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.