Since my last piece on Lady Gaga back in 2009, she has sky-rocketed to a level of pop superstardom that not even her biggest fans could have anticipated. She's fresh off the highest-selling debut tour ever, just bumped the Almighty Oprah off the top of the Forbes power list, and shattered the record for the most Twitter followers (10 million). And she has continued to turn heads in the fashion sector: applying prosthetic horns to her face and shoulders, wearing a meat dress that was later turned into jerky, and arriving on the red carpet being carried on a palanquin inside an egg, to name just a few memorable looks. But the time has come for Gaga to remind the world why she's actually famous: the music.
With the release of her second full-length release, Born This Way, critics and "little monsters" alike are waiting to see if she will fall prey to the dreaded sophomore slump or shut up the nay-sayers once and for all. But, before we get to whether she managed to pull it off or not, let's take a trip through the highs and lows of the past few months in the Gagaverse.
HIGH: Gaga largely got where she is today through releasing outlandish, epic music videos that could more accurately be called "short films." There was "Paparazzi" with its dance routine that involved a Metropolis-inspired gold body cast, wheelchair and crutches, "Bad Romance" with its Alexander McQueen outfits and bedroom arson, and "Telephone" with its prison break-out and sandwich-making. Needless to say, that's a lot to live up to and Gaga manages to do just that with the first two videos from this album. The first is for "Born This Way," Gaga's anthem for the bullied black sheep of the world, which features Gaga giving birth to a new race of Gagas that bear no prejudice, as well as a cameo by Rick "Rico" Genest, the model famous for having a skull tattooed on his face. There's also a random unicorn, a nod to the gays in the form of a pink triangle motif, and a battle of good versus evil. Classic Gaga.
Her second video for "Judas" was her and her choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson's directorial debut. Gaga appears as a motorcycle-riding Guadalupe (Gagalupe, if you will) that is torn between a Latino Jesus wearing a crown of golden thorns and the bad boy Judas. Guns that shoot lipstick, feet washing, and a finale where Gaga appears in a Harijuku district style wedding dress and is stoned to death. Subtlety is clearly not in this girl's vocabulary.
LOW: One of the biggest faux pas of her career so far involved Weird Al, of all people. Al wanted to do one of his infamous riffs on "Born This Way," so Gaga's people asked that he record and submit it for Gaga's approval. He did just that and it was rejected anyway. Weird Al didn't take it lying down though and made a pretty big stink about it on Twitter, which started a Gaga backlash until her camp relented and said it was just a misunderstanding. Who knew our culture treasured Weird Al's freedom to be mildly funny so much?
HIGH: Gaga recently visited Google headquarters and participated in an hour-long interview that showed the girl beneath the colored wigs and makeup, a girl who is far smarter than the other pop stars in the field, someone who has done her pop culture research and has a razor sharp wit to boot. Even the Google geeks ate it up.
LOW: Upon the release of "Born This Way," a virtual cascade of Madonna comparisons flooded the internet. Many thought the new single was simply a rip-off of "Express Yourself" and took their outrage to the web, where it snowballed into general disinterest in Gaga's new effort. But, in Gaga's defense, we live in a time where almost everything has already been done so a familiar chord progression is bound to crop up in the pop music arena every now and again.
HIGH: Speaking of similarities with Madonna, Gaga, like the Material Girl before her, has embraced her gay fan-base. But Gaga is far more outspoken politically than Madonna was in her heyday, arriving to award shows with soldiers expelled under Don't Ask Don't Tell as her dates, rallying for marriage equality in Maine and New York, and so on. Some see it as pandering, but who are we to look a gift horse in the mouth? She arguably has the largest platform in pop culture and is using it to promote acceptance and equality. You can't really argue with that.
LOW: Another mistake is her latest album cover. Shot by the photographer Nick Knight, Gaga is half-woman, half-motorcycle. She explains it as a visual representation of her being the vehicle for the voices of her fans and a force constantly moving in and out of fantasy or something convoluted like that, but it just looks silly. And that font is a Photoshop horror story. Not an image you want everyone to see before they decide whether or not to buy your album.
HIGH: But for every ridiculously bad look, there are twenty mouth-watering alternatives, like those seen below from various fashion and design magazines:
Now onto the music! Gaga's special blend of avant-garde spectacle and unapologetic pop is alive and well all over Born This Way. The album starts off with a bang called "Marry the Night," a '90s dance song worthy of the Roxbury that takes a page out of La Bouche's playbook and shows what Gaga does best. "Born This Way" comes next, an empowering anthemic response in the wake of gay teen suicides, a bullying epidemic, and inflamed anti-gay rhetoric from politicians and religious figures. Madonna comparisons aside, it's a successful pop song that manages to work in every word in LGBT, which is no easy feat.
"Government Hooker" is the first song on the album that showcases the gritty industrial Eastern European sound that Gaga flirted with on her last EP, The Fame Monster. Gaga sings from the perspective of "the other woman" who slinks in the shadows behind a powerful man. "Put your hands on me, John F. Kennedy. I'll make you squeal, baby, as long as you pay me," Gaga sings as Marilyn Monroe; her tongue-in-cheek way of urging women to own their sexuality and re-appropriate the term "hooker." It's more or less successful as a song, but the message, while entertaining, is a little shaky.
The strongest songs on this album share this Berlin metal techno vibe. There's "Bloody Mary," a grimy beat-driven tale told from Mary Magdalene's perspective, "Heavy Metal Lover," a nasty number that would fit perfectly in an abandoned, crumbling warehouse, and, most successfully, "Scheisse," which begins with Gaga admitting she can't speak German but can try, if you like. She then proceeds to spit some German rhyme before returning to her native language to proclaim herself a "high-heeled feminist" and declare: "If you're a strong female, you don't need permission."
A less successful foray into foreign language crops up with "Americano," an extension of "Alejandro," that fuses mariachi and flamenco for a supposed commentary on immigration. Unfortunately, the song's production sounds contrived and obvious and the lyrics don't really hold up to the intended message. This and a few other songs on the album (mainly "Hair," which is built around the embarrassing metaphor: "I am as free as my hair!") suffer from a lack of emphasis on songwriting that can best be expressed by the image below:
Misses like this make me wish Gaga focused as much attention on her musical output as she does on her general aesthetic. She's proven that she can write a killer chorus and she's got some great pipes, so it isn't a question of whether she can, but if she will. The likely reason Gaga sometimes goes astray is that she seems to be surrounded by yes people who indulge her urge to realize every idea and impulse that pops into her head, whether it's a bad one or not (see album cover again).
Gaga built herself on excess, but what might prove to be her saving grace is finding a way to rein it in with some thoughtful editing. Whether she can do that or not could determine whether she'll be remembered as a genius of invention with a great music catalogue a la David Bowie or if she'll become what everyone expects her to, a millenial regurgitation of Madonna who is a respected cultural figure and chameleon (look! now she's a cowboy! now she's a geisha!) with a history of music that's mostly just so-so. Born This Way is a mixed bag, with a few burning pop planets that are surrounded by empty noise and space. Only time will tell if Gaga lands and conquers or floats aimlessly in the dark expanse of mediocre pop.