Latin Music Week

How Lady Gaga's 'The Fame' Made Her a New Industry Standard for Pop Superstardom

The "Just Dance" singer's meteoric rise to celebrity status not only defined the trajectory of Lady Gaga's career, but reimagined the way that up-and-coming pop musicians establish themselves as industry mainstays.

When Lady Gaga smashed into the music scene back in 2008, people were naturally taken aback. Here was an eccentric, diva-like pop singer operating under a mysterious pseudonym that managed to score four top ten hits off of a debut album. But after just a couple years, and a number of changes -- both aesthetic and artistic -- Lady Gaga had become an artist synonymous with ultra-stardom.     

She caught the world’s attention with “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” her first two singles and subsequently her two most successful Hot 100 hits, both topping the chart. Her iconic videos for songs like “LoveGame” and “Paparazzi,” and the shocking performance of the latter at the 2009 VMAs, only solidified her notoriety. In stunningly short period of time, Gaga had not only broken into the mainstream, but defied expectations of what was allowed for pop stars of the 2000s.   

Now, in the decade since Gaga’s inaugural album The Fame was first released (on Aug. 19, 2008 -- ten years ago Sunday), the “Bad Romance” singer’s stardom has waxed and waned. After three albums of anomalous, personality-driven pop bangers, Gaga released ARTPOP, a critically and commercially underwhelming set that saw the singer’s fame reach a new low. But Gaga reinvented her own image and sound, releasing two albums (Cheek to Cheek and Joanne) that found success diverging from the edgy electro-pop path she’d made for herself, while reminding fans the number of classic hits she'd already amassed during her gig at halftime of Super Bowl LI. She's still a force in popular music, though may never be the trailblazing star she was on her first album again. 

But no matter what career paths Gaga takes, The Fame will always serve as the album that not only introduced the world to one of the most ubiquitous pop stars of the 21st century, but as a redefinition of how artists cross over to the mainstream. While outlets and critics have claimed since her debut that the star is a carbon copy of Madonna, it has become clear in the years since that Gaga’s skyrocket to fame was a phenomenon unlike anything modern pop culture had previously seen.

Since its 2008 release, The Fame has served as a template for up-and-coming artists on how to achieve status and attention within the pop music milieu. For some, the path has led to considerable top 40 success. But for many, Gaga’s initial rise to repute has proven to be nearly inimitable.

The most blatant example of an artist attempting to capitalize on Gaga’s meteoric breakthrough is Natalia Kills, the English singer who became infamous after her furious outburst as a judge on New Zealand’s The X Factor. She claimed that contestant Joe Irvine was acting as a “doppelganger” of her husband Willy Moon, and called his performance “absolutely artistically atrocious.”

The moment went viral, and many called out Kills for what they perceived as hypocrisy -- the singer was advocating for artistic originality when she herself was perceived as a Lady Gaga clone. It’s easy to see why -- for her debut LP, Perfectionist, the artist worked with hip hop star/producer Akon, Cherrytree Records and Interscope Records, three entities critical to Gaga’s introductory work. She cultivated a mysterious personality and a fashion sense strikingly similar to Gaga’s Fame-era couture. In the end, Kills never achieved mainstream success, and was ultimately dropped by Akon, Cherrytree and Interscope.

Part of what made Gaga so endlessly fascinating to the public was the air of celebrity she cultivated with just her first album, as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The Fame embodied what being famous felt like, even when Gaga herself had not achieved fame until after the album’s release. She strutted into pop culture as a fully-realized star, exuding confidence and prima donna status before even earning public permission to do so. She forced people to turn their heads and wonder if they had missed something: Who is this person? What is she doing? Has she been here this whole time, or is everyone else just as confused as I am?

One artist who has come the closest to replicating Gaga’s level of alt-stardom is Sia, the world-renowned pop singer-songwriter. But context is key — before being launched into fame with guest turns on David Gueta's “Titanium” and Flo Rida's "Wild Ones," Sia had a long career as an indie recording artist, achieving a cult celebrity without truly breaking through to the mainstream. It wasn't until her sixth album 1000 Forms of Fear, that set's smash hit "Chandelier," and her subsequent decision to shield her face using various long-banged wigs, that she became a phenomenon. However, even with a number of viral music videos and hit singles (including a Hot 100 No. 1 hit with "Cheap Thrills"), Sia never quite reached the commercial consistency of early Gaga -- where every single and video became an event -- with new releases just as likely to miss the Hot 100 altogether as to top it.

Meanwhile, some outlets and fans have noticed similarities between indie star Marina and the Diamonds and Gaga, specifically pointing out the alternative dance-pop that the two were consistently making during their debuts. But once again, while Marina has achieved serious fame within the indie-pop world and some minor mainstream recognition, the artist has come nowhere close to the meteoric stardom achieved by Mother Monster. For that matter, virtually every up-and-coming female pop singer who had a slightly off-kilter take on style and pop music, like Christine and the Queens or Allie X, has been compared to Lady Gaga, even when the comparison usually ends up flimsy at best. The industry's drive to search for and find “the next Lady Gaga” only speaks volumes to the stupefying nature of The Fame’s success.

Even seasoned pop veterans have taken elements of what Gaga did in 2008 and incorporated them into their own acts. Ahead of the release of her 2010 album Bionic, Christina Aguilera adopted a fashion sense and persona resembling Gaga, causing public speculation over whether or not she was copying the new star. When her album was released, critics panned it for what was perceived as a cheap attempt to capitalize on the rising popularity of future-focused dance-pop and celebrity mystery.

However, it wasn't just straight imitation through which Gaga's influence could be felt throughout the top 40 landscape. Mega-popular artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna had long been making moves toward changing the monotonous landscape of mid-2000’s pop music, but Lady Gaga's shattering the barriers of the “acceptable” made it easier for both of these to start pushing down their own surrounding walls.

Following the release of her seminal album I Am… Sasha Fierce, and subsequently The Fame, Beyoncé broke away from her producer and father Matthew Knowles to pen 4, the pop-meets-R&B child of her creative hiatus. The album signified a new direction in Beyoncé’s career, one fueled by a desire to create and control her own music and image despite what was considered “trendy” at the time, and one which propelled her to a new level of pop icon status. Rihanna, similarly, had managed to create a clean pop-hip hop image before the emergence of Gaga’s rough, sexy and filthy club-kid style. Her subsequent albums following Gaga’s debut, especially her critically acclaimed departure Rated R, were animated with raw sexuality and genre-bending melodies that redefined Rihanna’s career as a forward-thinking and singular star. 

Ultimately, Gaga’s instant acclaim may be perceived as almost accidental, but it’s simply not the case. Even the title of The Fame shows that Gaga and her influential producers knew exactly what they were doing -- crafting hype, personality and undeniable radio-killers to shoot this once unknown singer by the name of Stefani Germanotta into the bloodstream of pop music. As the idol prepares her heavily anticipated sixth studio album and an equally hyped residency in Las Vegas, it’s clear that The Fame not only changed the course of Gaga’s career, but corrected the course of modern pop music for generations to come.