments without Gaga’s own glam excursions—despite Minaj’s own protestations—and Taylor Swift’s campy-but-serious turn to dark high-fashion imagery and steely sonics on Reputation were similarly Gaga-esque. In the mid-2000s, before Gaga came along, few pop musicians were presenting themselves as auteurs in control of a fully unified vision; now, stylish visual albums and collaborations with fine artists and avant-garde designers are commonplace. The glammy and artful presentation of The Fame Monster—which included two beautifully gothic Hedi Silmane-shot photos that Gaga fought against resistant Interscope execs to include as the cover art—may not be solely responsible for what came after, but it certainly helped kickstart the trend.
2. It Visualized the Sound
It’s a testament to Gaga’s chameleonic nature that we didn’t quite have a read on her natural appearance until she took out her hair extensions and washed off all her stage makeup in A Star Is Born. That’s because the ever-self-conscious Gaga drew on evolving visual styles of presentation for her Fame Monster promo clips, the likes of which had not been seen since Madonna. (More on that in a minute.)
In “Telephone,” she and Beyonce dance in a diner and then ride away where the wind blows, Thelma and Louise-style. She takes on the persona of a vengeful Alexander McQueen runway model in a discotheque in “Bad Romance”—which has attracted more than 1 billion views on YouTube. The third single, “Alejandro,” directed by Steven Klein, is a triumph of military S&M kitsch. (She wears a bra with machine-gun barrels jutting out!) A masterful mix of art and spectacle, these avant-garde videos were sprinkled in Stardust.
A decade later, the likes of Halsey (“Without Me”) and Billie Eilish (“Bury a Friend”) have taken similar risks as they mix art and spectacle in their own cinematic videos.
3. It Marked a Pop EP Renaissance
When The Fame Monster arrived in 2009, the streaming era was still a couple of years away from beginning in earnest. But Gaga anticipated the ways in which the internet was changing the rules for pop stars. Her decision to release The Fame Monster with eight new tracks rather than wait until she had enough material for a proper full-length anticipated our current moment, in which artists regularly release EPs and singles in response to social media’s demand for a constant stream of content.
A year after The Fame Monster, Kesha replicated the playbook almost exactly with Cannibal, a follow-up to her debut Animal, which was released both as a standalone EP and packaged together with the album as a deluxe reissue.
Now, a younger digital-native artist such as Lil Nas X sees no problem with officially debuting with an EP, like a slightly more formalized version of throwing a few songs up for the fans on SoundCloud. Miley Cyrus recently announced that she would deliver three individual EPs in a span of one year rather than a single album. EPs are no longer few-and-far-between releases; they’re the norm.
4. It Helped Usher in the New Wave of Stanning
Before Beliebers, Swifties, Directioners, and the BTS Army, there were Little Monsters. Gaga used the term during her shows in the summer of 2009 because of the way they crawled, writhed, and screamed in the pits during her concerts. She coined a nickname and pioneered a movement in which overzealous fans obsess over a celebrity. (The term dates back to the haunting 2000 Eminem song “Stan.”) Suddenly, you were either a true Gaga devotee or you weren’t. This title extended far beyond lapping up concerts and making posters.
The Fame Monster’s release coincided with the explosion of Twitter, meaning Monsters could create accounts and interact with a support network of like-minded people from around the world 24/7. (On the flip side, trolling anti-Gaga posters en masse was an option as well.) They could also keep up with Gaga herself; her Instagram account currently boasts 38 million followers while her Twitter has a staggering 80 million followers. And given that she’s been loyal and communicative to her fans—especially the LGBTQ crowd, for whose rights she has consistently championed—there’s a chance for a response.
5. It Helped Her Take the Madonna Mantle
View this post on Instagram
There is and will only be one Madonna. She was the one who ran so Katy, Rihanna, Britney, Christina, Pink, J. Lo and more could strut. And, bless her 61-year-old soul, the Queen of Pop is not going anywhere. But with The Fame Monster, Gaga officially established herself as the heir apparent. No, not necessarily in her musical sound. (As noted above, she’s a glam rocker at heart.) And in the Provocative Playbook, Spears was sashaying around the MTV Video Music Awards stage with a python draped around her shoulders while Gaga was still doing homework in Manhattan.
But The Fame Monster proved that only Gaga could bring the whole fearless Madge package of challenging societal norms, breaking style barriers, and exploring sexuality through the lens of celebrity. In her subsequent releases, Gaga has illustrated the more vulnerable aspects of her persona, but like Madonna, she has never backed down from courting fame and making her own existence as a pop star into a meta-commentary on stardom itself.
Now that the two women have mended their long-standing feud—with an Instagram post to prove it, of course—here’s hoping a collaboration is in future. “Telephone 2020,” please.