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.