So, here it is. It’s no secret that Big Hollywood isn’t a fan of Lady Gaga; I’ve even made my own little snarky putdowns in the past. But when it comes to reviewing music, I have to do my best to remove personal prejudices– address the music itself and the ideas they communicate. On the first count, the album is a major mixed bag; a few enjoyable moments show up on a majority of the songs, and two or three are palatable all the way through. On the second, it’s a total mess–a self-important repackaging of “if it feels good, do it” that tells listeners no one has to validate them while Gaga repeatedly reveals her own insecurity over lacking validation.
The Lady in question, known at birth as Stefani Germanotta, has progressed beyond wanting recognition or even fame; now she craves Importance, that vain pursuit which has derailed many a talented artist (and you can quibble about putting that label on her, I’m just being polite). And on Born This Way, this attitude goes beyond didactic lyrics; Gaga puts on the airs of a prophet/oracle/Messiah for the courageous, self-endangering causes of same-sex marriage and female empowerment, doing her best to conflate sexual identity with Christianity–not just any religion, but Christianity specifically.
The album has more references to Jesus than the latest Wovenhand record, the inevitable clash of her Catholic-school upbringing and her professed bisexuality. On the aggressive yet perversely endearing “Judas,” she sings, “I wanna love you, but something’s pulling me away from you / Jesus is my virtue, Judas is the demon I cling to.” Throughout the song, “Judas” has been the “Dear Abby” pseudonym for an abusive lover (perfectly appropriate to compare a bad relationship to the betrayal of the Christ), so first she’s Jesus (a “holy fool”) being betrayed by Judas, then Jesus is an external entity from which Judas is pulling her away… I’m instantly regretting the decision to analyze these lyrics.
The “holy fool” phrase returns on the angsty “Electric Chapel,” which laughably mashes together church bells and “Money for Nothing” guitar riffs. Digging up the long-rotted corpse of the “love as religious experience” metaphor, she entreats her holy fool lover to use her like a priest–“confess to me… pray for your sins… we’ll find a way to make a pure love work in a dirty way.” And, like “Judas,” Gaga continues equating failed relationships and the Crucifixion in “Bloody Mary,” presenting herself as both the execution-happy Catholic queen and, again, a Christ figure, dancing with “hands above my head, like Jesus said.” Sadly, “Bloody Mary” is also the most dialed-down and catchy song on the album, so its obtuse, contradictory lyrics are an even greater letdown.
Aside from these attempts at casting herself as some sort of prophetess, the remainder of Gaga’s religious references express her frustration with the oppressive, patriarchal, heteronormative hatemongering which Jesus represents. On “Scheiße,” she wishes she were able to cut through all the BS of religion and society and be herself–to “dance on a single prayer” and be a strong feminist who doesn’t need anyone or anything. “Americano,” the album’s most openly political song (yes, even more than “Government Hooker“), laments the fact that she can’t marry another woman, so she breaks into a mariachi-inspired beat that blends techno with a historically ethnic musical genre about as eloquently as “Cotton-Eye Joe.” Inspired by Proposition 8’s reversal in California, the chorus sums up the left-wing response to that democratic vote quite well: “I don’t speak your Americano / I don’t speak your Jesus Christo.” Talk about petulance.
The album’s title track destroys any last, desperate hope that maybe Gaga has even a cursory understanding of the theology she rejects. Resting on the inane platitude “God makes no mistakes,” she proceeds to assert that you are morally justified in whatever you do by the very fact that you exist, even pausing at one point to run through a laundry-list of politically correct correct sexual identity labels: “No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born to survive.”
Without getting into original sin, if you think that you were “born” into your adult identity, you’ve got some explaining to do. Was John Wayne Gacy born a murderous pedophile and therefore guiltless? Was Roman Polanski born a rapist and therefore guiltless? If sexual identity is predetermined and totally unaffected by your personal decisions, what other personal attributes aren’t predetermined, and how can we tell? What keeps us from admitting de Sade was correct in saying “What is, is right”? But I digress; this is a music review, after all.
“Born this Way” has been accused of ripping off Madonna’s 1989 single “Express Yourself” because of its similar chord progression, but Gaga is more directly plagiarizing the mid-to-late-90s style of Madonna and Cher–cheesy rave beats with overactive hi-hats and forceful chest-voice singing–just with more extraneous noise and louder mastering. Opener “Marry the Night” finds her evoking Cher’s “Believe,” most notably on the bridge’s elongated vocal flourishes. The chorus of “Scheiße” echoes Madonna’s “Sky Fits Heaven,” and, in a move I can’t even comprehend, penultimate track “Yoü and I” is the kind of twangy pop-rock that arose with the likes of Faith Hill and Shania Twain. All in all, this is very backwards-looking pop music.
That said, I’d be a hypocrite for dismissing Gaga’s take on ’90s pop out of hand, especially when I’m on the record praising that style coming from Swedish pop star Robyn. With, no doubt, all the money she wanted at her disposal, the production is top-notch, and despite cuts like “Government Hooker,” which spoils a good beat with an abysmal melody, the first half of the album mostly gets things right. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’ve listened too many times while writing this piece, but it’s led to some toe-tapping, even singing along. However, after the bouncy self-esteem anthem “Bad Kids,” everything falls apart and the record gets unlistenable. “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” and closer “The Edge of Glory” recycle the chord progression from “Hair” (you know, that panderrific “Four Chord” loop that makes me lose any respect for you as a songwriter), and I’m about to add “Heavy Metal Lover” as one of the definitions of “filler” on Urban Dictionary.
Lady Gaga is, apparently, the most powerful celebrity in the entire world right now. She knows how to get the average person to pay attention to her, if only to be shocked or offended, and she has a willing army of young social media followers willing to do her bidding. It appears that on Born This Way, she’s let that power go to her head. In an attempt to fuse her activism with her music, she’s turned a middling effort into something far more grating. I know I don’t have to say anything to dissuade our readers from buying Born this Way, but the album still deserves commentary. It’s extremely depressing that a 25-year-old who’s still in a “rebel-against-my-parents’-religion” phase is the moral compass for millions of young children, but no one on our side is willing to invest in musicians to model the alternative to Gaga’s postmodern nonsense. We’ve abandoned cultural engagement for so long, we deserve this mess.