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Monday, May 30, 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way: C+

About a year ago, Joanna Newsom talked to The Guardian about her dislike of Lady Gaga. “I'm mystified by the laziness of people looking at how she presents herself, and somehow assuming that implies there's a high level of intelligence in the songwriting,” she said, later clarifying that Gaga was basically “Arty Spice” and that her music and the way people treat it made her long for the days of Cyndi Lauper. I was surprised by those words from a singer/songwriter that has seldom been so outspoken, but I remember being more surprised by what Ryan Dombal had to say about it after reporting on the story in a Pitchfork article:

Strong words. You could argue that Gaga's success in making people like M.I.A. and Joanna Newsom hopped up enough to consider the idea of art and talk out of turn in interviews basically fulfills her purpose. She's a provocateur, and it seems to be working.”

Proving Newsom’s point to an extent. Others may have dismissed Joanna Newsom’s criticisms for being jealous of Lady Gaga’s success and I would actually agree with that assessment. If you were writing twelve minute long multi-part suites in the form of intricately sequenced triple albums, how would you feel if it turned out all you had to do to be wildly commercially and critically successful was to strap on a meat dress and sing about disco sticks over tinny techno?

Lady Gaga’s at an envious point in her career where she could do whatever she liked and people would call it an artistic revelation. Now, I’m not saying reception to Gaga’s newest album, Born This Way, is like that, but I have a hunch that if she were to release an album of Auto-tuned belches, her fan base would find some way to dance to it and many a music critic would find reason to hail it as the next logical step in her crusade as America’s “provocateur”. Gaga’s at a place right now where it’s just convenient to join her bandwagon and dissent is stifled or debased to that cursed accusation of “jealousy”. Put simply, Lady Gaga is too big to fail.

Before I get into this review, I have one question to ask those reading this, whether they be Gaga fans or not: Do you honestly believe that people will remember Born This Way ten years from now? NOT Lady Gaga, Born This Way. Lady Gaga’s third album released on Interscope. Do you think that people will remember the music on this record in a decade: a tenth of a century? If your answer is in the affirmative or the negative, I urge you to read on. You can probably tell what my answer to that question is.

Let me begin by saying I don’t care about the themes of Born This Way. I don’t care about the obtuse sexual references, the gay pandering or the frequent references to a Black Jesus. You know why? Because Madonna did it almost thirty years ago. I know that it’s taboo to say Lady Gaga owes her entire career to Madonna, cliché even, but it’s absolutely true and needs to be acknowledged. There’s a reason why religious groups were barely frothing at the mouth when Gaga appeared in a latex nun outfit in her video for “Alejandro”, and that was because they thought they had pretty much stated their case about it. Thirty. Years. Ago. Listening to Lady Gaga and watching her videos, I can’t help but think that the Tipper Gores of the world have won, when we find what is controversial to be a slight upgrade from what was divisive decades ago. And Madonna didn’t need to write a whole album to be controversial. She just needed to make one video and that was it. She moved on.

And if you think that I’m somehow glorifying Madonna out of all this, I ask you to name Madonna’s third album. See, even I can’t name that shit.

The lyrics of Born This Way are an easy target for criticism, but I would rather not discuss them in this review. It should be a no brainer that lines like “Put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy” are nonsensical and, when taken seriously, sound even more ridiculous. Ed Comantale’s review of Born This Way for Tiny Mix Tapes does just that and is hilarious as a result, so I definitely recommend reading that if you want to get a full hazing of Gaga’s lyrical talent (although I’m still not completely sure if he’s joking in the piece, which makes it that much more entertaining). However, one could argue that the lyrical content of Born This Way should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, Lady Gaga never pretends that her lyrics mean anything substantive.

Oh wait except she does. All over Born This Way, there are STATEMENT songs that try to either empower or inflame, but they all come off as inert. Equating one’s freedom to one’s hair in “Hair”, while characteristically Gaga in its relation of the superficial to the profound, is a pretty lame way of instilling pride in one’s listeners. And in the unfortunate country experiment “Yoü and I”, Gaga sings in a faux twang, “There’s only three men that imma serve my whole life / It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.” While that line would make for an entertaining Christmas card, the mission statement is meaningless and yet sung with all the heartfelt relevance of a letter from Saint Paul to the Corinthians. I wouldn’t care so much about this if Gaga made a point of acknowledging how stupid her lyrics were. But throughout Born This Way, she positively refuses, forcing me to apologize for this unequivocal rubbish for her.

It also doesn’t help that the production of Born This Way is surprisingly cheap. I will concede that songs like “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro” were dumb fun because their hooks were so catchy, but it seems like Gaga made a conscious decision to put the production quality of Born This Way on the backburner so she could concentrate on her lyrics… but then forgot to write those as well. However fabulously Gaga fashions herself on Born This Way, the album’s beats are no better than that of Ke$ha, sloppy seconds from a Dr. Luke coke and hookers party. Famous Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange guests on “Yoü and I” but channels more Songs From the Sparkle Lounge than Pyromania. “Americano” and “Scheiße” try to distract from their lazy stereotypes of ethnic music by having Gaga speak in different languages, of which I don’t think anyone was asking more of after “Bad Romance”. Also, did I mention there are seventeen tracks on this thing? To say that Born This Way could have used some editing is a vast understatement.

However, there is a reason why I didn’t just slap an “F” on Born This Way and move on. There are some moments on the album that are fun for what they are. The first couple singles like the title track are tolerable and “Government Hooker” is enjoyable for its superfluous self-censorship and the funny voice of the guy who sings “Back up and turn around” in the song’s pre-chorus. Even though it’s a part-by-part rewrite of “Bad Romance”, “Judas” is a barnburner for the sheer lack of fucks it’s willing to give. The verses pummel your eardrums relentlessly while a skuzzy synth dirties up the mix into an amalgamation of what the Lady Gaga aesthetic utopia could be. Much later in the album, “The Queen” has the faint keyboard chord changes to make it a contender for a decent Olivia Newton John song. However, that track is the fifteenth on Born This Way. There are eleven other songs in between that and “Judas”. The interim is a long fucking slog.

It seems now that the music has become only a small fraction of the multimedia monster that is Lady Gaga. I asked whether you believe Born This Way will be remembered in ten years as opposed to Lady Gaga the artist, because I find it impossible to extricate the album from the person who made it, and that’s a huge problem. Even with the most unapologetically personal album of this decade to date, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West could tell stories that you wouldn’t need to be knee deep in his bullshit to relate to. This is not the case with Lady Gaga. If you think she is great for her advocacy of gay rights and her adventurous fashion sense, that’s fantastic and I will support your support of her, but to say that her music reflects these ambitions is disingenuous. Gaga has made a career out of rewriting the same five songs into full albums so she can concentrate on her image as an activist and a populist, and Born This Way is no different. However, I got news for you folks. That’s not a revolution, that’s the music industry at its ugliest.


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