I don’t need the encouragement, but these kids do. My students do too. Until “Born This Way,” Lady GaGa counted as a gay spokesman in both obvious (declaring her support for “marriage equality”) and subtle but proven ways (the by now predictable costume changes, which she confuses for stylistic shifts). If you didn’t watch her Barbara Walters interview a couple of years ago, read the press releases, or pay attention to the girl with the floral shirt who is the object of desire in the new “Americano,” her songs would tell you nothing about her lusts or ambitions. She didn’t even sound particularly feminine. Masculine either; she was a roboticized androgyne. Choosing Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” and, on the new Born This Way, “Beautiful Life” as sonic forebears counts as some kind of conceptual coup, as if she hoped that by submerging herself beneath synth squiggles and electro thud-thud-thud traces of personality will rise like bubbles from the bottom of the sea.
With Born This Way, Gaga aspires to become an all-purpose avatar for misfits and losers. Laughing at her for selecting the godawfulest album cover ever printed is part of the point. She accepts our derision; she invites it. That she succeeds three quarters of the time is testament to her development as a songwriter. Where she once struggled to write decent choruses for solid bridges or vice versa, every song on BTW boasts the surefire get-outta-my-dreams-into-my-car stomp of a Robert “Mutt” Lange composition (when Lange himself co-produces a song I barely noticed). When she eschews claims and slogans to “speak for” enfeebled minorities, she’s thrilling. Whether Willow Smith inspired the inanity of “Hair” remains open for conjecture, but the way the piano greases the transition from “Be My Baby” drum pattern to the choral “I am my hair!” makes for the year’s most batshit-awesome pop moment. “Scheibe” borrows a rumble from early nineties Belgian techno. The electro stutter in “Bloody Mary” is as indelible as the title hook in “Alejandro.” The Eddie Van Halen guitar squeal in “Bad Kids” anchors the first successful quasi-narrative foray of Gaga’s career, but if I stuck a prefix before the key word, blame the auteur for her impatience: she can’t wait to get to the message, which is, more or less, stay young and pure, and which is, unequivocally, bad advice. Those degenerates and twits will get old right quick, and if they’re so hung up on purity, they better move to that neighborhood in Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Surely if we’re Born This Way and want our loved ones to accept us, then we have to accept aging too. Hustling for a culture obsessed with youth is the surest sign that Gaga and her Gagagettes will face no lasting problems with “fitting in” once the abrogation of the Defense of Marriage Act unleashes the fiduciary might of the empowered gay couple.
Aesthetic ventures which end – maybe begin too – as social uplift are as old as pop music itself. Sometimes the line between empowering and homiletic is hard to see; how many people do you know prefer “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to “We Are The World,” and why is it so goddamn hard for them to accept they’re wrong? Despite the marvel that is the sequence from “Hair” to “Bad Kids,” Born This Way drifts when she wrests the prerogative of sincerity from her producers’ willing fingers. Ask Bonnie Tyler or Patty Smyth what “The Edge of Glory” is and how we avoid stepping over it; perhaps it involves commanding Clarence Clemons to stop blowing a siren song on his saxophone; perhaps it means the seizure of eighties triumphalism from the cold dead fingers of Survivor. Speaking of eighties sensations, Stevie Nicks is the only one who can get away with parenthetical interjections like “Highway Unicorn (Road 2 Love),” whose title sounds like a Scrabble game gone awry. Finally, although Matos argues that the title track sounds better in context, it still doesn’t transcend its origin as the musical equivalent of a collection box.
So: roughly a quarter is dross. This leaves almost forty-five minutes of the most sustained pleasure I’ve heard in a pop album all year. A warning though: Gaga’s hungry but not omnivorous, and she’ll need this instinct if she wants to join Madonna, Prince, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and the other polymaths whom critics still think the age demands (I say so what and who cares). As she steps closer to the explicitness we want from said polymaths, pressure will increase on Gaga’s still maturing popcraft, and who knows whether the Garbo game she’s played since 2009 will extend our good will. But I can’t disabuse myself of the suspicion that my review of Born This Way, like any Madonna garnered in 1986 for True Blue, is irrelevant to the millions of fans — the millions of gay fans — for whom Gaga’s extracurricular outreach illuminates a corpus of new tunes strong enough not to require biographical glossing. The sociopolitical climate has changed; the aesthetic approach, twenty-five years after another set of would-be pop icons released their debut, has not.
Maybe I need the encouragement after all.