A year ago today Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ album was released amid a promotional blitzkrieg that included terrible artwork, virtual farms and a seemingly endless jazz workout.
It was, in the best possible way, a complete mess but totally amazing at the same time.
At the end of last year, when we named it our album of the year, we said it was a bit like the bit in the ‘Marry The Night’ video when she tried to fit a big hat into a car.
Anyway today, a year since the album was released, we decided to ask contributors to Popjustice’s Etc blog what they make of the whole thing.
“IT’S A CAKE CONTAINING CHEESE”
As an album, ‘Born This Way’ is a bit like a black forest gâteaux made with Chocolate Philly. It’s fussily over-fruited and sickly, but the cheesiest ingredients – the stick-yer-neck-out Eww! moments – give it its magic. Of course ‘Born This Way’ was polarizing – what great pop isn’t? – but Gaga’s detractors never realised that beneath the teen-earnestness of songs like ‘Hair’ and ‘The Edge of Glory’ lay a sugar-coated ‘fuck you’.
‘Judas’ is The Big One: perhaps not Lady Gaga’s best song, but its unhinged synth twizzles and catherine wheel zizzles sounded more like what you wanted pop to sound like in 2011 than anything else.
This kind of pop record only comes along a few times in a decade.
“IT WORKS BEST IF YOU’RE A FEELING A BIT SADFACE”
‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’ isn’t exactly my favourite song on ‘Born This Way’ (I’m still in love with ‘Judas’ baby etc), but it does include my favourite line.
Chugging along pleasantly enough with rainbow imagery and general optimism, Gaga shifts gear for the final minute: “Get your hot rods ready to rumble, cause we’re gonna fall in love tonight”, she bellows. “Get your hot rods ready to rumble, cause we’re gonna drink until we die.”
Listening to her repeat the word ‘die’ over and over again at full volume, alone in the middle of the night, is ‘quite something’. (It works best if you’re feeling ‘a bit emotional’.)
Although it’s not the best line on ‘Born This Way’ – that honour clearly belongs to “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south” – it does sum up the huge, occasionally clumsy but completely whole-hearted honesty that runs right through the entire album.
“MORE IS MORE”
The NME wrote a piece recently ‘in praise of pop nonsense’, which argued that some of the best songs aboard the Good Ship Pop throw coherent lyricism to the wind and set sail across nonsensical waters.
Perhaps NME hadn’t heard ‘Scheiße’ ‘at the time of going to press’ (it seemed their examples of pop nonsensicality were found by someone who had discovered pop five minutes ago) but there’s a strong argument that the song is one of the most ridiclously bonkers pop moments in recent memory. It straddles about five different languages all at once and still communicates absolutely nothing. There’s something about third-wave feminism in there somewhere. The song title translates to ‘shit’. And it’s 100% amazing.
Mind you, it wasn’t just ‘Scheiße’. Sometimes the ‘Born This Way’ ‘experience’ as a whole doesn’t really make much sense, but that’s what makes it sound so amazing when drunk. How does one ‘Marry The Night’? Most pressingly, what the fuck is a ‘Highway Unicorn’? And why am I alone, in the middle of the dancefloor, blind drunk at 3am, recreating the ‘Born This Way’ routine? After a year of ‘living’ with ‘Born This Way’ we still don’t have any answers, but we don’t want any. Although it would be quite nice to know why ‘Yoü and I’ had that ünnecessary ümlaüt and why ‘Marry The Night’ was ever released as a single.
So yes, ‘Born This Way’ has its faults – ‘Hair’ drags the album in the direction of nauseating 80s metal with a sax solo crowbarred in for good measure – but only because it tries to do so much. The success of Nicki Minaj’s noisy 21-track ridiculopus ‘Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded’ attests to one immutable Pop Fact: more is more. While it may seem that the ‘world at large’ is enjoying a quiet sit down to the likes of Adele and Gotye, the world at large is (as usual) wrong. ‘Born This Way’ succeeds because of, not despite, its total OTT kitchen-sinkery. When something tries so brazenly to be the opposite of subtle, it has to be amazing, right?
Which leads me to my final point: We were probably a bit too harsh on ‘Judas’. As the second single off a Gaga album, ‘Judas’ should have done a ‘Poker Face’ or a ‘Telephone’ in Summer 2011, but these plans never really came to fruition. Instead it lingered around the lower echelons of Top 10s worldwide like a musty fart. Was it really that chart-middlingly average? Well, yes. And no. ‘Judas’ has several amazing bits: the “eww” in the middle eight, the disgusting ear condom metaphor, the woah-oh-ohs at the beginning, the bit where Gaga gets hit by a tidal wave in the video. It sounds like ‘Bad Romance’ being sledgehammered to death by ‘Government Hooker’, and, like most of ‘Born This Way”s best moments, it walks the line between amazing and awful pretty haphazardly.
And that in itself is quite amazing.
“IT’S A VERY GOOD ALBUM, IF A BIT LONG”
When ‘Born This Way’ was released a year ago, everyone knew Lady Gaga had quite a task on her hands.
A year earlier, around the time of ‘Telephone’, she was in her imperial phase. Everything that came in the year prior to ‘Telephone’ added to the feeling that Gaga was untouchable. The conceptual bits worked, the collaborations worked and no one was questioning the decisions she made. It was a nice time to be Lady Gaga, we imagine. Could she maintain that?
Well no, obviously, because it was her peak. But really, that doesn’t matter right now.
What matters right now is that ‘Born This Way’ is a very good 12-track album strutting around in a rather convoluted fashion, although that in itself is a theme that sort of defined the era. But the amazing outshone the dodgy and even the missteps – maybe ‘Bloody Mary’, definitely ‘The Queen’ – were due to over-reaching, which is better than not trying at all.
“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE IT’S FUNNY”
Lady Gaga’s recent ‘turn’ on The Simpsons was a timely reminder to the wider world that Lady Gaga does indeed possess a sense of humour.
During the whole ‘Born This Way’ ‘campaign’ – the saving-The-Gays routines, the motorbikes, the moments of desperation – it seemed as if she’d lost her knowing sense of the ridiculous. Instead of celebrating pop’s innate theatricality, she seemed to want to anchor everything with ‘meaning’ and ‘concept’, when actually what a lot of people quite enjoy doing to Lady Gaga songs is having a drink and doing the claw thing to ‘Bad Romance’ at 2am.
But if you dug beneath the surface, there was humour all over ‘Born This Way’. Firstly, the songs are called things like ‘Government Hooker’, ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’, three titles that even Meat Loaf might have thought twice about using. The ‘Edge Of Glory’ video, that was a joke, right? It had to be. Why else would she have let a video of her walking up and down some stairs be released? And then in the ‘You & I’ video, not only is she writhing around in the bath dressed as a mermaid, she also does a comedy run! Amazing.
Two of my favourite bits on ‘Born This Way’ represent Gaga’s humour. Firstly, just before the middle eight in ‘Judas’, while the jackhammer beat has a semi-breakdown, she pops up to offer a simple “eww”. That’s it. Just an “eww”. Why does she do it? Who cares, it’s hilarious. “Eww”. EWW! Try it at work tomorrow when no one’s said anything for a couple of minutes. “Eww”.
The second LOL moment comes at the start of the second verse on ‘Bad Kids’: “I’m a twit, degenerate, young rebel and I’m proud of it”. Earlier in the song she sings “I’m a bitch”, but it’s censored (even though Gaga told us she’d never censor her art BLAH BLAH BLAH), so it loses any power it’s supposed to have. But the “twit” remains uncensored, there in all its mundane, slightly out-dated glory, reminding us that Gaga is a person, just like us, and sometimes she likes to call herself a twit, because sometimes she is a twit. She was a twit at various points during the ‘Born This Way’ era, for example, but we can forgive her because she’s aware of her own twitishness. And she’s funny. “Eww”.
“WATCH OUT FOR THE QUIET ONES”
Despite pre-release boasts of musical prowess and the anti-climactic sermons that followed, two songs still shine among the smouldering embers of ‘Born This Way’.
The firestorm of media attention that accompanied the release thankfully skirted round the unassuming album tracks that have maintained rotation on my iPod. Hypnotic, quietly decadent and free from the constraints of expectation, ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and ‘Electric Chapel’ are hook-ridden electro-pop gems. They may not have been lauded for being wildly experimental like ‘Government Hooker’ or bolstered by enigmatic faux-Deutsch lyrics like ‘Scheiße’, but both have more in common with Gaga’s back catalogue and are actually stronger for it.
Where other tracks on ‘Born This Way’ rely on Gaga’s many musical masks and impassioned backing of causes for their subject matter, ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and ‘Electric Chapel’ help to flesh out her persona away from the caricature.
Their lyrics may not be as overtly emotional as ‘The Edge of Glory’’s and they are not without edge (‘Heavy Metal Lover’’s explicit opener is hardly tame), but each reveals a certain vulnerability beneath the shell of an up-tempo, dance floor-friendly love song (“I could be your girl, but would you love me if I ruled the world? / If you want to steal my heart away, meet me in a safe place”).
Other songs from ‘Born This Way’ have faded with the initial buzz or drowned in her public waves of superlatives. Both ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and ‘Electric Chapel’ remain fresh, proving that when she’s not desperately trying to convey a message, Gaga can still produce a damn good pop tune.
“IT’S ALL ABOUT SCHEIßE”
When ‘Born This Way’ – the single – came out, I wasn’t too excited. Beyond the song’s faults – feeling like a saccharine reworking of Madonna; its self-decreed status as a ‘gay anthem’ – the aesthetic of the video was far too messy, as was the narrative. So when the album came out I was relieved. Beyond the dodgy, yokel-pleasing country and western, past the stuff that sounded like what MSTRKRFT did five years back, there was ‘Scheiße’.
“I don’t speak German, but I can if you like” is perhaps the most audacious half-spoken half-sung bit of any song in history. Not because it’s about sex. But because it precedes Gaga gobbledygooking all over the type of thumping, stabbing, whomphing techno that you don’t get even on the fringes of the charts. The type that could scare even the most Ibiza-seasoned of David Guetta fans. The fey, desperate chorus is merely short respite from the nonsense: “I wish that I could dance on a single prayer/ I, I wish I could be strong verdammte scheiße, yeah”, shoving you back to the spookiest hook in pop since Phixxx’s ‘Love Revolution’.
It hasn’t got a video yet but I imagine that’s because it’s a bit frowned-upon to show two men bumming on YouTube.
“IT WORKS BEST IF YOU PICK ‘N’ MIX”
On first listen, I found the length of the album almost irritating; all the songs were coherent, and they did feel like part of this ‘big concept’, but there was so much going on, and Lady Gaga’s schtick felt like it was being spread a bit thin.
I chose to pick out the songs I instantly liked and stuck with them: ‘Americano’, ‘Bad Kids’, ‘Judas’, ‘Government Hooker’. They still sound amazing a year later, but I also think ‘You & I’, ‘The Edge of Glory’ and ‘Bloody Mary’ are kind of amazing too.
Really, the only things that still don’t sound great are ‘Highway Unicorn’ and ‘Hair’.
Also, you know that remix album? Well the ‘You & I’ remix by Wild Beasts is quite nice, even though it only uses four of the lyrics and ignores the point of the song completely.
“SHE’S BEAUTIFUL IN HER WAY, BUT GAGA MAKES SOME MISTAKES”
“No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive.” It’s hard to think of another all-inclusive statement that has alienated so many.
Who could have predicted that perhaps the Cholas, lesbians and those whose dis-a-bil-ities left them outcast, bullied or teased, wouldn’t all say thanks for being lumped together like the cast of some horrific lyrical Big Brother?
Well not Gaga, I guess. By casting her fishnets too widely, she seemed to piss off everyone except the one group she was only ever really speaking to – The Gays – and even a lot of them weren’t too impressed.
In the year since Gaga released ‘Born This Way’, she’s controversially addressed the crowds on the Pope’s doorstep at Rome’s Europride, Ellen DeGeneres has fought off a challenge to her being the big lezzy face and chinos of middle-American stalwart JC Penney and Barack Obama has declared his support of gay marriage. Even notorious homophobe 50 Cent isn’t too pushed about whether you love him or capital H-I-M anymore.
How many of these changes can be credited to the attention brought by listening to ‘Born This Way’ is another question entirely. We’d hazard a guess at none at all. But who cares, it was a fun old jaunt down that unicorned highway and one way or another it’s good to see that things are on the right track, baby.