If you want a look back at the pre-Gaga world, you could do a lot worse than the blog Pop Culture Died In 2009: a heady stew of tabloid clippings, reality shows, vodka-soaked scandal, fake tans and FMLs, Paris Hilton, and Heidi Montag.
Celebrity culture has existed, in one form or another, since the first person who looked really glamorous in cave drawings. But the blog captured a specific aesthetic, one that looks a lot different than the hyper-curated, soft-focus millennial pink Instagram version of 2018: fame as a nihilistic scandalscape, populated entirely by takes on Bunny from The Big Lebowski. A black hole sucking in dozens of women and teens per day. The economy was about to plunge — it’s probably a coincidence, but felt pretty telling at the time, that “The Way I Are” peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 months before the recession “officially” started. From this world emerged a smash hit that was undeniably fun but also pretty bleak: set at some nameless club, nameless because its star is too drunk to remember it or pretty much anything else, reassuring herself, repeatedly and hypnotically: “Gonna be OK.”
For an artist best known for asserting her megastardom loud and constantly, in full-body meat, it’s worth considering just how improbable it was that the Lady Gaga phenomenon happened. First off, pretty much nobody else was “happening” around 2008. As Vanessa Grigoriadis pointed out in an early profile of Gaga, the pop artists of the time weren’t quite megastars and definitely weren’t weird; they were more like the Pussycat Dolls, only tangentially known for making music. (A great barometer of the pop landscape in any given year since 2000 is what Beyoncé was doing during it; in 2007, she was releasing “Green Light” and “Get Me Bodied.”)
Stefani Germanotta certainly had the background for stardom — wealthy-enough upbringing, childhood at Nicky Hilton’s school (the Convent Of The Sacred Heart), teenage years at NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts, various shows at various clubs, swept up into the major-label pop machine — but this is the background of thousands of people per year who do not go on to pop out of eggs at the Grammys. She had a cohort: the sex-stained, self-aware trash of electroclash artists like Peaches and Miss Kittin, revived by artists like Little Boots and La Roux. But she was one of many: the one with heavy bangs and no pants. Her career highlights included a New Kids On The Block comeback single and a Wale track. In a 2008 Q&A with PopMatters, asked about the fictional character most like her, she gave the most basic answer imaginable: Carrie Bradshaw.
Indeed, for most of her career, Gaga has existed in her own musical ecosystem. Weeks after “Just Dance,” now-disgraced producer Dr. Luke broke out with Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” the same song that launched his mentor Max Martin to ubiquity for the third time. But Lady Gaga has never released a track with either of them. (Given that Dr. Luke sued Lady Gaga over her wholehearted investment in Kesha’s case, there’s possibly a reason why.) Instead, she has largely worked with the same group of people — the same creative collaborators (give or take a few) in Haus of Gaga, and the same couple producers: DJ White Shadow, who’s produced Lady Gaga and a handful of people who are not Lady Gaga, and “Just Dance”’s producer, Moroccan artist RedOne, whose resume is otherwise flooded with B- and C-listers.
“Just Dance” turns 10 this weekend. It was a sleeper hit that grew traction largely through TV spots and in clubs, but pop radio was originally reluctant to play it, on grounds of it being too racy and too dance-y. “In the UK … electro-pop is not this stinky underground thing, it’s a real genre. But in America electro-pop is dirty underground music,” Gaga told The Guardian.
In 2018, where EDM is a multi-billion-dollar industry, this sounds ridiculous. But these were different times, times when Eminem could sneer “it’s over — nobody listens to techno!” and have it be, if not exactly a sick burn, at least not the music-world version of economist Irving Fisher’s scintillating 1929 Nostadamusry about stock prices reaching “a permanently high plateau.” So The Fame, with its disco references, Boney M samples, and RedOne’s electro, was a curiosity: synth leads big like a hard-rock riff, percussion thudding like shitty speakers too close, and almost nothing else in the arrangement. It’s electro at its most ruthlessly functional, and it’s remarkable how a producer mostly known for producing one artist nevertheless ended up with one of the defining sounds of the 2000s.
It’s also remarkable how bleak a song Gaga once described as “[speaking] to the joy in our souls … a heart theme song” sounds in retrospect. A rule of thumb: The more a pop artist tells the press how happy and fun a song is, the more likely there is to be horrifying subtext. It’s at least a rule of thumb for Gaga, who spent the seeming entirety of 2008 and 2009 giving interviews about The Fame’s deep subversive underbelly. How deep it goes, exactly, is questionable. Of her videos: “I just shot these art films called ‘crevettes’… it means shrimps, in French.” Of “LoveGame,” and its disco stick: “It’s another of my very thoughtful metaphors for a cock.” And most of The Fame is one-trick: tracks either bluntly self-aware (“Boys Boys Boys,” about boys; “The Fame,” about The Fame) or written around one lyrical switcharoo: “Paparazzi” is actually about obsessive love, “Money Honey” about boys again, “Poker Face” about bisexuality, although probably no one picked up on that before Gaga explained it.
But “Just Dance” is a little smarter than that. It’s a classic songwriting trick: a happy chorus about a horrifying thing. The verses are browned-out and stumbling; its chorus, “Just dance, gonna be OK,” is hooky, but also a minor-key reassurance, staving off a panic attack. Then there’s absolute non-entity Colby O’Donis coming in, bragging, then crowing about how he’s totally going to score, which is more than a little horrifying considering his target “can’t see straight anymore.” Presumably this was the “racy” part, but one wonders how the song would have gone over if released today.
If Lady Gaga helped usher in the EDM era, she also helped usher in a resurgence of artists’ self-mythologizing. “Just Dance” came after several years of MySpace pages, early YouTube recordings and other inconvenient early internet presences. If your early stuff is on YouTube, you can either memory-hole it, as with the Weeknd (deliberately anonymous at first) or Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant, aka the thinkpiece singularity), or turn it into raw material. You can listen to Lady Gaga’s early-career work, with the Stefani Germanotta Band; it sounds fine, like Sara Bareilles. Or you can watch Gaga’s reimagining of her early career in the “Marry The Night” video, complete with Honey Nut Cheerios freakout. She kept doing it; The Fame Monster was a (wildly successful) attempt to rewrite The Fame using more challenging concepts (“Dance In The Dark” is a “Just Dance” sequel, with less booze but more subtext); Born This Way is her polished Ladytron version of electroclash, Artpop her gonzo version. Joanne was her attempt to retcon everything besides “You And I” into country authenticity, a move also made recently by Miley Cyrus and Kesha. But in a way it’s just The Fame again. Gaga, a consummate New York theater kid at heart, doing for Nashville what she did for LA, a place she built an entire album and career upon but also hated.
“I don’t like Los Angeles,” she told Grigoriadis in that aforementioned early profile. “The people are awful and terribly shallow, and everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game. I’m from New York. I will kill to get what I need.”