Whew, didn't this album come out months ago? Amazingly, no: Lady Gaga's hotly anticipated third album, "Born This Way," has been relentlessly hyped -- the track listing reveal! the cover art reveal! the bar code reveal!..." />
Chicago Sun-Times
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CD review: Lady Gaga, 'Born This Way'

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(Interscope) 2<br />
stars

gagaborn052011.jpgWhew, didn't this album come out months ago?

Amazingly, no: Lady Gaga's hotly anticipated third album, "Born This Way," has been relentlessly hyped -- the track listing reveal! the cover art reveal! the bar code reveal! -- and finally sees its official release Monday, concluding a long and thus far not overly satisfying build-up. Gaga's legions of fans, the "little monsters," have been holding out for their heroine since the singles began their march of carefully orchestrated leaks nearly five months ago.

What have they been holding out for? More singles, it turns out.

"Born This Way" isn't an album as much as an hourlong playlist of proposed new singles, perhaps no surprise from a performer more deft at crafting $1.29 confections than full-price meals. She's certainly adept at it -- seven monster hits ("Just Dance," "Poker Face," "Bad Romance" etc.) from her first two records, with the singles outselling the albums nearly four times over -- and this new batch is wildly ambitious compared to the previous two.

Unified only by a still-vague notion of inclusiveness -- and a string of reminders that she, Stefani Germanotta, 25, is a naughty, naughty girl ("I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south," she purrs in "Heavy Metal Lover") -- these individual nuggets beat us about the head with the kind of bombastic, over-reaching production we're used to from Elton John, Guns 'N Roses or especially Bonnie Tyler. Some are fun, some are absurd, but few achieve a level of artistry or even personality equal to the deafening volume of their sheer pop cultural noise.

Even without the lingering criticism of the title track's litigation-ready echo of Madonna's "Express Yourself," the "Born This Way" album plays like a souped-up, muscle-car rebuild of "The Immaculate Collection," Madonna's 1990 singles compilation. The ratio is about equal of semi-religious button-pushers, shameless gay culture co-opts, simplistic '80s pop and resuscitated Eurodisco. It's as if she's made a greatest-hits concept album.

Gaga filches from Madonna in many ways, not just musically. Most of her major influences, in fact, including Bowie and Queen (her stage name comes from their hit "Radio Gaga"), excelled at being indirect figureheads for non-traditional personalities. Madonna embraced and was embraced by gay culture, namely because she employed a friendlier approach. Gaga, however, outright tells us we're second-class outsiders, coming on throughout the now-overexposed title track like a stern nun from her private Catholic school youth in Manhattan, rapping our knuckles and preaching her gospel to an all-inclusive (and commercially robust) demographic of anyone who's ever felt the slightest bit marginalized by the very mainstream Gaga now lords over.

While her "I'm OK, you're OK" shtick is an important basic message, particularly among younger listeners -- and her lyrics on this album also address bullying as well as empowering women (instructing them, in the Teutonic "Schei├če," not to be "objectified by what men say is right") -- her application of it is annoyingly didactic. As a gay man myself, I can tell you I'm beyond weary of this hanger-on insisting she's my unelected cultural ambassador, particularly when her knowledge of gay culture -- even the idea that there's much left to be co-opted -- seems so remarkably shallow. Madonna didn't present the idea that gay people were freaks and outsiders requiring anyone's stewardship. She was ahead of her time in that regard, while Gaga's identity politics seem very 20th century.

The music on "Born This Way" is certainly pre-Y2K, borrowing from so many sources that she effectively contradicts her lyrical mantra of being yourself. That doesn't mean some tunes aren't fun. Most choruses reach Def Leppard heights of hysteria, and the bookends -- the well-developed opener "Marry the Night" (dig the funky, Chaka Khan breakdown as it ends!) and anthemic closer "The Edge of Glory" -- are Meatloaf-worthy theatrical juggernauts. "Bad Kids," a simplistic and dull ode to juvenile delinquents, sounds remarkably like Debbie Gibson, while the dark "Government Hooker" apes Wax Trax!-style industrial slamming. "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" is an over-the-top road anthem, full of pounding, wet drums and reaching a Springsteen-esque, organ-driven climax. (Mother of all oddities, "Born This Way" also features several inconsequential sax solos from wayward E Streeter Clarence Clemons.) It's a colorful collage, complete with a Latin anthem, "Americano" (the album's "La Isla Bonita"). Gaga doesn't create as much as she curates.

From underneath all this overproduced muck, Gaga's powerful voice occasionally breaks free. Some of the strangest songs on "Born This Way" work best to showcase her vocal talents, especially the way she bends words around the scale like balloon animals in "Government Hooker" ("hah-ah-ah-ker!") and "Judas" (that squawking "Ju-dah-ah-ahs!" after each ABBA-like chorus). Near the end of the album are two songs that relieve some of the vocal pressure, and Gaga slips into them warmly for great effect. "Electric Chapel" folds metal guitars into satiny grooves at a gentle pace, allowing Gaga to calmly deliver her most pleasant -- and finally sexy -- vocals on the album. After her meat dresses and Nubian eggs, she sounds as comfy as a pair of plain ol' jeans as she sings "You and I," a bar-band ballad about a boy from Nebraska that's been staple of her concert set for a year. On record, this chestnut gets country-rock harmony vocals and layered guitars worthy of Boston's Tom Scholz.

After its release, "Born This Way" no doubt will unseat Adele's stubborn hold on Billboard's No. 1 slot. The soulful young British singer's "21" has been the year's Cinderella story, hitting No. 1, then backing off but returning to the top again and again throughout the spring. It's an album with power balladry almost as bombastic as "Born This Way," but it caught on because of its soulful sincerity and naked honesty. Gaga's album has no gravitas to compete with that, and as Adele's tour winds around this country -- arriving Tuesday at Chicago's Riviera Theatre -- justice would be served if "21" leap-frogged "Born This Way" to be back on top by mid-June.

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9 Comments

This is a wonderfully written piece, and perhaps the most succinct critique of the Lady Gaga persona that I've read. I wonder if too much of her talent is going to spectacle rather than the songs. They are ear-worms and good for the club, but it's a shame that she hasn't gotten more authentic or weirder. She's leaving something on the table.

It's a shame you would interpret Lady GaGa as a "hanger-on" to the LGBT community...apparently, bisexuals don't count?...and that you would find her intense advocacy to be so annoying. It may be 20th Century that gay people are considered second-class citizens, but in fact the majority of our laws, as they pertain to LGBT people, are still stuck in that era. GaGa isn't telling LGBT people we're second class, she's bemoaning the fact that we are and, unlike Madonna in the '80s (biggest Madonna fan ever here), GaGa is in an era where she can speak about gay issues much more freely.

True enough, Madonna became a gay icon the old-fashioned way...she didn't campaign for it or directly address her gay fans as explicitly as other artists who came after. (She was the same with feminism...she embodied it without embracing it, and has even rejected the term.)

I already have to roll one eye at all the younger gay fans who now see Madonna as a fake gay icon because she hasn't DONE ANYTHING for us (so wrong), and now I find I have to roll the other at all the older gay fans who look a gift horse in the mouth in saying that an artist like GaGa, with the world's eye and ear, is pandering or somehow insincere when she marches for gay rights, makes speeches on gay rights and incorporates gay themes into her work.

Musically, I haven't been quite as jazzed by the new songs as I was by the stuff on her previous albums (you talk about her abundance of hit singles as if that means a cohesive album is out of the question...weren't records like BORN IN THE USA, TRUE BLUE, THRILLER, SHE'S SO UNUSUAL, etc., great albums *and* great singles collections?...but I'm far less annoyed by her strident gay activism than I am by its strident rejection by a small, vocal and, I would respectfully submit, jaded group of gay people who finally have another popstar unashamed to stick up for gay rights but who seem to feel that issue, like '80s production values, has been done.

Couldn't agree more. But then I have little use for Madonna either.

As for Cheese, I like mine Extra Crusty

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=840B27zYfOk

"As a gay man myself, I can tell you I'm beyond weary of this hanger-on insisting she's my unelected cultural ambassador, particularly when her knowledge of gay culture -- even the idea that there's much left to be co-opted -- seems so remarkably shallow."

Sorry Thomas, but if you have an agenda against her message due to your orientation, that hardly makes you an objective journalist reviewing this album. As a gay man, I am so tired of hearing gays knee-jerk this "don't speak for me" reaction to Lady Gaga, who has done more for the visibility of gays than Madonna or any other ever has done. She has worked to elevate our social issues -- gay marriage, don't ask repeal, etc. -- to heights that no other pop artist has ever bothered with, period.
Further, a significant chunk of her concert revenues from each and every show are donated to homeless LGBT youth, a partnership she has with Virgin and which is unassailable in any regard. Lady Gaga's motivations are sincere and as pop stars go, as the biggest star in the world, she's a terrific advocate and mouthpiece for gay and any who are disenfranchised. With so much going on in the world today -- bullying, the Wisconsin governor just passing a bill to ban same-sex partners from hospital visitation -- eschewing Lady Gaga's support is sheer ignorance. So you go on ahead and stand apart from her universal message of equality for all and her desire for a utopian ideal. Shunning her message that we are "born this way," something we have been trying to get the mainstream to come to grips with since day one, is both naive and misguided.

This is a disgusting review from someone who clearly doesn't know the full political and emotional impact from Lady Gaga. To accuse her views on gay culture as shallow only pegs you as an incompetent prick. You might be a writer, and a good one at that, but stick to things you know because music reviews are simply not for you... unless it's a Madonna track, clearly.

Going back to your review of her recent Chicago show, I can now say that your review of Born this Way doesn't surprise me in the least. You wrote cynically about her music and message and doubted her sincerity in that review as well.

It's clear you don't like her -- perhaps the Sun-Times should find an objective music critic to cover new releases.

Dead on review and very well written. I have nothing against Gaga, but I am weary of her as the gay friendly banner person. Her songs are bubble gum, which is fine, but a little goes a long way. Artists like Madonna, Cher and Bette Midler are also vocal supporters of the gay/lesbian community without the unnecessary need to act like a fool for publicity sake. Perhaps this is a generational thing... Kids today.

Loved the piece, I feel like you read my mind!


"Madonna didn't present the idea that gay people were freaks and outsiders requiring anyone's stewardship. She was ahead of her time in that regard, while Gaga's identity politics seem very 20th century."

Sir, you summed up why I have felt so uncomfortable about this girl ever since she started. Thank you.

Bette

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 20, 2011 12:00 PM.

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