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. Of course, here the album was pretty widely dismissed, with a tone closer to anger than disappointment, as something of a second-rate Madonna album, while my impression is that its reception was more tempered, and more positive, in the US. In an American context, a defense of Born This Way may seem like a needless exercise, but bear with me.
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 is definitely 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’ve written with regards to Hanson about how important a listening pattern is to how I perceive an album. It may take some time, but 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, 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 with 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 lyric nuggets and the sheer over-ambitious scale of the projects 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 an album that was less 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 it’s core. An oft-invoked friend of this blog said of the album that it’s “so 80’s.” I agree, to a point, but more important, 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 tell you as much about my geographical and cultural background that it does about my age, but granted that we were talking about the same thing, what was “so 80’s” to one listener, struck me as quintessentially 90’s. I don’t know how much of this penetrated the American pop charts, but if you watched MTV Europe in the early 90’s, as I slavishly, 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 performance 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 love most personally; 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. On this album, it’s her insights as a Eurovisionary.