It’s here at last! That’s right, “Born This Way,” the first single off Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated new album, hit radio stations at 6:00 a.m. this morning. Little Monsters first got a taste of the song when a meat-dress clad Gaga crooned a few bars at the MTV Video Music Awards a full five months ago. Since then, she’s declared that Born This Way would be “the greatest album of the decade,” posted the lyrics, and debuted teaser art. So does “Born This Way” live up to the hype?
But following her blockbuster album The Fame (and its extended version The Fame Monster) was never going to be easy. She has thrived on cartoonish controversy but shock tactics suffer from diminishing returns, you have to keep upping the ante before the shock wears off. In just a couple of years, she has managed to pretty much cover the ground in terms of sex and violence taboos, while modelling a range of outrageous looks that culminated in a hard to beat dress made of meat. The most shocking thing now would be to see her in a neat shirt and skirt combo. Musically, the pop public is instinctively neophyte, our ears become attuned to sounds and styles, so that the new becomes old very quickly. Paradoxically, we like familiarity. Too much reinvention confuses the brand. In her sophomore moment, this is Gaga’s almost impossible position, where she has to show not only that she has the pop nous to keep crafting major commercial hits, but that she can change in exciting ways, bringing the best of what she has so quickly established into new terrain.
Somehow, she’s got to change and stay the same. Very few people have pulled it off on a global mass pop fame level before. Certainly The Beatles and The Stones in their hey day. Prince and Madonna in the Eighties (not Michael Jackson, really, who never quite matched his Thriller breakthrough). Bruce Springsteen and U2 on the stadium rock front. Eminem in hip hop.
So what do we get? Well, Born This Way is a pop monster, which is good, an uplifting disco smash with a driving beat and a gospelly chorus. The lyrics are about equality and acceptance, both racially and (particularly) sexually, with a refrain of “I’m beautiful in my way / Cause God makes no mistakes.” Sir Elton John has hailed it as the “gayest song” he has ever heard, and compared it to a 21st I Will Survive, although I think he might have been getting a bit carried away by the “don’t be a drag, just be a queen” bridge. Sonically, it embeds its rhythm track with a very modern engine of small, disjointed, noisy sample bites, but it lacks the melodic richness and lyrical pathos of I Will Survive and as for being the gayest anthem ever, I wouldn’t fancy GaGa’s chances in a three way dance off at Heaven against The Village People’s YMCA and ABBA’s Dancing Queen.
The problem with the song is not just that its hard to escape the feeling we’ve heard it before (which is true of most pop music) but that its too easy to pin point exactly where we’ve heard it before. Basically it is a reworking of Madonna’s Express Yourself with a touch of Madonna’s Vogue. Which is a bit too much Madonna for someone who is trying to establish her own identity as the, er, new Madonna.
On the plus side, Gaga sings it unadorned, without autotune, and she can really sing (which, perhaps, is where she has the edge on Madonna). In fact, the best thing about this track is that it seems to show her for who she really is: unadorned, uncostumed, not hiding behind gimmicks or trying to administer shocks, just belting out a meaty pop dance song with the enthusiastic abandon of a disco-dancing diva. In that sense, it does feel like she is moving on, by relying on her innate musical talent rather than veils of imagery and sonic wizadry. She has shown us all her shiny surfaces. Maybe now we are about to get a glimpse of Gaga’s inner depths.