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Album review: Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way'

Born-this-way-lady-gaga1 Lady Gaga is the perfect vessel for a broad message of unity, defiant self-respect and personal liberty, themes that the pop star returns to over and over again on “Born This Way,” her new album that comes out Monday. The artist born Stefani Germanotta is writing music for the People of the World, so her message needs to be clear as she stands perched upon the massive, gaudily ornate platform she and her collaborators have constructed for this moment.

But the inclusiveness Gaga believes so strongly in apparently doesn’t extend to music fans interested in sonic open space, unfiltered vocals and surprising rhythms, bridges and hooks. She’s speaking to everyone, it seems, except fans of artistic innovation. Say what you want about Lady Gaga, but nuance is not one of her strong points, nor is musical adventure. She’s unsubtle in her message, unsubtle in her dress, and, most important, unsubtle aesthetically.

RELATED: Frank talk with Lady Gaga

“Born This Way” is Gaga’s second proper full length work (excluding her eight-song EP of 2009, “The Fame Monster”). Two years in the making, the album’s 14 songs can be divided into two categories: the dance floor bangers and the bedroom breathers. The former, of which there are a dozen, tend to merge into one mass of pounding after a few songs, drawing as they do from the worst tendencies of the last decade of dance music — the Tiesto/Benny Benassi/Armin van Buuren school of post-trance relentlessness in which every peak is telegraphed from a mile away and which every valley is ruined by the impending arrival of another obnoxious return to a sledgehammer beat.

There are interesting moments. The bridge on “Judas,” when Gaga steps back and allows producer RedOne to wave his freak-flag with bleep-and-burp digital effects and futuristic washes for a too-quick breakdown, is wild and inventive. But then the 132 beats-per-minute pound comes in, and dynamism is once again merged by synthesizer bursts, cheesy saxophone riffs, guitar solos, or, at times, even Gaga’s voice into one muddy mess in the middle of the track.

Some parts sound like dumbed down Daft Punk, and those that don’t could have been swiped from a Basement Jaxx track from 1999. The main difference though, is that most of “Born This Way” is not funky. Whereas a dance group like the Scissor Sisters or Hercules and Love Affair makes loud-and-proud anthems that manage to stretch both musically and thematically, Gaga preaches messages of nonconformity while relying on a producer, Fernando Garibay, whose credits include tracks for Paris Hilton, Ashlee Simpson, the Corrs, and Snoop and will.i.am (“The Donque Song”).

Above this music Gaga addresses freedom in its many forms. She celebrates her follicles in “Hair” —- “I am my hair. I am free as my hair” — and, in “Americano” sexual and cultural openness, a song about meeting an immigrant woman in East L.A. and falling in love. The track is sweet and sharply composed, but the Latin flairs are so stereotypical — the flamenco guitar strum and the mariachi horns (at least what you can hear of them) that it borders on self-parody.

There are exceptions: “Government Hooker” is, in fact, funky, and draws its sound from a palette that references Kraftwerk, post-disco and weird Casio-tone circuit-bending. The last two minutes of “The Queen,” a bonus track on the deluxe edition, slows it down, employs a new beat pattern, ditches the hard bass-kick and travels to a more nuanced place.

And the best song on the album, the Robert “Mutt” Lange-produced “Yoü and I,” is a gorgeous love song that stands a good chance of being an “American Idol” staple for years to come. “Muscle cars drove a truck right though my heart,” she sings, and even if the image is awkward if broken down to its parts — is a Trans-Am sitting in the driver’s seat of an eighteen-wheeler? — it’s a good line, one of a handful on “Born This Way.”

But after such an extensive rollout, a few clever lines and a choice hook, drum fill, vocal run isn’t nearly enough. If Gaga had only spent as much time on pushing musical boundaries as she has social ones, “Born This Way” would have been a lot more successful.

RELATED:

Laurieann Gibson puts Lady Gaga and other stars in step

Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' video: Making goddess culture accessible

Critic's Notebook: Lady Gaga, sexuality and 21st century pop: Speaking truth to Camille Paglia

-- Randall Roberts


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Comments (41)

If 'You and I' is your favourite track from the album, you clearly just aren't very interested in electropop, are you? For those who are, there are many gems on this album ('Scheibe', 'Marry the night', 'Edge of Glory', etc.).

The inclusiveness you mention she strives to create finds its form in mainstream pop, and not in electro avant garde. So what? She does it exuberantly and should be judged on her conviction and technique as an electropop artist. It seems pointless to write a review about Lady GaGa and suggest she explore 'sonic open space'. Listen to Young Marble Giants, or something.

How can you say if this album is "successful" if it hasn't even been releases yet?

This album is a mess. Certainly nowhere near "album of the decade" she promised us.

Electropop? Come on, let's cut the crap. It's techno and it sucks and it dominates the airwaves. We're so starved for a great artist that we've settled with Madonna Part 2.

Lady Gaga should just become a politician, seriously. She could have gay marriage legalized in every state in a decade.

Either that or stop with the techno!

How can you say that it isnt successful? Your points clearly state that you don't understand what her fans really like so you arent in the same mindset to understand why most people like it. Your going to have a big shock next week when it does very well and your going to look stupid!

“Born This Way” would have been a lot more successful if Lady Gaga hadn't lifted bits and pieces from other popular artists as if she's the only one who has an iTunes library bigger than a few gigabytes with music from before 2000. It's as if she set her iPod to shuffle and decided, "Hmmm... what 'homage' will I throwback to in my next song?"

Born This Way = straight up rip-off of Express Yourself.

Fashion Of His Love = straight up rip-off of I Wanna Dance With Somebody by Whitney.

Electric Chapel = The hook from The Cardigans’ “My Favourite Game” + Desireless "Voyage Voyage" + Kylie circa Fever era production.

You And I = The beat from Shania Twain’s “Honey I’m Home” slowed down and the same backup singer and production from the seminal album, "Come On Over." Actually this song, stripped of its sheen, could have easily been a Shania Twain single.

I could go on and on…

The album is pushing the boundaries of music, lyrics, and cultural ideas. This is clearly seen in Americano, Schiebe, and the bonus track, Black Jesus Amen Fashion. She has mixed instrumental sounds (like the saxophone) with electronic sounds to create a fresh sound but that, at the same time, is reminiscent of what is popular today.

Like it or not, Born This Way is an album that clearly will mark its place in music history. Try to have an open mind, and just enjoy the music. In the end, that's all Lady Gaga is doing: creating music to dance and enjoy.

I'm not surprised by any of this - her constant brow-beating of the public about how different and revolutionary she is has proven thus far to be nothing but a puffed chest. rehashed ideas, clubby music and costuming that range from Alice Cooper, Bowie and Grace Jones to Madonna and Leigh Bowery might seem daring to young gays and Europop lovers, but really, it's just the same stuff in a shiny, new box.

the only song so far I really like is "Marry the Night". for some reason I think of Laura Branigan when she sings, but then I've been around the block a few times.

Finally, the critics are starting to do their job and call Lady Gaga out as a relentlessly overpublicized and overrated artist.

Sure, "The Fame" was a great album, but one album does not make a great artist.

RE:
--"How can you say if this album is 'successful' if it hasn't even been releases yet?"--

Although, we, as a society, tend to base success on a scale of financial value, I am pretty sure the author was referring to musical/artistic success of the album (which Gaga claims to be SO about), and not the success in regard to airplay and album sales...even though we all know that's what she's really after. So, the "success" he was talking about was the success as a piece of work (which it isn't), not a as a money making piece of crap (which it likely will be).

How can you say she isn't up for musical adventure? What other POP artist has merged Brian May, Mutt Lange, Clarence Clemmons and Madonna influences all on one album?

If she wasn't inventive, she would have hired Dr. Luke to producer her cd like all of the other pop tarts out there.

Hey John the producer of You & I is notorious for working with Shania Twain! It's idiots like you that cheapen music by going and looking for songs that sound similar and then say someone copied another artist. Musics been around for thousands of years buddy. You can't make a song that doesn't sound similar to another one anymore.

Lady Gaga is a true artist and is very talented. She continues to push the boundaries and if she's 'overrated' then it's the media's fault for that. She is a visonary and I appreciate her body of work. Today, so many artists either cannot sing or have albums where only one song is good. Gaga has something that very few today and that's lasting power. It's a simple....you can't hate the player..you just gotta hate the game, because honey is making that money.

Hey guys, I thought that the album is great! It makes me want to dance and have a blast.

And to address the argument that Lady Gaga rips from previous artists, you haters are getting pretty trite. I've been reading other blogs and everyone who tries to make Gaga out as a copycat constantly compares all of her songs to different artists that she's ripping from. And the funny is? They point to different artists.

SO really? It just means that she's pretty original and that people are reaching for people to compare her to in order to make her fit their image of a copycat. It's true that she's strongly influenced by other artists, but at the same time I think her melodies and chord progressions are the result of genuine inspiration. After all there millions of artists putting out lots and lots of music every year and so there's no one out there who can geniunely "unique." Also, if you can't stand pop music, then you really shouldn't be putting her down simply because she's not your genre of music. I can't stand rap, and you don't see the sheer amount of haters attacking artists like Nick Minaj the same way they attack Lady Gaga.


On another note, I have noticed that everyone really hyper critical of Lady Gaga. Any other artist, pop star, rock band, country star, or rapper would not be receiving the same amount scrutiny and criticism.

I think an album that boasts a Billboard 100 #1 single (for six weeks, mind you) a single that debuted at #10 and a most recent single that debuted at #3 BEFORE said album was even released qualifies as a success.

First of all, John - You and I sounds like a Shania track because it's the exact same producer (Shania's ex husband) that produced all of her music as well as AC/DC and Def Leopard. You'll notice his style is VERY signature, which is exactly what was seeked out for this record. Besides this, you named ONE song that you thought was a throwback, and that's Born This Way, which Gaga defended by saying it's simply the same chord progressions that have been used in disco for the last 50 years - Madonna simply used the very same disco chords in her song.

To the reviewer, if you review this as a typical pop album, or if you are more of a fan of the that genre, then sure this is not going to be your speed. For those of us that appreciate the hard hitting throw-back beats with the modern sounds thrown on top (and those of us that like to party!) this album is simply amazing. Finally, an artist who can give good beats AND sing the hell of her music.

I think the album is stellar. It's quite a bit more innovative than you're giving it credit for. Although the individual elements of each song may not be anything new, the way she brings so many different sounds and styles together into each song is quite interesting. Thankfully, I don't rely on a committee of critics to tell me whether or not I should like something. However, for the record, this is by far the harshest review of the album I've read so far. Overall, it's getting rather strong reviews.

you clrearly have no clue of what ur talking aboout...ive never, ever seen anything like gaga////and ppeople that compare her too madonna have no idea what they r saying..madonna will never be a true artist. madonna didnt know how to sing, compose songs, play instrments, etc etc, he songs are just rip offs of other songs..ex.express urself from respct urself..s people get it straight..and this album is already successful...a number 1 hit for 6 straight weeks, edge of glory debuts at number 3. judas debuts at number 10 with just 3 days of sales. so people get ur facts straight! gaga is the queen!

Wow I don't even know where to begin with this obviously biased review. It seems like I'm reading someone else's taste on what "they" like about pop music rather than focusing on the actual 'Born This Way' Album in it's entirety.

I can't think of a single artist album in the past decade that is soo diverse as what Gaga just released. Some songs I really enjoy, others I don't care for. Oddly enough I have friends/family that like the songs I don't and vice versa. The album is full of variety and fun. Each and every song brings something new to the pop genre while keeping with what works.

Sure I can constantly compare "bits & parts" of "this & that", but honestly I can do the same with every single album put out since the 1960s, atleast the hundreds that I've listened too over the years. However most of the work on this album is complete innovation if not inspirational.

No, it's not Fame Monster 2.0 and I am glad. I'm shocked and happy Gaga refused to meddle in the same previous work, and I'm sure she is talented enough if she wanted to she could have. The choice is she didn't and that's all it is ...a choice not too. Which is again another difference about Gaga from all other mainstream pop artist who's 3rd, 4th, & so on sounds just like their 1st Album (*cough* Madonna, Britany, Mariah, Adele and so on. *cough*). Now I love those other artist and especially Adele's '21' which is another good album, but none of them speaks more of the same ol to me.

No 'Born This Way' most likely won't be the Album of the Decade which I don't think Gaga ever meant that claim in the literal sense in the first place. But so far it is the Album of the Year for any fan of New Pop.

I like how you praised the song 'You and I' yet you seem to ignore all the other power ballads while claiming Gaga didn't "bring anything new", it seems you contradicted yourself in your own blind personal taste. And if the NYTimes was a smart corporation they would have gotten rid of your journalism, no "opinion" is more appropiate, yesterday.

Terrible.

this mistake is made all the time - people will judge an aritst by who they work with instead of judging their work. Lady Gaga is not a PRODUCER. That is someone she or the record company hires. If you don't like how the album is produced, then that is the PRODUCERs fault (or in some case the artist's fault for trying to be a producer by themselves). All that is mentioned here is that you don't like the production. If you want to judge Lady Gaga as an artist, you take a look at her performances on the album (which are stunning) and her song writing (which is pretty solid). It's as if she hired a bad drummer, and you're saying "lady gaga sucks cause the drumming is bad." If this production team doesn't work out for her, then she will hire another one. Had she hired someone else and presented the same material on her part this review could have been totally different. Albums like this are put together by a number of people, not just one person. This critique sounds like it's coming from someone who doesn't really know much about music.

*facepalm*

This is a dance record and it succeeds as not only one of the best dance albums ever, but as a quality material/content release. If I had kids (12 and older) I would allow them to listen to this because the core message is really good...it's positive without being boring, corny, or preachy.

While Lady Gaga did set expectations way too high for this record, she did achieve greatness with it. The message is powerful. The music is creative. She had a hand in creating every bit of it. Clearly the author of this review didn't understand the type of music her fan base likes or he wouldn't have just highlighted "You & I". I think this and Madonna's "Ray of Light" are the two best albums in this genre. And this Lady Gaga album has many songs that will be on repeat most of the summer. All I can say is well done Lady Gaga and thank you for the music.

She's just a rip-off artists...on every level:

http://jjstratford.blogspot.com/2011/03/lady-gaga-is-no-tetra.html

GAGA is TRASH, sorry Little Munsters...the article's writer is calling it like he sees it

"If Gaga had only spent as much time on pushing musical boundaries as she has social ones, “Born This Way” would have been a lot more successful."

- Define success, because there is little doubt this will be one of the biggest commercial successes in quite a while.

- I can't believe L.A. Times is endorsing this review. Are you serious in suggesting that it is more advantageous for her spend more time pushing musical boundaries than social ones? Isn't that what music used to be about anyway? Most of the music of the 60's and 70's was never perfection. It was idea based and backed up by stronger activism.

 


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