There Will Never Be Another Lady Gaga: How “The Fame” Shifted Pop Culture

We take a ride on the disco stick of nostalgia commemorating the 10th anniversary of Lady Gaga’s debut album.

When The Fame debuted on August 19, 2008, little did anyone know that a pop revolution was quietly being launched. Anyone except, of course, this revolution’s architect: 22-year-old Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga.

Three days before her debut album dropped, its lead single, “Just Dance” entered the Hot 100, at #76. The song itself had come out months earlier, in April, and over the course of 22 weeks, it monster-clawed its way to the number one spot.

In that brief expanse of time, Lady Gaga went from that weird girl with an aversion to pants to the Next Big Thing™. Though not a true overnight sensation, no one in recent memory has had such a meteoric rise to pop superstardom and seemed so well-prepared for, even entitled to it.

Here, we take a look at what made The Fame so special, what it’s meant to the greater culture, and why we won’t experience anything like it anytime soon.

A Star Was Born, Fully Formed

Gaga possessed an almost preternatural confidence from the first glimpses you saw of her in the “Just Dance” video—stomping over lifeless bodies in a glitter heel, a blazer with linebacker shoulders, and a bang so severe it threatened to devour her entire face. Everything—from her name to her outfits to her outsize personality and her performing—screamed “STAR.” Mostly because young Stefani Germanotta had been screaming it for years, in college and later on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where she honed her stage persona, before anyone took notice. It takes most performers years to develop even a fraction of that confidence, and it usually comes after some modicum of success. So Lady Gaga was, in a sense, the first millennial popstar, one born of the new millennium, for the new millennium, with unprecedented access (thanks, Internet) to the expertise of her forebears, and the benefit of technology that was just emerging but would become as ubiquitous as her: streaming music, YouTube, the iPhone. Gaga came onto the scene with so much unwarranted confidence that it demanded your attention because it seemed she must know something you didn’t.

Pop Music Got Interesting Again

Rolling Stone named The Fame the 100th greatest debut album of all time, calling it a “game-changer” within reason. Pop music had gotten banal in the mid-oughties, dominated by tween Disney stars, Pussycat Dolls, and, improbably enough, Fergie. Pop music was, for the most part, overproduced, generic, totally interchangeable, and not at all challenging. Whatever your opinions of Lady Gaga’s music, she knew her way around a hook, and the bigger the better. She loaded The Fame with anthemic pop designed to be sung along and danced to in the sweaty, drunken after hours. And if her music was also overproduced, she was at least a distinct voice with a distinct point of view (not to mention the musical chops to back it up) who understood pop’s limitations and its possibilities. In the waning months of the Bush administration, with the dawn of a new era in America just around the corner, Gaga captured the sense of freedom and abandon that the country was striving for—she had the right sound for the right time and she was the right person to deliver it. Post-The Fame (and its follow up EP The Fame Monster), pop would get darker and denser, but also, more fun. What made Lady Gaga so intriguing from the onset was that she clearly got it. She was in on the joke, she was aware of the artifices of pop and fame, and her very presence became her art, with her music just serving as the entry point.

Everyone Got Shook

When The Fame really started taking off, every other popstar and wannabe took notice. Beyoncé, already the baddest chick in the game and already finely attuned to the zeitgeist, was quick to hop on the Gaga bandwagon, enlisting her within months of her pop ascendance for the remix to “Video Phone,” and repaying the favor with the similarly communication-themed “Telephone” from The Fame Monster. Also, why we don’t actively discuss this triumphant moment in history on a daily basis is beyond me.
Rihanna, coming off her Good Girl Gone Bad phase, seemed to take a note or two from Gaga’s mastery cum subversion of the media and its perception of her, embracing a harder edge to her music with 2009’s Rated R, while openly giving fewer fucks along the way. Christina Aguilera, however, provided the most bald-faced attempt to cash in on Gagamania with 2010’s Bionic; its shiny electropop finish invited any number of unfortunate Gaga comparisons. That the Lady was not a former teeny bopper in the Britney mold, and that she could actually sing—and sing live, thank you—that she could dance, that she could play the piano, that she could write her own songs, and that she was unashamedly weird, gave license to other popstars, male and female, to not only try new things, but also to step their fucking games up lest they be eclipsed by this young upstart.

It’s Called FASHION, Look It Up

Not since Madonna, or maybe even Bowie, has an artist been tied so inextricably to their image. Gaga not only launched a series of imitators musically (looking at you, Natalia Kills) but sartorially as well. Before The Fame popstars in the new millennium weren’t giving you much to work with. There were, in the words of the late Aretha Franklin, “great gowns, beautiful gowns,” with an emphasis on sex and skin that was a holdover from the early years of the oughties when conservatism in America was crudely buffeted by the rise in reality television and a subsequent lack of indiscretion. Then came Gaga, who was sexy but very much on her own terms, and decidedly not designed for the straight, male gaze. She wore costumes, but (and this was before every designer fell over themselves to work with her) wore them with the confidence of haute couture. Next thing you know everyone’s in a statement shoulder and a nose-bleed stiletto and the Mugler archives have been virtually ransacked. And most female popstars haven’t worn a pant in ten years.

She Stood Up for Us

Bruce Glikas/Getty
Lady Gaga immediately set herself apart from most other young artists of the time by having an opinion and not being afraid to voice it—and she was, from the jump, a vocal ally to the LGBTQ community. And also from the jump, she identified as a bisexual woman, a crucial fact considering the pervasiveness of bisexual erasure to this day. In fact, one of her first performances was on Logo’s NewNowNext Awards in May 2008, when the Gaga word was just beginning to spread. In this current political climate, it’s much more acceptable, even expected, for musicians to take a stand, (and make no mistake, they’ve been doing so for ages—from the Concert for Bangladesh to “We Are the World” to Live AID) but post-9/11 saw a clamping down on dissent and a culture of compliance that had already started to erode once Gaga burst onto the scene. LGBTQ rights, too, were often brushed under the rug—same-sex marriage seemed like a pipe dream, DOMA was the law of the land, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the status quo. So when this newfangled popstar came out and loudly proclaimed her love for and support of the queer community, that community stood up and took notice. And it was more than just mere lip service, as Lady Gaga would prove time and time again, from her advocacy for the end of DADT to her work with the Human Rights Campaign and of course, “Born This Way.” For that, her “Little Monsters” will always remain loyal.

She Was Lightning in a Bottle

As the first true millennial popstar, Lady Gaga created the blueprint for others to follow, but the only person who’s come close to replicating her success is Nicki Minaj, who in the beginning of her career took more than a few chapters out of Gaga’s playbook—the outré outfits, the anthemic hooks, her (spurious) bisexuality. But if Gaga’s fame and Fame prove anything, it’s how singular a talent she is, and how focused her vision was. The Fame benefited from arriving just as music streaming and YouTube was taking off, but now that they have taken off, media moves at such a dizzying pace and is oversaturated to such a point that it’s hard for anything to truly break through—and when it does, it’s old news within a week.

Very few people can hold our sustained attention as Gaga did for the months it took The Fame to build to its glorious pop crescendo. It was a once-in-a-lifetime album, from a one-in-a-lifetime star, that established an important force to be reckoned with, whether or not she ever reaches the same heights. That she reached those heights at all, and reached them so quickly and assuredly, was no coincidence but something closer to destiny.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, bon vivant and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry.