Review Summary: I wanna take a ride on your disco stick.
I firmly believe that every piece of music deserves its day in court; no matter what quality an album is, sometimes it shouldn't just "go without saying" that it is great or terrible. Even for artists who have been consistently derided such as Blood on the Dance Floor or Vanilla Ice, the old adage comes into play: one man's trash is another man's treasure. Think a record is godawful with no redeeming values? Try to look at it from a different perspective. Admittedly, yours truly used to trash any music that wasn't some complex, deep progressive rock or "br00tal" metal music rooted in death metal or thrash (primarily during my high school years). In the middle of this opinionated heat was the dance-pop star Lady Gaga, being given both praise and criticism for her synth-ridden dance music, trashy lyricism, and flashy image with her debut album The Fame and its subsequent tour. Naturally I despised it and couldn't understand her success, but in recent times, that opinion has turned around quite a bit.
Sure, I get it... the music isn't very deep. There aren't layers of lyrical meaning behind it. It's not the be-all-end-all of dance-pop. There are some glaring flaws in the woodwork. Hell, the album's fascination with fame and money probably comes off as quite shallow to many ears. However, two things need to be taken into account when listening to The Fame: Gaga's influences, and the fact that there sounds like genuine effort being integrated into the product instead of a typical cash-cow plastic pop record. Despite the modern glossy sheen heard from the production on a surface level, the musical influences are different story. Lady Gaga stated that David Bowie and Queen were prominent reference points for her music and persona, and it certainly shows; there's a sense of glam and charisma about The Fame's overall vibe. Some songs appear to be complete homages, particularly the piano ballad "Brown Eyes," which uses several Queen-oriented chord progressions throughout during the (surprisingly) humble verses. But it's not just the overall attitude and how Lady Gaga integrates her influences into her work, but how much she seems to care about her music. Beneath the layers of synth-ridden fluff is a genuine heart, a heart of someone who's trying to elevate dance-pop beyond just autotune and having a club-ready atmosphere. Stuff like "Brown Eyes," the guitar-centric funk of closer "Summerboy," and the disco-oriented jazz guitar chords adding to the chorus of the title track, certainly seem like more than meets the ears.
Plus... goddamn, it's just a ton of fun to listen to! Most of The Fame is dominated by fast dance anthems that are created for you to - you guessed it - get off your ass and dance. Of course, the four smash hits ("Just Dance," "LoveGame," Paparazzi," and "Poker Face") were cleverly placed at the very front of the record, most likely to give off an instant appeal to the listener, and they're all a blast to listen to. The most entertaining songs on the record seem to be the ones adorned with the lowest synthesizer notes and the most prominent bass, particularly "LoveGame" and the chorus of the title track. It's easy to get a rush of energy once one of the songs kicks up the bass volume and layers of keyboard work illustrate the busy musical backdrop. As for the vocals, Lady Gaga boasts a pretty distinctive voice as well as wonderful displays of charisma when up to the mic; even during a ballad like "Brown Eyes," she seems fully invested when she's singing. As for autotune, there are only two ("Starstruck" and "Paper Gangsta") that frequently use the processor, so luckily there's a refreshing lack of it throughout the experience. Unfortunately, one thing that does appear more prominently is inconsistency. Now don't get me wrong; there aren't a ton of filler tracks... however, the ones that are here are enough to hurt the album's quality quite a bit. "Eh, Eh" essentially starts the streak, effectively ruining the fun atmosphere displayed by the previous tunes and dragging the listener through a rote piece of fluff balladry. But when you get down to it, the bigger problem is that the album doesn't know when to end properly. While The Fame is only about forty-two minutes long, the amount of been-there-done-that filler near the end gets exhausting and simply guides you through musical concepts you already explored. "I Like It Rough" is a minor-key dance tune that doesn't really have much going for it, not even a catchy chorus, and the lyricism is the same tough-girl material heard in songs like "LoveGame" and "Poker Face." "Paper Gangsta" simply suffers from the lack of an engaging bridge section, while "Starstruck"'s heavily auto-tuned chorus isn't charismatic or climactic enough to pack quite the punch it seemingly promised from the verses.
So in the end, it's somewhat tough to determine who would get the most enjoyment out of The Fame. On the one hand, Lady Gaga should be lauded for her willingness to experiment with and try to artistically elevate the mainstream dance-pop genre on her first try, but those experiments don't always work. The overall product would have benefited from a sharper sense of musical focus and the removal of obvious filler, and yet at the same time, its inconsistent nature doesn't affect me as much as it probably should. I think the best way to look at this record is not to look at the whole picture, but rather to look at its individual parts. Take the best songs (and, admittedly, there are a lot of great songs) and just cherish the hell out of them. It's pretty sad knowing that Gaga's next work Born This Way would throw away a lot of what makes The Fame as good as it is, but that's a story for another day. As for this, dance and have fun.