So this is it. An album that has arrived in a chaotic whirlwind of over-digested, over-wrought, over-thought opinions. Every note, lyric, dance move, visual presentation pored over, to be subjected to such intense scrutiny it became farcical. ‘The album cover is terrible!” (Hee-Hee!). ”The lead single is silly’ (Ho! Ho!). “She can’t dance!” (Arf! Arf!). And the inevitable “she’s tiresome now.” All this criticism before the whole album had even been heard.
We have truly entered the post-Lady Gaga realm but it is hard to remember the days before, the days of the boring old sexed-up blow-up dolls paraded around, bending over to dole out empty fantasies to Dads and teenage boys, exhorting the message that male approval is the only valid approval, being attractive at all times is what counts.The era of the Pussycat Dolls, pole dancing as a sport, the man-titillating faux-lesbian phase of kissing a girl and liking it and poor Britney, all sexed out, used up at 27, bald and on a bender.
Yes, we know it’s all been done before; yes, the cultural savvy can spot every signifier from Madonna, Isabella Blow to Grace Jones, Bowie and Warhol, but what Gaga has done for this generation is to halt the pop world’s unimaginative descent into full porn. By using her puzzle-piece looks, her extravagant, provocative dress, her overblown videos and most importantly lyrics that mostly emphasise the desire for young girls (and boys) to be free, to dance, be wild, liberated and, happily, she eschews the relationship-heavy norms of ‘I want you back’, ‘I’m so sexy’ variety that saturated commercial radio. She managed to reclaim pop from the pornographers, the bland, the brain dead and the bogus and reignited debate in an increasingly lifeless genre.
As welcome as that change was, it has now become a rod to beat her with. Since her transformative success and pop culture domination, all talk has turned to what is Gaga really saying? What does she ultimately stand for? When the lead single ‘Born This Way’ was unleashed with its froth and almost cloying sweetness it was always going to lose the hard-fought battle. Audiences expected so much from the post ‘Bad Romance’ Gaga that the song struggled under this weight and, coupled with its divisive lyrics about sexuality, she managed to offend some of her most hardened supporters in the LGTB community, feeling this supposed ‘anthem’ was thrust upon them rather than being chosen by their own volition.
So this is it. This is the changed landscape of the album’s release. A woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Tired already? Amongst this furor its easy to forget that above all else Gaga is a pop star, a giant, sparkly pop star who has horns growing out of her head and half a motorbike as her behind. Pop is the absurd and its albums are made for dancing. After dispensing with opener ‘Marry The Night’ (an odd Dr. Alban homage with lyrics about managing to puncture furniture whilst dancing), it’s obvious that Born This Way will not take itself as seriously as expected. It’s essentially a Europop delight, the Ace of Base production of ‘Alejandro’ a precursor to its soaring sound. The controversial ‘Born This Way’ sounds more at home in this context, although it’s still ‘Express Yourself’ with knobs on but also a cranked up C&C Music Factory powerhouse with a naive, open-hearted core that is too fluffy to truly offend.
It’s all business and function until the bloodied fist that is ‘Government Hooker’ smacks you round the chops. This is what ‘Bad Romance’ does to a girl – it makes them dark, bleak and savage. A thumping, boiling mess of beats that will give the paranoid Mk-Ultra freaks nightmares. As she drops the line “Put your hands on me, John F Kennedy” to a blitzkrieg of Crystal Castles-style synths and cackles, this is the tune that makes the album come alive in true Frankenstein’s monster style.
From then on in it develops a curious game of giving you what you expected but then blowing it to pieces. Case in point: the typical pop album standard, the Latin flavoured number- ‘Americano’, with its musical-style opening and camped-up cha-cha-cha follows the script with oomph and verve, but then splits itself open with three head-spinning hooks that erupt in such force that it leaves you helpless to its charms in spite of yourself, like all great pop songs should. Sadly, the bizarre ‘Hair’ does not. It’s a skippable ode to individualism through the metaphor of hair, it should have remained on the barber shop floor. Much better is the Marlene Dietrich burn of ‘Schiebe’ – three delectable minutes of Gaga howling in indecipherable German against an ear-bursting back beat that will set several dancefloors alight in the coming months.
The album falls in two parts – much like her audience of entranced, obsessed children and hardened, grown-up pop lovers. Born This Way falls over itself to appeal to both as Gaga’s voice ranges from the tough and low whiskey spit to the high and soft angelic tones, and songs as varied as the pitchy dark noise of ‘Heavy Mental Lover’ rub up against the gentle whimsical and embarrassingly titled ‘Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)’. When she gets it completely right and manages to unselfconsciously mix the two, it is truly sublime. The irrepressible ‘Bad Kids’ is pure, unadulterated pop bliss, a monotone, staccato verse that gurgles about being ‘a jerk, a brat, a selfish punk who should be smacked’ and then slips into the dizzy heights of the giant never ending, life affirming chorus that Madonna used to bash out back in the cone-bra days.
Born This Way is the battle of wills between the spirited Gaga who just wants to dance, fight and drink and the newly-formed Mother Monster who wishes to impart wisdom to the masses. It’s an odd mix that has its myriad of highs and horrendous lows; like a silent fart, the hillbilly Shania Twain embarrassment that is ‘Electric Chapel’ will haunt her forever. It is Gaga attempting to be all things to all people, a hybrid of Glinda the Good Witch and Frank N.Furter. This schizophrenic pattern will continue until she has the confidence to follow just one path or meld the two more effectively, but for now consider Born This Way the first brave steps into the future.