Review Summary: Rewriting the rules of the pop game... by getting back at everything that defines it.
Think about pop music. What’s on the top of your mind? If you’re past your thirties, maybe it’s Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or orange-haired Cyndi Lauper and her album She’s So Unusual. Grew up on the 90s? I can bet my wage your mind went straight to Lolita-like Britney Spears in “Baby One More Time”, or maybe through Madonna’s psychedelic/serious-popstar phase and albums Music and American Life. Truth be told, pop music was already around before the 80s, but that’s a matter to the ones willing to discuss how The Beatles virtually created the concept of modern celebrity, or how David Bowie was the first real pop artist of our era. One way or another, since it came to life, pop music became a label to define whatever escaped any of the other labels. On one desperate attempt to forge a strict definition to pop music, Kylie’s Fever gave us a comfortable notion: whenever a song is depending on studio tricks, almost everything electronic, is pop! Well, I’m here, and Lady Gaga also is, to tell you it’s not that simple.
Ok, let’s not be hypocritical. Born This Way, as an album, surfs a lot on the wave of electronic beats and synth-lines brought back to life by the Australian singer. But synthesizers are not, and actually never were, the heart and soul of Gaga’s music. Even when The Fame emerged, pure European-dance decadence as it was, and infected the whole word with incredible choruses and a rocker-attitude injected into a pop-dance record, it was not “about sex and champagne”, as Gaga herself sings on “Electric Chapel”. Song quoted, let’s talk about it. It can be surprising for some to hear a Lady Gaga song pulling off a heavy-metal-influenced guitar riff, and soon dropping the omnipresent “sledgehammer” beats that everyone is talking about. Add resonating church bells + grand-piano and you have the first of many successful alchemy experiments Gaga pulls off all through Born This Way.
And that’s actually a return to what pop music really means. Another great example is “Americano”, a song in which a cleverly polyglot Lady Gaga starts to emerge. Verses in English and Spanish are escorted by an epic battle between techno-like beats and a complete mariachi band. And that’s what I’m talking about. It’s on that kind of procedure that lays the real pop artist: emerging completely into one style or genre without really fitting into it, keeping an open mind to anything that could be incorporated to the song. Lyrically, “Americano” is also a great way to see how Gaga carried out Born This Way. Partly another tribute to her little monsters (“I have fought for/ I will fight for/ How I love you”), partly a getaway from celebrity-stalking (“Don’t you try to catch me”), the track let us see that this sophomore effort features a more opened-up Gaga, but also, simultaneously, a more self-protected one. Above anything else, anyway, one more honest with her own personality.
And that includes her own mistakes. Misunderstood as it was, “Judas” stands out even not being, musically, the most exciting track of the album. Truth is this song is everything you could expect from a Gaga/RedOne record, and maybe that’s why it was so heavily compared to “Bad Romance”, the most successful cut of the partnership. Anyway, even with both minds working furiously on the track, “Judas” is nowhere near surprising, and wouldn’t be a good choice for a single if it weren’t for its lyrics. The breakdown built with explicit dubstep references has Gaga delivering her most challenging and personal verses, and right after she proudly declares Judas is the demon she clings to (meaning: “which one of you can throw me a stone for that?”). Of course the video made it all clearer, but that’s the way it works with pop art.
Second cut on heavy religious symbolism is even more impressive, if that’s even possible. “Bloody Mary” has what could be the stronger and most primal message Gaga has ever tried to deliver. She recurs in the role of Mary Magdalene, and drops a catchy, brave chorus with the final verses “when you’re gone I’ll still be Bloody Mary”. It’s the solid affirmative of an artist being true to herself, and everything is so charmingly sang with the sedated vocals that feature in her repertoire since “So Happy I Could Die” you can’t even question her sincerity. Maybe that’s Born This Way’s biggest quality: all 14 tracks sound like they’re marked with a real artist’s fingerprints. An artist that truly, shamelessly and bravely puts her all into her music. Musically speaking, “Bloody Mary” is one of the downtempo preciosities Gaga spreads through the album.
Close to that hypnotic feeling, “Heavy Metal Lover” is, ironically, the purest pop track in the whole album. And it’s a production triumph with a beautifully written chorus that showcases Gaga’s excellence as a melodic composer. Criticized since the beginning of the album’s production, the truth is Fernando Garibay’s involvement with her music can do good for the singer’s career as an artist and as a popstar. “Heavy Metal Lover” is nothing new lyrically, but it’s that kind of pop pastiche that easily becomes a guilty pleasure. Thanks God for that, by the way, ‘cause it follows the only truly bad song in the whole album: “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)”. I tried not to use this expression, but that’s clearly a track that crosses all the lines. Yeah, crossing lines it’s Gaga’s music own purpose, but this one is simply too much information and too less involvement. Even when it’s noted that Gaga plays with the brink of pop precipice all through Born This Way.
Even better said, she jumps of that precipice fearlessly, facing consequences and, in some brilliant way, making almost everything work on the way down. “Bad Kids” is a foolishness that sounds a bit like “Summerboy” from The Fame, but it carries such a moving message for her fans it just stands above any criticism. “Government Hooker” opens up with Gaga doing some kind of opera-like auto-parody, speaking Italian, just so it can roll as one of the most creative beats of the whole album. Lyrics are about being what her audience wants her to be, establishing again, as Gaga always have, a love-hate relationship with the concept of contemporary celebrity. One way or another, “Government Hooker” is here, as the whole album actually, to give us a temporary understand of a personality that could never be truly decrypted.
All because, absurd as it may sound, Gaga is the most human popstar of our time, and she is so for only one reason: we’ll never know for sure who she fully is. Just as much as we will never know ourselves completely, or even who’s around us. Everything too comprehensible, to comfortable, sounds fake. And if you guys allow me a very personal insight, that’s something that really bothers me. With all her wigs and love for the absurd, Gaga’s still capable to deliver a beautiful as hell ballad, glam-rock and country-influenced “Yoü And I”. She can also please us with two liberation tracks, even if none of them are musically ideal: “Born This Way” and specially “Hair”, with its sweet piano line and anthemic chorus.
And, finally, she leaves us on the “Edge of Glory”. What glory, you may ask me, there may be in cheesy saxophone solos and being hated by half of the world? The glory of being true to herself and to whoever listens to her. The glory of not merely playing music, but being music. And if that bothers you, well, just wear an ear condom next time.