Lady Gaga: Born This Way (Album Review)

On Saturday night, Lady Gaga sat spread eagle atop a delivery table on the stage of Saturday Night Live, belting out “Born This Way” while grasping her very pregnant prosthetic belly before flooding the delivery table with goo and glitter.

“My water just broke,” the 25-year-old superstar tweeted late on Sunday night. And today, on May 23, Born This Way, Gaga’s second studio album, was born to the world.

First things first: To fully understand the exhaustive Born This Way campaign is the equivalent of earning a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing.

The hysteria began to build early in November of 2010, when Lady Gaga proclaimed to a crowd in Norway that Born This Way would be “the greatest album in a decade.”

Gaga’s celebrity friends soon began sharing their own excitement with the world. “The songs, the album, the videos are gonna change culture. It’s gonna save lives, and it’s gonna get people dancing,” proclaimed loudmouth celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, while Elton John referenced “Born This Way” as “the anthem that’s going to obliterate ‘I Will Survive’.”

The sheer hype became so inflated to quickly that “the album of a generation” was quickly demoted to a term of mockery for Born This Way, damning the album before it even existed.

Word-of-mouth aside, the Born This Way era has resulted in the greatest marketing push in over a decade–or perhaps ever. Promotional posters have been splashed and glued across billboards, subways–even entire buildings.

The album is also defying traditional CD distribution, with over 2 million copies reportedly pressed and sent out to retailers, including ‘non-traditional outlets’ including coffee shops, pharmacies and clothing stores (as well as a brief one-day opening sale at AmazonMP3, in which the entire album is available for just $0.99.)

Tie-ins continue to pour in from major name sponsorships including Polaroid, Gilt Group and Belvedere Vodka (all sponsoring the nationwide album launch club party, the Born This Way Haus Party) and Zynga–resulting in the creation of GagaVille–a Gaga-themed Farmville expansion that caused an explosion of diamonds, motorcycle-riding sheep and purple-maned ponies to run amok on Facebook feeds nationwide.

Without even beginning to address the HBO special (“The Monster Ball Live”), a high-profile appearance on American Idol and a mind-numbing amount of magazine covers and live performances over the month of May, it’s no exaggeration to conclude simply that Lady Gaga has effectively taken over the world.

Yet almost none of this, of course, speaks to the most important part of the album: The music.

Packed with 14 hard-hitting dark club cuts and joyous empowerment anthems inspired by the arena rock of the 1970’s, the twinkling synth-pop of the ’80’s, the pulsations of early ’90’s House and the bubbling-under social turmoil at the root of ballroom/vogue, Born This Way is a hodgepodge of musical influences and attitudes.

While comparisons are already a tired thing in the short history of the Gaga, there’s simply no escape in doing so while listening to Born This Way, a concoction that leaves the recipe book lying wide open on the counter: Whitney Houston makes a joyous appearance on the album opener, “Marry The Night.” “The Edge of Glory” is the arena anthem Bruce Springsteen meant to write, and “You & I” is the 4 A.M. last call piano bar ballad Elton John forgot to lay to record. Kylie Minogue briefly dances across “Electric Chapel,” David Bowie‘s space-pop invades “Bloody Mary,” and of course, Madonna is tucked away between the seams at every opportunity–from the spoken word of “Scheiße” to the all-too-close-for-comfort “Express Yourself” misfire, “Born This Way.”

And yet, Born This Way is still (mostly) its own beast. Take “Americano,” an erratic, thoroughly Gaga-ian moment that plays like a marching band of mariachi players bursting into a gay bar where a production of West Side Story is already underway.

Sonically speaking, Born This Way is leaps and bounds ahead of its tinny 2008 predecessor, The Fame. Booming, sledge-hammering beats pump into the speakers at all times, besting the iPod-ready GarageBand quality of Space Cowboy‘s limited mixing skills.

Song construction has also evolved for Gaga: The verse-chorus, verse-chorus fluidity of Gaga’s perfectly symmetric pop confections from the past three years aren’t always as apparent on Born This Way. Take “Government Hooker,” an unhinged collection of operatic nonsense, hellish yelps and taunting giggle fits.

But just as Gaga’s own self-created myth is so often riddled with hypocrisies, so too is the album.

“If you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission,” Gaga proclaims during “Scheiße,” a runway-styled female empowerment anthem. And yet, the strength remains inconsistent. “I’ll be your anything, I’ll be your everything / Just touch me, baby!” Gaga pleads above the militant dance floor stomp of “Government Hooker,” offering to wash her man’s feet with her own hair minutes later during the album’s ode to codependency, “Judas.” The empowered woman/“I’m not a feminist” hero/victim conflict is a deeply rooted issue in the Gaga complex–something that still hasn’t quite sorted itself out in her music.

There’s also the sheer hypocrisy of “Hair,” in which Gaga breathlessly espouses the notion of hair as identity: “I don’t wanna change, and I don’t wanna be ashamed / I’m the spirit of my Hair, it’s all the glory that I bare,” a sentiment which would be slightly more effective had the entertainer not been wearing brightly colored, gravity-defying synthetic wigs and extensions for the past three years of her life.

And if consistency isn’t always the issue with the lyricism of Born This Way, it’s the ham-fisted attempts to bring higher meaning with its embarrassingly literal lyrics about freedom and freakdom.

Much like Gaga’s live performances or fashion sense, there’s no subtlety whatsoever in what Gaga’s singing about: From “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life” (“Born This Way”) to “I’m a nerd / I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd / I’m so bad and I don’t give a damn, I love it when you’re mad” (“Bad Kids”) Gaga’s obvious attempts to connect with (or, if we’re being cynical, cash in on) the disenfranchised are about as obvious as a self-help pamphlet lying in a doctor’s office. There’s simply no nuance.

Still, not all of the anthems are mired in their own righteousness: “The Edge of Glory,” the album’s closing moment, doubles as one of the album’s strongest offerings. The tribute to Gaga’s grandfather is a glorious Springsteen-ian triumph, including a soaring chorus (“I’m on the edge of glory, And I’m hanging on a moment of truth / Out on the edge of glory, And I’m hanging on a moment with you!”) and a gleefully unexpected saxophone break by the legendary E Street Band player, Clarence Clemons. (That the song managed to instantly debut at #1 in 14 countries upon release to iTunes is a testament to the song’s quality.)

“Highway Unicorn (Road To Love),” a track which truly had everything working against it from the title alone, happens to be one of the more effortlessly ‘cool’ songs on the record, both musically and lyrically. “Run, run with the top down / Baby, she flies…” Gaga snarls above the driving beat, pulsing like a motorcycle engine. “They don’t care if your papers or your love is the law / She’s a free soul, burning roads with the flag in her bra,” she later sings. It’s one of Gaga’s more convincingly bad-ass moments–which makes the song title all the more delightfully ridiculous.

But the moments that shine brightest on Born This Way are the ones where Gaga steps down from the pulpit and concentrates on crafting dark pop rather than ‘freeing’ the youth of America with her oft-inconsistent anthems.

As she’s shown in the past (“Dance In The Dark,” “Bad Romance”), Gaga shines brightest when she brings her darkest to the dance floor. “Scheiße” and “Government Hooker,” two of the album’s greatest highlights, rely on whispered coos and militant rhythms to weave their tales of lust and love. Both the ballroom/’90’s House beats of “Scheiße” and the industrial electro-beats of “Government Hooker” effectively toe the line between a low budget ’90’s German porn and a modern runway accompaniment. “I don’t speak German, but I can if you’d like,” Gaga nonsensically offers throughout “Scheiße.”

“Bloody Mary,” another major album moment, plays like a spacier, slightly more pretentious version of Gaga’s underrated Fame Monster haunt, “So Happy I Could Die.” “We are not just art for Michelangelo to carve/ He can’t rewrite the aggro of my furied heart,” Gaga weirdly warbles above the hellish merry-go-round beat before breaking into a blood curling shriek seconds later.

Elsewhere, Gaga takes Born This Way to new levels of pop-dom on cuts like the jagged “Electric Chapel” and “Heavy Metal Lover,” a deliciously unexpected moment (and personal favorite) filled with luscious, grinding synthesizers and filthy come-ons which plays like the X-rated sequel to Sophie Ellis-Bextor‘s “Lover.” “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south,” Gaga purrs as the song’s grinding beat churns along.

To enjoy Born This Way is to leave your expectations at the door of the electric chapel.

Gone are the days of the blonde hair bows and disco sticks; of love-sick pop-crack tunes and disco ditties. Gaga is hardened now. There’s an electro-rock edge chiseled into Born This Way. The songs are more aggressive and less accessible than anything she’s ever recorded.

Not to say, however, that the sound will be embraced by all of her fans: For an artist who debuted in a bubble dress and commanded us to “Just Dance” only three years ago, it’s not entirely surprising to find that the rock ‘n’ roll schmaltz of songs like “You and I” and “Hair” aren’t exactly going to bring all the Little Monsters to the (grave)yard.

But to surrender to Gaga’s whiskey-soaked, religious iconography-drenched paradise of ceaseless references to past musical legends is a rewarding experience when given the chance.

By the end of the album–despite all of its many lyrical shortcomings, the ballsy claims she’s spewed while promoting this record (‘Alexander McQueen wrote ‘Born This Way’ from Heaven!’), and most of all, the overwhelming HYPE–Gaga has managed to craft one of the stronger offerings of the year thus far.

So, is Born The Way the album of a generation? In terms of hype, perhaps, but in terms of quality? No. That distinction might be better awarded to another young crooner at the top of the charts this year with a far more timeless offering: Adele.

But in this moment, in this year, Gaga has crafted a gorgeously Avant Gaga-gone-mainstream record. Born This Way is a winning piece of work, endlessly jubilant and increasingly infectious, and one that ultimately proves convincing enough to allow a song called “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” to be played with stone-cold seriousness.

Born This Way was released on May 23. (iTunes)

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