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 bullshi
t. 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 bullshi
t 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 fu
ck? 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, motherfu
cker' 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.