released 23 May 2011 on Polydor
You’ve no idea how much I wanted this album to be great. Really, really great. So great that all the naysayers, the people who dismiss pop and those who think “proper” music is made with “proper” instruments would sit up, take notice and say, “Wow! You know what? I was wrong.” An album that, just for once, matched the enormous hype and celebrity that went with it. Born This Way is, sadly, not that album.
You probably already knew this album had been released seeing as Lady Gaga has undertaken one of the biggest promotional campaigns in recent history. Apparently putting her name to any booming brand she could, in the run up to the release, Lady Gaga aligned herself with Google Chrome, Starbucks and Farmville. That’s not to mention her prolific Twitter use for further marketing. Lady Gaga is about as 2011 as a pop star can get, but if you’re suspicious that all this external activity may impinge upon the quality of the songs, then your fears have been realised.
Born This Way isn’t a bad album by any means, it’s just that Gaga is so conscious of the image and message she projects that the music is no longer her top priority. You might think that someone with a persona such as hers has never been about the music, and that theory certainly carries some weight. However, it’s worth remembering that her debut, The Fame, and subsequent bolt-on EP, The Fame Monster, contained some genuinely fantastic songs. Pokerface, Telephone and Paparazzi are some of the best examples of pop music from the last decade, and Bad Romance may well be one of the greatest songs of all time, so it’s disheartening to see there’s nothing here that quite hits those heights.
The first thing that hits you about Born This Way is the over-zealous production. It’s as if Gaga is so mindful about being usurped from her position as Queen of Pop, that she turns everything up to 11 so she can’t be ignored. There’s a sledgehammer drum beat that seems to run through the entire record and some of the synths and effects are about as subtle as being punched in the face. Often, this style of production is there to mask a lack of tunes, but on Born This Way, the tunes are mostly there, and the “look-at-me” exuberance tends to get in the way.
What’s also disappointing to see, is how Gaga has descended into well-worn pop clichés of controversy. Whereas she was genuinely exciting a couple of years back, it now seems she’s been revising from the Madonna book of “How to Irritate the Christian Right.” She sings of being “a government hooker” and “still in love with Judas;” she has songs called Bloody Mary and Scheiβe – it’s like she’s doing nothing new and just trying to goad people into a reaction.
However, she didn’t get to the top of the pop tree without having a tune or two up her sleeve. Born This Way is an album of great moments rather than great songs, but what moments they are. The oscillating bassline of Judas is so huge it measures on the Richter scale while the post-chorus of finest track, Hair, is absolute throwaway bubblegum, and all the better for it.
Bizarrely for an album that’s so up-to-date, the style is fairly retro. Born This Way is a mixture of dance, hi-NRG club tracks and 80s power ballads. The worst offender here is Yoü and I, where even the presence of an umlaut can’t disguise the fact it’s an ugly, Queen-like track with a verse melody horribly reminiscent of Nickelback’s Rockstar.
So, is Born This Way sufficient for Gaga to retain her crown? Probably, but only just. It lacks the overall quality of Robyn’s Body Talk or the stand-out singles of Rihanna’s Loud, yet it’s still packed with hooks, killer choruses and unexpected twists. She’s taken her eye off the ball somewhat but is likely to get away with it; album #3 could be the one that truly tells us whether Gaga is here to stay.