Catherine Elms finds Lady Gaga’s latest album something of a mixed bag, but remains optimistic about the stars ability to vary her sound and stay strong on sex and sexuality
Released in the UK on 23 May, a mere 18 months after her previous album The Fame Monster, Born this Way marks a step forward from Gaga’s previous work, with a darker and more complex approach to her music. Born This Way retains the catchy dance-pop feel of The Fame and The Fame Monster, but with elements of more diverse musical genres and with much more melodrama and weirdness thrown in for good measure.
While her previous albums bordered on sounding samey, Born this Way has managed to include a greater diversity of sound, from ’80s pop rock in Electric Chapel, to German nightclub in Scheiße, to Latin-tinged dance song Americano, to country ballad in You and I. Her latest single The Edge of Glory provides an excellent climax to the album with its heavy electronica beats and fist-pumping melodies. There are plenty of weird moments too – a particular favourite of mine is Government Hooker, with its ethereal operatic opening making way for an assaultive industrial anthem (though my enjoyment of this song is marred by the fact that she chooses to sing trite lyrics such as “put your hands on me, John F Kennedy” rather than attempt to make any sort of political message).
Despite these diverse influences, most songs seem to be constrained by attempts to bring them back to chart-friendly dance floor pop without being given the freedom to stray too far into other genres. The result of this is that many songs feel too similar and it can be difficult to distinguish between them at times. The album can’t avoid dragging in places, largely due to its overbearingly long seventeen-song track list (even the non-deluxe version weighs in at fourteen songs, longer than most pop albums). Most songs are around four and a half minutes long, so despite being catchy they tend to outstay their welcome, leaving you reaching for the “skip” button at around the three minute mark.
Some songs feel like poor imitations of the singles (e.g. The Queen feels like a weak version of The Edge of Glory) and a distinct lack of slow songs makes the album feel very frantic and almost tiring to listen to – with each song too heavily infused with heavy dance beats and a thumping bassline, I found myself longing for a piano-laden balled similar to her 2009 hit Speechless. Sadly, the closest Gaga gets is You and I which, although featuring a piano as its main instrument, is still far too action-packed to be regarded as a well-needed rest for your ears. There’s far too much cheese going on too, with the saxophones used throughout the album sounding very out of place.
In terms of its thematic material, I particularly like the variety Gaga sings about, all of which may be loosely labelled as “empowerment” or the freedom to be yourself and rise above the mundane. The first single from this album, Born this Way, is a clear example of her message of self-actualisation and call-to-arms for all the outsiders in the world to rejoice in the way they were born (“don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you’re set”). There is, however, an issue with some racist lyrics in that song where she refers to people as “black, white or beige, chola or orient-made” that makes it difficult to fully appreciate it as the empowering anthem she intended it to be. (Marissa at Feministing did an excellent write-up of this issue which you can read here.
Hair is a fun pop-anthem on being a teenager whose identity is closely linked to her hair (“I’m the spirit of my hair, it’s all the glory that I bear”) and rebelling against her parents’ restrictions. Fashion of his Love is a sweet tribute to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen whom Gaga was close to and has a cheesy ’80s feel and elements of Whitney Houston in the vocal parts. We hear Gaga sing about being a rebellious teen in Bad Kids, where she cheerfully refers to herself as a “jerk” and a “nerd”. As well as the empowering message, there are also glimpses of a softer side to Gaga. Despite its deadpan cod-German chant intro (something that I found disappointing – why not real German?), we hear an element of vulnerability in Scheiße, where Gaga sings about her longing to be a stronger woman.
Bloody Mary is the lyrical highlight of the album, a song which explores Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus and the duality of being a religious icon and a real feeling woman (“when you’re gone I’ll tell them my religion’s you”). Some strange lyrics abound – she calls Pontius “Punktius” for some reason – and the title doesn’t quite work due to its associations with Mary Tudor, but it’s nonetheless an interesting concept.
One great thing about this album is how open Gaga is about sex and sexuality, something that is not always dealt with in mainstream pop music. In Americano, she sings about her female latino lover and their struggle to be together due to immigration laws and we hear about the dirty details of her affair with her ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ (“I want your whisky mouth all over my blonde south”). It’s interesting to note that in such a sexually explicit song, it surprises the listener with more than a hint of sweetness – the line “I could be your girl, but would you love me if I ruled the world?” is sung in an almost pleading voice.
It must be said that despite her attempts to do something different lyrically, Born this Way lacks the subtlety to really execute this task successfully. Each song’s theme is hammered home too much, Gaga’s use of religious imagery is very heavy-handed and her random employment of Spanish and French in her songs seems pointless and a little conceited. You also can’t ignore the fact that most of her lyrics are, well, a bit naff really (“love is like a brick – you can build a house or sink a dead body”). However, there remains a lot to be admired here. Aside from the terrible cover, it’s a well-crafted pop album, showing great artistic ambition. Gaga’s songs are rambling dance floor anthems, which tend to take themselves a little too seriously in places and are at times marred by their tendency to stick to cheesy dance-pop; nonetheless, it’s a bold effort from a musician who dares to be a little different.