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Divine Symmetry I 8 I “Fame;” “Fame;” “The Fame”

Bowie’s first #1 single in the United States was his 1975 song, “Fame.” With typically obtuse lyrics, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture: “Fame puts you there where things are hollow…what you get is no tomorrow…”

Five years later, Irene Cara had another hit by the same name, which was for the soundtrack of the movie also of the same name. The song is about the same topic and focuses in on the same central word, “fame,” and even uses certain common imagery, but its much more positive about the idea of striving to achieve fame.

Lady Gaga revisits the idea in her 2008 song, “The Fame.” Gaga is an avowed Bowie fan. Her song doesn’t sound anything like either Bowie’s or Cara’s, but there are lyrical nods toward Bowie’s song. Also, despite its superficial depiction of fame as a legitimate aspiration, I think the song arrives at the same conclusion as Bowie’s.

Consider how Bowie’s repeated, voice-distorted chant of the word “fame,” is one of the more memorable parts of his song. Less obvious (at least to me) is that Gaga does nearly the same thing— at a couple points in the song she repeats, “fame, fame, baby, the fame, fame” for three of four lines, broken up by another in which she repeats the word, “shame” (which is more than a hint of how she really feels about fame). It doesn’t sound like what Bowie does, but it looks awfully similar as as set of lyrics.

Gaga, too, seems to be saying that fame “puts you there where things are hollow”— “I’m addicted to a life of material; All we care about is runway models, Cadillacs and liquor bottles; All we care about is pornographic girls on film and body plastic” and so on. Despite the flashy imagery of other parts of the song, this seems like a pretty hollow life.

Gaga seems not to simply pay homage to Bowie, but also, obliquely, Irene Cara, with the lines, “I’m gonna make it happen this time; My teenage dream tonight; Yeah, I’m gonna make it happen this time.” “Teenage Dream” is a 2010 Katy Perry song but Gaga’s song came first. The other part about making it happen seems resonant of the Irene Cara “Fame” song. Cara doesn’t use those exact words, but she vows in her song, “I feel it coming together…I’m gonna make it to heaven.” “Make it happen” can be mistaken for “make it to heaven,” and both are conveying similar sentiments.

Despite landing at a different place about the virtue of fame, Cara slips in lines that might subtly acknowledge that Bowie explored the topic first. Her line, “too much is not enough,” seems to echo the line in Bowie’s, “Rebel Rebel,” “you can’t get enough, but enough ain’t the test.”

More to the point, Bowie ends his song repeating the question, “what’s your name,” while Cara sings, “Baby, remember my name.” Also, her declaration that “I’m gonna live forever” seems to refute Bowie’s “no tomorrow.” Even her line, “You ain’t seen the best of me yet” seems to faintly echo Bowie’s line from “Queen Bitch,” “I can do better than that.”

Meanwhile, while Bowie (and Gaga) chant, “fame,” Cara’s chorus chants, “remember.” While these are far from the only songs that employ a repeated-word chant, the device really isn’t a feature of most songs, so Cara’s chant might be another subtle response to whatever she thought Bowie was trying to say.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that while Bowie’s “Fame” does not use synthesizers, Cara’s does, and Bowie had popularized synthesizers in the time between the two songs.

In this light, Cara’s seemingly different song can be heard as a counterpoint to Bowie.

Some of my “Divine Symmetry” comparisons are between songs that really did not influence one another but nonetheless contain certain similarities. While I can’t be absolutely sure, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. That said, I think the interplay between the songs’ lyrics and musical elements, whether intended or not, turn three otherwise disparate songs into a conversation.

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