Lady Gaga's Fame Ball Rolls On

Born This Way keeps the grand gestures coming

Lady Gaga's Fame Ball Rolls On

Fame has been demystified enough for us to know that the adage “Fake it till you make it” does not go far enough. As a culture, we watch celebrities with such scrutiny, we understand that making it isn’t even half the battle—keeping it is what separates the stars from the starlets. Lady Gaga’s fame is still teething, and her solution to this conundrum is paradoxically simplistic: make it, and then make more.

The oft-hurtled criticism that Gaga is all style and no substance is at least semantically wrongheaded, as it ignores the amount of content she perpetually churns out through music and videos and performances and performative interviews and performative speeches on Capitol Hill and Google Chrome commercials and SNL cameos and just showing up places wearing things. Whether that substance is, in fact, substantial is another thing, but the genius of her aesthetic is that it barely matters. Before you can finish contemplating the implications of her dictating a gay-rights anthem (as opposed to putting it out there and letting the people decide) with “Born This Way,” she sideswipes you with quasi-religious imagery suggesting she has some bubble gum stuck between more than a few pages of her Bible via “Judas.” If her piss-yellow hair doesn’t do it for you, give her a few minutes and she’ll come out looking like a skunk. Just when you get used to the idea of her playing her piano on a giant shoe, she’s Eltoning it up behind one that looks like a series of piled gift boxes and, oh, wait, no she’s not, she’s dancing to a furious club track with choreography that is practically signed in synch with her lyrics. As spectacles go, Lady Gaga works overtime. If ADHD culture didn’t exist, she would have induced it.

All of this makes her third album, Born This Way, a perfect expression of her process. Like Gaga herself, it is calculated to overload our systems. The most straightforward way it does this is by being louder than even the hellish volumes that today’s pop music routinely revels in; Gaga’s waveforms are not blocks, but bricks she hurls at your head. In the past, Gaga has settled on disco du jour as her defining sound, but here, there’s a conscious hybridization going on. (Call her Ms. Vitalic and slap a hair bow on her for old times’ sake.) Born’s hair-metal tendencies, for example, find Gaga taking on more abrasive textures via screeching guitars, grinding synths, and stomping drums. When these and other elements pulverize in unison, as they do during just about every chorus on the album, her sound becomes as impossible to process as her trajectory: Sometimes, it feels like the next logical progression for Gaga will be a record of white noise.

Pop sludge feels risky, and it’s always encouraging to watch a superstar dance on the edge of alienating her global audience. (“Judas” flopped mostly because it’s nearly impossible to parse out what the hell is going on.) But for as overblown as Born is clearly intended to be, it’s very difficult to love it for its nature—its gentler moments are more rewarding. None of her shock tactics hold a candle to the silence that follows the abrupt ending of the Van Halen–housey “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love).” When Gaga goes toe-to-toe with Italo-disco bass lines and not much else, like in the verses of “Bad Kids,” the vibration from the bouncing octaves feels almost soothing. A gentle string of sung oohs and hoos heroically snakes its way through the clank and hiss of highlight “Heavy Metal Lover,” giving way to Gaga intoning, “I could be your girl, girl, girl . . .” with a distracted delivery that empathizes with her listeners. There’s a flower-through-the-asphalt vibe and when prettiness makes it through the cacophony, her slingshot melodies (aimed, obviously, at the stars) feel that much more triumphant.

The we-shall-overcome sentiment is communicated most effectively by Born This Way’s egalitarian use of house beats. Assuming that Gaga understands the for-gays-by-gays origins of house music, her tacking 4/4 beats onto virtually every genre she dabbles in—power ballads, metal anthems, MOR pop, flamenco—symbolizes equality better than her sloganeering, which can sound trite (“Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure!”) and about as insightful as a Garbage Pail Kid card (“I’m a nerd: I chew gum and smoke in your face/I’m absurd”).

Also present on Born is what musicologist Charles Kronengold (as cited in Alice Echols’s tremendous disco tome Hot Stuff) calls the “arbitrariness” of disco’s instrumentation. Elements like rapping, guitar solos, and saxophones wind their way into where they shouldn’t belong; the song structures feel similarly slipshod, and her belting, clenching, bellowing, wailing, monotone, Germanic voice is all over the place. (Never let it be said that Gaga isn’t a phenomenal interpreter of her own work.) But whether that’s coincidence or a wise co-opting of genres is unclear.

In fact, Born This Way asks more questions about Gaga than it answers. Is her conflating of nature (see the title) with nurture (“I’m a bad kid like my mom and dad made me”) a statement on both elements’ inherent coexistence, or just her being inconsistent? Is a woman who once said, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men,” but is now calling herself (in Born highlight “Scheiße”) a “blond high-heeled feminist enlisting femmes for this” someone who we’re watching evolve or someone who, at any given point, doesn’t really know what she’s talking about? Is the Born album cover really a “testament to liberation through transformation,” as she recently told the Times, or is the juxtaposition of a half-Gaga, half-motorcycle beast and the words “Born This Way” a bit of visual irony? The unresolved nature of so much of Gaga’s content explosion makes Born This Way ultimately too much and not enough. In order to communicate in this time of media bombardment and retain her rock-star mystique, she probably couldn’t have it any other way.

 
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18 comments
Seanthrax
Seanthrax

Though there is a certain sense of arbitrariness in BTW, it is anything but white-noise. There are several layers in each song, which can be bit hard to decipher at first, but given a good set of headphones and a bit of patience it is easy to understand her design

Guest
Guest

Rich, stick to counter-culture and camp. You take everything else way too seriously and always miss the mark.

sobercool
sobercool

This mixed-negative review always fall flat into really reviewing the music. "Born This Way asks more questions about Gaga than it answers." That's because she's experimenting with her sound, had she came up with the same thing she would have been boring.

Seems to be some 'critics' were expecting a generic pop album and what they were given was a concrete piece of work that blend a lot of sounds and genres perfectly.

One has to wonder that even if Gaga was an Indie act she still wouldn't be understood. She's different and refreshing and this album may not the best of the decade (Gaga were you on crack?) but I surely hits right in the spot and it's brilliant.

Marlowescars
Marlowescars

I honestly don't think this is a bad record, or even a passable one. It's a good listen! I think the problem with Rich's article is that it tends to consider more factors outside the album than the album itself. Really, Rich? You don't think this is experimental? You didn't think the loud notes mattered as much as the soft ones? You don't think she is consistent, when she clearly is sound-wise and image-wise?

Guest
Guest

But the sound of that music though. What about that? I'm sorry it bounces between 'Euro-cheese' and outright country western. I'm sick of the 'disco and dancefloor' now because it's totally coopted by the same pathos as country and western.

Daniel F.
Daniel F.

i loved the part that states that the album is too much, yet not enough....i am a HUGE fan and like the album...but for all the different tricks and sounds this album uses, it feels like there aren't enough meaty/substance-y songs...that being said, it definitely has its fair share of gem (Heavy Metal Lover, Americano, Edge of Glory, Highway Unicorn, You and I)

Wilbur_W
Wilbur_W

She bores the piss outta me.

Chris Lowell
Chris Lowell

Gaga's music is just as disposable as the likes of Kesha, Katy Perry, etc. Have you read any of her lyrics? They are embarassing to be quite frank. Their only difference is that the other girls accept that ther music is just for fun, whereas Gaga pretends her music is some kind of pretentious "art".

pschase
pschase

I have to co sign with Pillbark. If homegirl could write one great song ( as opposed to a few alright ones ) I might find all the extra stuff more interesting. It's not always fair to compare artists, but think of the titans working in this area that came before her... I haven't heard anything that could sit next to Elton / Bowie / Grace Jones / Freddie Mercury or Madonna on the shelf. I think she gets over for the lack of anyone else currently doing the "freak" thing.

All that said, to each their own. Karen O has more of that umph...

DDB9000
DDB9000

Well, at least she has come clean about her entire body of work, which is indeed, Scheiße...

lisalisa
lisalisa

Hit the nail right on the head.

pillbark
pillbark

The problem with Gaga is that the musical quality just isn't there. Take away those incessant 4/4 beats (ubiquitous in ALL pop music right now -- Ke$ha, Katy Perry, etc.) and what do you have? Nothing... cheap, uninteresting musical garbage.

Gaga has risen to fame atop those thumping beats that are all over pop radio, and attempted to legitimize it with the standard issue, cheap antics by which artists try to make themselves "controversial," and thus significant -- outspoken political statements (Kanye), non-sensical religious imagery (Madonna), over-the-top style (OutKast).

None of this is new. It's just that Gaga has done all this from atop the pop charts already. Take Bjork for example, an artist in every way more artistically brilliant than Lady Gaga. 10 or so years ago Bjork wore the famous "swan dress" to the Oscars -- nowhere near the attention-grubbing flagrancy of Lady Gaga -- and was venomously panned by viewers as being "weird for the sake of weird," or just "trying to get attention." On the contrary, Bjork's career has been marked by all kinds of authentically artistic weirdness and style, exploration of new musical terrain, uniqueness of sound, reinvention with each release, that Gaga has neither the artistic ability nor courage to attempt. Bjork, for true artistic purposes, has had all the "controversial" aspects of Gaga throughout her career -- sex, politics, religion -- but for reasons of actual artistic expression than to just make noise.

The difference between Bjork and Gaga is that mainstream listeners don't "get" Bjork -- her artistry is above the heads of American pop culture. Gaga's music is all radio-pop, has all its characteristics, but she has learned that now that she's already on top, all of the intentional "weirdness", all of the controversy for the sake of controversy, just further dupes the gaga-eyed public (pun intended) into believing she is brilliant.

But under all the hooplah, all the noise, all the outfits and perfectly timed sexually-then-religiously-controversial lyrics, is just another pop artist hiding behind highly marketable, pounding beats. Nothing more. Smoke and mirrors.

CNU2PSU
CNU2PSU

I think this article raises a number of brilliant points, but I want to emphasize one continuity I've observed over the last 3 years since Lady Gaga's precipitous onslaught against the doldrums of the pop music establishment; everything she does is deliberate. This thoughtful commentary notes a lot of contradictions, a lot of prototypical Gaga "strangeness," and a lot of ... well ... it's a lot to take in. My first few listens of the album all the way through certainly seem to corroborate those points. Nevertheless, I feel as compelled to believe that everything is the way it is on purpose; every note, every word, every inflection of every syllable has a purpose in Gaga's universe -- whether or not she'll fill is in on the rest is entirely up to her. But that, I argue, is the beauty of true creative genius -- I'm content with not necessarily being let in on the whole edifice of "Born This Way," as long as I get to hang around for the crazy ride.

zanderlicious
zanderlicious

Your knowledge of music and pop culture generally intimidates me so I won't disagree on any of this. I'm just glad that you think "Heavy Metal Lover" and "Scheiße" are highlights, as they're my two favorite songs (along with "Bad Kids")> Shame only "Bad Kids" stands any chance of being a single.

rainer beauer
rainer beauer

Please do not compare Lady Gaga to Katy Perry or Kesha because truth be told Lady Gaga sings in her own voice and writes her own music and plays instruments Kesha & katy perry DO NOT they have everyone doing it for them [even if they like to credit themselves for everything] Katy & Kesha use the help of that evil piece of technology called AUTOTUNE which thankfully Gaga does not use on BORN THIS WAY!!!!!!!!!!! or any other record of Gaga's for that matter.......

jessehart
jessehart

Could not disagree more. This is coming from a lover of Bjork and gaga. Both for completely different reasons. GAGA is a remarkable artist just stop with all this "it's been done before, smoke and mirrors stuff". My theory is that she grew up on queen, the beatles, Grace jones, Andy, elton, madonna, michael, and everyone is still somehow surprised that she turned out this way??? It makes no sense. Every music group/ band is trying to recreate the same shit that was made 20 years ago... but all of the sudden it's gaga/ someone that is always in the public eye, and because of that everything that she does FADES in an instant. We put all this weight on top of her while on the other side of things you have someone like BRITNEY... and well I can't even go there. GAGA's power resides in her performance, and her ability to not make 30,000 people in a crowd bored as hell. You try performing every night 260 shows in 2 years never lip syncing and working your fucking ass off then we can talk about talent and smoke and mirrors. (No offense) HER rigor is staring us in the face, it's just that so many of us choose to ride the "OH, it's just another pop star making a piece of shit" boat. I don't fall for it. Her place in culture will never be a stable place... she will always float, and that's that. This all happened in three FUCKING years, it's insane, and as an artist myself there has not been one time during and interview of her's that I ever felt like she did not know what she was talking about. The way she speaks about the artistic process, and art/life is truly great. It's a shame that people don't listen.

Quote Rolling stone GAGA

"Perhaps it's been a couple of decades since there's been an artist that's been as vocal about culture, religion, human rights, politics," she continued. "I'm so passionate about what I do, every bass line, every [equalizer]."

"Why is it that you don't want more from the artist?" she wondered. "Why is it that you expect so little, so when I give and give, you assume it's narcissistic?"

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Quote Born this way REVIEW: NY Daily

But once Born This Way mellows a bit, you begin to see the complexities of having the most successful mind in pop and trusting whatever it spits out. For an album that comes on so grand and imposing, Born This Way is fascinatingly slapdash, like a great Brutalist building constructed from cocktail-napkin sketches instead of blueprints. The ideas topple over one another in excess; certain lyrics feel like raw first-draft blurts. There are a few moments where swimming in Gaga’s mind-vomit is exactly as pleasant as it sounds.

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Born this way Review:

But this is precisely how she’s conquered pop, isn’t it? With a jumbled, expulsive approach to creativity, in which ideas and passions are machine-gunned without apology, self-censorship, or fussing over coherence? In which the lessons of personal liberation are adopted as the keys to art-making and pop? It’s odd, though:

My favorite part of Born This Way doesn’t come when she’s rallying misfit fans or reveling in freedom. It’s in a song called “Scheisse” (German for merde) where she seems to be lamenting what women get when they try to wield power. It makes... me wish I could fast-forward to the point in her career where it’s no longer interesting to just declare, celebrate, and write triumphalist hymns about freedom—to when it’s time to think about what, specifically, to do with it. - New york mag

Jesse

jessehart
jessehart

Thank you for getting it. So many people don't... but if you can just let go and dive in she is giving so much for you to grasp onto. Her intimacy is very clear, and whoever doesn't hear that is looking for all the wrong things. BOTTOM LINE!

 
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