With Lady Gaga’s new album Born This Way, the most fascinating character in pop music has finally succumbed to her own mythology.
I had a real place in my heart for Lady Gaga.
It was a couple years ago. Living in Belfast, where I was doing service work for the summer, I had a tenuous connection to the U.S., mostly through the hamstrung wireless Internet we’d get, all clustered together in the lobby of our hostel. That and hearing “Paparazzi” on the radio, pretty much around the clock. Back in the States, I’d internalized “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” already, but less so “Paparazzi”; every time I heard the song in Northern Ireland, it was like being mailed a piece of apple pie.
Since then, Lady Gaga has redefined her reputation. Gaga’s become the weird manic superego of the American Dream, existing not only as a vivid case study of that timeworn phenomenon but also to constantly remind us that we too tumble within our country’s great whirring turbine of upward social mobility, also known as “fame.” She makes no secret of once having been Stefani Germanotta, unfamous girl who became megafamous through hard work and endless provocation. And she sincerely says to her fans, this, this rising up could happen to you! (Though let’s face it: it can’t, not really. But there is hope; hope is nice.)
But, this shift from chilly inscrutable costumed superstar to lovingly affectionate omnipresent costumed superstar, while clearly a boon for her reputation, has not been good to her music, which, on new album Born This Way, has finally succumbed to the spectacle.
Now, depending on your point of view, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Gaga’s message is pure, one of acceptance and love, and, as Chris Norris writes for New York Magazine, “If one kid’s life is saved by Born This Way–era Lady Gaga (morphing as you read this) it’s all worth it.” The image—well, we’ll get to that. But the things she says (outside of her music!) are nice and worthwhile, undeniably.
But, but, but—Born This Way.
Gaga’s first, near-classic album The Fame considered stardom with wit and abandon, putting her in the same conversation as Drake and Kanye West. Buoyant on tacky, undulating synths and some actual stylistic diversity—“Just Dance” as stupid club banger, “Poker Face” the anthemic, shimmering singalong, “Paparazzi” a swaggering almost-ballad—The Fame was a gaudy pop offering. Most shockingly, its best song might not have even been released as a single. (I’m talking about “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” of course.)
Midlife EP The Fame Monster was even better. Lighting upon the perfect combination of esoteric, alien pleas for love and goofy joking/not joking-type hooks (see “Telephone”), Fame Monster had the right amounts of Bowie meets exoticism meets American ’80s camp. Also, it spawned easily her best collection of videos (i.e., “Telephone,” “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro“), and extreme outlier “Teeth,” a country-esque song (maybe) about vagina dentata, worked way better than anyone had any right to expect.
As Gaga catapulted through these subtle shifts in sound and style, she became more and more visible in the press. She became a massive Twitter presence. She coined a following, her “Little Monsters,” a typical cohort of the disadvantaged-as-joined-through-pop. And she placed increasing emphasis on a baroque, avant-garde visual aesthetic that came to define her videos, her stage show, and her real-life appearances.
For someone who had obsessively pursued fame ever since starting her career, the roles of activist and visual icon signified a massive shift in attention. And by the time Gaga began to make music for Born This Way, they had overwhelmed her ability to craft novel songs.
It’s important to note that Born This Way does not work as an album. Outside of the four singles—“Born This Way,” “Judas,” “Edge of Glory,” and “Marry the Night”—every track crumples under the weight of some bizarre pastiche, cheaply imitating styles from German kraut-haus (“Scheiße”) to Eurotrash fetishism (“Americano,” even worse for being derivative of the awful “We No Speak Americano”).
Despite sampling so many jarring styles, the songs are all bound together by a humid industrial thump, as expensive-sounding as The Fame was kitschy and fun. This works on exactly one song, the mystifying “Judas,” which is essentially a heavier New Testament co-opting of her best song, “Bad Romance.”
Even if “Judas” is the strongest track on the album, it’s also the clearest example of how Gaga has erred. As counterintuitive as it might seem, Lady Gaga’s schtick has always worked so well because of its thematic inconsistency and not, as some critics have said, in spite of it. Her guise of sophisticated artiste who pushed visual boundaries held up under scrutiny because the music didn’t try to explain or elaborate, deflecting away any unflattering eyes. She made harmless, valuable music that didn’t compromise itself by trying to lecture, and so she shone in her moonlighting as activist and egalitarian.
Watching the video for “Judas,” however, you notice something: the song and the visuals actually cohere. Unlike the short films that accompanied “Telephone,” “Bad Romance,” and “Alejandro”—which definitely seemed to tail off from something within the song, but what, you were never really sure—“Judas” as song and video both deal with the same exact half-realized clashing of vaguely Biblical love interests: Jesus! Judas! And though the video, like “Telephone” et al., is awesome, the song is pretty tough to listen to without at least once scratching your head in confusion. Finally, her songs are as ridiculous as their visuals, but far less interesting.
And that’s Born This Way at its best.
These other tracks are all crippled by their striving to soundtrack “Gaga,” symbol, icon, either by literalizing her theatrical interests a la “Judas” or just being really, really sappy, a la “Born This Way.” They resemble more the piped-in background noise for some hypothetical Little Monsters fashion show than they do the enjoyable pop music Gaga used to make. Again, I can’t emphasize enough the virtue of her appeals for those suffering from discrimination; it’s just that this obsession, as talking points often do, has homogenized everything coming from Radio Gaga.
And where Gaga might’ve been able to get away with this a few years ago, back when nobody knew how to respond to her, other artists have caught up. Katy Perry, from “Teenage Dream” to “E.T.,” does Gaga far better than Gaga does, from the limbs-out self-release to the electronic locomotion of her choruses.
P!nk on “Raise Your Glass” borrowed the cast-up-the-downtrodden ethos, though that songs shares in common with “Judas” that it simultaneously sucks and is kind of inexplicably awesome. Dev stole Gaga’s Scandinavian futurist look, and “Bass Down Low” is a better dance track then any song Gaga’s yet made. Even Ke$ha seems to be figuring her thing out, finally, with the choppy, exhilarating “Blow.”
Gaga needs to decide if the benefits from neutering her tracks into a campaign tool for the “people” outweigh these downsides. After all, the Little Monsters, and everyone else, bought into the three-part character—music, look, message—to begin with. Ethically, Lady Gaga deserves applause, but it seems like her celebration of individuality has made all her songs sound the same.
—Photo Domain Barnyard/Flickr