The problem with mainstream pop music today is simple: it’s a business. Of course all art to a degree has a business aspect to it, but when art is no longer an equal part of the equation, then all you are left with is a hollow product made for consumption. So it should come as no surprise that most mainstream pop artists only go into the studio with the intent of creating a handful of smash hit singles, and phoning in the rest to fulfill the “album format.” What is surprising is why they even bother releasing full albums anymore. In the digital age of music it would be easy enough to just put out five-song releases that contain these hits. It probably goes without saying, but they can charge more if it’s a full album. Despite this, Lady Gaga, the biggest magnet for both praise and criticism, has tried something obvious: giving a damn about the full album format. While this is not a revolution by any means – it’s a refreshing move in the mainstream pop medium. So the question then is, is the album actually good?
Born This Way is an assault of theatrics and 80s throwback. It’s fun, it’s cheesy, it’s everything a mainstream pop album should be. Yes, Born This Way has those tailored hits meant to dominate the radio charts for months, but the interesting part of Born This Way is not the singles, but the songs that are usually reserved for filler on most mainstream pop albums. It’s really in these tracks that Gaga seems to be fulfilling her ambitions and love in music. The album goes from a track like “Bloody Mary” which has a subdued erotic sound that teases as it crawls along, to the sexually electric standout “Government Hooker,” in which Gaga fantasizes what women that have slept with the most powerful men in the world must have felt like. The track oozes S&M with its jarring industrial beat and new-wave stylized vocals. So often we are used to Gaga belting out anthemic choruses, but here she allows her vocals to take a back seat to the beat. Subtlety has never previously been in Gaga’s playbook, but here she does it extremely well. “Heavy Metal Lover” – the closest thing to an instrumental for Gaga – hypnotically drowns her vocals out in effects and waves of distortion. “Electric Chapel” sees Gaga fusing metal riffs with electronic beats – think Iron Maiden meets 80s pop. These kind of changes in sound are what make Born This Way so much more interesting than her debut The Fame – which for the most part, played it safe.
Thematically, Born This Way dances between fantasy and fiction and plays out like an autobiography; every track and moment weaved from the DNA and life of Gaga. “Hair,” the bratty pop anthem is a flashback to her teen years, and while the song might come off as being childish to some, the juvenile rebelliousness of it makes it playful. And perhaps this is integral to understanding Gaga. Similar to Michael Jackson and Kanye West, she very much still holds on to those childlike tendencies while balancing her life with both the reality and fantasy of being a world superstar. When the album isn’t delving directly into Gaga’s life, the tracks tend to be more fantasy in scope. From the re-telling of the story of Judas as a metaphor for bad relationships, to the use of other religious parables to get her points across – she does not shy away from religion. This might be a turn off for some, and maybe at a glance this can come across as being pretentious. But there is a reason for Gaga using so much religious imagery. “Born This Way” was very much an anthem that encouraged people to celebrate and be proud of their differences. Yet, in many ways religion (which is supposed to offer salvation, love and redemption) – can also be divisive and condemning. By taking these religious themes and riding them so close to sex, rebellion, and human inhibitions – it parallels the struggle of co-existence between the two. Of course the problem with this is that the deeper meanings she is trying to present, can sometimes be held back by the simplicity of her lyrics and the medium. Born This Way in many ways aims to be both thought provoking and fun, and at times it doesn’t entirely come to fruition.
If there was one major criticism to be had about Born This Way, it’s the production. While the electronic sound has served her well up to this point, it’s starting to become all too obvious that she is out growing it. Far too often the beats start to sound the same, and get reduced to just being background noise. If it wasn’t for her knack of writing infectious hooks and vocal melodies, some of these songs might have just been mediocre. Thankfully that isn’t so much an issue, as her persona and wild imagination is always there pick up the slack. But take for instance a song like “The Edge of Glory” – live it’s much more somber; written for her grandfather soon after his death, the song sounds like an uplifting ballad that could bring a stadium crashing down. In studio, it’s fun, but sounds more like a top 20 radio hit, which is its purpose, but I can’t help but yearn for a more organic sound from her, similar to “Speechless” from The Fame Monster. Something from the stripped-down versions is lost in the studio. Mutt Lange also takes what was originally a very bar rock sounding anthem out of “Yoü and I”, and dumbs it down by making it sound like a country pop song. Decisions like these are some of the things stopping Gaga from dropping a true masterpiece.
The irony in all the criticism thrown at Gaga in regards to being dishonest or fake is that she is perhaps the most honest mainstream pop star around today. Whether you are interested in the eccentricities of Gaga or not is one thing, but the outlandish things she sings about are a reflection of who she is. Or at least, the best way she knows how to express herself. It’s really no different than when say, Eminem uses twisted fiction of rape and murder to express his life. Similarly, Gaga uses religion, fantasy and theatrics to a paint a picture of who she really is. Because Born This Way is heavily centered around Gaga, how much you enjoy it, to a degree, is dependent on how much you find her interesting. While other mainstream pop artists continue to re-hash songs about things they probably don’t care about, Gaga completely invests every inch of herself into her work, for better or worse.
It’s really in the epic 80s-influenced anthem “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” that Gaga is summed up; while The Boss sang about riding his motorcycle as an escape from the suffocation of the city, Gaga tells the same story, but a little different and with more theatrics. And damn if it’s not one hell of a fun ride to take.