Born This Way
Lady Gaga’s position at the summit of pop culture cannot be denied or overstated. She recently bumped Oprah Winfrey from the top of the Forbes list of most powerful celebrities. Her YouTube channel has received over 1.5 billion views. Her global appeal transcends demographic boundaries of race, class, and sex. According to Billboard.com, her latest album, “Born This Way,” is expected to sell a million copies the first week.
Unlike most pop music phenomena, Lady Gaga is a genuinely talented musician, singer and songwriter. Sitting at a piano, unplugged from studio effects, she can belt out a song worthy of the music legends that precede her. A pop visionary, she bypassed the banality of typical pop culture by assembling “The House of Gaga,” a group of designers, artists, and filmmakers that help produce her jaw-droppingly original music, fashion, video, design, and photography culture products. Odd as it may sound, Lady Gaga can be credited for bringing a higher level of culture to a mass audience.
“Born This Way,” while technically Gaga’s third release (after 2009’s “The Fame” and “The Fame Monster”), still feels like a sophomore effort. It further develops Gaga’s out-there expressions of self through the lens of fame and celebrity, but it lacks the break out brilliant dumbness of “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance.” The lyrics are at times a bit too self-aware (“I just wanna be myself/And I want you to love me for who I am.”) The songs, while inventive, at times are over-produced and bombastic.
That said, the album’s creativity and emotionally honest underpinnings still elevate it high above other pop fare. Rather than just dropping more radio-friendly hits that celebrate obscene wealth and hedonism, Gaga at least uses the bully pulpit of superstardom to promote a progressive value: acceptance of diversity.
“Born This Way’s” title track has been accused of being derivative of Madonna’s 1989 hit, “Express Yourself.” The tunes are arguably similar, but there’s a big distinction between the lyrics. The words in the Madonna song betray hetero-conformist limitations:
“What you need is a big strong hand/ to lift you to your higher ground/Make you feel like a queen on a throne/Make him love you till you can’t come down”
Lady Gaga’s message is more inclusive, celebrating difference and self-love:
“No matter gay, straight or bi/lesbian transgendered life/I’m on the right track baby/I was born to survive”
The song is a bouncy, catchy anthem of inclusion that will surely become ubiquitous at Pride festivals everywhere.
“Born This Way” taps into many sources from the ’80’s besides Madonna. The dominant mode is still Disco, but a more Euro Disco with a techno-German vibe, replete with unnecessary umlauts, German accents, und lyrics auf Deutsch (“Scheiße”). Some tracks reference the era’s electronica, like Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. In a strange mix that cuts across the dominant music trends of the decade, these sounds are hybridized with ’80’s arena rock, with its soaring keyboards, amped-up Dire Straits guitars, and big echo-y drums. Some tracks, “The Queen,” for example, sound a bit like Pat Benatar singing Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Lady Gaga has cited the latter as a major songwriting influence.
By the end of the album’s prolix 22 tracks, one’s ears are exhausted from the tumult and overproduction. “Born This Way” is a creative, exciting work from a still-developing star, but could have benefited from some simpler, more stripped-down tracks.