Ten years ago a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. Lady Gaga’s pivotal second album, Born This Way, passes its first decade hovering in the musical multiverse this week and I reflect on one of the most fascinating records, and periods, in pop history.
All artists have ‘that’ album – the one which future work is held against, the bar they have set for themselves. It can be as much a millstone as a milestone, and doubtless Born This Way is ‘that’ album for Gaga. Not because it was a unanimous critical success or because it smashed sales records (though it certainly didn’t do too shabbily in either respect) but because it was bonkers, brilliant and blew a hole in pop culture at just the right time. More than anything, because it seemed so completely to say ‘This Is Lady Gaga’.
“The sweeter the cake, the more bitter the jelly can be”
What words like ‘pop’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental’ mean with Gaga will always depend on what side of the fence you are sitting on. Her music is generally considered too full throttle, her lyrics too ‘alienating’ and her genre influences too wide for conservatively chart-focused listeners yet she is dismissed by others for being too safe, too generic and too corporate. In trying wilfully to straddle both sides of the chart/alt divide she is often pilloried by both.
Whilst the mission statement of her pre-fame Fame era was a tantalising combination of knowing art-house pretension and pop sensibility, Gaga’s later ascension into a household name via songs like Pokerface and Just Dance always felt like something of a Trojan horse. Though The Fame Monster EP was punctuated by moments that gave a heady glimpse into what you hoped she was capable of, there was often an undeniable gulf between what you got on record and what she presented in person. It took until her sophomore album, Born This Way, for her to make a tangible connection between her lyrical content, her sound and her visual imagery, achieving something that felt, however polarising, like it finally all made sense together. Where previously her emotional rawness was buried under the production, or dark, sprawling videos were attached to songs that could barely hold them, Born This Way seemed to gather up all that had gone before and regurgitate it back out as a noisy, crazy and near-perfect, fully formed thing.
“How can I protect something so perfect without evil?”
The early days of my love affair with Gaga were soaked in macabre imagery – the VMAs hanging, the PVC Juddermen of the Bad Romance video, the ever increasingly copious amounts of fake blood on the Monster Ball tour, and it seemed to me then that her appeal lay largely in her desire to bring the gothic to the dance floor. To open a chart smash with a lyric like ‘I want your ugly, I want your disease’ was a pretty strong statement of intent and rather than Bowie or Madonna she seemed to me more like the flip side to Marilyn Manson’s Dope Show era pop flirtations. The fact they collaborated on a (better than the album version) remix of Love Game seemed to suggest that she agreed.
If you had asked me to pick a song from The Fame Monster that I thought would signal her future direction I would have put my money on Dance In The Dark – an uptempo but tragic song with an anti-Vogue middle eight name-checking ‘Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia’ and of all people JonBenét Ramsay. I was in part right as Born This Way, sonically, was much more the industrial, kitchen sink sound of Dance In The Dark than the pure pop of Telephone or Pokerface but thematically a new Gaga had emerged.
Increasingly using the Monster Ball tour as a platform to talk about love, acceptance and personal freedom I found myself viewing her more and more as some kind of punk hippy with a BE NICE OR GO FUCK YOURSELF ethos. And indeed, for all the leather and whisky and consistently dark imagery that accompanied the Born This Way album, its central themes are positive to the point of saccharine. Balanced by her offbeat lyrics and ‘putting the love in Courtney Love’ rock & roll stage persona it was a unique proposition. Ahead of the curve for the social justice revolution that would hit the entertainment industry a few years later, Gaga wore her bleeding heart on her sleeve at a time when it was far less fashionable to do so.
“We are all born superstars”
The notion of having a shout out to disabilities, ethnic diversity and ‘gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life’ in your lead single was, in 2011, not so much controversial as considered by many to be unnecessary, embarrassing and a bit clunky. Something that would be unlikely now as celebrities are falling over themselves to appear LGBTQ+ friendly and more inclusive in general. What seems genuinely unthinkable in today’s increasingly polarised cultural landscape though is to do it from an unabashedly Christian perspective. I will sidestep the larger furore, mostly fuelled by Madonna herself, about whether the song is a homage or plagiarism of Express Yourself (glancingly similar is my assessment) but, like many of the shorthand comparisons between the two, the use of religion and religious imagery is one which tends to come from those who understand neither artist very well.
Whilst it is for me neither her best song nor even the best song on its parent album, the title track has endured due to its combination of uplifting, karaoke friendly melodies, memorable lyrics and by reaching out to an audience who had, at that point, been largely ignored by mainstream artists. Gaga positioned herself with the single release, and later the album itself, as the Queen of not just the gays, but the self-described freaks, weirdos and outcasts of the world who still wanted to dance.
“This Is The Manifesto of Mother Monster”
Backed by an ambitious, sumptuous and gloriously strange video directed by Nick Knight this notion of Gaga Queen of the Freaks was further solidified with the Manifesto of Mother Monster. Bucking all expectations of a bright and cheery disco visual to match the upbeat track, she instead delivered (pun intended) a darkly colourful, gothic space opera opening with Gaga birthing a new race, quite literally, in her own image. This would later be extrapolated on with much of the promo performances featuring various goopy and strange labours. Additional scenes featuring her dancing frenetically and made up in matching skeleton garb with the fabulous, and greatly missed, fashion model Rick Genest created a perfect hall of mirrors inversion of the video everyone might have expected.
Like much of what Gaga does there is a dash of vanity and a solid dose of unconventionality along with the altruism, but it is exactly because of this that her peace and love schtick doesn’t tip too far into Saturday night telethon territory. It’s somehow easier to swallow the notion of a race of utopian beings without hate or prejudice when they all have wonky latex Lady Gaga faces.
“I am a vehicle. I am a vehicle for all of the ideas.”
Let’s talk about the Gagabike. After multiple high-end photoshoots and promotional campaigns, no one was quite ready for the sight of Lady Gaga’s top half stitched, not entirely convincingly, onto a motorcycle like some kind of heavy metal centaur. The cover was mocked, hated and heavily memed not only due to its concept but its strangely low rent execution. Like a lot of viral awkwardness, it hit that sweet spot between being utterly ridiculous and taking itself just a bit too seriously. There is a DIY spirit to the cover that invariably had much more to do with her merrily bastardising the work of talented professionals herself than any conventional approach to art direction. This was later taken to its logical extreme with the even more low-fi cover art for Judas which she announced she had ‘graphic designed, in Word, and photographed with [her] cellphone for texture’. (If you look at it carefully you can indeed, bizarrely, see the reflection of her snapping her own computer screen.)
However, like all good memes, once the shock subsided it has become emblematic in a way of all that is great about the Good Ship Gaga. Unpredictable, chaotic, frequently brilliant, occasionally terrible, often shonky – it’s a rollercoaster ride. Or a Gagabike ride to be more precise. I will always love an artist who tries and fails more than one who never tries at all, and so often in Gaga’s case, like the cover art, you never quite know if it even was a failure in the end.
“When you make music it’s your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.”
Coming in at 14 tracks on the standard edition, Born This Way is a riot of noise, excess and rock-tinged dance energy. Opening track Marry The Night is, along with the title track, perhaps the most conventionally club led song on the record but by track three, Government Hooker, it is clear we are in for something special. A grimy and slightly nasty-sounding sex jam with references to JFK, it sets the tone for the peculiar mix of edgy darkness and pop melody that has long since become her trademark. Single release Judas follows, a potentially blasphemous cacophony of noise sandwiched around a devilishly catchy chorus and unexpectedly reggae beat.
Americano, one of my favourite tracks on the album, is a salsa-tinged banger about love beyond borders: ‘I met a girl in East LA / In floral shorts as sweet as May / She sang in eights in two Barrio chords / We fell in love / But not in court.’ Whilst Hair is a Pat Benatar rocker extolling the transformative powers of a dynamite haircut. Scheiße closes out the first half of the album with a cod-kraut anthem to ‘high-heeled feminists’ that shifts between gritty sex club vibes and a soaring, melancholic chorus.
In Bloody Mary Gaga tells us that she’s ‘ready for our stones’ amidst blood-curdling howls before pleading, in French, that she doesn’t want to die alone. Bad Kids follows, offering up a fun, frothy pop salve for all the teenage rebels with a cause, ‘born with a free gun’. Highway Unicorn (Road To Love), possibly my favourite track on the album, begins as a stuttering, thunderous, driving beat before bursting into an absolutely giant chorus. A very Gaga take on the idea of road music, Highway Unicorn sounds like a cross between Meatloaf and what should be the incidental music for Mario Kart Rainbow Road. A ‘free soul burning roads with a flag in her bra’.
Heavy Metal Lover is a sexy, vaguely BDSM, sleaze fest, kicking off with the line ‘Dirty pony I can’t wait to hose you down’ before giving way to the surprisingly vulnerable sentiment of the chorus as she wonders if her lover would still love her if she ‘ruled the world’. Electric Chapel, meanwhile, gives us an 80s-tinged disco and guitar mid-tempo asking for sacred commitment over ‘sex and champagne’.
You & I and The Edge of Glory close out both the album and the single releases. You & I, a spiritual sibling to both Speechless on the Fame Monster and Dope on Artpop, is a piano-led Elton style country ballad while The Edge of Glory is an electro-rocker featuring Clarence Clemons on sax. Often initially described as a eulogy to her grandfather with the concept of being ‘on the edge of life’, the song took on an additionally bittersweet aspect after Clemons sadly passed away not long after.
The video for The Edge of Glory was regarded by many, including myself, at the time as a disappointment following on as it did from a run of gigantic, multi-set-up productions that sought to evoke the golden era of big-budget MTV. However, viewed today with objective eyes it has become, to my surprise, one of my favourites. It is elegant, simple, beautifully shot and allows Gaga to perform without distraction. Like many things in life it’s all about balance and without the excess of her other videos it would lose its appeal, but amongst her visual catalogue, it stands its ground for me as an effective exercise in stripping back without losing personality and is, in its own way, reminiscent of other golden era videos of the MTV age.
Born This Way is a battering ram of rock-strewn electro-pop mixed together in a way that is both familiar and totally unique. It is a solid 5/5 for me with no single track sitting below a 4. For some listeners, the catchy melodies and expert pop crafting at the core of it will read as an inability to be authentically ‘alternative’, whatever that may mean, but I would argue that it’s exactly this anchoring of all the noise and darkness and madness in solid tunes that creates something wholly new. Whilst everyone from Jessie J to Katy Perry jumped on the kooky train in subsequent years, you can’t fake genuine weird and no one ever really pulled it off. Similarly, a slew of ‘rah rah ooh la la’ choruses drenched the charts but rarely with the magic that Gaga injects into every moment of this record. A raw, often awkwardly honest emotional biography delivered with theatricality and a commitment to aesthetics that makes you do a little thinking for your impossibly good chorus hooks.
Perhaps nowhere was this more in evidence than in the video for Marry The Night and its prelude tale of trauma told through the lens of artistic re-invention. ‘It’s not that I have been dishonest’ she states, ‘it’s just that I loathe reality’.
“Honour your vomit”
With an artist like Gaga, it is impossible to cover the album without talking about the visual components too and, like many of the greatest pop campaigns, there was a phenomenal amount of creative output surrounding the music. The world tour was a juggernaut of sets, costumes and floating alien heads. Each live TV performance seemed to strive to outdo the last. Photoshoots and paparazzi shots created micro eras of Versace fashion, teal hair, facial prosthetics and an entire male alter ego. Her gothically black perfume, designed to smell like ‘blood and semen’ (it’s actually very nice), was released with a live stream performance art installation where she slept in a glass box, allowing fans to touch her through a hole, before getting up, peeing in a trash can and having a tattoo done. Barney’s in New York gave over its entire 5th floor to her version of Santa’s workshop, topped off with a giant arachnid Gaga sculpture in a biker cap. And so much more.
Perpetually on the verge, and often over the edge, of being too much, unfocused and overwhelming, both the album musically and the era aesthetically frequently strain under the weight of their own ambition. You have the sense of an artist whose head is filled with so many ideas she can barely get them out in time. Sometimes, in the case of the lyrics, quite literally. For the most part, this scattergun approach produces gold, but it can be exhausting too and it’s no wonder that, whilst she will always be something of a force of nature, in subsequent years the volume was a little less intense.
It was the kind of creative peak that artists can very rarely repeat, and many never have at all. The sense of an outpouring of everything that has built up in them to that point is palpable. It is impossible to sustain, but boy is it exciting at the time. That is not to say that it left her artistically spent and much of her later work stands proud against this album. Born This Way, however, remains a fantastical, crazy, unique, once in a lifetime experience.