24 May, 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way

A typical day in this reviewer’s life goes something like this:  I wake up, find an album that I like or I figure I will enjoy, then try to listen as objectively and honestly as possible.  But not with Lady Gaga.  As a matter of fact, it may be the dumbest thing to have an album review of Born This Way now because practically every song has been blasted at you somehow.  There is no mystery as to what is next; you’ve heard these 14 tracks before, and you know by now whether you like this or not.  The hype machine behind LGaga has been impossible to ignore if you listened to pop radio or were invested in any facet of the culture industry in the United States – heck, the world – over the past year.  She’s popped up on television, Twitter, YouTube, social networking sites, Farmville, talk shows, and most recently Saturday Night Live to promote her new “pop masterpiece.”  The promotional campaign has been exhausting, with Hitfix’s Melinda Newman comparing it to a presidential campaign.

So congratulations, Lady Gaga: You’ve made it impossible to have an objective view on your brand of music. 

But is there a brand of music for Lady Gaga?  The problem I’ve had with her is that every song sounds like somebody else’s work.  Granted, Lady Gaga does it better than most others because of her way around a chorus (but is that the same chorus used over and over again?) and her commitment to vocal delivery, yet there doesn’t seem to be much originality here.  “Marry the Night” is a titular declaration of monogamy with the sunset before it becomes the theme from Mortal Kombat, while “Born This Way” is written for her anticipated demographic that she namechecks in the “Vogue”-ish breakdown.  Both these songs combine a heavy Tiesto beat that telegraphs every chorus, and I couldn’t really tell them apart when listening.  Nothing’s shocking in this ritual de lo habitual of her work, which is odd because we (meaning the faceless consumer identity that absolutely loves conformity) were supposed to be surprised by her space oddity existence and callback nature.   

By the time listeners arrive at “Government Hooker,” I now knew what this album was: a mashup between Prince’s soundtrack for Batman and the throwaway songs from Batman Forever.  “I could be sex unless you want to hold hands.”  The keyboard loop in the back is from Trio’s “Da Da Da,” and the lyrics…”Put your hands on me/John F. Kennedy.”  What am I listening to?  This seems about as subversive as Vanilla Ice rapping at the end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze Listening to this makes me want to apologize to my parents for taking me to that movie, not get out and dance out my pain.

“Judas” has an okay sounding beat, along with a somewhat annoying callout hook.  The Tiesto influence is really pronounced here, with keyboards hitting on the soft edges of the melody.  This should be a dangerous banger, but instead it undercuts what should be a hard song with lyrics about love and betrayal.  Maybe it’s the Catholic guilt that Rob Sheffield has talked about, but I can’t get behind this song when it doesn’t know what it wants to be.   The lyrics aren’t really about dealing with redemption or salvation, but rather a way of seeming transgressive.  Maybe we don’t hear about religion from other artists because they don’t know how to deal with their feelings of spirituality.  When it comes to religion, Gaga is less “Like a Prayer” here and more like “My Own Prison.” 

There is some good here, as I’m not a soulless rockist critic.  “Americano” knocked me off my feet with its Sondheim beginning, and then engages with a Spanglish tango that is certainly different from other things on the radio.  If there’s a criticism I can offer, it seems more geared to cheating Arnold dancing in True Lies than a pop song.  Even then, I have to admit this is somewhat refreshing.  The tempo doesn’t slow down enough to really let the song breathe, but the music and lyrics are definitely different enough to set it apart.  Likewise, I somewhat enjoy “Hair” because of its slow beginning and Clarence Clemons sax riff, even if the themes are surface-level deep (“I am as free as my hair” might get her in trouble with Willow Smith).  Alas, the emerging beat seems to fill that same 80s drum-n-bass void that others have been mining for years, and her lyrics don’t really allow it to differentiate from others.  Yes, Gaga can sing, but she doesn’t really use it for anything beyond getting people to seem free on the dance floor.  “This is my prayer”?  Really, Gaga, I don’t say this about women in polite company, but your roots are showing there. 

“Sheibe” is prototypical Gaga, adding in theatrical elements of German in between the typical pop chorus of hers.  I think it’s actually the chorus of “Judas” redone here, which is a shame because I actually enjoy the oddity of the verses. Meanwhile, “Bloody Mary” is a slow Sondheim crawl with a cooing French drawl of “money” to emphasize the pop masterpiece status Lady Gaga so desperately wants.  Again, the lyrics are not what they should be.  What in the world does “punktious” mean?  The Catholic imagery and grinding keys are another attempt to mine the world of religious iconography, except this one is more successful than “Judas” in seeming more 90s and progressive at the same time.  Thankfully, it’s not set to obliterate your speakers, but I’m not sure what her audience will think about this song when it appears in concert.  It’s definitely a risk to appear on an album, and I am beginning to respect her a bit more for allowing this to show up since there is almost no commercial potential for this song.  Yet just because it’s an interesting experiment does not mean that “Bloody Mary” is a good song, and it’s because of songs like this that many pundits claim we are supposed to enjoy Lady Gaga’s music for more than we do. 

“Bad Kids” uses Kanye West “Gorgeous” guitars in what seems to be a very poignant song for certain aspects of Gaga’s audience.  The piano breakdown and music sounds pretty good; the lyrics don’t translate to me because they don’t allow for complexity, and I haven’t considered myself a kid in a long time.  It’s part of the same reason I don’t listen to Weezer anymore.  Maybe she’s aiming well below her demographic, and maybe there is no demographic, but I don’t hear something in this song that really pulls me into it.  Elsewhere, “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” is presumably the song that inspired the cover of the album.  For some reason I like the music, even though it’s a retread of what has been created before it.  “She’s got a rainbow syrup in her heart that she bleeds” perfectly summarizes how I feel when I get down.  Sadly, the drums are totally processed, so if the goal is to pummel the audience until they see what they imagine is a unicorn on the road, then congratulations, mission accomplished. 

The best thing I can say about “Heavy Metal Lover” is that it’s better than the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Heavy Metal Machine,” but it’s just as processed.  “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blond south” is a great way to appeal to the kids!  Again, I like the music until it gets to the chorus; while the chorus is all “let’s unite the kids on the dance floor,” the verses are where she shines and really lets her freak flag fly.  I just hate that everything ties into the typical Gaga chorus and that one can see where every track is going all the time.  Nothing necessarily surprises, apart from the lyrical bon mots like “Wash the night with St. J-ameson/Like a baptism.”  Um, what? 

My favorite song on this album is “Electric Chapel,” and it’s because Lady Gaga rips off the Scorpions’ “Big City Nights.”  Don’t believe me?  Listen here! 

I guess it’s not a bad thing if you don’t have a copy of Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain lying around, but I think that it’s safe to say that it’s been done before.  I feel like I’m listening to every Muse song crammed into four minutes here, and the solo is definitely ripping off the guitar line from “When Doves Cry.” 

What’s so disappointing with this album is that the strongest songs don’t come until the very end of it.  “Yoü and I” is different from everything else on the album because it’s not beating you over the head at 180 bpm.  With its keyboard farts and drum machine beeps it feels like something Shania Twain would sing…oh, I see the “Mutt” Lange production credit there.  What’s even more astonishing is the laziness that went into creating the song.  It’s using “We Will Rock You” as the template, and Brian May is providing the guitar solo while processed Def Leppard backing vocals soar in the background?  It has the lyric “There’s only three men Im’ma serve my whole life/It’s my daddy, and Nebraska, and Jesus Christ”?  What’s most astonishing is that I should be burning this song at the stake, but for some reason all the absurdity has won me over now and I’m dancing my white butt off at the arena.  If I heard this in concert in Nebraska, I could see how people would lose their collective minds when they hear this.  In the end, the song has sledgehammered me into loving it in spite of the fact that it’s pop pandering at its absolute worst.  I haven’t heard a good Meat Loaf song in a long time, so this will do, but I hope that it’s a platform for others to move into a new segment of music that they wouldn’t normally hear. If nothing else, this expands Gaga’s musical audience into the AOR crowd. 

Maybe I like “The Edge of Glory” more because it feels like an organic move from the previous song, and maybe because it’s not totally obvious.  The bubbling beats under the verse are geared to get people excited, but they feel like an accomplishment from “Yoü and I,” a sort of sequel to that song.  Plus, it’s complete with a sax solo from the Big Man himself, Clarence Clemons!  If we can get a return to sax solos in dance music from this song, then well done, we’ve accomplished so much.  But it’s a false sense of accomplishment since there are no thematic links between the album, rather a set of beats that go nowhere except higher and higher.  “The Edge of Glory” feels like too little too late, with Lady Gaga finally getting to that goal of dance music nirvana after pummeling her audience into submission with a dozen misguided tracks beforehand.   

I wanted to give this album the benefit of the doubt, but there’s nothing under the surface here.  Random non sequiters doth not profundity make.  There’s nothing original for our generation here, nothing that is pushing our boundaries.  Maybe we’ve never heard these elements of 80s and 90s pop combined with Tiesto beats and shimmering keys before, but that doesn’t mean that it’s new music. Is it enjoyable?  To a point.  Will you remember it beyond sweaty nights in the club?  Possibly, but only if you live in a movie.  It’s more fun to play “spot the influence” with this album than it is to listen to the album as a whole, and that’s a problem.  There’s a difference between making a fun album ripping off people (Oasis, Definitely Maybe) and an album that has been processed within an inch of its life that doesn’t move beyond the pale.  That’s Born This Way, from its beats that never really transcend the drum machine to the ridiculous cover art (actually, it makes sense that Gaga could be considered a motorcycle with her arms connecting the wheels.  She already tries to be everything to everyone on the album, why not fulfill the fetish of a group of people she couldn’t meet outside of the Internet?).

Regarding the promotion of this album, I hate it with a passion.  Yes, I understand that this is an event album for a hot, relatively new artist that is actually able to move units at a time when others cannot.  But the overwhelming nature of Lady Gaga’s promotional campaign makes it inevitable that a backlash will occur.  I’m not reacting to this album in light of that campaign, or at least I’m trying not to, but the overwhelming nature of it cannot be ignored.  Moreover, if there’s a comparison to another recent album to be made, it would have to be Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was also hyped from many corners of the mediaverse.  Unlike Gaga’s album, however, West threw everything into that album while also crafting different songs and expanding the vocabulary of rap and pop; I’m amazed that we received an album where one could enjoy future classics like “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” and “Hell of a Life” because they weren’t all the same song, unlike the majority of Born This Way, which plays it far too safe throughout its runtime.

Lady Gaga’s hype is going to disappoint because it’s not the “album of the decade” as she’s stated in concert and interviews before.  Good Lord, nothing can be the album of the decade if marketing is to be believed.  An album must be disseminated over time before we can enjoy it properly and canonize it.  It’s too early to provide anything besides a cursory review of Born This Way, which is thus a way of saying that we’ll see how her music ages organically; considering that it’s all synthetic pop with too much current technology slathered over reheated choruses, I’m afraid time may not be too kind to this. 

And perhaps I’m too young to have been there for the canonized pop albums of the 60s and 70s, but how can somebody enjoy an album like this with organic growth since you’ve been exposed to everything it has to show early on?  I think it’s difficult to state that I would enjoy this as much over time; I’m actually starting to backpedal on my previous review of Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, and I’m learning to enjoy being wrong.  But that came through hearing these songs in different settings, along with being able to listen to the album on its own terms.  I don’t know if that’s possible with pop albums such as this since event albums are supposed to connote a specific place.  For many people, this will be the dance album of 2011, and probably the only album that they purchase.  I don’t know if I could ever see myself enjoying it outside of that context because beyond the last two songs, there’s nothing that shows a growth from previous albums.  I admire what Lady Gaga tried to do, but I think the execution falls flat. 

Yes, she gave it her all, but maybe Lady Gaga should have listened to what she was giving us.  I don’t see myself listening to it in the future.  


Chris said...

I'll say up-front that I haven't listened to the whole album yet, and the "deep" tracks you have posted are loading painfully slow for me over VPN (apparently Gaga's YouTube channel isn't licensed for Germany). But your points rang true on the tracks that I had the patience to listen to.

On a recent international flight, we sat next to a 18-ish girl on her way to Western Europe for the first time in her life on a trip with her culinary school. Did she spend the entire flight joyfully babbling about the incredible food she was anticipating? Nah. She wanted to do nothing more than buy the new album, find a place to buy Gaga's MAC makeup ("Are there places like Macy's in Germany?"), and had several Gaga magazines (yep).

I think it's fair to say that even though you gave it a fair shake, maybe the album just isn't meant for you.

I'm by no means a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic, but I'll throw a little defense in. It's got more brains than Britney Spear's ever did, and Gaga pushes the envelope enough to seem relevant and shocking in a post-Madonna world.

To your point about not being able to enjoy the album organically because you recognize all of the influences, I'll add that every single sample that you called out is actually pretty great and shows a depth and breadth of taste beyond what the majority of pop radio is composed.

I'm not defending the pedestrian nature or the inevitable slack-jawed awe that she'll get from MTV and the Grammys. But, in a world where pop radio is little more than corporate muzak, I rarely change the channel when a Lady Gaga song comes on.

Good read!

Jake said...

ok, i'm back. sorry for the delay, but i got a promotion (sort of) and new tasks have taken a bit to sort through and allow me to do things i enjoy, like rating music.

it seems fairly apropos to come back and have a lady gaga review waiting for me.

a few things you need to know. 1) i hear lady gaga at least ten times a day in the 8 hours i work (as mentioned previously, i work for, among others, a top 40 radio station). 2) i've seen lady gaga in concert.

i know number 2 will generate some flack my way, but before you generate the hate, try it on. i must say she is a hell of a performer. as a concert, it was lacking, but as a performance, ridiculously good. for those of you who know me, you know this is hard for me to say.

with that out of the way, lady gaga is a genius in every way. moody, you, once again, answered your own questions without realizing. you said, "In the end, the song has sledgehammered me into loving it in spite of the fact that it’s pop pandering at its absolute worst." agreed. however, that is why she is one of a select few (eminem, taylor swift) who can still sell entire albums. want to know why? because she is fucking everywhere.

she has drenched anyone who knows what a radio is with her music. when i saw she had a farmville-esque app on facebook i thought, along with wishing camping was right about the rapture, what a fucking genius. that's all you can say about her.

and as for your point about her reusing other people's music, do you know why she does that? because you've heard it before. you will have one of two reactions when hearing a gaga song - what hack, this is just ______, i've heard this before - or - hey i know this song, i've always liked this song, who is this again? lady gaga? wow, guess i'm a lady gaga fan now.


yes, all her songs sound the same. yes, she rips off other people's work. you know what she has to show for it? more money/success/fame/notoriety/fans than you can imagine.

now, am i a lady gaga fan? of her music, no. of her brains, yes. of her live shows, dammit, yes.

now while i agree with your review pretty much to the letter, i still have to argue, lady gaga will be around forever. how could she not be? every song she drops is an instant hit. her albums are instant hits. when the sales start to lower, she puts out a reissue with two new songs on it and the sales skyrocket again. now if only we could get more big man on her albums...

Sara K Shivapour said...

Just bought the album today, and have only sampled a few of the tracks. I'll admit right off that I'm a huge Lady Gaga disciple, but I'm a pretty big Moody fan as well so I did my best to stay neutral.

I agree completely with Jake - the woman is brilliant. She has admittedly studied the art of fame well, and has made a career of marketing herself artfully (if only other young female artists were smart enough to learn by her example).

My only contention relates to your critique of her 'ripping off' or sampling the work of other great artists. I would never pretend to have even a fraction of your knowledge of the music industry - simply put, I don't. If you say the tracks sound similar I am sure you're right. However, I think the same argument could be made about nearly every artist currently on the market; Gaga just gets more flack about it, in my opinion, because the songs she creates are designed around more easily recognized tunes (as Jake mentioned).

Unlike many artists, who blatantly rip off a base line or remix a few previous works via synth and try to pass it off as their own, I find what Gaga does to be highly inventive. I would not detract from her ability to take something old and rework it into something new and fresh, but celebrate it in the same way a new talent in fashion is celebrated nearly every season for being able to recycle ideas from past decades and make them beautiful and compelling once again.

Also, can we please give this woman some credit for openly standing up for those less-enfranchised members of our community? I have a lot of respect for her, which is not something I can recall ever saying about a young celebrity in her position before. That said, Kyle, I hope you do listen again! I think you will find that there is a lot more to the lyrics than you catch at first - particularly the ones which come across initially as most superficial...

Moodicarus said...

I took a month off it to listen to it again, and maybe it's not meant for me. Note that I never took away the credit for her apparently outstanding live performances or her rabid fanbase; she deserves accolades for achieving both, along with providing open and frank discussion about poorly accepted members of the world. That being said, I do believe that I'd need to be in a certain mood to appreciate this album, and that does not translate to epochal album status for me. Lady Gaga may be a genius, but here her genius does not emerge as often as I want, and now it has nothing to do with superficiality (listening to Limp Bizkit as I get older taught me everything about superficiality). The songs simply aren't there for me, and I hope that her next outing isn't created in this pressure cooker environment that robs her of the creativity she can still use. Glad that there are others out there who enjoy it.