Prophets of doom claim that this Saturday—May 21, 2011—will be the beginning of the Rapture and that God’s forsaken shall be left on Earth to be tormented for five months before the world comes to its final end. Satan, you can imagine these Christian fanatics saying, will be revealed in the form of a pop star, saturating radio airwaves with her malevolent message of equality for all, leading the damned to hell on the backs of grotesque motorcycle-human hybrids sporting hooker-red lipstick and branded with the definitive sign of the devil: a beveled and embossed logo. Of course, that’s just an allegory conceived to frighten us into subservience to pop music’s status quo. But Lady Gaga’s official sophomore long player, Born This Way, feels like it’s been hyped for almost as long—and certainly as fervently—as the End of Days. Which poses two distinct problems: the age of its songs and its stubborn obedience to said status.
M.I.A. is often cited as a counterpoint to Gaga, as an artist who, despite criticisms of commercializing political violence in the same way American rappers have packaged and sold the gangster lifestyle to suburbia, makes music that’s as challenging as her persona is hypocritical. Gaga’s flaw is almost exactly the inverse: She fancies herself a cultural revolutionary, employing subversive, if not always completely cogent, visual messages to promote self-love and civil rights, but fails to create music that similarly challenges pop-radio audiences. It’s a dilemma that faces any mainstream artist who wants to attain—and maintain—popularity, and thus reach the widest possible audience.
For the better part of two decades, the hip-hop community has applied a strict litmus test to any newcomer hoping to crack the upper echelons of rap: Street cred is essential. Rock has often had a similar requirement of authenticity, but almost anyone is accepted in the glittered halls of the pop pantheon. That is, unless the level of one’s dues-paying is deemed disproportionate to his or her success. Questions about Gaga’s Upper East Side upbringing and rise to fame have persisted since she became a household name, and with good reason: Her willful admission that everything she does is artifice, her on-stage declarations that she hates the truth, and her opportunistic transformation from vapid fame whore to protective mama monster with a message all point to her being, to paraphrase the performer in an early interview, the most impressive con artist pop music has ever seen.
Madonna has always been accused of appropriating the “other” for her professional gain, but it’s Gaga who’s taken that conceit to almost obscene levels, pandering to the gay community in particular in ways no other pop artist ever has, not by paralleling her oppression as a female to that of other minorities, as Madonna so frequently and shrewdly has, but by actually transforming herself into a “freak,” first with outlandish costumes and, more recently, with prosthetic body modification. These elements are all fascinating redefinitions of beauty, of what’s “normal,” and physical manifestations of the ugliness that Gaga may have once felt inside, but the girl who was, by many accounts, pretty popular in high school, has effectively fetishized the “other.”
The reason many have accepted this blatant co-opting, then, is because we want to believe that—again, like Madonna—Gaga’s motivations are pure, even if championing the cause of what she realizes is her core fanbase seems like the ultimate exploitation. Gaga’s near-pathological, around-the-clock commitment to the persona she’s created, to say nothing of her devotion to her fans, is about as “real” as it gets in the pop world. And, occasionally, she succeeds at convincing us that being a freak is a state of mind: The freakiest thing about her fantastic “Born This Way” video isn’t its ideas (the creation myth that opens the clip is really no different from the story of Adam and Eve or the war between matter and antimatter in the early universe), it’s Gaga herself—that 30-second span leading up to and through the final chorus where she unleashes her inner freak, grinding up against Rick Genest, whipping her Pink Ambition ponytail around, and rolling her eyes into the back of her head like she’s possessed.
For all the griping about “Born This Way” sounding too similar to “Express Yourself” (which it does), it’s also a retread of The Fame Monster’s “Dance in the Dark,” which shares the same producer, structure, and themes—only those themes aren’t pounded into submission with too-literal lyrics and a sound design that was ostensibly tinkered with nonstop since Gaga first sang the hook at the VMAs way back in September. “Born This Way” might have sounded good in a multimillion-dollar recording studio, but on today’s portable gadgets, its chorus is a busy, over-produced earsore.
In fact, choruses seem to be the problem with all of the album’s singles so far. And what’s a pop song without a good hook? The speed metal-meets-“Bad Romance” knock-off “Judas” is lyrically more interesting than “Born This Way,” but its Aqua-esque chorus is too sweet and poppy for a torch song dedicated to one of the Bible’s greatest villains. The electro-rock ballad—and accidental third single—“The Edge of Glory” isn’t retro so much as retrograde, starting off with some crafty Art of Noise synth tones before morphing into what sounds like the theme song to an early-’90s sitcom, or an inspirational sports flick, as sung by Bonnie Tyler. And the promo single “Hair” is a derivative but perfectly serviceable club track about highlights that’s turned into a dumping ground for every bad idea Gaga’s had in the last 12 months: schmaltzy piano-woman melodies, overwrought choruses, inexplicable sax solos. Apparently she’s never heard of Hair—or the queen of all hair-as-self-actualization dance-pop anthems, RuPaul’s “Back to My Roots.”
Which is all to say that I had my claws out for this one, but I couldn’t stay mad at Gaga for very long—not with songs like “Marry the Night,” a more worthy successor to “Dance in the Dark” that channels post-disco Moroder, and the filthy-fabulous “Government Hooker,” which manages to make the oft-robbed bassline from New Order’s “Blue Monday” sound brand new. And not when the girl sells a lyric like “Dirty pony, I can’t wait to hose you down” in a faux-continental accent without cracking up on “Heavy Metal Lover.” (Typically flouted watersports-enthusiast community: You now have your very own anthem!) Gaga’s self-proclaimed status as a student of all things pop culture results in some largely exhilarating experiments in pastiche: “Electric Chapel” is like a song by the Cardigans as fronted by Debbie Harry, featuring Slash, and produced by John Carpenter, while “Unicorn Highway (Road 2 Love)” might be what it would have sounded like if the Lizard King’s heart had held out a few more years and he recorded a disco song.
References to other erstwhile ’70s icons like ABBA (“Americano,” “Judas”) and Queen (“Yoü and I”) are a bit less imaginative, and Gaga gets in trouble when she allows her affinity for her fans to inform her songwriting, as she does on “Hair” and “Bad Kids” (for the record, it sounds like she’s singing “faggot” instead of “bad kid,” which, come to think of it, would have made for a much ballsier, albeit dicey, political statement), but it’s easy to forget that she was still only 24 when she composed most of these songs. She’s indeed on the edge of glory—that is, she isn’t quite there yet, but it’s fun to watch her try so devotedly.
Norman Mailer once said that, when writing fiction, one should draw from their own personal narrative at oblique angles rather than cutting straight through and using it wholesale; this way, a writer can use their personal experience over and over in different ways without ever exhausting it. To that point, Gaga has tapped the well of the Queen of Pop so often and so directly that it will become impossible for her to continue to do so without facing fierce criticism. Which is unfortunate since she’s most interesting, even most relevant, when striking that particular pose, as she does on “Scheiße,” a Dietrich-by-way-of-Madonna-on-steroids techno-feminist manifesto.
But as it stands, it appears Gaga’s most prominent muse throughout most of Born This Way is Lita Ford. When Gaga graduated to stadiums, her music clearly followed suit. There’s nothing small about this album, and Gaga sings the shit out of every single track. In many ways, Born This Way is akin to the Killers’ under-appreciated sophomore effort, Sam’s Town: bloated, self-important, proudly American, an exercise in extraordinary excess. There are lots of mentions of Jesus Christ throughout the Born This Way project, not to mention Judas, Mary M., and machine guns that shoot church bells. Which makes sense, since Born This Way will likely be playing on a loop in hell. And all the bad kids—and faggots—will be dancing to it for eternity.
Label: Interscope Release Date: May 23, 2011 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon