Album: “Born This Way” – Lady Gaga

Born This Way
– Lady Gaga
By Meghan Blalock

With the release of Born This Way, Lady Gaga may not officially mark the end of the era of Britney/Ke$ha Pop – lyrical content be damned, sweaty hipsters love a good dance beat! – but she does signify the beginning of Future Pop, an intelligent and eclectic mix of sounds that draws from the greats of the past. Gaga re-energizes pop with art, taking inspiration from her past to create her future: Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Whitney Houston are the most notable influences on the record. A song by song review, below.

1. Marry The Night
Gaga and her musical director Fernando Garibay started writing this song one late night on the road after a Monster Ball, and that adrenaline hangover is expressed as a huge disco banger to open the album. The minor key lends an air of sadness/nostalgia as she recalls going out with her friends in New York. The disparate combination of aggressive beats and regretful sentiments –  “I’m a soldier to my own emptiness” – accurately sets the tone for the rest of the record, an opus during which she presents herself as both loser and winner, possibly in the hopes of morphing the former into the latter, or positing that they are, in fact, the same thing. Defining lyrics: “New York is not just a tan that you’ll never lose.”

2. Born This Way
What more can be said about this song? Gaga released it in February to lukewarm reception at best, and while it makes sense to release the title track as the first single, it’s far from the best song on the album. It kind of gets lost in the BTW goop, if you will, and doesn’t stand out as a stunner among sonically stronger tracks like “Marry The Night” and “Government Hooker.” Defining lyrics: “You were born this way, baby.”

3. Government Hooker
After the jubilant choir-inspired vocals of “BTW” fade out, “Government Hooker” brings in a grungy Eastern European throbbing dance sound that employs the album’s first (but not last) display of eerie-sounding monk-infused chanting. Inspired by her fascination with women who were bedfellows with some of the most powerful men in history (Marilyn Monroe being at the forefront), Gaga here makes an even better point: aren’t we all hookers? We all whore ourselves out for what we want. Gaga seems to be addressing the hoards of haters who have accused her of “changing” in the name of exorbitant fame and money. “GH” challenges the idea of what it means to be “yourself.” What makes Gaga wearing a disco bra any less authentic than the rest of us never wearing one? Touché. Defining lyrics: “I could be anything,  I could be everything, as long as I’m your hooker.”

4. Judas
Blah, blah. Judas is the song on the album I have the most difficulty loving. (I am, however, obsessed with Goldfrapps’ BDSM-dungeon inspired remix.) Judas is the main vein connecting The Fame/Monster to Born This Way; it explains how Gaga got to who she is today. She acknowledges that the darkness of her past – including but not limited to falling in love with someone she probably shouldn’t keep around – helped lead her to the glory of her current life. Her selfish drive for fame and money, and her consequent hookering, led her to be in a position to (quite literally, in some cases) save the lives of her fans. Her darkness led her to the light. It’s one of the best points made on the album, but not presented sonically in the most innovative or, more subjectively, appealing way.Defining lyrics: “In the most biblical sense, I am beyond repentance, fame hooker, prostitute, wench, vomits her mind; but in the cultural sense, I just speak in future tense.” Alternatively: “Ew.”

5. Americano
This is another Garibay-produced track that seems to be lots of people’s early favorite on the album. Latino mariachi chords trill underneath a thumping beat as Gaga sings about falling in love with an Hispanic woman in East LA but not being able to marry her because of anti-gay legislation. The most politically ambitious song on the record, Gaga takes on immigration and gay rights laws at the same time, and it works. That said, this is another track I find myself skipping a lot. I also skipped “Alejandro” a lot, so maybe the Latino sound just isn’t my thing.Defining lyrics: “We fell in love, but not in court.”

6. Hair
This is the song “Born This Way” wanted to be, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s where the album really takes flight. It makes the same point as “BTW,” but where “BTW” is über-literal (allegedly on purpose), “Hair” tells the same story of self-empowerment through the metaphor of hair. It’s a better song too, very Springsteen-esque with the inclusion of the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons on saxophone. It’s fun, and it’s among the most innovative tracks on the album: the structure is insane. The second verse suddenly sounds like a Queen song,  nothing like the first, which sounds like something that belongs on Broadway; and yet the song remains cohesive, tied together by a rock snare, crawling piano and a soaring melody. Scoring points for originality, songwriting, production and a big plus for the sax, this is one of the best tracks on the album. Defining lyrics: “Don’t want to change, and I don’t want to be ashamed; I’m the spirit of my hair.”

 7. Scheiße
Unlike Beyoncé, Gaga isn’t known for her female empowerment anthems. In fact, I’m not sure that before Scheiße she had one; she more is one. It’s a testament to her genius that Gaga named the song “Shit,” since  cursing is often at the top of the list of what ladies are never supposed to do, as if Gaga is saying, “You think I’m not ladylike? Well here’s a song about being a lady. And I’m calling it ‘Shit,’ asshole.” What’s interesting about this track, another European dance track that sounds like it belongs in an underground club in Berlin, is that Gaga sings that she wishes she “could be strong without somebody there.” In a break from most female empowerment anthems, she’s not saying she is such. Only Gaga would acknowledge her weakness while trumpeting the importance of strength, and this is what makes her real. Defining lyrics: “When I’m on a mission, I rebuke my condition; if you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission.”

8. Bloody Mary
Oh my God, this song. If you only listen to one track on the entire album, make it this one. Look, I’ll even give you a link. When I heard this track, I knew I was dealing with something special, something new. A seeming continuation of Gaga’s obsession with Mary Magdalene, “Bloody Mary” brings back the monks we heard earlier on “GH,” this time as the supporting vocals of a goth tango that probably takes place in an epic cathedral lit only by candles. I think it’s a love letter to her fans. She sing-talks, “When Pontius comes to kill the king upon his throne, I’m ready for their stones.” In her “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” an interlude from the Monster Ball, she calls her fans “kings,” and refers to herself as a “devoted jester.” She sees herself as Mary Magdalene to the Jesus of her fans, ever loyal and protective of the empire she inspired. There’s even an element of betrayal here, as she predicts that one day her fans will leave her; this ties to the Judas theme. Nicely done. Defining lyrics: “I won’t  cry for you, I won’t crucify the things you do, see, when you’re gone, I’ll still be bloody Mary.”

9. Black Jesus † Amen Fashion (Special Edition)
This song sounds even more like “Express Yourself” than “BTW” does. No seriously, all I hear when I listen to it is Madonna crooning “lift you to your higher ground” over and over. An homage to fashion and the power of self-evolution, this track doesn’t quite fit between “Bloody Mary” and “Bad Kids,” which seem to flow together better and make more sense without a break for Gaga’s assertion that “Jesus is the new black.” Defining lyrics:“Underground pop civilization, concrete poetry to feed my mind.”

10. Bad Kids
A continuation of Gaga’s love letter to her fans in “Bloody Mary,” this track asserts that the “bad kids” really aren’t the bad kids at all. Here, she’s talking about her fans, but the track is no doubt informed by her time spent on New York’s LES with her underground cohorts. It again sees Gaga taking the position of what society has deemed the “losers, jerks, bitches, and twits.” Here Gaga emphasizes, over a rock ‘n roll guitar riff, that what society tells you you are has nothing to do with your heart and the goodness that lies therein. Though the album as a whole claims to do so, this song strikes me as the purest and most wistful expression of Gaga’s belief in the ultimate goodness of people, a stake that punctures the heart of what it feels like to be an outcast. Defining lyrics: “Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure; you’re still good to me, if you’re a bad kid baby.”

11. Fashion of his Love (Special Edition)
An homage to the late Alexander McQueen, this track is reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” And by reminiscent of, I mean it sounds just like it. It screams late 80s pop dance music, key change and all, super fun but mostly fluffy. Though Gaga has said the song is for McQueen, she sings in her bubblegum “Eh, Eh” voice that she “will be his first and last kiss” which is somewhat confusing. She does assert that she’s “physically crafted to be as fitting as a McQueen,” so there you go. Defining lyrics: “I’m gonna be the one that he loves, I was made for lovin’ him, the fashion of his love.”

12. Highway Unicorn (On The Road To Love)
This track is the one I struggled most with on the album. Upon first listen I found it a sonic jumble with too much percussion. I could tell it was trying to be innovative, but unlike “Hair,” which achieved insanity and pleasantness concurrently, “Unicorn” isn’t as friendly. But the more I listened to it, the more I saw it for what it was, a heavy-hitting pop metal song not designed to please but rather to provoke. Any woman “with the fury of a saint in her eyes” isn’t likely to encourage people to like her; and I especially appreciate Gaga’s repetition of “twitter” – masked as an echo of “with her” – at the beginning of the song.  As the reigning Queen of Twitter, not to mention it in her music might be considered a massive oversight.  Defining lyrics: “Get your hot rods ready to rumble.”

13. Heavy Metal Lover
This is my favorite track on the album. If “Unicorn” is the climax of the album, then “HML” is the genesis of the denouement. The sonic opposite of the blasting, offensive, bizarre “Unicorn,” “HML” is subtle – which is ironic, because the lyrics have the most sexual gusto on the entire record, and include the best line we’ve heard from a pop artist in years (see below). The track is a blatant love letter to Gaga’s former life on the LES: she draws attention to the Rivington Rebels, the Dirty Pearls and a certain bar that shall here go unnamed. Drinking beer, raising hell and getting into trouble is the theme here; this is the “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” of Born This Way. Upon hearing it, I found myself thinking, “this is classic Gaga.” So I guess that’s a thing now. Defining lyrics: I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south.”

14. Electric Chapel
This song is both an homage and a love letter to rock ‘n roll. Gaga sings about finding a “safe place” to fall in love:  the electric chapel, the hallowed halls of rock. A strong electric guitar riff supports this bark with bite, as the album continues to wrap up its storyline. I love the sound of this song; it says a lot with its subtle growliness. I can’t say as much as it can, except that I think it leads nicely up to “Yoü and I,” as this song is the precursor to a great love while “Y&I” is the exaltation of it. Defining lyrics: “If you want to steal my heart away, meet me meet me baby in a safe place, come on meet me in electric chapel.”

15. The Queen (Special Edition)
Not unlike the other special edition tracks, “The Queen” is in a bad place. It breaks up what would be the natural flow from “EC” to “Y&I.” If it were up to me all the special edition tracks would be on a separate disc with the remixes. That said, “TQ” is my favorite of the three extras. A triumphant declaration of a woman’s right to strength and happiness, “TQ” shows Gaga after she has achieved what she yearns for in “Scheiße:” independence and strength that she pulls not from outside sources but from inside herself. The Queen reference (“killer queen”) doesn’t go unnoticed, and when the tempo slows and transforms into a Beatles-esque doo-wop sound, the song takes its place with “Hair” and “Unicorn” as the most interesting tracks on the album. Defining lyrics: Whenever I start feeling strong, I’m called a bitch in the night;  but I don’t need these 14-karat guns to win , I’m a woman, I insist it’s my life.”

16. Yoü and I
This track was the first from BTW that Gaga introduced to the world, last summer when she started playing an acoustic version at her Monster Balls. I loved it from the beginning, deeming it an epic rock ballad when it was just Gaga and her piano. When I heard the Mutt Lange-produced final version, featuring a guitar solo by Queen’s Brian May, I was not surprised to find it even more epic. It sounds like a Queen song, straight-up. Freddie Mercury would have sung this song. The backing vocals, performed by both Gaga and Lange, sound like they were crafted with Queen’s signature operatic layering in mind. This is the best song on the album. It will survive, and be played for years to come. Forget that the biggest pop star in the world wrote it, and it instantly becomes a classic rock ‘n roll love song. Defining lyrics: “It’s been a long time since I came around, been a long time, but I’m back in town; this time, I’m not leavin’ without you.”

17. The Edge of Glory
This is the other best song on the album. Garibay has called this track the “epitome” of the record, and he’s right. This song soars. I dare anyone to listen to it and not feel better about life afterward. Inspired by Gaga’s experience of watching her grandfather pass away, the song begins with a heartbeat and ends it with a flat line. It’s about embracing life and living it to the fullest, living on the edge, and sharing your most precious moments with the people who mean the most to you. Clemons returns with a sax break that adds an air of nostalgia and a sense that the song belongs in Top Gun. Gaga has said she can’t listen to the song without crying, because it conjures childhood memories of dancing around her parents’ living room listening to Springsteen. The great thing about Gaga, and what she accesses so readily in this song,  is that the sincerity of her “message” – love yourself, be free, be youthful, live passionately – is reinforced by her musical choices. When you listen to “TEOG,” you get the feeling that you, too, are back in your living room, just a child, listening to your favorite band, without a care in the world. Gaga is telling us that we can re-live that feeling, everyday. Defining lyrics: “Put on your shades, cuz I’ll be dancin’ in the flames tonight; it isn’t hell if everybody knows my name tonight.”

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