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Album Review: Lady GaGa – Born This Way

Photo: Nick Knight

There are a few reasons that ‘Born This Way’ by Lady GaGa has become one of the most anticipated album releases in the last few decades. Her current place at the top of the pop pile being a main cause of interest, but looking a little deeper we can see GaGa constantly dropping hints and making reference to the album being the album of the decade. Finally, it’s release was marked for Monday 23rd May and as the date has passed, it’s Lady GaGa herself that has to wait with baited breath to see how her work has been received.

‘Marry The Night’ opens the album in a fantastic fashion. The track begins with a synth-vocal duet, then leads into an unexpected splash of beats, embodying the subject matter of being carefree and enjoying life (watch out for that theme popping it’s head up throughout the rest of the opus).
It is the most recognizable GaGa-style track from the album – harking similarities to her ‘The Fame Monster’ EP and makes the gradual shift from the previous EP into ‘Born This Way’. The songs lyrics speak of GaGa’s new york days, working the club circuit and growing into the artist that burst onto the scene with ‘Just Dance’. She tells her story in the only way she ever could – through music and unsurprisingly the track is a belter full of passion and conviction. Watch out for this in the live format as it promises to be a spectacular show stopper when her next ball begins. Save for the fantastic third verse when Gaga demands ‘come on and run’ in her direct, inimitable style. It contains the traits of a future single and is another smash hit waiting to happen and with GaGa intending to realise nine singles from the album it looks likely to get it’s chance to shine.
You’d have to be a pretty dedicated GaGaphobe to have avoided the enormous hit single and title track ‘Born This Way’. To say that it was one of the most anticipated single releases wouldn’t be an exaggeration, neither would it be exaggerated to say that the reaction to it’s release was met with hostility by many fans and critics alike. I was certainly under whelmed by what was hailed by GaGa herself as a type of revolutionary anthem. It sounded great, it was fun and in my experience, passed the night club test. But there felt that there was something missing, for me.
I found that the song itself was never the problem. Although it wasn’t on par with ‘Bad Romance’, a song that was still reigning on top of the pop pile, it’s importance wasn’t to be found in it’s musical arrangement, but rather the lyrics. GaGa constantly speaks of her pride at being the first artist to reach number one in the USA with a song that contains the lyrics ‘gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life’ and she has stated that the song ‘we exposed the cultural situation’ with the track. The revolution didn’t come from the music, but from the lyrics and the message within the song.
Now, after dedicating a whole paragraph to the fact that the song doesn’t stand out amongst her back catalogue, I don’t doubt that I’ve made it sound like a bad song – something that it certainly isn’t. The amazing third verse onwards in which GaGa almost raps her lyrics with such incredible passion is easily the standout moment from the track and the soaring chorus is as euphoric and beautiful as the message it conveys.
The message couldn’t be more different from ‘Government Hooker’. An interesting, operatic introduction leads into a driving song about one of many taboos that GaGa is keen to explore – prostitution. Well, it’s not prostitution as we know it – merely a metaphor for the women that use sex as a method to succeed (“I’ll make you squeal baby, as long as you pay me”). But still, this is a sexually charged song that utilizes censorship beeps as an additional instrument, which is useful as it occurs quite often in the later half of the track.
The reason the song has reached such a level of notoriety in the small time that it’s been available (counting back to the premiere at the Mugler fashion show) is evident when looking at it’s originality. A key aspect is GaGa crying out ‘Hooker’ which may not sound like the most exciting prospect, but works wonders on the track itself. The song is not short on catchiness however, as it’s almost impossible to pin point a chorus in amongst all the immense, repeated hooks.
‘Judas’, alike ‘Marry The Night’ serves as a bridge between the old material and ‘Born This Way’. It’s similarities to ‘Bad Romance’ begin and end with the ‘Judah-Judah-ah-ah’ chant, from there on in, ‘Judas’ concentrates on skull-smashing beats and the catchiest melodies on offer. The chorus contrasts the rest of the track by breaking down the beats and leaving GaGa’s vocals to do the work and they succeed, naturally. It proves itself as a perfect single to have been released prior to the album as it displays the darker edge of the album that ‘Born This Way’ hadn’t exposed during it’s success. It also works well within the context of the album, standing out as a strong track despite the competition from the other incredible tracks.
The first real shocker is the fifth track ‘Americano’ which takes mariachi music, marries it with dance and flavours the result with some immigration and same-sex marriage issues. Sounds pretty crazy already. The track mixes english and spanish lyrics and sees GaGa explaining that she fails to speak ‘americano’ or ‘Jesus Christo’, defining the way she rejects America’s mentalities against same-sex marriage and immigration and controversially goes against their view of Jesus Christ. A little crazier now, but bare with her because to top off this cocktail of issues and musical madness the song has the infamous x factor that moulds it all together and actually makes it sound phenomenal.
This track is one of the standouts from ‘Born This Way’ in that it does something different and has such conviction and passion that you can taste the confidence GaGa has in it. Mixing and matching styles and genres is exactly the trait that makes GaGa live up to her name. It’s these experiments that push her ahead of the pack at the moment and it’s her insistence on trying new styles that qualifies her as one of the most talented performers the world has ever seen. It’s much too early to hail her as the next Madonna, but for now, GaGa is doing everything right and ‘Americano’ is the evidence of her talent, skill and passion.
Alike the title track, ‘Hair’ embodies the subject of self acceptance and embracing who you are. It works in metaphor, as does the lady herself, with the song declaring ‘i am my hair’ and during which GaGa explains her desire to die as free as her hair. The message is portrayed in a much more intelligent way and the imagery of hair works well within the track – it provides enough curiosity from outsiders whilst maintaining a lot of sense.
It may take a few listens to properly embrace the stunning chorus for what it is, but every instrument (and boy, are there a lot competing for attention!) stands out – the poignant piano pieces as well as the short bursts of saxophone. The song is a single waiting to happen (and not just a promo single) with such an incredible build up in the verses and an anthemic chorus. Perhaps, as the final promotional single, you won’t initially hear that much from the song as it is outshone by the fresher newly released album tracks but it’s definitely one of the finer moments from ‘Born This Way’.
It’s never been a secret that RedOne and GaGa are an incredible writing duo, but i can’t help but feel that they’d struggle to top the monster smash (pun intended) that was ‘Bad Romance’. ‘Judas’ may have been the first hint at what Team GaGaRedOne had mustered up this time, but it is the seventh track, ‘Scheiße’, that is their secret weapon.
It has lyrics that are interesting in a slightly nonsensical way (“I don’t speak german but I can if you like”) and a hook in german so that’ll tick the ‘unique’ box. As is a recurring theme on the album, it deals with liberation and independence (“If you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission”) whilst musically, it is dark with a pulsating dance beat that embodies the ‘sledgehammering beats’ GaGa had been so vocal about prior to the albums release. It is a perfect choice for a single and it’ll be very interesting as to whether they’ll censor a german curse word? Will the radio stations even realise? I smell another controversy. – typical GaGa.
‘Bloody Mary’ takes this dark edge and multiplies it by ten as it begins it’s foray into a fusion of choral backdrops and electronic pop. The tempo fails to surpass midpace and the music doesn’t adhere to the all-guns-blazing approach that the previous tracks had tackled, but it’s all for the best as ‘Bloody Mary’ breaks into a genre of music that has rarely received mainstream attention. It’s ignorant to say that the track is entirely unique – atmospheric pop has been Fever Ray and Bjork’s forte for years now, but being the world’s biggest popstar releasing the most anticipated album in recent years – it’s interesting to see tracks like ‘Bloody Mary’ making the final cut.
The standout moment from this, one of the highlights of ‘Born This Way’, is the magnificent bridge, comprising of GaGa claiming that she will “dance with my hands above my head like Jesus said”, leading beautifully into the haunting chorus in which she speaks atop an eerie choir chanting “GaGa”. Creepy goodness.
Madonna similarities are rife amongst GaGa fans and critics alike, but the only true similarity occurs on the first bonus track – ‘Black Jesus✝ Amen Fashion’. Lyrically, it documents GaGa’s induction into the downtown New York scene and raises themes such as fashion and religion, documenting the alterations in her mindset. Sounds good so far. But there’s a catch. It sounds like Madonna. The absolute bane of GaGa’s career so far seems to be that comparison, hence her breaking down in her hyped interview with NME.
Whilst i feel like a lazy reviewer for utilizing such an overused comparison, I’d be cowardly to gloss over the similarities. In all honesty, despite sounding like Madonna, GaGa adds a much darker edge to the dramatic choruses and it doesn’t feel that the song has simply been swiped from Madge’s paws as she signs some adoption papers in Malawi. It fits perfectly into the album and musically, is one of the most interesting arrangements on the album. And what is an 80s style album without a few nods towards Madonna anyway?
‘Bad Kids’ steers the album into a new direction that couldn’t be further from the dark theatrics of ‘Bloody Mary’. The song opens with a punk-style guitar solo accompanied by a speech about GaGa being born with her free gun and she blazes it throughout the fierce verses. A Pet Shop Boys-ish bridge and chorus appear out of the blue, almost entirely unexpected (i say almost as expecting the unexpected with GaGa is usually a pretty good strategy) and though they do have a different vibe to the verses, they gel together well. The chorus works its way into the subconscious, as with most great songs and you’re singing along before you realise. The chorus is one of the weakest on the album, but the bridge is enough to make up for it and, as aforementioned, the verses are fantastic as well.
The main ‘problem’ (if you want to call it that) with the song is that it strikes out of the blue. It’s the first pure pop song to come from what has been a pounding dance assault and with repeated listens, it’s easy to realise that no other song could’ve made the transition from the dark ‘Black Jesus…’ to the poptastic ‘Fashion Of His Love’ as well as ‘Bad Kids’ does. The highlight of the track is the breakdown in the middle eight when GaGa sings the bridge over a beautiful piano and string arrangement. The entire album succeeds on the grounds of these small touches that elevate a song from good to great and from incredible to phenomenal.
Whilst ‘Fashion Of His Love’ is unashamedly pop, it’s doing things in a new way. Or should i say the old way as it channels Whitney-era Whitney Houston whilst adding a few more electro influences. The chorus is one of the most upbeat cheesfests you’re likely to hear this side of Glee, but cheese has never been an insult in my vocabulary.
The song is an ode to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen and the references to him really add an emotional aspect to the lyrics but not in a mournful manner. It feels like GaGa isn’t grieving for McQueen, but is rather celebrating his life and the incredible fashion he was known for. The track is an easy, catchy pop tune which fits perfectly into the tracklist as a contrast to the darker, deeper themes and issues that may pollute some of the songs a little for casual listeners.
As if this isn’t good enough, the Fernando Garibay remix that accompanies the extended edition of the album is even poppier and full of 80s goodness, so there is a very good reason in itself as to why you should purchase the extended edit. The track is ‘as fitting as McQueen’ itself on the album and easily deserved to make the final cut of the original release but the Fernando Garibay remix would have found a perfect home behind Bad Kids. A definite treat for the fans shedding out the extra to receive the expanded edition.
Incase things haven’t been grandeur enough yet, check out the pounding chorus of ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’. It isn’t as instant as the rest of the tracks but it certainly grows and has an incredible backdrop that sounds like ‘Speechless’ had a moment of passion with ‘Dance In The Dark’ after a drunken night at the Monster Ball. The music occasionally drops out without warning, which only adds to it’s charm before the drumbeats bring the song back to it’s colossal hook. It can adequately be summed up by the word ‘anthem’ and all the connotations that come with that title. Granted, the lyrics aren’t the best and it’s probably the closest you’re going to get to an album track on ‘Born This Way’, but when the filler is as killer as this then you’d be a fool to complain.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ was going to posess the ‘metal’ style that GaGa had been promising (and she delivered, save for the next track ‘Electric Chapel’) yet it manages to be one of the danciest tracks on the opus. GaGa speaks, similiar to the way she does in ‘Bloody Mary’ as opposed to singing the verses and that only increases the sultriness of the track. Lyrical genius also comes in the form of ‘dirty pony, I want to hose you down’ and ‘I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south’. Pulsating beats tease toward a stunning second chorus when she asks ‘would you love me if i ruled the world?’. Probably quite an apt question judging from the success she’s been enjoying as of late.
It’s difficult to convey ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ in words. It’s minimal, but never boring. It’s mid-tempo but powerful. It’s closest to ‘So Happy I Could Die’, but sounds almost nothing like it other than a similar tempo. It has a series of minute details that give the track it’s beauty.
A personal highlight is the glorious track that follows, ‘Electric Chapel’, which fuses together electric guitar with sultry synths. It’s an interesting concoction and has one of the best vocal performances as GaGa channels a lustful temptress in the chorus as she declares ‘if you want to steal my heart away, take me baby to a safe place’. The safe place being the ‘Electric Chapel’ yet, ironically, it manages to be one of the biggest risks that GaGa takes on the album. But, naturally, she works best whilst she is pushing the boundaries and the track succeeds in every way.
I do, however, find the duo of ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and ‘Electric Chapel’ a little tedious. Granted, they are two of the highlights from the album, but with such a similiar mid-tempo and downbeat chorus, i can’t help but feel it’s a little hard to properly recieve and absorb the two together. On first listen, i felt ‘Electric Chapel’ sat in ‘Heavy Metal Lover’s shadow. Literally. Maybe it could be forgiven if there wasn’t a plethora of hard-hitting goodness that could’ve slipped between the two tracks, allowing them both to thrive in their downbeat fashion.
Though ‘The Queen’ may be under whelming, particularly in the context of such an outstanding album, it’s worth remembering that as a bonus track on any other album, it’d probably be quite sensational. The verses are stronger than the chorus whilst the latter doesn’t flow as well as almost the entirety of the other tracks in GaGa’s discography – it feels like theres something missing. In addition, it’s notable that the hook on this track is certainly not as catchy as we’ve come to expect from GaGa. The lyrics, however, are some of her best and it’s easy to find the muse if you have a skim through her twitter timeline; the song articulates the famous relationship she has with her fans and references the strength they give to her. Lovely. What isn’t so lovely is her insistance on stretching out the word Queen into three syllables before the divine breakdown. Stop trying to make ‘Qu-e-een’ happen, it’s not going to happen.
It’s certainly not a surprise that GaGa should play with strong structure (after all, she experiments with everything else) and in her recent Popjustice interview, she stated ‘I have also been playing as much as I can on this album without constraining myself too much by always having the same structures’. The majority of the second half of the track is instrumental (occasionally accompanied by adlibs) and it works well. After dropping to a significantly lower tempo, it feeds beautifully into ‘Yoü and I’ – rife with electric guitar and effectively serving as an extended guitar solo.
‘Yoü and I’ has gone under quite some transformation and it lies deeper than the two dots above the u. The song itself is recognisable from it’s inclusion on the record-breaking Monster Ball tour but the production, courtesy of Mutt Lange, takes the song onto another level. A few similarities have been thrown around and it’s easy to see a slight hint of Shania Twain in this track – perhaps as a result from Lange’s production, but the country rock vibe manages to fit nicely amongst the album as opposed to sticking out like a cowboy in a nightclub.
A nice hook and a pretty instrumental isn’t enough to cut it when you’re sitting amongst the murderously powerful beats on this record, though – plus, ‘Yoü and I’ had to at least attempt to shift fan-favourite ‘Speechless’ from it’s piano-shaped throne. It’s difficult to say if it has succeeded however, as, though the two tracks are similar in many ways, ‘Yoü and I’ packs more of a punch with it’s incredible guitar-driven third verse topped with GaGa’s powerful vocals persisting in the lyrical ode to her boyfriend Lüc Carl. It’d be hard to deny that the song drips with passion but it depends how you like your ballads – simple and heartfelt as in ‘Brown Eyes’ or ‘Speechless’ or something a little different.
The final track is already familiar due to it’s release as a promotional single and in the short time between the release of the track and the album itself, has built up a startling level of renown that was shocking to GaGa herself. ‘The Edge of Glory’ has already sown it’s seeds and looks set to grow into a firm fan favourite. It encompasses the euphoric beats that have been core to GaGa’s music and essential to the tracks on ‘Born This Way’, but it’s the stunning saxophone solo that propels it into a new dimension. It’s recognisable as a Lady GaGa hit, but posesses attributes that show the experimentation and development she has gone though and is willing to employ to stay ahead of the pack.
It would’ve been quite easy and understandable for GaGa to produce an album of ‘Poker Faces’ and ‘Bad Romances’, but ‘Born This Way’ experiments with it’s sound and sees GaGa grow as a musician. The songs are longer, the arrangements remain appealing and the whole album has a sense of longetivity. Repeated listens are rewarded by the small, obscure passages that elevate the album from any other release from a mainstream artist. The phrase ‘something for everyone’ is overused and if you have a strong distaste for dance, then maybe it isn’t going to appeal but it’s definitely a varied record that leaves no genre unturned. Whilst it’s hard to say whether it is the album of the decade, as GaGa claimed that it was, it’s an album that does something different and brings the experimental underground onto a mainstream platform. If success is determined by longetivity then she is yet to prove herself, but as far as early sales suggest – GaGa has succeeded.

Photo: Nick Knight
Words: Simon McMurdo

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