It can be very difficult to see and appreciate Lady Gaga’s incredible musical talent beneath her many layers of eccentricity. A ‘fame-hooker’ in the truest sense of the term, she constantly strives to make these outrageous and extravagant fashion statements that polarize people’s opinions of her near-completely. This kind of behaviour usually leads the dismissive and uninterested types to just ignore her in perpetuity. What a shame, because when all the showboating is stripped away, it’s plain to see that Lady Gaga really knows her way around a tune. Learning piano from the age of 4, and years of experience from performing at cabaret clubs can do that to you.
It’s just that Lady Gaga to chooses to meld avant-garde performance art with her music; which for some, can be an off-putting and kitsch sideshow. With the creative Gaga juggernaut (officially known as the Haus Of Gaga) comprising of not just music, but clothing, props, stage sets, and makeup too, she is presenting a complete, saturated image to the public. With this in mind, I’ll try to focus on the musical aspects of her latest work, Born This Way, and dissect one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of the year.
Since the album’s title was revealed in September last year (as she accepted the Video of the Year at 2010 MTV Video Music Awards in that meat dress), the hype for Born This Way has been relentless. The title track’s lyrics alone (“I’m beautiful in my way/’Cause God makes no mistakes/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born this way”) were enough to garner widespread enthusiasm and praise for their positive, self-empowering attitude; the actual song only was released in February 2011, breaking sales and download records with ease.
Gaga had lofty thematic ambitions for this album, after exploring the effects of fame in her debut (The Fame), and fears in its subsequent EP (The Fame Monster). And while the song ‘Born This Way’ sums up the self-empowerment/finding one’s identity themes quite succinctly (although not subtly), the thread continues through much of the rest of the album. There’s also a restless sense of adventure that hearkens back to 70’s and 80’s American pop music, which borders on what modern ears would call cheesy. Think Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, and her idol she’s most compared to, Madonna. Musically, the album draws heavily from that synthesized era, and adds to it a 90’s sort-of equivalent in sleazy Eurodance/techno club bangers (the slow-burning bass-heavy kind). It’s a beautiful mess, yet still impeccably layered, fine-tuned and executed with an undeniable passion.
This potent cocktail of relentless heavy metal-pop-disco-rave-rock pillages its way through your ears, like a roaring muscle car or motor bike (and with that metaphor in mind, the hideous album cover now makes a bit of sense). The journey begins with ‘Marry The Night’, a song where her intentions are open, honest but vulnerable – a side of Gaga not usually seen so easily. Simple, relatable lyrics of seizing the day (or rather, the night) are paired with a smooth, driving club-beat. It’s a solid start, but it’s likely to be forgotten amongst the hubbub of the rest.
The smash-hit single title track arrives next with gusto. Enough has been said of this unashamedly upbeat anthem of self-empowerment, whose sledgehammer beats drive home the best message she’s put out in her career: “Whether life’s disabilities/Left you outcast, bullied, or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/Because baby, you were born this way”. I cannot stress the importance of those words enough, and how much they’ll mean to her fans, and to anyone else needing to hear something positive and uplifting like that in their lives. Who cares about the accusations of her ripping off Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’? The incredible social impact of a piece of music like this from an artist of her standing (10 million followers on Twitter and the most searched-for person in the world, according to Google) should be the focus.
Things take a turn for the slightly weird in ‘Government Hooker’, a thumping, dark and sexy call-and-response critique on metaphorical ‘prostitution’ in both government and the music industry. After an extended opera-style intro, the sleaze oozes out of every pore of the song, with a Dutch-accented man calling out instructions to her, and her repeated responses of “as long as I’m your hooker”. The line “Put your hands on me, John. F. Kennedy” is particularly biting, and draws allusions to Marilyn Monroe’s supposed affair with JFK.
Religion peers its head for the first time on the album in the mistakenly-controversial second single ‘Judas’. It stomps a lot harder than most tracks on Born This Way, and follows a lyrical path tread before in ‘LoveGame‘ and ‘Bad Romance‘ of being attracted to someone that is not good for her. It partly borrows the biblical metaphor of Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus Christ, and uses it as an analogy of betrayal and forgiveness, and how one should confront the darker problems in one’s life. Understandably, religious circles are up in arms about the use of the imagery, but Gaga has defended her decision, as well as her Christian beliefs, and this bold artistic statement, in my opinion, pays off pretty well. While not as good as the previous two mentioned, it’s still very catchy (in a love it-or-hate it sense) and brings forth some heated and varied discussions about its lyrical content.
‘Americano’ sees her tapping into some Latino influences on this mariachi-techno-house track, where she sings about half of it in Spanish (on this album, she sings in French, German and Italian as well; an amazing feat for an English-speaking performer, let alone a popstar). It’s a bizarre, feisty and smartly-written attack on both immigration and gay marriage laws, but in terms of accessibility, it seems like a poorer version of The Fame Monster‘s ‘Alejandro‘.
Like the title track, ‘Hair’ bursts with pride and positivity, using the metaphor of one’s hair as a symbol of freedom. On an interesting side-note: it’s the first of two appearances by the original saxophonist of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band (the other is album-closer ‘The Edge Of Glory’), and his input gives the already-zesty, singing-into-your-hairbrush sing-along a jazzy overdose. ‘Scheiße‘, on a different tone, is an industrial-tinged experiment in the German language (the title is the German word for ‘shit’) and alludes to feminism and strong females.
The second half of the album is my favourite. ‘Bloody Mary’ recalls the religious imagery in a more subdued and slinky style, this time using Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most celebrated disciples (who was also a former prostitute), as the focus. The musical arrangement is fitting of such a topic, with chanting choirs, a loping beat and a sharp string section. And she achieves something she very rarely achieves: being sexy and alluring, with a dose of subtlety.
‘Bad Kids‘ amps up the fun with a slick, sunny and infinitely-danceable melody that channels Cyndi Lauper and spits out a sarcastic, sassy ode to juvenile delinquency and parental guilt. ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’ rides out the cheerful mood with a surreal, heart-on-her-sleeve, techno-infused Bruce Springsteen tribute, involving unicorns, which somehow pays off with its earnestness.
Gaga settles into a smooth trance-influenced mood for the next two tracks: one (‘Heavy Metal Lover’) seems to nod off to sleep lyrically, as tired and uninspired fetish-themed cliches are thrown about, whilst the the other (‘Electric Chapel’) brings in an awesome guitar riff (with a solo that perhaps raises her rock credibility a few notches), clearer use of religious imagery and the persistent ominous gong of a churchbell in the distance.
And then the curveball country-rock-‘n-roll epic ballad, ‘Yoü And I’ (stylised with the umlaut because the ex-boyfriend mentioned in the song had one over the U in his name). Sampling Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ and featuring none other than Queen’s legendary guitarist Brian May as well, it’s a soulful, heartfelt love song tinged with the warmth of Midwest USA, where she sings “something about my cool Nebraska guy”. Add to it the funky backing vocals and piano, and like her other deliberately rock-inspired masterpiece ‘Speechless’, she strikes a chord that will hopefully resonate deep in the older, rock ‘n roll community.
The journey of Born This Way finally ends on ‘The Edge Of Glory’, the third single released thus far. Concluding the album on a similar upbeat outlook to the one of the opener, this euphoric electro-pop-opera end to this perfect pop pastiche should leave one in awe (or at least, in respect) of Lady Gaga’s massive song-crafting talent. Drawing in a wider range of influences than before and confidently welding them together with an ambitious and committed attitude, she has the ability and the support to go anywhere from here musically and succeed.
So might I suggest a retro-rock revolution, drawing on her professed influences of Queen (whose song ‘Radio Ga-Ga’ gave her her stage name), AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, Guns ‘n Roses and Black Sabbath? Perhaps an acoustic album too, showcasing her talent on piano and giving us stripped-down interpretations of her hits?
That’s how she’ll really take over music, commercially and critically. At the moment, it seems everything Gaga touches turns to gold.
- Marry The Night
- Born This Way
- Government Hooker
- Bloody Mary
- Bad Kids
- Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)
- Heavy Metal Lover
- Electric Chapel
- Yoü And I
- The Edge Of Glory
Release date: 23 May 2011