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“In societies where modern conditions of productions prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation. The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be re-established. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation... The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” - Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle
“Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.” - Guy Debord
[Insert meat dress mention.]
[Say something about the spark-breathing bra.]
[Factoid: Her debut single ‘Just Dance’ has so far sold 7.7million copies.]
[Include a prologue phrase revolving around: “meteoric zeitgeist-riding rise.”]
[Somethingsomethingsomething...a caveat about how every band can learn from how Gaga has created her own universe. How every song communicates a clear, succinct, mini-manifesto message.]
[Blahdiblahblahblah somethingsomething something irrelevant, mentioning bands you should listen to instead of Gaga like Planningtorock, How to Dress Well, St Vincent, Metric, Matthew Dear...]
[Close opening paragraph with a very subtle Madonna related dig to elaborate on later.]
“I’m not that cool, and you hate me.” - Lady Gaga, ‘Bad Kid’
When I was 12, the kid I sat next to in double science shoved his headphones on my ears. Flakes of dead skin trickled down my collar and come to think of it, I can still sorta feel his greasy earwax. He looked at me with giddy eyes, his mouth slightly ajar. He pressed play and these juddering ice picks of tinny noise skittered around my lobes. Many minutes went by, punctuated by gruff shout outs and day-glo crowd roars occasionally erupting atop the high-bpm ruckus. I sat there, gazing out the window at sandwich bags in the breeze whilst this hyper-colour sound scratched at my Cochlea. He took the ‘phones off and said, somewhat expectantly, “how bangin’ is that bruv?” I fobbed him off with a wide-eyed “yeah-yeah” and from that moment on I became, somewhat consciously, an outsider by not falling in line and sneaking out to go to all the under-18 raves. Yet, here I find myself, listening to Born This Way for the twenty-fourth time, wondering why I’ve never been to Berlin and held my arms aloft in some sweaty basement full of buff blokes, trannies and girls you’d never take home to your granny.
I mention this, not to waste your or my time or as some preemptive narrative for a sucker-punch conclusion a few hundred words from now but to justify why, when I went to 'The Monster Ball', I arrived all cynical but within a few raved-up pop-songs I totally lost my ‘shit’. Amid the awe, a pang of regret bum-rushed me. I felt hollow about missing out on memories of waking up covered in sweat and smudged face-paint and bile at 4pm on a comedown. I couldn't stop thinking about all those sunrise-hating nights of my parallel life, spent on Mediterranean islands and in Detroit warehouses, which I’d forgone for watching bands in the rain.... O' yes my brothers, for one night only, I was a Little Monster, and there I was, shaking my head from side-to-side, my 'paws' up in the air but simultaneously suffering from this existential crisis. Wriggling and writhing along to the beat but as adrift from it all as my Nine Inch Nails t-shirt - which I’d bought the last time I was at the Millennium Dome/The O2. This fact is neither here nor there, I just like to mention Trent Reznor at every opportunity.
Oh sure, on the surface it was your usual extravagant enormodome ‘pop’ ‘show’ of hotdog-scented glitz. It was guilty-pleasure fun, yes, yes, yes... It featured all the glamour that lots of lights, lingerie and walkways and crazily overpriced beer can possibly muster. But there was something else happening, far beyond the hype tripe. Seeing past the grizzly old man upon my shoulder, screaming to me that this was ‘in-fucken-authentic’, my mind waltzed around ideas that 'The Monster Ball' was something post-everything. Like, post-everything I’d read or pithily predicted or presumed a Gaga arena show should or would be. I was utterly absorbed and lost, admiring the pantomime, sucking it all in with a BDG (big dumb grin) and wondering how, somehow, her ‘show’ (which is essentially like one of those Morrissey fan letters but in Gaga’s case, a living shrine to Prince) could work as well on a cameraphone video posted up on YouTube as it does reduced down to something digestible in a TV studio or re-enacted on stage during school assembly. It was the pomp and simplicity of the performance, like two conceptual tectonic plates grinding against each other, which had me whizzing off into some dark recess of my mind where a ‘Take On Me’ hand was frantically scribbling utter nonsense notes (worse than this) whilst some arsehole showed old movies of my childhood where I was listening to a Helter Skelter cassette at the back of double science...
[Insert: Somethingsomethingsomething... something about regurgitation, regression and pop eating itself]
Preconceptions are a bitch. My voyage to Gaga-land left me wrong-footed, mostly because it was something closer to Hulk Hogan than the Vivienne Westwood theme park ride I'd anticipated - isn’t that, befuddlingly, how no-brow Gaga is? Her brilliance isn’t so much her music but how she fuses her ideas-above-her-station (ambitions of high art) with a consumable, carefully constructed surreality-encroching-on-reality that her ultra-altered-üßer-ego inhabits. What I loved about her arena show (which was about 100 times bigger, brasher and more polished than that odd Radio 1 Big Weekend 'thing' recently) and The Fame Monster, is how Gaga is unattainably alien one minute and the very next second, within a turn of her heels, you can imagine her very human heart beating, almost as if she’s been grounded by an imagined X Factor finale montage playing in our collective consciousness, made up of YouTube clips, school photos and any other dirt the gutter press have dredged up since her rise.
Anyhoo, Born This Way essentially finds Gaga doing more of the same but with a few new production tricks. Whilst the new record features less crypticism, ellipses and vague pronouns there’s still enough ambiguity to allow Gaga to automagically be many different things to a million disparate peoples. But, intriguingly, she’s started humanising herself (it’s possibly a double bluff to flesh out the character of the Gaga Avatar) with lyrics that mention her mum (‘Hair’) and we find her confessing things like “I wish I could be strong without somebody there,” before, quite possibly referencing The Beastie Boys ‘Fight For Your Right’. In fact, the whole album is littered with homages, subtle references and just as likely, utterly unrelated things that have subconsciously drifted into the glittery mix. This tributary flow of influences is part of what makes Gaga the star she is, and the fact she manages to construct this grand historical context for herself is part of her charm. Born This Way finds her setting up her stall alongside monarchs and martyrs like Queen Elizabeth (‘Bloody Mary’), John F Kennedy (‘Government Hooker’, which I have a crackpot hunch is a song about Monica Lewinsky), Jesus (‘Black Jesus + Amen Fashion’) and Judas (of course). Then again, perhaps this is just a mixture of positioning in a marketing sense or the lyrical equivalent of an interests section on Facebook.
It’s within the did-she didn’t-she inferences that I started to truly fall under Born This Way’s spell. Take, ‘Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)’ which has an Mr Oizo rumble to its bassline and transitions rather than with with key changes but like Sonic the Hedgehog entering a bonus level, yet it still sounds exactly like an undeniable super-hit. Like, a bajillion YouTube views and a mantelpiece of pointless pointy awards are awaiting its arrival. Probably. Maybe. It could possibly just be the greatest Eurovision (KLANG!) song never entered and is the only track on the album that mentions rainbows, ponys and unicorns. Which kind of highlights quite how - despite the silly outfits and titillating soundbites - strangely straight this record is. That's not to say it's conservative by any means but there's none of the mindfuckery that her outfits suggest and it certainly doesn't sound blimmin' bonkers like Ween or Battles or Sparks. What this definitely maybe is, is Gaga veering away from the guttural "ga-gah"s (were they really some sort of pixelated third person shout out to herself?) and the novelty euro-trash "rah-ma"s and "ooh-lala"s, and instead this is a record of both subtle and dramatic shifts in atmosphere, texture and genre.
On this album, Gaga’s evolved the Party Monster pose (if you’ve not seen that Macaulay Culkin flick, see it!). ‘Government Hooker’ for instance opens operatically, not unlike Diva Plavalaguna from Fifth Element before she opines “I’m gonna drink my tears tonight” before the song sort of shunts into Controversy-era Prince (KLANG!). Then there’s the barmy ‘Alejandro’-zooming-over-the cuckoo’s-nest ‘Americano’ with its Borat-as-done-by-Baz-Lurhmann, Gogol Bordello plate-smashing romp, as well as that snarled “ow-wuh” before the Germani-i-i-i-iii-i-ic stomp of ‘Scheiße’.
There’s ‘Hair’, which could be a HI-NRG Kiss cover until the lyrics reveal themselves as being exactly like something yanked from the closing scenes to an Alicia Silverstone chick-flick. ‘Black Jesus + Amen Fashion’ is a bit Top Shop goth with its Marilyn Manson beats rumbling within a dance-era No Doubt tune which sounds pretty much like what Grace Jones would have have done if she was generated by the Ed Banger blog-haus algorithm. But then again, 'Black Jesus' falls a bit flat because it’s essentially a hollow ode to Fashion Week. Meanwhile, the Elton John line-dancing with Ugly Kid Joe ‘Yoü and I’ - which features Brian ‘off of the Olympics’ May - is bafflingly adroit bar-rock, almost cynically scrambled together for the sake of American radio. In fact, Born This Way really is not all good and suffers from filler tracks like ‘The Queen’, as well as the overblown ‘Fashion of His Love’ (possibly just a Cyndi Lauper-ish re-work of Whitney’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’) and the oddly plodding ‘Bloody Mary’ (the opening strings had me switching the record off to blast Panic at the Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out). Seventeen tracks plus six bonus tracks on the special edition feels especially bloated but then she’s over-reaching from beneath the disclaimer that she's doing it all for her Little Monsters - which sort of makes it worse, as she could have given quite a few of these tracks away to sate and excite them, and created a killer album. However, it's pretty hard to be cynical when you think that her debut single was only released in April ‘08 and she’s subsequently toured the world a few times, and managed to record (with a little help from some killer producers) and release 40+ tracks and remain prolific amid the hubbub of it all, but at the same time, like Ryan Adams, and people publishing their everything thought online, perhaps it’s best to leave some stuff on the cutting room floor?
“I want your whisky mouth, all over my blonde south” - ‘Heavy Metal Lover’
But when Born This Way peaks, it kicks like a diamond studded mule and it’s far far FAR better than even the snobbiest nob would anticipate. The song-of-the-album ‘Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)’ is followed by ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ which drifts somewhere between a Cut Copy floor-filler and Uffie fronting Girls Aloud, on a record produced by SebastiAn. Similarly, ‘Electric Chapel’ soars into Eighties ambi-dance territory but is a touch less Fisherspooner-via-The-Cardigans-’My-Favourite-Game’ and a little more Cassius with a splash of Matt Bellamy’s underwater guitar wibbling over one of Muse’s patented horse-march basslines. In fact, with this killer threesome of tracks, something undeniably special (or at least unexpected) is occurring and if you mess around with your stereo settings just enough and screw your ears up just right it isn’t particularly unlike the sprawling mid-section of Crystal Castles’ second album, all purple-bruised and oily-puddle rainbows (can someone please get Factory Floor or How to Dress Well to do a remix? Thanks). Then there’s the infectious opener ‘Marry the Night’, the brilliant Madonna porn-o-like title track, and the incredible closer ‘Edge of Glory’ (“Tonight, yeah! Baby!”)
It’s a breathless adventure, that leaves even seasoned space-pop travelers a little weary at times but then it’s H.E.R. with a capital G.A.G.A. and she’s always going to be as exciting as she is wearing. Born This Way suffers from many of the same ailments as the Monster Ball - it wasn’t so much the slightly desperate girl-power-gone-awry half-nakedness, nor the slightly cheesy backdrop of Evil Dead meets Little Shop of Horrors special FX but it was Gaga herself, speaking in that schoolgirl drawl of hers between songs, sharing her pantomime narrative about why she wanted to put on th’ monstah bawl so that her little monsters had somewhere to go and be themselves. Gaga's mid-song shouts of “let your freak flag fly” felt a little flat looking around at an average arena crowd in their Urban Outfitter t-shirts and H&M dresses - apart from Boy George, obviously, and a few fans dressed as Gaga clones. Yet, for all the slightly try-hard banter undermining my imagined image of her and her Little Monsters, The Monster Ball left me smiling and distant from the troubles of the world, for a while. As the show settled and the mirror ball dresses were packed away, The Monster Ball didn’t convince me of her dispossessed credentials, and nor does Born This Way . If she’s a really true outsider, unwilling to compromise for the sake of popularity, then it doesn't really show and sort of isn't the point - although I'm still not sure if I admire her audacity or love the celebration of inauthenticity. Cynically, with all her willingness to bang on and on about being on the outside, I can’t help but think she’s read Sherry Turkle’s incredible Alone Together (or at least watched her TED talk on Youtube), where she explains that technology makes us all feel alone, and desperate to belong to something because technology makes us feel especially isolated. And, unlike Madonna who seemed to just ingest cool genres, it seems from the very concept of this album and woven into her manifesto, that Gaga gets far more about the modern world than she's letting on. Or maybe it explains her success. Chicken and eggs, innit.
If you you thought this was 'tl;dr' (too long, didn't read), then maybe I've indulgently done a Gaga. If you skimmed all the above and just want a succinct conclusion it's thus: Gaga is a mixed message, she gets the notion of media spectacle but also knows the intriguing power of silence. I'd wager, like Malcolm McLaren, she's probably read a lot of Dubord, and yet, if you'd like to you too can construct whatever Gaga you like, and that's the point. And yeah, I rather like the album. (It’d be a nine on ten if this was the tracklisting).
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