There was a point in Lady Gaga’s career – somewhere between the sudden success of “Poker Face” and the release of The Fame Monster – when a light bulb must have gone off in her head. A point where it dawned on her that the concept of “the fame” she preached — creating your own reality through art, fashion and self expression — became more relevant to her fans than to her own career as a now-superstar.
The Fame Monster was, for the most part, a record of freeing yourself from your demons (or at least attempting to). But when that light bulb went on, the songs were no longer about Stefani Germanotta, or even the nameless girls she sang about — the songs were for you. It’s how a number such as “Dance in the Dark,” at its simplest a dark self-esteem tale, became the opening number and musical mission statement of her Monster Ball Tour, the judgment-free arena court the Lady presides over.
Born This Way, her third studio album in under three years, takes that theme and runs with it, down a highway of unicorns and rainbows, no less. As evident by its title track, Born This Way is Gaga’s most self-indulgent and flamboyant release, cranking up the religious imagery, changing characters as dramatically as she changes clothes and pumping out dancefloor-ready tracks as harsh and metallic as the motorcycle on the album cover. And unsurprisingly, it also finds her committed to championing the voice of underdog pop fans as if her life depends on it.
But it’s not just the equality extravaganza of “Born This Way” that makes the record a doozy. What makes Born This Way such a fun album to listen to is the fact that her music finally caught up to her persona. Like her outfits, the songs are thoughtful and over-the-top, but both, in the context of Born This Way, seem suddenly less serious. For every egg vessel she wears to the Grammys, there’s a line or image that gives you the sense she has been having much more fun than we maybe realize: “Americano” is a ridiculous, self-described “mariachi techno” fusion with hand claps and an addictive “Don’t you try to catch me” outro. Second single “Judas” may have delivered the typical Gaga sound of “Bad Romance,” but it’s actually “Sheiße” that recalls hearing that original pop supernova for the first time. Also produced by frequent collaborator RedOne, “Sheiße” has the dirtiest synth bass of her career, a spoken word German intro and lyrics that portray her as the high priestess of hi-NRG and insecure clubgoers.
In songs like “Sheiße” and “Americano,” Gaga tries to wear the hats of outsiders, a task that makes up the bulk of the album’s thematic content. In the course of Born This Way, if Gaga’s to be believed, she’s a prostitute wench, the rebellious teen, a heavy metal queen, a freak, a modern day Mary Magdalene and marginalized hooker on bizzaro highlight “Government Hooker.” If it sounds like her identity as an artist is less apparent here, it’s because it is, replaced by theatrical ambition. But to her credit, Born This Way never loses the sense that this is absolutely a Lady Gaga record.
It’s when she tries too hard to be Mother Monster that Born This Way starts to show its holes. The latter half of the record is filled with the most skippable tracks — songs such as “Electric Chapel” and “Heavy Metal Lover” are where her aesthetics feel forced and where there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to begin with. Worst are the times she tries to connect with her fans so earnestly that her empathy almost backfires. Instead of songs of self-liberation fans can attach themselves to, Gaga comes to them to try and tell their story, a tactic that all too often is a turn-off. “Bad Kids,” in its defense, is a solid 90s-style club track with plenty of bass, but the fervor of the opening’s rock ‘n’ roll call to arms gets tiresome as she tries to relate to fans through a fictional, rebel teen brat who makes her parents’ lives hell. “Hair,” another RedOne productions that sounds nothing like the duo’s previous work, narrowly avoids the same fate after it ditches the parents-just-don’t-understand shtick for something a little simpler: “I just want to be free / I just want to be me / and I want lots of friends that invite me to their parties.”
When she isn’t spending her time trying to convince us that she’s one of us, Gaga is at her most charismatic. Album opener “Marry the Night” is a simple, dust-yourself-off-and-dance dedication to her fans, but the album’s finest moment is “The Edge of Glory,” the most anthemic track she’s recorded to date. It’s no accident — the inclusion of E Street Band Clarence Clemons on saxophone is Gaga indulging in the stadium-ready pop she flirted with in the past. Yet, it also feels like the most effortless track on the entire record. If she wants to be pop music’s public servant so bad, fans might as well give her the job. But Gaga’s music is most liberating when fans are just coming along for the ride.
Final grade: A-