Writing about it six weeks after its release, I feel way late to the party on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Not just because six weeks is like an eternity in a world where news cycles are measured in minutes, but because the immediate hype that surrounded it seemed to die down pretty quickly, at least here in Norway. At least as far as I could tell, the album’s general reception varied from the mildly dismissive to pure character assassination, with a tone closer to anger than disappointment, as something of a third-rate Madonna album (NOR). It’s my impression that its reception was more tempered, and more positive, in the US. Thus, Americans might not be in need of a defense of Born This Way, but from a Norwegian perspective, one could be called for.
First, let me qualify my enthusiasm. I don’t think the album is anywhere near as good as The Fame/The Fame Monster, and it definitely goes on too long. Critics who liked the album admired it for its sprawling ambition, it’s unashamed willingness to do throw a million different ideas at the wall to see if anything would stick. I would have preferred if it had been a little more focused. Not because Gaga should deny herself (or us) anything, but because the album as a whole would have been stronger if its sprawling nature hadn’t drawn so much attention to itself. I’ll return to a couple of examples of songs I would have cut.
Also, meeting some of the grumpier critics half-way, I have to admit that I was not immediately sold on the album. Part of it has to do with its over-stretched running time, but part of it simply is the way it’s constructed. I have a tendency to develop a fairly strict listening pattern. After a while, I will have decided on which tracks to skip, and after that point, there is little chance of changing my habits. That’s why I’m still puzzled by the decision to open the album with Marry The Night instead of Born This Way. I listened to Marry The Night a couple of times just to know what I was talking about, but now, as it has from the moment I first pressed play, for me the album only really starts with Born This Way. Further contributing to my initial skepticism was the third track, Government Hooker, which while it’s recognizably Gaga, takes the theatrical screechiness, so filled with gusto when it works yet incredibly annoying when it doesn’t, a step too far. After those opening tracks, I was for a moment fearing that Born This Way would end up as Gaga’s Working On A Dream, Bruce Springsteen’s maddeningly disappointing 2009 follow-up to Magic (2007).
But it didn’t. When I tried to sum up what I thought about the album after about a week on heavy rotation on my Ipod, the memorable songs, the outrageous lyrical nuggets and the sheer over-ambitious scale of the project had won me over. And that was when I realized that a declaration like the one I made above, about how I would have liked the album to be a bit more focused and less everything-all-the-time, very much could have resulted in a lesser good. Sure, it might have gotten rid of some of the tracks I didn’t like, such as the weird dance-rock hybrid Electic Chapel, but who’s to say if other outside-the-box songs like the sort-of brilliant Americano would have been axed along with it?
In the end, I guess I’m not actually criticizing the album’s complete unwillingness to comform to known genre limitations, as much as I’m trying to locate what I consider its core. When I queried a friend for his immediate take on the album, he said, joyously, that it was so «so 80’s.» I took it as a sign that, like me, he saw the more straightforward floor-filler tracks as its lifeblood. Nothing against You and I, a rock ballad so big it borders on the anthemic, or Black Jesus + Amen Fashion, perhaps her most Madonna-esque effort yet, but to me, Gaga, is still at her best when she travels in what Slate’s Jody Rosen identified as her “European sound“. That means dance music, people.
This paragraph might give away my age, but granted that my friend and I were talking about the same thing (I didn’t inquire further, fearing that he would ruin the setup of my point below), what was “so 80′s” to one listener, struck me as equally quintessentially 90′s. If you watched MTV Europe in the early 1990s, as I slavishly did, you would inevitably be exposed to a genre often called euro dance. It’s might be nostalgia, but I hear its influence everywhere on my favorite tracks off this album, like The Queen, Highway Unicorn, Black Kids, Scheisse and Hair. All of it might not be completely transferable – not least because the most popular eurodance groups often consisted of a female vocalist accompanied by a male “rapper” with truly horrendous flow – but Gaga nonetheless takes me back to my pre-teens, and the likes of Cappella, 2 Brothers On The 4th Floor, Maxx, Jam & Spoon, 2 Unlimited, Urban Cookie Collective, DJ Bobo or Magic Affair. In 2011, all of these groups show clear signs of belonging to an earlier stage in the evolution of pop performance and production, but small parts of it may still be a useful reference point for what Gaga is doing now. But now that I’ve drowned you in obscure references to European 1990s dance music, let me say that I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Gaga has an 80′s feel to her; the 80′s and 90′s share much of their musical legacies, and on Fashion Of His Love, perhaps my favorite track on the album, Gaga is dangerously and addictively close to lifting from Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
This is not just nostalgia. I respect Gaga as a relentless advocate for diversity and gay rights, and she’s a top-notch performer who has developed an artistic persona that gives her the chance to try out stuff with her music that would have sounded forced if it was done by others. But it’s on the simpler dance tracks that I find the Gaga I personally love the most; less theatrical (Government Hooker, You and I), more escapist (Scheisse, Bad Kids). This dichotomy doesn’t cover every song, of course (where do you place a song that’s simply very, very boring, like Bloody Mary; or The Edge of Glory, which could fit both categories?), but it tries to single out what I love about Gaga as a recording artist, irrespective of everything outside of the music itself that forms our image of her music. Simon Doonan touched on it somewhat derisively (25:30) a while back, and Jody Rosen took it, approvingly, as a sign of her power to shape contemporary pop music in her image, but in the end they are both correct. Lady Gaga, particularly the one who surfaces on this album, is a true Eurovision-ary.