Lady Gaga
Born This Way


2.5
average

Review

by Nick Butler EMERITUS
May 26th, 2011 | 61 replies | 15,467 views


Release Date: 2011 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Her newly patronizing, try-hard tone could have drastic implications for both her and pop as a whole.

A hell of a lot of bile has been aimed at Born This Way already, and at Gaga herself in the build-up to its release - yet, you have to wonder whether any of the people attacking it or her so fervently were fans in the first place, or have even been listening to pop in the past few years. Crap lyrics? Her last album was hardly Tom Waits. Style over substance? Her style IS her substance and always was. Prententious? Yup, because the video for "Paparazzi" was humble and unassuming. Awful album cover? God yes, but who cares? Let's not kid ourselves - Born This Way is an album we should definitely be criticizing, but don't cloud the issue by setting up straw men to knock down. It gives you plenty of targets on its own.

The big problem Gaga has here, and the one that defines this album, is that she's started to believe her own bullshit. When she first appeared on the scene, her major appeal (besides her fantastic singles) was that she was a trickster, the kind of person who would poke someone with a stick just to see what would happen. Everything about her, from her fashion sense to her videos to her thinly-vieled lyrics about anal sex and date rape and lesbianism, was designed to get her as much attention as possible, but she was using that attention for her own amusement - it was never about an ego trip (or at least, it never felt that way). And we were happy to give her that attention, because she was interesting. After a decade or more of pretty, innocent, bland, inoffensive pop stars, here was an awkward-looking (though not unattractive) woman with a filthy smile and a filthy mind, wearing whatever was hanging outside the butcher's that morning. As a personality, she was closer to Alison Goldfrapp than Christina Aguilera - and brilliantly, her music was as quirky and beguiling as her public persona. If you appreciate pop music, how can you not love that?

Yet the attention she got for it turned her into a hero. Suddenly, she became the #1 poster child for every kid that had never been able to really identify with Britney - for everyone that wasn't conventially, film-star attractive, for everyone that wanted some personality with their pop, for every outsider that wished they could be as provocative and daring around the haters. When Gaga didn't know she had that kind of appeal, that was fine; it was organic, it was natural, and that means it meant something. She sure as hell knows it now though, and in her self-conscious effort to appoint herself Queen of the Losers she's crafted an album that whiffs of succumbing to your own bullshit as badly as Kanye's 808s and Heartbreaks and Xenomania's Tangled Up.

The main offender is the title track, which was bafflingly chosen as the first single. Do all the gay people in the world really need a single spokesperson? Should that spokesperson be a young, white, multi-millionaire pop star? Should that spokesperson still be acting as if all gay people are outsiders in the 21st century, when most of them live normal lives surrounded by straight people that just don't give a fuck? And if that spokesperson is going to write a song about being gay, should it have a beat that could barely buy into most straight people's stereotypes of gay clubs any more? These are all rhetorical questions, and if you don't know the answer to any of them, congratulations - you're Lady Gaga's target audience. "Born This Way" is beyond patronizing, it's an insult; it's Katy Perry's "Firework" taken to a horrifying extreme. The fact that it's a rip-off of Madonna's "Express Yourself" is the least offensive thing about it, but it's also indicative of how much more attention she's paying to her image and her status than her music these days. That one is the daddy of a few tracks here - "Hair", "Bad Kids", "Americano", "Black Jesus", all of them poor - where she unceremoniously appoints herself leader of the disaffected. It's jarring and saddening, as is "Government Hooker" to a lesser extent - it's a great Lady Gaga song that could have slotted into The Fame Monster's tracklisting with ease, but by sticking the word 'government' in the title for no apparent reason, she's revealing her desperate desire to have something important to say. That's not what people listen to a Lady Gaga record for, and it's not what she's good at.

It's not all bad news, of course. You suspect Lady Gaga, as intriguing as she is, is probably incapable of ever recording an album that doesn't have a few redeeming features, and Born This Way has its share. The excellent "Judas" is classic Gaga all the way, from the way it jars suddenly from its verse to its chorus to its bridge and back again, to the way it takes a simple, almost cliche idea (being attracted to somebody that's bad for you) and weaves in all sorts of unrelated strands until it becomes an epic. Arguably, she's never done that better than she does here. "Scheiße" is great fun, with its dodgy cod-German vocals, and synths that nail the sound of clubs in 2011 so squarely that you almost expect her to shout 'Riverside, motherfucker' at some point. "Marry the Night" is a flat-out great pop song too, unburdened by any statement-making or grandstanding, and one with a chorus that has the same 'where did she steal that from?' thrill that "Poker Face" did. (It took me three weeks to spot the Boney M sample in "Poker Face", and I'm already racing to beat that score with "Marry the Night".) And she acquits herself surprisingly well on the wave of rock tracks she lumps at the end of the album (the Queen-sampling "You & I" is somehow a success despite sounding exactly like Shania Twain; ditto "The Edge of Glory" with Katy Perry, which copies the sound of "Firework" rather than the sentiment). The soft-rock sax that crops up on a couple of the songs is a failure, but it's a noble and well-intentioned one, and that just about makes it forgiveable.

If you've read that last paragraph and thought to yourself that it can't possibly be that bad an album with all those things going for it, you're right. Born This Way isn't a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a hugely frustrating and disappointing one, for reasons that are bigger than just Lady Gaga.

The pop landscape in 2011 is as good as it's been in a long while. Throughout the '90s in particular, the outlook was bleak - the women that were selling records by the bucketload, the likes of Whitney Houston, Spice Girls, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion, were bland and emotionless, no more than vehicles for songs that could have been performed by anybody. Things have gradually changed over the past ten years, as acts with a modicum of personality - Christina Aguilera, Sugababes - started to appear. Nowadays, it's not bland and inoffensive that sells, it's quirky, because that's what people want and that's what the big hitters are investing in. Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J, Kate Nash, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, La Roux, Shakira - we live in a generation where your average female pop star looks odd and acts odder. Even the likes of Girls Aloud, Katy Perry, and The Saturdays - all blessed with the kind of good looks that would have seen them famous in any era - have got far more personality and drive in their music than their '90s equivalents, like Honeyz and Atomic Kitten. Established acts are getting in on the weirdness too; could you have envisaged Beyonce releasing a track like "Beautiful Nightmare", or Britney releasing one like "Til the World Ends", when they debuted?

Lady Gaga has been a driving force behind this, and is the apex of it. The woman is a megastar that could barely look and act less like a megastar and more like a fringe curiosity, somebody so awkward and so confrontational that it's a little unbelievable that she's such a huge icon to so many - and what scares me is that if she falls, the entire idea of weird pop stars will fall with her. We'll go back to a world of wall-to-wall syrupy ballads sung by people that look like they were drawn, not born - that's the world I grew up in and I'd rather not be sent back there. And yet for us to be saved from that, Gaga, and the artists like her, need to keep the public on their side, because the tide of opinion can swiftly change when somebody is working that close to the fringes, especially with a potential army of Cyruses and Biebers waiting in the wings. Born This Way leaves a bitter taste because of that - anybody listening to this, with no prior knowledge of Lady Gaga's work, wouldn't understand what all the fuss is about. They'd hear a record that's consistent enough in sound for the most part (Gaga is very much a subscriber to the 'don't bore us, get to the chorus' philosophy of pop, except it's more a case of 'don't bore us, get to the dirty beat'), and pretty damn enjoyable in parts, but they'd also probably think of it as just another pop record. Lady Gaga shouldn't be making 'just another pop record', and the fact that she has makes her less special, less magnetic a figure.

Yes, viewed on its own merits, Born This Way is a slightly above-average, if patronizing pop album that knows its own strengths and plays to them. Yet looking at the bigger picture, it's an album that could see Gaga toppled from her throne as the queen of pop. The world will be a more boring place if that happens, yet there are moments on here that makes me think it's probably an inevitability, and that leaves a bitter taste. Hopefully it's one that won't last well into the Bieber-dominated decade ahead.



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user ratings (609)
Chart.
2.5
average
other reviews of this album
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Comments:Add a Comment 
Electric City
Staff Reviewer
May 26th 2011



15732 Comments


nick butler does not give a fuck

also, how've you been here longer than i have and not figured out how to avoid the swear filter?

Altmer
May 26th 2011



5652 Comments


excellent review Mr Butler

Trebor.
Contributing Reviewer
May 26th 2011



50114 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0 | Sound Off

The swear filter can suck my ****

Digging: Tiny Moving Parts - Pleasant Living

Electric City
Staff Reviewer
May 26th 2011



15732 Comments


great review, though i wasn't a huge fan of the "context of pop" segment. I just don't think it's necessarily true. We still have plenty of oddball starlets, and Gaga doesn't need to thrive for the likes of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and more to survive

Trebor.
Contributing Reviewer
May 26th 2011



50114 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0 | Sound Off

Dude, pop is worse than ever.
Everything is electronic now.

Gyromania
May 26th 2011



15503 Comments


Holy shit, Altmer still posts on this site!?

conradtao
Emeritus
May 26th 2011



2090 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

"Dude, pop is worse than ever.
Everything is electronic now."

That's hardly a problem, in my opinion.

Great review. I wouldn't say that it's a stretch to argue that Gaga's had a huge influence on pop, and is therefore important for it - certainly she's one of the first people to make music videos really interesting to the mainstream for a long time.

Iai
Emeritus
May 26th 2011



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

great review, though i wasn't a huge fan of the "context of pop" segment. I just don't think it's necessarily true. We still have plenty of oddball starlets, and Gaga doesn't need to thrive for the likes of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and more to survive

I disagree - if the public turns on the idea of somebody like Lady Gaga being a star, it'll be the tipping point for weirdness in pop. Rihanna and Beyonce will revert to being normal, Nicki Minaj will probably just fade away (she's not really established yet, especially worldwide), and any new acts won't get major label backing in the first place. It'll be like people turning on Simply Red and Wet Wet Wet and paving the way for Britpop, or on Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer and paving the way for 2Pac and Biggie (except on this occasion things will get worse).

Iai
Emeritus
May 26th 2011



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Also I managed to catch every s-word in the review and miss that one f-bomb. Gutted.

AtavanHalen
May 26th 2011



17927 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Dude, pop is worse than ever.
Everything is electronic now.


The President's a Demmycrat!

Also, spectacular review. One of the best reviews on here in a very, very, very long time.

AtavanHalen
May 26th 2011



17927 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

One thing, though.

could you have envisaged Beyonce releasing a track like "Beautiful Nightmare"


I think ya mean Sweet Dreams bro

klap
Staff Reviewer
May 26th 2011



10328 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

the first paragraph summarizes my feelings on gaga pretty perfectly

Digging: Literature - Chorus

sonicExplorer
May 26th 2011



26 Comments


despite my hate for pop music, I liked some of Gaga's stuff on The Fame-
not so much here, it all sounds the same. You and I sounds like Lady Gaga recorded over the vocals to a Taylor Swift song.

Jom
Staff Reviewer
May 26th 2011



2669 Comments


This review does a rock-solid job of juxtaposing contemporary history with a review of the album. I've read too many reviews via Metacritic (not on here, mind) that go off on how bizarre she is but maybe mention one or two standout tracks on the record. Superb as always.

also, how've you been here longer than i have and not figured out how to avoid the swear filter?


Probably a creature of habit sort of thing, considering that's how we had to do it in the forums before this entire entity was launched. No pun intended.

Butkuiss
May 26th 2011



4159 Comments


As always, another great Nick review.

"Holy shit, Altmer still posts on this site!?" [2]. So hard.

Fugue
May 26th 2011



7352 Comments


I've yet to hear the full album but I think Judas has won me over. Massive grower.

taylormemer
May 26th 2011



4917 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Could not agreee more with everything you said Nick. Probably the first review I have read where I agree with every single aspect, well done!

Born this Way did grow on me a little, but it took a rediculous amount of hearing it while my gf channel surfed on the way to work/uni every morning, where as The Fame was incredible beacue the first time I heard it, it resonated like nothing else from that decade (ha I feel old). Judas is good too, but that's about it unfortunately.

Too right about her self-awareness being responsible for the album's destruction.

PistolPete
May 26th 2011



3591 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5 | Sound Off

uggh every lady gaga review is so long, we're such Pitchfork wanna-bes. Despite that though, excellent review, I agree as much as I hate what Gaga did here, without her I would have nothing to say about pop music.

Wasn't "Black Jesus" a bonus track on the deluxe edition? I honestly thought that was one of her best songs yet. But when I heard it wasn't on the actual album, it further convinced me to give a 1.5/5 just because all that's left that's good is "Judas" and maayyyybbbe "Marry the Night".

Digging: Jolly - The Audio Guide to Happiness (Part 2)

GodL1ke
May 27th 2011



804 Comments


this is the beginning of the end for GaGa

insomniac15
Staff Reviewer
May 27th 2011



3371 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

when she says I'm gonna marry the night, it sounds like Jennifer Lopez' waiting for tonight. at least that's how i hear it. anyway amazingly true review



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