Iconic. Liberating. The voice of a generation. These are just some of the words pop superstar Lady GaGa has used to describe her third album “Born This Way” over the past year. With the album finally dropping May 23, the question is: does it live up to all the hype? For the most part–YES.
Over the course of 14 tracks (17 on the Deluxe edition), listeners are taken on a journey–a journey through pop music history with social and cultural commentary on every corner. The album as a whole feels like a modern take on a classic 80s pop record, with some 70s guitar flare, some 90s club anthems and some modern day sophistication. What you won’t find are the Ke$ha type of “video game beats” that have been dominating the charts and airwaves. GaGa refreshingly reminds us that pop stars don’t have to sing about partying, alcohol or melting popsicles over minimalist synth beats to have fun, catchy or memorable songs. As GaGa sings about immigration, gay rights, religion, and above all, embracing individuality, it becomes clear that her music and artistry is in a far superior league than most of her contemporaries.
Lady GaGa co-wrote and co-produced every song on the album, working with Mexican DJ Fernando Garibay (whom she worked with for her song “Dance In the Dark”) and producer/songwriter RedOne (the man she collaborated with on many of her past hits including “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance”). It is important to note that, as an artist who stresses originality, all of GaGa’s songs are in fact original, written and produced by her, with no blatant sampling of past hooks or overuse of autotune. In today’s pop music, there is a growing epidemic of following the formula: sample + autotune + club beat = hit–hits that aren’t even written by the artist who’s singing them. GaGa, however, turns to the past for inspiration and feeling, rather than merely regurgitating it.
The album begins with the Garibay-produced “Marry the Night,” a song GaGa said she wrote once she was the superstar she had always dreamt of being, and that this was the song that inspired the sound for the rest of the album. “It was like this sonic light bulb went off and [Fernando and I] were like, ‘That’s the sound! That’s the future.’…The record is just this massive, gas-station, disco record, music,” GaGa told Billboard magazine. Indeed, the song is a great way to start off the album, and leads nicely into the title track, which is perhaps the album anchor and ties it all together. While GaGa may tackle immigration, gay rights and religion later on in the album, she does so through the lens of telling her fans to love themselves and not to let these obstacles keep them from doing so. The song preaches that message as she belts out the lines everyone is now familiar with, “I’m beautiful in my way/ ‘Cause God makes no mistakes/ I’m on the right track, baby/ I was born this way.”
Once the title track ends, the listener gets even more deep into the album’s social commentary when “Government Hooker” begins. GaGa sings to the government “As long as I’m your hooker!” as they respond “Back up and turn around.” GaGa is challenging the listener, by asking if they will stand up and fight for their rights or if they’ll just bend over and become the government’s hooker.
“Americano” is another song to directly confront the listener. GaGa describes the song as, “A big mariachi technohouse record where I am singing about immigration law and gay marriage and all sorts of things that have to do with disenfranchised communities in America.” GaGa seems to be the only pop star willing to explicitly stick up for these small, disenfranchised communities, especially the gay one. She sings at the beginning of the song, “I met a girl in East L.A….We fell in love but not in court.” Later, she sings, “I will fight for/ I have fought for/ How I love you. /I have cried for/ I will die for/ How I care.” As one of the biggest female singers in the world, singing to another female about how wrong it is that they can’t marry or be together because of unjust laws is huge. Not only does the song hold such an important message, but the mariachi techno beat behind it is incredibly catchy and makes you want to head straight to the dance floor.
As listeners get deeper into the album, GaGa continues to beg them to embrace their individuality, no matter how hard the world may try and stop them from doing so. In “Hair,” she describes how she expressed herself through her hair as a child, singing, “And in the morning I’m short of my identity/ I scream, ‘Mom and Dad, why can’t I be who I want to be?’/ I’ve had enough, this is my prayer/ That I’ll die living just as free as my hair.” In “Bad Kids,” GaGa vocalizes her acceptance of those who are different and labeled freaks by others, all over an 80s type beat. She calls herself nearly every name in the book, from loser to jerk to selfish punk, but is not glorifying being that kind of person. She is just embracing those who have been called so for the wrong reasons. She gives comfort to her fans, telling them she’s the exact same way, when she sings “Don’t be insecure/ If your heart is pure/ You’re still good to me/ If you’re a bad kid baby.” In a more specific message, “Scheiße” focuses on empowering women. GaGa says in the song, “When I’m on a mission/ I rebuke my condition./ If you’re a strong female/ You don’t need permission.” A strong female empowerment song is nothing new in pop music, but doing so with a German phrase (including a curse word) at its center? Only Lady GaGa could pull this off.
While it may be encouraging to embrace who you are, GaGa realizes that in many cases, religion may curtail your efforts in doing so, and definitely addresses this on the album. GaGa has said that she is a religious woman who was brought up as a practicing Catholic, so she is not challenging people’s religious beliefs, but exploring how people can come to terms with religion if they feel it discourages them from being who they really are. “Bloody Mary,” for example, is a haunting song that discusses how some can be crucified for who they love. “Electric Chapel” is a complex and interesting song that begins with an unforgettable guitar riff before segueing into synth beats, organs, church bells and a screeching guitar. GaGa said she wanted to build on her signature sounds for this album and take them even further, and she definitely does that in this song, juxtaposing religious imagery and sounds with pop music. And of course “Judas,” the second single off the album, is about going back to someone who has betrayed you, told through religious allusions of the story of Jesus and Judas.
Of course the album isn’t completely perfect. A few songs, particularly some of the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition such as “Black Jesus – Amen Fashion”, aren’t as musically sophisticated or memorable as the rest of the record. They’re simply not as catchy as most of the other tracks, and at times seems like generic pop songs–and generic is definitely not the word to describe most of the other songs on the album.
The album, nevertheless, ends on a very high note with the two final tracks. “You and I,” was first introduced to GaGa’s fans when she performed it on “The Today Show” in the summer of 2010 in its original, piano-driven form. After, it became a staple in GaGa’s Monster Ball Tour. Since then, she enlisted famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange to add his magical touch to the song. Lange, who’s produced for many artists including AC/DC, Def Leppard, and his ex-wife, Shania Twain, added a pounding “We Will Rock You” type beat, extra guitar, and some background harmonies. Perhaps this ode to the love of her life (who’s from Nebraska) and all her close friends was perhaps best left a little more simple, but it is nevertheless a heartfelt song that creatively combines pop, rock and even a little bit of a country.
The final song on the album, and third single is the blockbuster song “The Edge of Glory,” about the death of GaGa’s grandfather. The song plays like it was written right out of the 1980s, still managing to stay modern and fresh. GaGa belts out the chorus with some of the same gust as Pat Benatar cried out about love as a battlefield; the lyrics and tone of the song have the same complexity as a classic Cher song like “If I Could Turn Back Time” or Madonna songs such as “Like a Prayer”; and the signature sounding saxophone, which is uncoincidentally played by Bruce Springsteen’s sideman Clarence Clemons (his second appearance on the album), can trace its root to any Journey or Men At Work hit. “The Edge of Glory” starts off with a heartbeat and ends with a flat line in the form of Clemons’ sax, and, as the last track on “Born This Way,” is the perfect note to end the album on.
Iconic? Liberating? The voice of a generation? Can a single album really achieve such weighty feats? Perhaps some Beatles, Stones or Zeppelin albums did in the 1960s, but in the current ADD’ed corporate age of consumerism we’re in, it may be a bit harder. However, if any pop album was even going to attempt to accomplish this, it would be “Born This Way.” While GaGa’s contemporaries are singing about brushing their teeth with jack, dancing until the world ends or living their teenage dreams, GaGa addresses more relevant issues and problems that individuals must face in today’s world. And she does so set against pop music that is sophisticated, complex and doesn’t sound like every other song on the radio right now. If your career continues down this path, Lady GaGa, one thing’s clear: there ain’t no other way because you’re on the right track, baby.