The third of ten favorite 2011 albums — Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’

Lady Gaga, Born This Way

It’s not as stark a cover as Depeche Mode’s Violator but it’s almost the same color scheme. Perhaps that’s why I like it.

What to say, what to say. It’s not that there’s been nothing to say, anything but. If anything, first let me direct you to Maura Johnston’s well-observed thoughts on Gaga in concert from a few days ago, and let me pull out this bit:

The highest-charting single from it to make the Hot 100 was Born‘s title track, a paean to tolerance recalling Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and released just in time to debut at the Grammys in February. It has a thumping beat and lyrics about accepting people of all races and sexual orientations; the enterprise had the wide-eyed “let’s get along!” innocence of the ’90s while being clad in a 21st-century sense of self-regard that led to it getting a global radio premiere at 6 a.m. on a Friday.

“Born This Way” ended the year at No. 18, and other singles from its attendant album didn’t fare much better on the radio—even though musically, they were stronger. Gaga’s second-highest-charting single on the year-end Hot 100 was “The Edge of Glory,” an exuberant Clarence Clemons–assisted anthem that sounds tailor-made for a particularly swoop-filled montage in a Top Gun remake. It was No. 29 on the year-end chart. “Yoü And I,” a stomping ballad produced by the pomp-rock architect Mutt Lange, ended 2011 at No. 71; the dizzying confused-catechism love song “Judas,” the album’s second single, missed the year-end chart entirely.

Can a pop artist be the biggest in the world if her successes sidestep radio airplay?

Maura goes on to make that case, but it obliquely reminded me of a comment that Eric Weisbard made on Facebook some time back — paraphrasing him as best as I can remember, he idly wondered, based on some exchanges with his daughter and perhaps some other girls, if Gaga-as-pop-behemoth was ultimately a wish fulfillment construction that critics were happy to aid and abet, that what she did was geared more towards their perceived demographic than that of the Little Monsters. Grounding this a bit more — that what Maura observed in the explicit nods to the past in her singles and more this year reflects who was going to celebrate this a lot, if not the most, even while Adele ended up with the top everything in terms of sales.

Still, at least in my head, Adele is a classic example of someone whose fame strikes me as anonymous. She seems anonymous, period. This year, the two things I can think of that involved any discussion of her beyond the unavoidable were her complaining about the UK tax rate and needing medical attention for her throat, resulting in missed US tour dates. That’s…kinda thin gruel. Her putative musical/celebrity godmother Amy Winehouse generated more regular attention even before her untimely passing, and if that speaks more towards morbidity and celebrity and the nature of the human animal as curiosity seeker than anything else, so be it.

Gaga in contrast revelled in events and actions for most of the year, only seeming to slow down a bit towards the end and even then going so far as to do a Christmas special for the apparent hell of it. None of this has to do with the album, perhaps, but does it even matter? If Gaga is supposed to be the omnipresent net-savvy maximized hyperstar, any album would almost be secondary by that logic. Heck, any song, period.

So context here and thoughts there and the fact that Gaga as template is irresistible bait — IRRESISTIBLE — for people to weigh in on, even and especially if they say they’re tired of her or can’t stand her. You don’t hear that about Adele, to backtrack a bit, and when it comes to other theoretically equivalent hyperstars, Beyonce already did her collaboration with Gaga and has long existed in her own beyond-the-touch-of-mere-humanity sphere, Rihanna is getting away with just as much as Gaga on the one hand but zig-zags rather than progresses steadily via her own imperial phase, and Katy Perry is Katy Perry and appears to be repeating as farce Britney Spears’s first run as tragedy.

But the album! So if the songs are actually tailored for someone like myself to enjoy, if she’s serious about the whole ‘pop equivalent to Iron Maiden’ as self-contained subculture, if the whole thing is a rockist move in not so many words, what of it if it works? And it really, really does work.

I think one reason this became clear to me wasn’t just the endless replays in the first couple of weeks it came out, and how what initially seemed like a monolith of pop/trance turned out to have a lot of different leap-out-of-nowhere moments song per song. It had to do with the three bonus tracks that were available, which when added to the album as I’d originally purchased it — and yep, I was one of those Amazon $1 buyers — ended up slowing everything down, making it feel a little lazier and off. What struck me was that the album really was an unified statement, designed to be heard that way, and which worked that way more often than not.

Gaga doesn’t ‘advance’ anything musically but who cares? Can’t say as I do, and the fact that she’s using familiar arrangements, rhythm constructions, breakdowns, everything that has underscored the beat monster that has long since ruled Europop and which finally has done so over here across the board — good thing too, frankly — is all fine for me, it revels in itself entertainingly. When and where she isn’t perfect doesn’t matter so much as the rush and the endless potential contextualizing. One friend said “Government Hooker” didn’t work for him until he was at a summer pool party in Miami. Earlier in the year Maura noted that there was something brilliant about having “Yoü And I” come out in the fall, it almost felt right for the slowing down of the year. And so forth.

I found myself humming bits from “Bloody Mary” throughout much of the year, thinking about how a video for that would be brilliant. My girlfriend couldn’t get enough of the country version of the title track. And at one point we were driving along through California and — lacking any way to properly plug in my iPhone into the rental’s sound system — listened in as I turned up its volume as loud as I could so we could enjoy “Highway Unicorn” in what seemed like should be its natural element.

No apologies. Love it.

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