Sometimes “hype” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
If The Fame was a celebration of celebrity as an idea, Born This Way is a celebration of being Lady Gaga. In the days of “Poker Face” and “Lovegame”, it was easy to write Lady Gaga off as a pretty (and talented) woman with a hell of a PR team. Nowadays, she stands at the pulpit of Mother Monster, proclaiming to all that she was Born This Way, and that acceptance and self-expression are the way. In a way, Born This Way is Lady Gaga’s first album as Lady Gaga; the first time we’re seeing her and all her ideas put into music.
And Lord does she mean all of them. Gaga’s previous work rarely ventured outside of her synthy club pop origins. Contrast that to Born This Way, which sees her throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Some songs, like the glam rock meets disco of opener “Marry the Night” end up working out great. Ditto with “Americano”, which fuses a mariachi band with a synthesizer, and the end result is too campy to not love. Other times…not so much. “Hair” is overblown even by Born This Way‘s bombastic standards. “Government Hooker” is the first song where the album stumbles, the song’s Nine Inch Nails-lite mixed with an operatic intro.
A plethora of problems dog Born This Way. First and foremost: this production is abysmal. While Lady Gaga’s persona had been sunk by excess in the past, it never showed up in her music. In addition to being too damn loud, there’s no breathing room; there are too many synths, instruments, layered vocals, and effects going; I doubt there’s a single moment of peace throughout the album’s seventy-three minutes. And yes, if you got the “full” seventeen song version of the album, you’re looking at an exhausting play time.
Then we have Gaga’s tendency to crib songs from older artists. As everyone tweeted the morning it came out, “Born This Way” sounds an awful like Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. Bits and pieces of that same melody pop up in “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion”, which seems just vaguely familiar enough to be irritating. I’m no Madonna expert, but “Scheiße” definitely calls back to the Material Girl. And then we’ve got “Fashion of His Love”, which channels “I Wanna Dance (With Somebody Who Loves Me)”. One or two would be permissible, but when almost 25% of the album brings another artist to mind, something’s not right.
This might shock some of you, but Gaga has a tendency to pander to her fans. Her Little Monster congregation shows her such devotion that it borders a cult, and it’s only natural for Gaga to give them a shoutout. But since Born This Way is boom or bust, she dedicated the album to them, and there are three “Be yourself!” anthems for them: “Born This Way”, “Hair”, and the ABBA-esque “Bad Kids”. The latter is the only really enjoyable of the three, though.
Interestingly enough, even though Born This Way is very clearly a Message Album, the lyrics are perhaps the weakest element of the entire schbang. Gaga has her message (variations on “Be yourself” and empowerment), but time after time, she delivers it in the bluntest way possible (“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” is the lowest point), and never really expands on it. Repetition’s also a problem, and some choruses on Born This Way have the goal of fitting the song’s name in as many times as possible. A nitpick, but it bugs me: as a word, “Gaga” shows up in almost every song. Picky, but annoying all the same.
But there are plenty of redemptive songs here. The slowburner “Bloody Mary” is a welcome change from the club stompers before it, and the lyrics reach a high point. The messy “Electric Chapel” aside, Lady Gaga hits an unprecedented run of quality as the album ends: the dark groove on “Heavy Metal Lover” has an effortless cool and a solid hook, “The Queen” is too spirited to be held down, and “You and I” and “The Edge of Glory” fight for the title of Best Song.
“You and I” is a power ballad that gets surprisingly close to country at times. A fist in the air chorus, an absolutely powerful performance by Gaga, and guitars from Dr. Brian May combine for an over the top but utterly delightful penultimate track. Even though the album’s length is past daunting by the time “The Edge of Glory” comes, the song is worth listening to as an epic closure and one of Gaga’s best songs.
In some ways, Born This Way calls to mind Oasis’ infamous Be Here Now: an album hyped from here to eternity, but ends up being an overstuffed mess. The overall flaw with the album is that in its excess, bombast, preachiness, and claustrophobia, Lady Gaga’s music lost a lot of its own identity to whatever’s happening at the moment. There are good moments, to be sure, but there are also plenty of bad ones. Three out of five stars.
tl;dr: There are great songs, but fuck me, this album’s flawed. 3/5.