[27 May 2011]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Let’s all start by taking a deep breath and facing the honest truth: Lady Gaga has yet to make a great album.
When Ms. Germanotta released her still-fantastic-to-this-day single “Just Dance” back in in April of 2008, few knew what to make of this strangely-dressed, eccentric young singer-songwriter who just so happened to have a diva-ready voice and one hell of an ear for a pop hook. “Just Dance” was the very definition of a slow burning single—it didn’t hit #1 until nine months after its release. Once the floodgates were open, however, an absolute avalanche of great dance singles came pouring out: “Poker Face”, “Paparazzi”, “Bad Romance”, and “Telephone” being chief among them (you’re welcome, Glee).
While her ridiculous outfits certainly garnered much media attention, her eccentric visual style tended distract us from the fact that she was a truly great songwriter, and—more importantly—a heck of showman. Each new single and video wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill record industry release: it was an out-and-out event. Most of us remember waiting around our TV sets for the worldwide premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video back in the day—critics and fans already giddy with anticipation—and true to his word, “Black or White” turned out to be a perfectly-executed pop song and a wildly entertaining video (even if everyone was a bit confused by the panther/crotch grabbing part) that would up becoming a true pop culture event that was shared by millions. Although Lady Gaga will never reach that same level of ubiquity, she sure as hell tried, pumping up her videos with ridiculous big-budget imagery during a time when labels are slashing video budgets left and right. Of course the video for “Telephone” would be close to eight minutes long: it was a Technicolor mini-movie filled with dance sequences, murder montages, and glasses made out of lit cigarettes. Anyone can look ridiculous on camera, but to do it and write pop songs so iconic that rock bands begin ironically covering it less than a month after they’re released? That’s a rarity.
Yet when you actually think about The Fame or The Fame Monster, you think only about those pop culture highlights. You tend to forget about the vapid single “Eh, Eh (What More Can I Say)”, the disposable “Starstruck” (featuring another hilarious attempt at rapping by Flo Rida), the frighteningly unoriginal masturbation ode “So Happy I Could Die”, the surprisingly toothless “Poker Face” rewrite “Monster”, and the pedestrian “Money Honey”. Sure, Gaga can write some great singles, but she has yet to write a great full-length album. So even with all the pre-release drama that Born This Way had to suffer through—the inexplicable “Weird Al” Yankovic incident, the controversial “Judas” video shoot, the numerous Madonna plagiarism accusations, Amazon’s one-day $0.99 deal crashing their servers the day of the album’s release—it’s obvious that Born This Way should be not only be the biggest album of the year, but also Gaga’s defining statement as an artist, right?
As it turns out, Born This Way is actually her weakest album to date.
In comparing Gaga 2011 to her 2008 self, one thing becomes immediately clear: the one we’re looking at right now takes herself far more seriously. While sure, it would’ve been hard for her election-year version to predict that she would soon become a role model for social outcasts the world over, she’s taken her new role as generational quasi-spokeswoman very seriously; so instead of writing fun, well-crafted dance-pop songs like before, she’s now turned into an “artist”, filling each track with social commentary, endless religious symbolism, and personal confessions, all set to a danceable beat. There’s noting wrong with a good empowerment anthem, but when “empowerment anthems” count for one third of the songs on your new disc, it’s no surprise that the resulting album sounds painfully repetitive.
Although Gaga’s cast of musical collaborators is continually rotating (RedOne once again produces a majority of her tracks, although the discovery of Chicago-based DJ White Shadow proves to be most welcome), her aesthetic is basically the same: up-tempo club tracks that pair modern Eurodisco sounds with her myriad group of influences, resulting in tunes that harkens back to classic ‘70s disco (“Born This Way”), ‘80s girl-pop (“Bad Kids”), and even country (the astonishing “You & I”). Yet in being everything to everyone, Gaga’s “new directions” are only surface level. Despite its fancy string-pluck opening, “Bloody Mary” is a remarkably average club track (save its liquid bass line), playing its religious angle very heavily but without much payoff, an accusation that can similarly be applied to the flaccid thumper “Judas”, wherein a brutal bass synth seems to be at war with its unabashed pop chorus, neither side really winning in the end.
The rest of Born This Way continues in this fashion, with tracks starting out with an interesting twist on her familiar tropes before ultimately riding the same tired and true formula through to the end (or, worse, just doing something “dramatic” just for the hell of it, driven by no real sense of purpose). Just listen: opener “Marry the Night” very much wants to be top-notch Justice knockoff, but by adding a bridge of upbeat platitudes and an utterly pointless instrumental section after the 3:30 mark, she ultimately winds up weakening the power of her “let’s take the night” rallying cry. Her ode to European one night stands (“Americano”), conversely, falls into the fatal pop song pit trap of failing to make the chorus and verses sound different enough from each other to make any real impact, leaving it feeling very, very one-note, despite the flurry of acoustic guitars that weave in and out of it.
After that, the album’s foibles become more and more noticeable: there are tracks that are more producer’s showcase than actual song (“Heavy Metal Lover”), songs that have flat-out forgettable choruses (“Fashion of His Love”, “The Queen”), and yet another empowerment anthem with ridiculous lyrics (as in “We can be strong / We can be strong / Follow that unicorn / On the road to love”). Yes, “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” is a very confused lowlight on this album, showcasing the most unfocused set of lyrics we’ve yet heard from Mother Monster, its kitsch value completely drowned out by her own disinterested verses. When you begin adding all of these problems up, however, what you begin to realize is that none of these “problem songs” are necessarily bad—they’re just really boring. After unleashing a line like “I want to take a ride on your disco stick” to an unsuspecting public, it’s no surprise that other attempts at being provocative—including declaring that “Jesus is the new black” at one point—wind up falling short of the mark. Gaga is trying to unleash a sea of high-end ideas to the public en masse, but after hearing four or five songs in a row that are set at the exact same tempo while retracing lyrical themes that we’ve heard before, one can be forgiven for wanting to go back to a time when she was singing about losing her phone in a club and wanting your ugly (or some guy named Alejandro).
Yet when Gaga really sits down and really focuses on her craft—when she adds that perfect mix of upfront personality and guilty-pleasure pop eurohpira—she is capable of creating absolutely transcendent songs, and she’s done it before. Fortunately for us, there are more than a few moments like that on Born This Way, and those highlights frequently outrank her best work. “Government Hooker” is arguably the darkest track she’s penned since “Teeth”, and it sounds like a deliciously unholy fusion between Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” and New Order’s “Blue Monday”. Lyrically, it deals less with politics and more about sexual dominance, but her turns of phrase—which can be easily glossed over when dancing to it—are fantastic, ranging from the psychologically interesting (“I’m gonna drink my tears and cry / ‘cos I know you love me baby”) to the best gender-bending chorus since the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me”:
I can be good (unless you want to be man)
I can be sex (unless you want to hold hands)
I can be anything
I can be everything
I can be mom (unless you want to be dad)
When Gaga isn’t getting her Bonnie Tyler on (during the rock-solid “The Edge of Glory”), she proves unafraid to talk about her past this time around, and while at times she spends way too much time mentioning about how she was born on Broadway (baby), she winds up tackling rather large issues like one’s search for personal identity in the way they wear their hair (the aptly-titled “Hair”, which, tragically, is not a response to India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair”) or how you can still be a good person even if you were a brat growing up (the album highlight “Bad Kids”, which marries cut-n-paste rock guitar licks with the most effervescent ‘80s-indebted chorus she’s yet penned). It’s during these songs that the metaphors don’t run that deep: her lyrics are more matter-of-fact, and therefore, quite meaningful. Yes, she mentions causing her parents’ divorce right there in “Bad Kids”, but does in such a way that it’s not looked on as a bad thing: it was part of her own journey of maturity. One always has to be delicate when balancing the playful with the pathos (unless you’re Robyn of course), but with these two songs, Gaga manages to pull it off with ease.
Anyone who follows Gaga knows that she really has a knack for keeping more than a few surprises in her pocket (remember when you saw that album cover for the first time?), and while she surprised several observers with her straight-faced Queen homage “Speechless” on The Fame Monster, she pulls out all the stops on the stunning “You & I”, an honest-to-goodness country song based on the drum beat for Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Yes, this sounds like a total trainwreck on paper, but in execution it proves to be one of the most entertaining detours Gaga has yet taken. It is no mere pop song with slide-guitars in it, no; if you took out the keyboards, she’d have a genuine country radio hit on her hands, replete with a huge singalong chorus and some delightfully backwoods lyrics (“It’s been two years since I let you go / I couldn’t listen to a joke or a rock & roll / Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart”). It’s risks like these that make Lady Gaga so endearing to fans and critics alike, and after wading through the muddled mess that Born This Way is, you can’t help but wish she’d take a few more of ‘em.
At the end of the day, Born This Way is one mighty confused pop album, fusing some daring songwriting with some remarkably repetitive themes and beats, a dichotomy that pulls the album to a pretty even keel when all is said and done. Although no one will deny its popularity, one can certainly wonder what its impact will be several years down the line. Will the Miss Gaga still be redefining the pop paradigm for other divas to follow several years down the road? Most definitely. Is Born This Way the album that’s going to do it? Probably not. Yet will we still be waiting with eager ears to hear how she grows as a performer and songwriter from here? Oh, you can bet your lobster hat on it ...