Review Summary: Lady GaGa single-handedly attempts to re-write the rules of the Pop Game. For the most part, she succeeds. Congratulations, GaGa, you are now a pop star. Now just wait 15 years until your achievement is recognized.
To Lady GaGa, time is a thing of little consequence. Her sound, her style, even her fashion stands in sharp contrast with the cautious, calculated state of affairs with today's mainstream acts. Her very persona is assembled from various pieces of past pop-icons and pop landmarks, leading to detractors accusing her of plagiarism, snobby pop-geeks dismissing her as a wanna-be Madonna and a public that's mostly oblivious of pop history that embraces her more for her antics than anything else, which are, for the most part, neither new or without precedent. But the very way that GaGa appropriates everything pop without acknowledging its source or inspiration--indeed, even presenting it as a fresh, new thing of her own concoction--hints at something that all of these critics and fans miss: GaGa's very essense is that of pop. In embracing everything pop without a care as to its propriety in today's musical climate, GaGa treats and interprets pop not as an ever-changing form of music that needs to adapt to its surroundings every few years, but as a continuum that transcends the album format and permeates itself into both performance art and a rich, grandiose pop culture that knows no boundary of era or time.
This interesting understanding of pop music shows itself on the album's first three songs. They are all, superficially, rehashes of past pop-landmarks. "Marry the Night's" innocent piano intro is soon interrupted by a persistent, almost sexual dance beat that begins to seep into the song, until it becomes the dominant driving force of the song; the lyrics are delivered in a sweet, almost naive manner which belies the rebelliousness and sexual deviancy underlying the lyrics. Born This Way is the quintessential pop-anthem mandatory of any pop album out to make a statement, while Government Hooker has the dirty girl grime-pop feel introduced to the pop world by the likes of Lady Sovereign. But rather than coming off as derivative, all of these songs work because they each bear the mark of Lady GaGa, whose role here is that of an engineer carefully dismantling an architectural wonder and then re-creating it, adding her own unique perspective and distinct touch to it, for the most part leaving the structure unchanged. Pay close attention and the songs almost play like a concept of their own: a young, innocent girl begins to embrace her darker, more passionate side, justifying her actions before finally letting the caged beast take control of her. And so it would seem that the album will play out until...
Judas happens. Suddenly, the whole context of the album changes as it becomes clear that GaGa isn't just here to pay tribute to pop-legacy, she's here for something, much, much more ambitious. Remember our discussion about the way GaGa treats pop? It's essential for understanding this song, and, seeing how it's the pivotal piece of the whole album and, indeed, of GaGa's own identity, misunderstanding this song will lead to misunderstanding her work as a whole. The first thing that becomes apparent is how similar the song sounds to her earlier song "Bad Romance," but there's a much darker, seductive side to it. It's threatening and malevolent, but at the same time irresistible: this isn't recycling a past triumph, it's completely transforming it into something completely new. She merges the underlying sexuality of Bad Romance with the kinky, strangely appealing (but no less threatening) insistence of industrial music without once losing sight of the pop-heart that so readily beats into the song its catchiness and hooks. In GaGa's world, it's okay to allude or even altogether restructure past pop songs because new pop songs are the same as the old; sure, the sound may be different but the essence of any pop song is the same, and thus, it really doesn't matter when the pop song was made, what matters is that it retains its pop soul. The song is also a jagged, artsy oddity, as it throws hooks, beats and drops at the listener faster than the brain can absorb it, while GaGa's vocal delivery changes with the music so adeptly and adroitly, it's almost dizzying. In switching from a traditional, very human start (and chorus) to a more android-esque delivery as the electronic beats overtake the song, all culminating in a breathtaking climax were GaGa delivers the lyrics in a robotic, but strangely sensual voice and then returns to the pop-chorus with almost growled background vocals that are, really, quite out of place in a pop album, GaGa acknowledges the seething tensions between the human and the electronic, and even presents us, barefaced, the point at which the ugly, the beautiful, the mechanic and the human all coalesce into one; the point where industrial, club dance beats and art all merge together and create an odd, futuristic form of pop; the kind of music you imagine from a cyberpunk future. The lyrics are no less challenging, turning the story of Jesus and Judas into a vehicle for telling a story of a woman struggling not only with a man who betrays her, but also the struggle between her passions and common sense, her morals and her devil may care attitude.
The experimentation and appropriation of other forms of music to the pop legacy continues in Americano, were, somehow, GaGa turns what would be an acoustic ballad interspersed with traditional vocals into pop-electronica with a strange sense of urgency and a feverish passion, complete with demented trumpets. Hair, on the other hand, starts off as a traditional pop song but is interrupted both by a more mature sounding GaGa getting chopped up over intriguing, intense electronics and the addition of whirring, thrilling buzzes and, later, the song is restructured into a hybrid of jazz-pop instrumentation, changing the song from a typical rebellious-girl tune into a fine piece that challenges the status-quo of pop and dares to bring jazz elements neatly into the pop arena. Another highlight comes with Bloody Mary were the industrio-pop introduced by the album and fully developed by Judas are given a religious overtone and at the end, it sounds as if the song is being played at a grand, vacant cathedral. GaGa's performance is so unhinged, yet so firmly grounded upon pop, that the song completely crushes any remaining boundaries.
But just when you think that GaGa's marriage of industrial music with dance-pop music will dominate the rest of the album and subdue every form of music imaginable into playing with the rules of the pop-book, Highway Unicorn plays and marks a transition, heralding both the re-emergence of pop as the prominent part of the song (not that it ever left, pop is the adhesive holding this album together) and the addition of a whole new dimension to the mix. From Heavy Metal Lover on, a rock-side to the album begins to emerge. In Heavy Metal Lover, the indostro-dance-pop is almost given a rock treatment and interpretation, adding an unprecedented twist to an already delicious formula--but make no mistake, this is ALL pop. Electric Chapel makes the transformation more explicit, building itself around a would-be speed metal riff that's subdued by pop production and somehow, the guitars are turned into synth-like instruments, lending to the song's beats.
The final two songs show-off GaGa's vocal prowess and her ability to deal with rock music (specifically the dirty bar rock you'd expect to find in the South) and jazz music as executed within the context of a pop song. A problem does come here, however. Gone is the intensity and artistic daring of the middle of the album, and the production, centered around emphasizing the pop elements of the song, does wind up partially disinflating the songs. You can't help but wonder what would have happened had GaGa left the songs rawer and given them less of a pop sheen; in fact, conventional wisdom holds that the songs from Highway Unicorn to the end should be left off the album, released either in EP format or as part of a new album, but, in the end, this would end up not fulfilling GaGa's mission of taking the listener from the legacy of pop to its cutting edge, and then to the way her breakthrough would function in a more traditional pop context where the focus is more on uplifting choruses than sheer, unrestrained artistic expression. If only GaGa had figured out a way of letting the album finish without feeling so sapped of the artistic beast that characterize the best moments of the album, and we'd be dealing with a perfect pop masterpiece. But what's left isn't bad at all. It's a pop masterpiece, just not a perfect one.
In retrospect, the three songs at the start of the album weren't alluding at an album that would re-state pop and its legacy, it was GaGa presenting both what pop has sounded like in the past while foreshadowing where she was willing to take it, a sort of sampling before the main menu. Truly, what the album hopes to do isn't to find its place in the pop landscape, it'd to install a new one, regardless of whether or not there is a willing audience to receive it. And what's more, only GaGa could have made this album, as she is one of the few people to recognize pop not as a particular sound but as an attitude that, though changing as the music scene changes, has been, for all intents and purposes, truly immutable. Sure, sure, GaGa's merging of dark, catchy electronics with pop isn't new and a style somewhat similar to hers has been around for a while, most notably in the Eel's song "Cancer for the Cure," but it takes those developments to an extreme that would otherwise have taken years to develop, all the while retaining the spirit of pop music. It's quite the breathtaking accomplishment and the fact that it succeeds on many levels is astounding and fascinating; who knew that the rules of pop music could be so single-handedly challenged and re-written?
So, if I'm making the album to be so good, why has it received mixed reviews and why has the public been so slow to embrace it--in fact, almost seeming to be spitting it right back out? Think of Madonna's most controversial songs. Back when they were released, they too garnered mix reviews and the public was ambivalent about it. In fact the songs succeeded only because of Madonna's cunning sense of pop-craft and her own popularity; much the same can be said about Born This Way (the album). It's too experimental, too concerned with artistic integrity and expression, regardless of where it takes GaGa, to be immediately embraced. Her songs are also lengthy and feature multiple hooks or tinker with the inner working of pop-music. But what's more important, the album is an invitation for music junkies of all colors to enjoy a pop take on everything else. Ultimately, success for GaGa will come not from the mainstream public looking for a new hook, but for people who enjoy extreme experimentation, abrasive, strangely seductive industrial music and the just plain weird; the catch, however, is that, rather than having other genres appropriate and assimilate pop to their own needs, this time around, it's the pop music that's dominating things. The possible new fans here are really more fans of bands like Today is the Day--bands that experiment and don't have a consistent sound, which are as just as comfortable writing sick, yet beautiful songs with an acoustic guitar as they are incorporating industrial synths into a relentless heavy metal attack. It's quite daring. Take a look at the tacky cover art again. It's there for a reason, and it isn't there to sell as many records as possible to hook-seekers. In recalling--and parodying--the excesses of heavy metal and industrial music and they're value on the ugly and the bizarre, GaGa has opened the appeal of pop to just about anyone outside of pop's traditional core audience.
But whether or not GaGa succeeds in this respect is largely irrelevant. She already revolutionized pop music, regardless of whether or not it's recognized by underground music fans. The face of pop has been changed (but not altered) and a revolution in music styles has been brought about much earlier than expected. If I had to give an example of what just happened, it's as if Madonna's True Blue had been released during the time of Sunshine Pop. It would never have succeeded at the time, but the album is so groundbreaking and essential to pop music, it would have to be recognized sooner or later. So it is so with Born This Way. The real question now is where GaGa will go from here. She'll have to face a scathing, skeptical public and after a daring feat like this, I'd imagine she's also tired and liable to wear herself out (especially if tabloid accounts of her life are to be believed). If she survives this critical phase and continues to develop the template here, she'll be one of the defining figures of this century. We just have to hope she doesn't burn out.