Editor's note: This is Part 2 of PressPlay's very first 'Grey Matters," a weekly pop culture column by Ian Grey. Every Friday Ian will write on an array of topics, including pop music, TV, cinema, viral videos, and whatever the hell else strikes his fancy, in his own inimitable way. You can read the main article, "Tree of Gaga, Part 1," by clicking here. --MZS
Born This Way
May 23, 2011
The huge news about Born This Way is that, despite being written in the Monster Ball tour studio and in stationary studios all over the world, the record actually has a very cohesive sound. As importantly, it has a sound that, unlike "The Fame" and "The Fame Monster," stands apart from most of the Top 10 of anyone, and stands apart what my Partner calls “Glee-music” -- as in AutoTuned, over-compressed, and sampled and sequenced to an inch of its life sugar-pop, of the Katy Perry oeuvre.
It was a gamble. But all the great records have that separate-universe thing. The Dark Side of the Moon sounds like it came from there. Born to Run, despite its creator’s protestations otherwise, exists not in New Jersey, but in the grooves of that record, in the impossible and perfect sound-cauldron brew of Roy Orbison, Dick Dale and Phil Spector, of King Curtis, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. What Gaga’s cooking up is, of course, is much stranger, even as discrete tracks tickle the mainstream. Bits of Springsteen, Depeche Mode, Elton John, Queen, flamenco, new Parisian and minimalist Berlin techno all end up in the Gaga music processor. And always there’s Bowie, so much that I won’t dwell on it here because it’s like saying, “Hey, did you notice that oxygen she was breathing?”
Anyway, Gaga’s obvious goal is to create an Album for the Ages, a Thriller, or Songs of Faith and Devotion. She has the skills in spades but I think she fails slightly in that regard. Sometimes she’s lyrically scattered. There are also some questionable structural choices, the inclusion of one song that’s pretty demonstrably bad and that an outside producer might have excised.
So--not quite an Album for the Ages. Which only means that Born This Way is still light-years ahead of her peers in terms of rabid musical invention, collisions and executions, in good-as-it-gets song craft, and a new, warm, approachable Gaga vocal style (which isn’t to say she’s jettisoned the girl-robotics we all know, love and puzzle over.)
Thing is, w all those wacky outfits, videos and production bells and whistles, the fact of Lady Gaga’s superior pipes has gotten lost. Born This Way absolutely remedies that. She rocks, soul-sings, torch-croons, metal-screams. The reasonable person’s take-away is that, whatever you think of her, Lady Gaga is now a serious contender in the sweepstakes of singing your ass off really, really well. Beautifully even. And when that voice is perfectly married to the right song, as it is an unholy amount of the time here, it’s really something.
1."Marry the Night" (Lady Gaga, Fernando Garibay) 4:25
As a songwriter, Lady Gaga is the queen of totally not fucking around. In four seconds, this first track (1) Establishes her allegiance to a delicious fantasy of non-lethal darkness, (2) Does so with synthetic, church-like bell tones that contextualize that allegiance as being non-specifically holy, and (3) tricks you into thinking we’re dealing with a ballad.
What follows is a master’s class exercise in build, tension, release, and going deliriously joyful. Phrases like “warrior queen” and “live passionately” poke out of the candy-colored fog.
Buzzing synths portend some huge musical event. “I’m a soldier to my own emptiness” is one of those sad lines that she needs to triumph over and she does when the song lands on one. Super. Powerful. Chord.
On a dime, the beat doubles; a techno kit kicks ass; everything that seemed doleful flips on itself, and the Lady announces a new Gaga, like a warm-toned Annie Lennox, balls-to-the-wall soulful but minus show-offy over-sing.
As church organ joins church bells and she torch-sings “mu-mu-mu-marry!” over and over—within the broader, knowing subtext that in most states, many can’t marry—a new anthem, sound, and direction are all introduced in 4:25 minutes.
Concision, thy name is Gaga.
2."Born This Way" (Gaga, Jeppe Laursen, Garibay, DJ White Shadow) 4:20
People whine about this being similar to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” but miss its similarity to early Brian Eno, back when Eno wrote pop songs. The circular, repeating super-simple chord progression on top of which Gaga adds and subtracts melodies, synths, and other musical events are pure Eno, and did not exist as a musical mode until Eno. Does Gaga, the worshiper of glam know Eno, Roxy’s birth-feathered glitter brainiac? Please.
Anyway, the thing about “Born This Way” is that everything about it is so unlikely, so on-paper lame sounding, and yet when you hear it, it seems inevitable. Clearly, she’s softened the techno. The bass drum thumps instead of drills. There’s cushy warmth to the synth padding. She still cuts and pastes her vocals, but it’s fun -- inviting, not weird. The rest I hardly need to tell you about.
Still, you might be burned out. In that case—check this out: It’s Gaga and Maria Aragon, a ten year old who made a “Born This Way” fan video which caught Mother Monster’s attention which led to the child sitting on Gaga’s lap while they sang this delightful duet…
3."Government Hooker" (Gaga, Garibay, DJ White Shadow) 4:14
But worry not, Little Monsters, she can still sound totally psychotic as, by way of intro, she fake-opera-sings her own name repeatedly. Otherwise, and there’s no delicate way to put this: “Government Hooker” is the first Gaga-song you could fuck to.
Lyrically and musically, it reminds me of Depeche Mode, the naughty Depeche Mode of “Master and Servant." People have assumed the lines “Put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy” were goofy nonsense, except, well, they’re not. The song came from the pitiful idea of Marilyn Monroe and JFK, of the backdoor (er) mistress who’s shite and the dude who's respected. Gaga is trying to flip that notion by creating a menu of erotic power positions that the seeming alpha dog can’t live without; in short, topping-from-the-bottom.
And the groove, the music--co-writer DJ White Shadow has it right: “It’s just a beast. I don’t even know how to explain it… It’s like a fucking supernova.” In regards to its author, he says, “When she walks into a room, things explode. She thinks of shit that I can’t comprehend."
4."Judas" (Gaga, RedOne) 4:09
No, no, no. This is not industrial. To all the lazyass critics who’ve called this ‘industrial’ I say -- as if talking to a small, somewhat slow child -- “Listen to “Judas,” and then listen to Nine Inch Nails, or Rammstein, or KMFDM. Different, right? Really different. Like, as different as Dylan is from The Pussycat Dolls, right? Attaboy.”
What “Judas” is -- in context of this record, as a flow of interrelated songs -- is a wake-up after “Born This Way,” and its general softness. It’s a reminder that Lady Gaga can kick your ass. And while not ass-kicking in an industrial way, “Judas” certainly is super aggressive, its intro synth-line doubled with a mean-ass kick-drum.
Like McQueen, Gaga thrives on extreme juxtaposition; hard/soft, woman/machine, light/dark. Here it’s an exquisite pastoral---“Ohhhhhhhh, Juda-a-as”—crunched by that aggressive riffing. When she starts that lunacy-chant of “Juda, Ju-de ah-ah!” the point isn’t that it’s ripping off the similar thing in “Bad Romance”, it’s that it’s meant to be akin to the same thing in “Bad Romance”. She’s in the process of creating her own musical syntax.
Still, people kvetch. Do they kvetch about Keith Richards basically finding a million ways to recycle Chuck Berry? Is Keith Richards a woman?
5."Americano" (Gaga, Garibay, DJ White Shadow, Cheche Alara) 4:06
Dark times. Prop 8 took away gay rights in California. Senator John McCain managed to turn Arizona into a no-immigration zone: a witch hunt for the brown-skinned ensued. Gaga folded them into one lyric where a Latina and her girl “live and love on the edge of the law."
The music, though, was anything but dark. Producer Garibay said that Gaga insisted the track go for “the full Mexicano”: a more succinct descriptor I can’t imagine.
There’s a wall of nylon-stringed flamenco guitars, eighth note handclaps, Latino-swing groove, with Gaga somehow finding a way to contextualize an Edith Piaf vocal style into an almost ridiculously Mexican track. Despite—because of?-- its gloomy beginnings, “Americano” is BTW’s most flat-out fun track.
6. "Hair" (Gaga, RedOne) 5:08
Aha! The proof that all her talk about loving Bruce Springsteen wasn’t idle fan chatter. Gaga marries a Phil Spector beat, Clarence Clemons’ romantic sax, octave-tinkling pianos, and a no-tricks vocal, and damn if it doesn’t sound like the E Street Band. That is, if the E Street Band would countenance a lyric about finding your essential humanity, identity and freedom in hairstyles.
Sure, the connective verse-to-bridge has some Robo-vocal stutters—it had to have something digi-sounding—but otherwise this also reveals the true radicalism of Lady Gaga, minus weird science tricks. She is, at her core, a traditional songwriter. That what works with her doesn’t work because it has some nifty new Berlin techno/Justice-style digital voice-slice ‘n dice to support her melodies; it works in conjunction with the electronics.That's why Gaga can play a set of her songs, just her and a piano, and it’s no stretch. It’s the reason why her career will have legs.
7."Scheiße" (Gaga, RedOne) 3:45
All that said, she can still be one seriously exotic, post-human-sounding, super-bleeding-edge dance artist. A sample of her babbling in pigeon German repeats (and repeats), while a hard-edge, Hardfloor-style groove pounds mercilessly. By the chorus though, the aforementioned compulsive songwriter returns and “Scheiße”—apparently German for “bullshit”—turns this into another female empowerment song, albeit a pretty twisty, everything-from-left-field one. But would we expect anything less?
8. "Bloody Mary" (Gaga, Garibay, DJ White Shadow) 4:05
A 100 degree turnaround. Gaga’s first foray into actual chamber pop, complete with a cello and viola string quartet sample opening, and a general mid-period Depeche Mode or darkened “Indiscreet”-era Sparks vibe. This is a truly mysterious, impossible-to-decipher song, which makes it precious.
Men chant her name, she sings a lovely, simple melody about Pontius, dancing with her hands above her head, Michelangelo, and Jesus and Mary. But sometimes? Sometimes I think she just likes the way certain words sound, or the way they create images in our heads when juxtaposed with one another.
The way to look at this, I think, is by comparing it with another song about lonely dancing, Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”, a wonderful song about hitting the dance floor only to see your guy with another girl and…you get the picture. The not-so-teen ache in Robyn’s sparkling confection is real and therefore, sort of limited. There’s a churning darkness in Gaga’s lonely dancer, dancing with her hands above her head like Jesus said.
It makes sense to her and only her. As seductive as her groove may be, she’s isolated. “Bloody Mary” is a work of eroticized dislocation.
9 ."Bad Kids" (Gaga, Laursen, Garibay, DJ White Shadow) 3:51
“Bad Kids” is meant to be the cure to the dark of “Bloody Mary”; instead, it’s the one song that just doesn’t work at all.
It’s heart is totally in the right place, assuring kids who may have fucked up in any of a million ways that fucking up doesn’t define you, but the music is New Order-lite, the chorus an unfortunate mess of bland changes. Onward.
10."Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" (Gaga, RedOne, Garibay, DJ White Shadow) 4:16
And then Gaga bursts out the gate proclaiming “We can be strong! We can be strong!” and it’s like “Bad Kids” never happened.
"Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" is Lady Gaga’s first rock song and the style suits her surprisingly well. Of course, “rock song” is, to a certain degree, in quotation marks, but that doesn’t stop it from rocking. Unfortunately, it ends poorly. Over-the-top rock lyrical posturing doesn’t suit her. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether the following sound forced, or confusingly, pointlessly nihilistic:
“Get your hot rods ready to rumble/ Cause' were gonna fall in love tonight/ Get your hot rods ready to rumble/ Cause' we're gonna drink until we die.”
11."Heavy Metal Lover" (Gaga, Garibay) 4:13
Finally, Gaga chills with this naughty slow-burn highlighted by the already immortal, silly lines: “I want your whiskey mouth / All over my blonde south.” Otherwise, an rated-R companion piece to “Government Hooker” with its fetish cataloguing. And really, hats off--only Gaga could think of watersports and think: Baptism.
But strip it of its mild-mannered outrages and “Heavy Metal Lover” is a really, really sad song. It’s the only song in the canon that I’m aware of where Gaga is submissively pleading. (“I could be your girl…but would you love me?”) It makes one wonder, even worry, about the human behind the mirror.
12."Electric Chapel" (Gaga, DJ White Shadow) 4:12
More rock! This time in a goth register ala the Sisters of Mercy of “More” and A Slight Case of Overbombing in general.
Kitsch melodrama pianos chime a lonely cycle. A dark, distorted guitar chugs, a choir supports the chorus, a metal guitar fusillade shreds and shreds again!
In short, this sucker is gonna kill in the next Monster Ball.
13."Yoü and I” (Gaga, Robert “Mutt” Lange) 5:07
There are so many things going on here, and they all compliment and emotionally jetpack one another until a critical mass of lighter-waving teary-ness is achieved.
Being the weird girl at the party of mainstream culture has its perks. But for Gaga to enter the mainstream, she had to demonstrate that, on some level, she’s "normal" and capable of being "real" -- both of which are just more drag, the Wrangler jacket you throw on over your vintage Yohji Yamamoto shirt.
But dammit if Gaga doesn’t sound seriously "real" here, even as she over-Springsteens by naming the heart of her desire “Nebraska”.
Whatever. If Elton John were in his prime, he’d write something this piano-liciously good. But he wouldn’t think to get producer ‘Mutt’ Lange (Bryan Adams, Def Leppard, Foreigner) to produce and import Queen’s “We Will Rock You” groove, or ask Brian May to add bohemian rhapsodies to what is, hands-down, Gaga’s most elegantly perfect song to date.
14. "The Edge of Glory" (Gaga, Garibay, DJ White Shadow 5:21
In her Google Goes Gaga interview, the artist said this song is "about your last moment on Earth, the moment of truth, the moment before you leave Earth."
It’s kind of hard to top that except to say, Works for me.
NOTE: Born This Way (Special Edition) includes remixes and new material including:
15. "Black Jesus † Amen Fashion" (Gaga, DJ White Shadow)
With lyrics that smoosh together bits of biography, self-validation and rather rote Gaga-style utopianism, minus the musical invention to carry the weight, this is, to channel Tim Gunn, the definition of a hot mess.
Even then, when you sweat melodic ideas like, um, sweat, it’s hard to pump out a worthless track, and “Black Jesus” has some very winning bits. The “On Broadway” old-school showbiz whiz-bang charms, even when the song’s going nowhere.
16. “The Queen” (Gaga, Garibay)
Again, Gaga proves that if you strip away the remix arsenal there’s a girl who would have turned a tidy trade in the Brill Building, no problem at all. I don’t know if Ronnie Spector is still making comeback records—if so, her new producer needs to turn her on to this. Or failing that, The Chantels, whose 1958 hit “Maybe” this shares chords and spiritual lineage with. (Oh, to see Gaga’s record collection.)
17. “Fashion of His Love” ((Fernando Garibay Remix) (Gaga, Garibay)
The original of this fine bit of pop just plain didn’t work for me, considering the incredible spiritual weight behind it. It was no less than a love letter to Alexander McQueen, dead at 41 by his own hand because he couldn’t cope with his beloved mother’s death.
Perhaps McQueen loved Madonna—a lot. The original mix seemed as if Gaga was answering all the people who’ve dismissed Gaga as a Madonna knock-off by making the most incredibly Madonna-like song Madonna never made. We’re talking non-linear gated reverb snares, multi-tap vocal echoes, DX-7 bell-tones, Juno pads, analog sequencers, sampled chorus vocals sped up to sound like a kid, the whole middle-period MIDI-mania nine yards. As tech-pastiche and homage, as one-song lesson in antiquated techniques, it’s swell. But discomforting.
Garibay’s re-mix is more an interpretation, like Sinatra going over a tune and getting it so right it’s like another song altogether. The structure is the same, as are the vocals. But the kitsch is gone, replaced by zero-calorie groove, pumped up by a strong, but not overly strong house bass synth.
The new wide-open spaces in Garibay’s setting limns the pride and generosity in Gaga’s delivery. There’s no girliness in her voice now, and it seems no coincidence that ‘fashion’ and ‘passion’ rhyme:
“You know that I'd never cheat on a man,
'Cause I'm not like that,
I'm physically crafted to be,
As fitting as McQueen.”
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have published his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.