Review Summary: When "be yourself" becomes "be what they expect you to be."
As a rule, I don't defend my taste in music because who, ultimately, cares? It's not worth talking about. For whatever reason, I have made an exception for Lady Gaga. Maybe it's because she's one of the few super-popular artists that I truly love, maybe it's because so many people seem to hate her, or maybe it's because so many people seem to hate her for stupid reasons
, but whatever it is, I've felt the need to not only justify my love for her, but also to defend her as a person and as a performer. Because here's the thing: I admire Lady Gaga. She's not one of my heroes. I don't look up to her. But I admire her all the same, because she is my ideal role model for young people. She reads from the Gospel of Gaga, which has only one chapter entitled "Be Yourself." She seems smart, in her own way, but not truly intelligent enough to use her status as role model to manipulate her fans, as some would, which is great, but even more, it means that she can't be misunderstood. She's smart enough to say what she's thinking and to express it well enough while also seeming like there isn't a hidden agenda. Whatever people might think of her, she believes what she's saying.
But is she a gimmick?
Because that's been the issue at the heart of discussions about Lady Gaga. Certainly, you can still be a gimmick even if you believe the things you're saying. In her case, the gimmick would be the music itself as simply a vehicle to show off her singular fashion sense and to become someone that people can look up to. I've never agreed with that. Even in some of the more vapid songs on The Fame
, she at least seemed to be putting in an effort even if the result was uninspired. The Fame
was essentially a run-of-the-mill pop album with a few more standout tracks than one would normally find on such a record. There were a few eccentricities present (she definitely seemed to love herself, working the word "Gaga" into most of the songs), but really, if she had kept making music like that, she wouldn't be where she is now. She might be just as popular as a musician, but not as an icon. That's where The Fame Monster
comes in. That EP was such a stratospheric rise in quality (not to mention subject matter) that it was almost unbelievable. It was comprised of eight of the best pop songs ever, and I can say that with a completely straight face. But that's not what makes the EP so interesting. It's the fact that she was suddenly the
go-to role model for disillusioned youth, for abused people, for homosexuals, and what makes the EP so good is that she didn't try
to be that. She wrote a song about her relationship with her father, a song about a girl who's nervous about having sex with the lights on, a song about masturbation. It wasn't a bunch of songs about being yourself, about standing up to oppression, or about not caring what people think, not really. You can find those themes if you're looking, but they weren't thrown in your face.
So for her next album, Lady Gaga had two choices. She could keep writing songs about whatever struck her fancy and let her fans gather from them what they wanted to (as with The Fame Monster
), or she could deliberately play to her status as role model, catering to the people in her audience that are dumb enough to need "BE YOURSELF" spelled out in every single song in order to listen. This is the whopping identity crisis at the core of Lady Gaga. She may be the hero of people who are oppressed for being who they are, but she must wonder what her other
fans get from her music. Because it's not just her "monsters" listening. It's bitchy girls, it's guys who have no qualms about using demeaning terms to describe gay people, and so on. Basically, people who like catchy tunes and don't pay attention to the message. What's it like to tell those
people to be themselves? Or maybe she really doesn't think about it. By all accounts, she lives more as the character of Lady Gaga than she does as a normal person named Stefani, and there have been reports of how draining that is for her. Some tabloids postulated a number of times that she was headed toward some kind of breakdown, which was actually believable, unlike everything else they publish. Here's the thing though. If she broke down, it would only solidify the legend of Gaga even more, and she would be resurrected (three days later, perhaps), stronger, and with even more power to save.
But it wouldn't feel natural, and what, really, is the good of a forced message? If she wasn't a gimmick before, she certainly is now. Born This Way
is one giant anthem, but songs written specifically to be anthems can never actually be anthems, no matter how infectious they are, no matter how big of hooks they might have, no matter what their lyrics say. For all intents and purposes, it appears that Lady Gaga has entirely disappeared up her own as
s, and also the collective as
s of her monsters. This is an album written for them, and I'm sure they will love it, but for everyone else (the majority of her fanbase, I'd wager), there's not much here. I wonder if that's what she intended, if only subconsciously. The thread of individualism runs throughout every single song, even when it doesn't fit, and maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing if it was about Gaga's
individualism. But it's not. She's specifically addressing her monsters, and I'm not sure that I've ever heard anything more forced and grating before. When her distorted voice shouts, "We don't care what people say! We know the truth!", it comes across as funny. When she seemingly misconstrues misunderstood youth as "bad kids," it's more confusing than anything. It's as if, in her quest to give her message a bit more depth, she missed the point of the message in the first place. It's not enough to tell kids to be themselves. You've also got to impress upon them that sometimes they've got to change in order to do that. Lady Gaga singing "I'm a nerd, I'm a loser, I'm a bad kid," etc., and then saying that it's because they
made her that way...what sort of message is that? She's no longer telling kids to be who they are on the inside. She's telling them to be what they are on the outside at this exact moment
, and that's detrimental at best and dangerous at worst.
As I said, I wonder if she intended to lose a big chunk of her casual fans. These songs all sound like Gaga, but they're more abrasive, less focused, and that's not a good thing. I believe that Lady Gaga is a superbly creative songwriter, and it's because of that belief that I refused to see her music as a simple gimmick. But the creativity is gone, booted in favor of distorted, electronically stuttering vocals that shout song titles over and over. There's catchiness here but it's all too rare, and the songs that are
catchy are the ones that feel the most forced. She wants us to think that all her old vigor is still on display, but the synth-pop backing is too lifeless to lend any narrative swing to her vocals and lyrics. Born This Way
is basically The Fame
filtered through the lens of The Fame Monster
. There are more components and brief, brief flashes of brilliance, but most of the album is comprised of throw-away junk. The lesser songs on The Fame
were at least passable. If the lesser songs on Born This Way
aren't as forgettable, it's only because the abrasive "hooks" and pathetic attempts at weirdness stick out more because of their awfulness. At one point she sings, "I want lots of friends that invite me to their parties," and that's exactly what she sounds like on this album: an attention-seeker. It's what she's always been, yes, but it was effortless before. Now, she might as well be standing up on one of the cafeteria tables in a high school, yelling at the popular kids so that they'll notice her. And they will, maybe, but she'll be like the weird, nerdy kid in a movie who thinks the popular kids are befriending her when really they just want to see her make a fool of herself.
At this point, Lady Gaga might seem too big to truly fail, but that's not the case. However, she is
too big to be forgotten, which is why it's such a shame that her flame is already burning out. She wants us to believe that she is the "spirit of her hair," which can be changed to any color imaginable, which can shift constantly in the wind, which can be cut short or grown long, but it can also become greasy, and it can fall limp on either side of one's face like heavy, cloying curtains. And changing its color too many times can cause it to die. One way or another, whether she loses her fanbase or, more likely, herself, the fall of Lady Gaga is coming. It will be a spectacular crash. And, I suspect, a spectacular light show.