With the possible exception of the Black Eyed Peas – whose 1-2 punch of “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling” dominated the Billboard charts this year – there’s no artist who towered over the pop culture landscape of 2009 like Lady Gaga. Unlike the Peas, though, she’s still milking an album that came out last year. Yes, it’s been 15 months since The Fame was released in August of last year, and a ridiculous 19 months since “Just Dance” was released to radio.
Part of the reason that we’re still talking about Gaga after such a long period of time is that “Just Dance” was a slow burner, taking 22 weeks to hit number one on the Billboard Top 100 (fun fact: Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” holds the record for the longest climb to the top). “Dance’s” quiet ascent meant that the follow-up – the inescapable, somewhat insufferable “Poker Face” – laid in wait for weeks in the middle of the charts before making its own claim to the throne. The same thing happened with “Lovegame” and, to a lesser extent, with “Paparazzi” (the latter’s chart performance has to be considered a disappointment, especially considering it’s the first track of Gaga’s that’s convinced me that she’ll be more than a one-album wonder).
In fact, “Bad Romance” – the single from Gaga’s unnecessary eight-track addition to a deluxe version of The Fame – might be the first song from the artist that was a hit on arrival. She’s finally reached the critical mass needed to propel her latest to the top of the charts without weeks spent awkwardly sneaking into radio and iTunes playlists. What’s more, she’s got the most popular YouTube video of the month with the song’s twisted, stylistic video. It’s impossible to escape the Haus of Gaga.
Last week, as part of my Owl City thoughts, I tossed off the idea that Lady Gaga’s popularity is due to her ability to fill our need for a Madonna figure. But I’m not sure that in and itself explains it. The videos and the “image” are clearly part of the equation, but I don’t think it’s everything. Nor, really, am I satisfied with the most obvious answer: that the songs are catchy. They’re good, but frankly, only one of them – “Just Dance” – feels like a complete song to me.
But do we really need complete songs anymore?
Take “Bad Romance.” What’s remarkable about the song is how unremarkable the verses are. A couple of cheap sexual references – how many times can Gaga use “stick” as a penis metaphor? – in amongst some incredibly generic desire lines, all backed by a melody that’s completely indistinctive and forgettable. It’s practically tuneless, which seems to be par for the course for Gaga verses (sure, “Just Dance” is melody-based, but “Poker Face” and “Love game” are all rhythm and beat).
But it couldn’t possibly matter less when that chorus hits, because it’s a MONSTER. Both the main chorus and the instantly-singable “woah oh” bit are massive, unstoppable behemoths of pop. The transition from the A-minor to the C-chord makes complete sense but is just odd enough to be catchy as all hell; as is the E-minor the second time through. Like “Poker Face” before it, the chorus sticks in your head long after it’s our of your headphones, and you’ll have to catch yourself lest you find yourself humming it awkwardly walking down the street, less a song and more of an echo.
Now, most pop songs have better choruses than verses; it’s supposed to be the most memorable part of the track, after all. But the creeping influence of hip hop into pop music – for all its benefits – has crippled the verse. So many of the past decade’s hit songs fit the “rap verse/vocal chorus” model, regardless of whether or not the song is actually a rap song. And why should we care, really? All too often our music library soundtracks other experiences – driving to work, surfing the web, talking to friends – and the idea that one would pay attention to every moment of a song simply isn’t realistic more often than not. All we need is something to stick with us when we move onto the next piece of pop wallpaper.
Lady Gaga’s success represents this trend taken to its most logical extreme. She writes choruses and sees no reason to write anything else. The listener, not needing anything else, falls in love with the chorus and is completely satisfied. And we all go about our daily business with a melody stuck in our head, echoing.
Watch: Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance”