On January 1 this year we listed the things we wanted in 2011 from Lady Gaga. A Glastonbury performance, full range of dolls, that kind of thing. One of the eleven requests was: “Hats. Many hats. Hats so numerous that some onlookers will feel moved to say there are too many. We’re talking hat overload”.
As it turned out, the debut live performance of ‘Born This Way’ did involve a large hat, but it prompted a mere blip on the hatometer in comparison with what was to come, because the greatest Gaga moment of 2011 also ended up involving a hat. It appeared – along with some of the other greatest Gaga moments of 2011 – in the fast-cut barrage of amazingness that made up the final 90 seconds of the ‘Marry The Night’ video. It was the image of Lady Gaga attempting to get in a car while wearing a huge hat.
The hat is far too big to even get in the door. It must be four feet wide. The situation is absurd. The personal assistant helping Gaga into the car must know that the hat is too big. Why hasn’t the personal assistant said anything? The driver is probably well aware of what is going on. He’s looking the other way. Does Gaga just expect the car to somehow get bigger, to accommodate the hat? Maybe Gaga knows the hat’s too big. Will she admit that she knows? Probably not.
As an album, ‘Born This Way’ was the sound of someone trying to force a massive hat into a tiny car. It is a sprawling, ambitious album that shouted to be heard when everyone was already listening, but no other album in 2011 tried quite this hard to be amazing, and no other album succeeded in as many ways.
An artist whose next album wasn’t on course for multiplatinum success regardless of its contents would probably have felt the full force of a major label A&R man’s conservative intervention. To an artist whose future was uncertain, the man at the label would have said, ‘don’t use these pretty inexperienced producers for the bulk of the album’. They would have said, ‘do you know what, that whole gay thing for the first single isn’t quite right, perhaps it could be a bonus track in Belgium’. They would have said, ‘there is too much happening here. You have too many ideas. Take some ideas out’. But Gaga wanted to get that hat in the car and, because she seemed like the biggest popstar in the world, nobody wanted to stop her.
Thank fuck for that. This is a phenomenal album. ‘The Fame’ was the sound of a new, attention-hungry singer trying to please anyone; ‘Born This Way’ was Gaga trying to please everyone, but its desire to tick boxes in some songs is countered by rampant unselfconsciousness in others.
The music’s balance of super-naive and super-confident echoes parts of Gaga’s own personality – for someone so sharp in so many ways she can also lack self awareness when it really matters. But with most of the production on ‘Born This Way’ coming from Fernando Garibay and DJ White Shadow, that contradiction works perfectly. There are things Garibay and White Shadow do on this album that none of the supposedly ‘reliable’ usual suspects of the superproducer world, conditioned into thinking there is only one way to make a song, would have dared pull off on an a-lister’s album. Their uninhibited sonic experimentation shouldn’t really work alongside Gaga’s relentlessly mainstream melodic flourishes, but it works perfectly.
There are bits of ‘Born This Way’ that simply don’t work – and let’s not even start on the artwork which, you’ll notice, we’ve swapped here for the hat/egg artwork used for the end-of-year reissue. So if it’s so imperfect, why is it Popjustice’s album of the year? ‘Born This Way’ is album of the year for one simple reason: it has more great stuff in it than any other album by any other artist in 2011. More bangs, more crashes, more mariachi band, more unicorns, more choirs, more “put your hands on me, John F Kennedy”, more hair, more filth, more fire, more sax, more sex, more crap pretend German, more “with you, with you, with you, with you, with you”.
We asked for a lot of hat, and we got a lot of hat.