Lady Gaga, Born this Way and the complications of common ground

“All rock and roll is homosexual”

By the time I became a fan of Welsh rockers the Manic Street Preachers in the late nineties, the band had long since moved past their early fashion of spray-painting slogans on their t-shirts. But given that teenagers think and live in slogans, I spent a great deal of time digging through online photo galleries and sampling the band’s previous era as language provocateurs. Few groups of my own time so willingly embraced the ironies, complexities and complications of treating rock and roll as a statement of purpose, and their scattershot approach to sloganeering only made them more exciting.

I can’t remember most of those slogans now, a decade later, but the above stuck with me. Probably because it was one of the sharpest of the bunch: here was a band self-consciously trading in Guns ‘n’ Roses arena rock while embracing the aesthetic of glam and punk alongside. But the statement also hits at some deeper, uncomfortable truths of rock and roll.

And no, I don’t just mean that rock and roll is full of potential gay readings if you stop and think about it: phallic guitars with fingers sprawled up the neck in solo; men sharing vocal harmonies into a single microphone, inches from one another; a band of brothers cascading to orgasmic climax as the set-closing ballad crashes to an end. (And this doesn’t even take into account the interesting fashion sensibilities of arena rock.)

No, what I’m getting at is that the genre divide that occurred in the 1970s—separating ‘rock’ from ‘dance’ or ‘disco’—was built more on heterosexual (and white) masculine anxiety than musical form or practice. The art rockers knew this; that’s why the most thrilling music of the decade that followed came from new wave and post-punk, which had no concerns at all in crossing the genre/gender/sexuality streams. But though the eighties had no shortage of great pop music, one wonders what might had been had mainstream dance and rock not been forced to stand on opposite sides of the school gymnasium; if “Dancing in the Dark” had been dancier, had “Like a Virgin” turned up the distortion, had “Don’t Stop Believin’” been written as a four-on-the-floor club anthem.

Of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’” IS a club anthem now, as a changing musical culture and evolving attitudes towards gender and sexuality have begun to bring a divided mainstream into an unexpected consensus: the sound most identified as ‘pop’ in 2011 is a true fusion of dance, hip hop and, yes, rock. Starting with the Broadway rock musical—the evolution from Rent through Rock of Ages and American Idiot—through to the surprisingly heavy moments from phenomena like Glee and American Idol, mainstream rock’s death is, I would argue, exaggerated: it’s just been fused together with genres once considered off-limits to its sensibilities.

And into the culture stepped Lady Gaga.

If you want me, meet me at electric chapel”

Gaga’s arrival couldn’t have been better timed, which is one of the reasons she’s become the biggest pop icon since Eminem. Though ostensibly promoted as a dance album, The Fame built an audience, single by single, with a post-genre fusion that ended up speaking a little bit to everyone—it was “Paparazzi” that got me on the bandwagon, personally, but it wasn’t until “Bad Romance” that Gaga got her mission-statement blockbuster. Though both The Fame and The Fame Monster have their requisite pop filler, their standouts hit heavier than expected.

But it’s in her live show that Gaga betrays her rock ambition: every song is fuzzed up bigger, louder, escalating the adrenaline not by doubling-down on the dance beats, but turning up the guitars. And then there’s her affection for the piano: almost entirely absent from The Fame, the keys are a staple of Gaga’s show, as she sits (and often stands) at the grand piano, belts out a tune or two and, in the process, touches a much larger musical history than her assigned genre would lead you to expect.

The anticipation for Born this Way, Gaga’s second proper album, is sky high, but arguably has been quieted in some corners by the slate of pre-release singles; certainly, the title track’s resemblance to “Express Yourself” became such a familiar talking point that you’re probably tired of hearing people mention the comparison. But I’m not sure that even a couple of middling tracks can entirely mute the potential moment that Gaga has in front of her, as she releases Born this Way into a pop landscape just crying out for a great unifier in the mould of Michael Jackson’s Thriller almost 30 years ago: bridging our artificial divides—rock/dance, gay/straight, black/white—and finding that elusive musical consensus.

And for four minutes and 24 seconds, she succeeds beyond all expectations.

“Gonna burn a hole in the road”

Okay, so there are certainly more great minutes on Born this Way than just its first four and a half. But none can match the rush of hearing “Marry the Night” kick into high gear. It’s a jaw-dropping stunner, brilliantly bringing together arena rock and disco on the common ground of the thrill of possibility. Gaga’s playing with deep, well-entrenched iconography here—the club, the car, the alcohol, the city—but makes them genre-less, open to anybody and everybody who’s listening to identify with. (She even finds room for her sexual vision with “won’t poke holes in the seat with my heels ‘cause that’s where we make love”) You’re not sure whether to move your fists or your feet when you’re listening, but the song begs—hell, demands—you do something.

Born this Way’s best moments find similar abandon in fusing genres. “Hair” is a bit cheesy—we’ll get to Gaga’s lyrics in a bit—but there’s no denying that chorus, sung as if it’s the single most powerful, profound sentiment on earth. That song, along with album-closer “The Edge of Glory,” go so far in their quest for rock authenticity that Gaga recruits Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemons to put his unmistakable mark on them. And, somehow, it totally works, and if there’s any justice, “Glory” will become a summer smash, as car radios desperately need such belt-out-your-lungs sentiments this time of year.

But things start to get scattershot from there. On the surface, tracks like “Bad Kids” and “Highway Unicorn” (yes, that’s actually its name) echo the album’s best moments, but lack the consistent spark; it’s as if they’re content to flirt with abandon rather than just reach out and take it by the reigns. Elsewhere, Gaga retreats to a more comfortable dance format, with mixed results. “Government Hooker” and “Schiße” are solid—heavy beats, twisted lyrics and pretty flat-out weird—but then you get tracks like “Bloody Mary,” which just kind of sit there and don’t go anywhere. “Heavy Metal Lover” is even more boring; it’s almost as if Gaga couldn’t figure out anywhere else that its great opening couplet—”I want your whisky mouth / all over my blonde south”—fit, but was so determined to get it on the record that she kept the mediocre track with it. “Judas” is among the better of the bunch, but even it’s crippled when you realize that the song, musically, is just a lesser retread of “Bad Romance.”

“Judas” is followed by “Americano,” the album’s weakest track by a mile, throwing the entire record into a rut a mere five songs in. Latin-infused but passionless, the track is more than just unmemorable, like too much of Born this Way ends up—it’s flat-out bad, begging the question of just why the hell it’s on the album in the first place.

Perhaps because Lady Gaga’s greatest asset and flaw is that she doesn’t want to be everything to everyone: she wants to be anything to anyone.

“Let identity be your religion”

So said Gaga, as the pull quote in her guest-edited edition of the Metro newspaper last week. I was kind of taken aback by the statement, personally: I can appreciate the importance of identity politics as much as any straight white male can (though some would argue that’s not much at all), but the idea of worshiping identity strikes me as distressingly self-involved, near masturbatory in its implications. Shouldn’t we be seeking something greater than ourselves as people, rather than navel-gazing at the self to the point of spiritual faith?

But this gets to the fundamental contradictions at Gaga’s centre. While her music provides cross-genre common ground, she champions the individual to an almost absurd degree. That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have songs about needing or wanting other people, but sometimes even these (“Schiße,” for example) express reservations about such dependance. “Born this Way” has grown on me—it plays particularly well as the record’s second track—but its unsubtle ambition at being the anthem of self-definition still rubs me the wrong way. There are countless lyrics that hit awkwardly because it’s clear Gaga’s working to cram a sentiment in there. “Hair” is arguably the worst, but its central metaphor is so silly that it almost gets away with it (though even Willow’s “Whip My Hair” has more nuance).

But this brings us to Gaga’s other great irony: that such a champion of identity has no real identity herself.

Oh, her worldview has values of course: the self, booze, complicated religion, sex, equality, etc. But Gaga’s chameleon fashion sense extends to her music and her lyrics, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to tell if there’s an actual person in there expressing herself. Is she writing these songs because she actually feels them, or is merely putting them together a collection of ideas that her fanbase can find themselves in?

I’m not suggesting that Gaga is cynical; far from it. But has there been a pop artist in recent years so shamelessly devoted to his or her fans, who—in interviews, tweets and performances—professes such wholehearted devotion to them? In describing her “monsters,” Gaga argues for a power dynamic that’s the reverse of how fame is generally understood: she is beholden to the power of her fans, not the other way around. If Gaga has an identity, it’s in being what her fans want (or need) her to be; her self is selflessness.

So that’s probably why “Americano” makes it on the album: it’s as if Gaga feels that she needs a Latin-themed song because she has Latin-loving fans who will flock to it, no matter that it’s not her best work. When you consider Born this Way in such a fashion—a smorgasbord of sounds, a little bit of something for each person to cling to—it begins to make a lot more sense, even if it doesn’t necessarily make its lesser moments more worthwhile. (This may also explain the album art—perhaps Gaga felt a need to reach out to her biker monsters?)

There is one strange, bewildering exception to this: “Yoü and I,” the record’s penultimate track. Though many reviewers are referring to this as a ‘rock’ song, make no mistake: this is a straight-up country track, a shockingly intimate ode to a man from Nebraska and the single moment on the record where the audience-focused veil that is ‘Gaga’ seems to lift for a moment. The song isn’t helped by its excessive Mutt Lange production, but it’s still one of the album’s most stirring moments and, together with “The Edge of Glory,” ensures that Born This Way ends almost as high as it began.

But it could have been more. In creating a space in which anyone can find something, Born this Way ends up too scattered and aimless to act as a singular statement the way the similarly genre-hopping Thriller did. Its disparate moments never hit as hard as those that feel total in and of themselves. Judging by “Yoü and I,” I almost get the sense that it’s in those songs—the thrill of “Marry the Night,” “The Edge of Glory,” “Hair”—that we’re getting a taste of Gaga’s true passion, what drives and inspires her beyond the world of her fans.

If that’s truly the way she was born, I want to hear more of it.

2 responses to “Lady Gaga, Born this Way and the complications of common ground

  1. Didn’t think I would enjoy a Lady Gaga review so much, but great job! I would add that those who try to be everything to everyone are really nobody in particular. BTW, good to see you at the conference!

  2. Pingback: …in which McNutt reflects on the lost summer of 2011 « McNutt Against the Music·

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