Born This Way, by Lady Gaga

36-bornthisway

Released May 23, 2011

Deluxe edition length 1 hr, 13 min, 38 sec

Gaga’s reputation for being kind of weird had always been in place, ever since The Fame‘s release (“kind of weird” isn’t enough to describe the meat dress, but that was an isolated incident, for the most part). But, with Born This Way, it sort of went from being an endearing, distinctive aspect of her persona to just being kind of like “why is this happening?”

Take the cover art, for example. I have the Deluxe Edition (thankfully), so I have a zoomed in version of the standard art. What we’re talking about is here:

What the fuck.

What the fuck.

Yes, that’s Gaga as a fucking motorcycle. Who let this happen? Who saw this and said “yes, print millions of copies of this, please”?  Is anyone actually born as some sick motorcycle-human hybrid?

Maybe it’s some sort of avant-garde shit that I’m just not getting. Like I established in my last post about Gaga, she’s not making music for me. Or art, I guess.

But is a meat dress for anybody? Is Gaga’s head weirdly Photoshopped onto a motorcycle for anybody?

I particularly like the touch of her arms being the front fork, as a side-note.

So, this album pulls away from mainstream pop a little bit. Gaga cited a wide range of influences on this album, particularly notable ones being Bruce Springsteen and Nine Inch Nails. These influences are all evident on the album, as Gaga cycles through all kinds of sounds and sub-genres on Born This Way. Tracks like “Judas” and “Scheiße” have crunchy, industrial-influenced beats, while others, like “You and I” and “Hair” have influences that pull from classic rock and modern pop. The album still maintains a distinct sound, wrapping its varying genres in a distinctly electronic sound set. “You and I” features what one might expect to be a four-piece rock band as the backing instrumentation, but all of these instruments have a distinct electronic edge to them, betraying their synthetic origins.

Gaga has always been good at curating catchy beats, pairing them with her attention-grabbing lyrics to make songs that are strong radio singles. But Born This Way frequently lacks in substance, and, like ARTPOP, some of the songs are unlistenable to me. “American Hooker” and its obnoxious censoring towards the end of the track is a neat trick, but it’s also infuriating. “Scheiße” has silly faux-German non-lyrics for most of the track. The album just strikes me as being gimmicky in a lot of ways, focusing more on trying out weird sounds than making solid pop tracks.

There are several winners, however. “Marry the Night” is a fantastic opener, establishing a bit of the album’s soundscape with strong, imagery-heavy lyrics. “Born This Way” is pretty annoying in the simplicity of its message, but it gets the point across. “Judas” has a fantastic beat, and “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” is weird in a good way.

“You and I” is a standout because, yes, it features Brian May of Queen. But the track itself is strong even when you take that away. Mimicking a country rock sound with heavily effected instruments, Gaga fakes a country accent to an extent here, singing about living in the moment with someone you’ve got a long history with, where things have fallen by the wayside. May adds color to the track through his guitar, and even has a nice, long solo for the track’s bridge as the rhythm starts to break down. The song certainly sounds like it could have been written by Queen, as Gaga shows her love for the music that spurred her to become a musician.

Then you have “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory.” Take a note of the featured artist there.

“What? How the hell did that happen?”

That’s what I thought, too, when it was first revealed that Clarence Clemons, of all people, would be guesting on a Lady Gaga album. But she utilizes his unique sound in a really great, heartfelt manner on both of these tracks.

Gaga noted in interviews during the album’s promotional cycle that she had always been a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music, Clemons’s saxophone being a major component of it. When working on the album, she was struck with the idea to bring him in for a couple of tracks, just to see what would happen. She had her manager call him, fly him in that same day, and he spent the night essentially freestyling on both “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory.”

As it turned out, this brief session would be Clemons’s final studio session before his death on June 18, 2011.

“Hair” is about Gaga’s desire to keep her individuality in the face of forces trying to make her conform to societal standards expected of her. It’s a standard metaphor, sure, but Gaga really sells it with her mostly unedited voice, mixed in with the fantastic pop/rock beat, Clemons’s saxophone sprinkled in throughout. Gaga and her production team did a great job of making Clemons’s saxophone feel appropriate among all of the other pop sounds, aided by the rock drums that provide the song’s backbone. Gaga’s impassioned, aggressive vocals really sell her sincerity here.

The standout on this album, however, is “The Edge of Glory.”

This is a song about death, and being strong enough to face it head-on. Gaga wrote the song about her grandfather, who had died the September prior to the album’s release. The song is easily the most heartfelt of any track on Born This Way, possibly even out of her entire catalogue. The beat is a strong, simple pop beat with a structure directly influenced by Springsteen, which led to Clemons adding his saxophone to the track. It’s brought to the forefront more here, even featuring a lengthy solo as the song’s bridge. Gaga radiates positivity here, and the track is very upbeat, playing off of the song’s metaphor of doing anything you want, because there’s not always time to sit around and wait.

Clemons’s solo is absolutely beautiful. The beat drops out for the most part, allowing the solo to take center stage. It’s honestly some of his best work, and particularly impressive considering the incredibly poor state of health Clemons had been in for years prior to this brief recording session. For just a moment, just a minute, it feels as though Clemons has returned to his 1970s self, pouring out a solo that perfectly complements Gaga’s lyrics and vocals. The solo’s reprise at the end outlasts the vocals and the beat, making Clemons’s iconic saxophone the final sound on the album.

He even appears in the music video, itself an anomaly in Gaga’s visual catalogue because of its pure simplicity. Gaga only wears a single outfit for the video, as she dances around an apartment complex and frequently joins Clemons on the brick steps of the entrance. No complex choreography, no army of dancers behind her – just Gaga and Clemons facing the night together.

It’s strange just how much Clemons’s final weeks of creativity are tied to Gaga. His last recording session was for “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory.” His last music video was “The Edge of Glory.” His last public performance was with Gaga, perfoming “The Edge of Glory” on American Idol. He looked particularly worn down here; his saxophone felt weak and off-beat, but he made it through, and he gave the performance an interesting bit of color and style. Clemons spent his last weeks intertwined with the world of Gaga, in a song about facing death head-on, with no fear, no hesitation.

Clemons died four weeks after Born This Way‘s release, and just over three weeks after his American Idol performance.

The song’s got a lot of layers when I listen to it, now.

Born This Way is not a perfect album, and it’s got its fair share of duds. It also continues the infuriating trend of having the Deluxe Edition of an album just be the Standard Edition with extra tracks that should’ve been on the Standard track list in the first place thrown in. The most offensive part is that they’re slotted into the Standard track list in an organic matter, and not tacked on to the end. That’s a conscious decision to steal money from people. That’s premeditated. I hate it.

But, for all its weak points, Born This Way has a lot of heart at its core, and you can see the appreciation Gaga has for her musical heroes. She brought in two of them to give the album some extra power, and one of them ended his iconic career with his contributions.

I think that’s something to be proud of.

See you on Friday.

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