What do you get when you pay for copies of Born to Run, the Immaculate Collection, Screaming for Vengance, piano and voice lessons, and a couple semesters at New York University? A little monster, is what you get. Lady Gaga’s sophomore outing Born This Way is as much a product of the privileged, free spirited upbringing of its creator as it is a nod to her favorite albums growing up. Gaga might’ve missed most of the ‘80’s, having hatched in 1986, but she’ll be damned if she lets that stop her from claiming the sound of the era as her own. From its sound down to its collaborators, art, and song titles, Born This Way is a giant love letter to the music of the Me generation.
Check crunchy numbers like “Electric Chapel,” “Bad Kids” and the country-inflected, heavy metal umlauted “Yoü and I” for the hair metal influence. The specter of Springsteen hangs heavy over “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory” so much so that Gaga calls in Bruce’s right hand man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons (R.I.P.), to give both songs that E Street flair. The album’s title track, an apparent nod to the soulful vocals of Whitney Houston, comes off like a lesser “Express Yourself.” Adding insult to injury is the Catholic Church-baiting “Judas,” which tiptoes into “Like a Prayer” territory, and the Latin-tinged “Americano,” which was much better when it was “Alejandro” (or, for posterity’s sake, “La Isla Bonita”). There is precious little originality to be found on Born This Way, just familiar sounds drenched in Europop fondue.
So the record doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But that’s kinda the line on Gaga, isn’t it? Her music lives and dies on that brassy voice and its way of slicing through tracks on earworm melodies, right? Innovation, be damned. Born This Way has got its fair share of strong tunes. Opener “Marry the Night” is a winner, with its killer lyrical refrain and Springsteen-esque bridge. “Government Hooker” cuts the karaoke crap and kicks ass on the dance floor with laser-guided blip-pop, as does the somewhat sedate “Bloody Mary” and the bilingual “Scheiße.” Incidentally, these are all songs that eschew Born This Way’s time traveling ethos in favor of a more modern approach. See, Born This Way is the most fun when it tries the least. Which is, like, never.
Somewhere between the release of The Fame Monster and the recording of Born This Way, Gaga got it into her head that she is the patron saint of the misunderstood, the spokesperson for the disenfranchised. This led her to some fantastic opportunities for activism, as evidenced by her public campaigns against bullying and the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. On record, however, her message grates. It’s nearly impossible to take in a whole song here without sucking down a thick tablespoon of Born This Way’s quasi-religious rot and cloyingly constant message of self-empowerment. Gaga has always been able to anchor her haughty conceptual undertakings with simple, catchy tunes, but with Born This Way, the persona and the message are starting to bleed into the songs. It’s not a good look. Nobody wants to think about Jesus or Judas or self-actualization or teenage rebellion on the dance floor. They just want to latch onto something that jiggles and gyrate.