Review Summary: Lady Gaga loses the plot.
"If you look at the album cover...half woman, half motorcycle, I'm now not just a vehicle for my own voice, but I'm the vehicle for their voice as well."
Well, shit. I guess that nonspecific "their" applies to the LGBT community and minorities as a general whole? Y'know, because it's obviously okay to make such sweepingly general statements about the very people you purport to be "helping"? Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Call me an ungrateful faggot, but as a member of several different groups that Lady Gaga has chosen to be a voice for, I not only dislike Gaga's presumptuous assumption that the gay community needed
her to be their voice, but I actually take offense to that notion. Which isn't to say that the idea of arguably the biggest pop star in the world being an enthusiastic avatar for gay rights is a bad thing. Quite the contrary, in fact; I have always found Gaga's embracing of her glitter-eyed demographic to be refreshingly free of Katy Perry's promotion of heteronormativity and Ke$ha's mindlessness.
But that was before "Born This Way" was released amid deafening hype. Back then, I wrote with pained disappointment that the song sounded like "an Ibiza dance party crossed with Nashville open mic night mashed up with 'Express Yourself' and a shockingly lifeless Eurotrash beat." I stand by those overzealous (and, in retrospect, rather meaningless) points of comparison, and my distaste for the song has only grown over time; if its garish production, which robs the song's undeniably catchy chorus of any impact it could have had, isn't enough to make the song entirely unlistenable, the horrific lyrics certainly are. I actually happen to think that "Don't be a drag / just be a queen" is a pretty good hook, all things considered, and certainly placing a lyric like "Your black, white, beige chola descent, your Lebanese, your Orient!" atop the Billboard Hot 200 for weeks is a feat that deserves recognition, but such a line begs the question: why does Lady Gaga feel the need to oversimplify her "message" down to a boiling stew of primary colors, frustratingly literal imagery, and egregiously blatant pandering?
Of course, there's one easy answer: there are people who eat it up, gushing over every pseudo-meaningful utterance that pops out of their mama monster's mouth. But such a condescending view does a disservice to those loyal fans as well as the more critical ones, and isn't a sufficient explanation for Born This Way
's baffling awfulness. Gaga has never been one to shy away from homage, but here, she's derivative of none other than herself, a recipe for disaster that ends up yielding results that are merely boring. "Marry The Night" is a limp rehash of The Fame Monster
's superb "Dance in the Dark", replacing icy fabulosity with lines like "Love is the new denim or black" and reaching a bizarre peak of badness in its final third. Second single "Judas" has already been criticized for being an unimaginative rewrite of "Bad Romance". And the opening of "Americano" is practically indistinguishable from that of the far superior "Alejandro". At the very least, "Americano" isn't bland; it is, however, terrible. "I no speako, I don't speak your language, oh no" isn't an effective social statement on paper, and Gaga's unfortunate "Latin" accent renders it nearly intolerable on record. It's sad, really, because the song's wordless chorus is pretty damn infectious and deserves to be in an astronomically better song. Ditto with "Highway Unicorn", a hilariously named and extremely misguided track that nonetheless possesses a monstrous power-pop chorus that shows off Gaga's considerable vocal chops to great effect. But these solid moments are few and very far between, and when they appear, they're painfully brief.
Only on "Government Hooker" do the puzzle pieces fit together into the kind of head-scratchingly enjoyable song that Gaga perfected with previous cuts like "Paparazzi" and "Monster". Atop one of the album's strongest, filthiest beats, Gaga waxes nonsensically rhapsodic in various accents about her carnal desires (which seem to have kicked in after the defiant sexlessness of The Fame Monster
). It's a better tribute to seedy Berlin sex clubs than "Scheiße" could ever hope to be, a genuinely enjoyable banger that, for its considerable lyrical flaws, is the album's lone successful welding of heavy-metal guitars to crunching dancefloor beats. And hell, it actually makes a great case for Gaga as mother of all "freaks" and "monsters"; however queasy the idea of Lady Gaga being a representative for gay men all around the world may make me, I can enthusiastically get behind a tune like this one. But alongside duds like the dated "Hair", snoozers like "Bloody Mary", and contrived displays of emotion like "Yoü and I", "Government Hooker" feels like a fluke - and then I find myself less enamored of the song's irresistible beat and more interested in whether or not that anonymous male voice throughout the song is the guy from Aqua. Similarly, while "Judas" has been very slowly revealing its charms, I can't help but imagine how much better the song would be if Gaga was actually singing "I'm just a horny fool, but baby he's so cruel." At the very least, it would rid the track of its obvious, heavy-handed subtext.
Alas, it is not to be. Across Born This Way
's fourteen songs, Gaga remains resolutely humorless, effectively making her entire message of "be whoever you are" a big joke. Because being "true to yourself" or whatever greeting card bullshit you want to say is about surrendering to impulse, fucking logic up the ass, and letting your self-consciousness go. It's not a friggin' motivational seminar. The basic idea that we should never judge people based on who they are is one that today's youth desperately needs to hear, and the basic concept that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people are indeed born the way they are is one that's all the more relevant today, what with the resurgence of inflammatory and hyper-religious rhetoric in America. And listening to Born This Way
, one gets the sense that Gaga really did
want to write an album that saluted the proud bearers of rainbow flags and urged outsiders all around the world to come out of their shell and greet the world, guns blazing. But simply exhorting "you're a bad kid, baby" does nothing but emphasize the way that Gaga has, in recent months, fetishized the "other" like no other pop star has. And Gaga's interpretation of the "other" is a superficial one, musically manifesting itself in faux-metal guitar chords (wow, hardcore!) and cheesy saxophone solos. Sure, you could argue that Lady Gaga has crafted a work that sounds like no other pop album being released today, and you'd probably be right. But that doesn't change the fact that Born This Way
is a masturbatory exercise in self-aggrandization and a spectacular failure.