Monday, May 23, 2011

Sound Advice: Lady Gaga, Born This Way & the Fame Project

The Blogger was a longtime fan of the seminal TV series Lost. Part of its appeal was its unabashed affinity for the supernatural, in particular numerology and the number 23, which appears in much of the series. The Blogger noted that its creator, JJ Abrams, intended that there be no coincidences.

The Blogger thought fondly of Lost when he heard that Lady Gaga’s long-anticipated new album Born This Way was to be released on Monday the 23rd of May. This is 18 months to the day and date that her previous work, The Fame Monster, was released … also on a Monday, the 23rd of November, 2009. This is no mere coincidence. Given that Born This Way’s release was touted as far back as the fall of 2010, the selection of the date was not incidental.

Planning and executing like a Roman general is exactly what Lady Gaga seems to have been doing. Since entering the public eye in 2008 with her experimental fashion and unbeatable hooks, there’s a calculated strategy all along to crest and eventually dictate the cultural zeitgeist. Gaga’s first album, The Fame, was a concept album that proudly, nakedly announced her intentions to become famous. It also appeared to be part of an ongoing, living cultural studies thesis studying the intricacies and effects of fame as they happened to her. She was her own living experiment, with no control group against which to gauge her progress, although that element presented itself by virtue of her record sales and the work of her peers. It is no accident that her follow-up disc was titled The Fame Monster, as her Gagaship had sufficiently explored fame to the point that she could write about its dark underbelly in coded metaphor. Every song was about a figurative monster representing some hidden pathology, begging for analysis even while you dance to it. 

Perhaps recognizing that she may be misconstrued as a manufactured poppet rather than as an authentic artist, Gaga heavily emphasizes live singing at all performances. The Blogger knows of more than a few skeptics who were won over to her cause by her now-famous stripped-down, acoustic piano version of “Poker Face”. It was a watershed moment that gave her true artistic credibility and silenced accusations of vocal-tampering. She’s known for her piano now as much as that other outrageously-dressed, big voiced, piano-playing rock star, Elton John.

Gaga has been cultivating a loyal audience of “little monsters”, as she affectionately calls her fans, who now follow her with near-religious fervor. She fought hard for her fan base by actively courting them and using emerging social media such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with them and let her most devoted fans know of her activities. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense and ensures continuity of the project. The Lady is inexhaustible, but it's paid off handsomely. The Blogger notes that in his hometown of Vancouver, Gaga has played no less than six sold-out dates within a two-year period, each time at an ever-bigger venue. Her seemingly never-ending Monster Ball Tour (which ranks as one of the single greatest concerts the Blogger has ever seen) recently ended after a mammoth 18-month journey through the globe (nicely bookending her two albums: again, there are no coincidences) and famously underwent a near-complete re-invention early on, as Gaga realized that demand outstripped audiovisual supply. The Monster Ball Tour met with rapturous critical reception and mass hysteria from fans at every stop, spawned an HBO concert special and is one of the highest-grossing, most well-attended concert tours in history. Gaga was recently named by Forbes as the single most powerful celebrity, unseating long-time champion Oprah Winfrey. The “little monsters” have spoken mightily with their wallets.

It is no accident, and certainly part of her plan, that Gaga recognized her fame could advance the progression of humankind and shape the body politic. Long an ally of the gay community, Gaga lays bare her political agenda but delivers it through imagery and hummable messages of love and acceptance to all. The new album makes no apologies for championing gay rights and making the message commercially viable to everyone. Combined with her continual engagement with her fans, Gaga has guaranteed lasting devotion and loyalty from her fan base.

Born This Way has been tipped by the industry as a sure-fire best-seller, and quite possibly the biggest-selling album, of the year. At this point in her short but already storied career, the Lady may as well declare herself Queen, displacing long-time title holder and fellow (coincidentally!!) Italian-American pop singer Madonna, who should promote herself to Dowager Empress.

All this discussion of her political agenda aside, there remains just one question that will ensure continuing discussion of Lady Gaga: how does the new album sound? Is it any good

Yes of course it’s good. In fact, it’s fucking amazing.

On the Monster Ball Tour, 2010, v. 2
Gaga understands the new demographic and how the marketplace works. With the invention of iTunes, sales of entire albums continue to decline while sales of individual singles, particularly in a depressed record industry, surged. Gaga responded to the demand by making available up to four singles off Born This Way prior to release. The disc itself has a mammoth 14 tracks (and even more on the deluxe edition), so the fact that it’s nowhere near as compact as her last two discs would indicate either artistic hubris or a lack of editorship. The “little monsters” certainly won’t stop listening to it anytime soon.

True to its title, the album’s strengths are comprised of empowering anthems designed to empower the “little monster”. Title track spells out in unambiguous terms freedom to simply accept and celebrate self-identity. It may be a club-stomper despite its heavy-handedness. The track's immense popularity indicates that the message has hit home, and is sure to monopolize soundtracks of Pride Parades everywhere this summer. Several other tracks, notably the promotional single “Hair”, continue in this vein.

No doubt singing about her
allergy to trousers
Nevertheless, the album is much like the great lady herself. It’s manic, unwieldy, built for the dance floor and at times downright bonkers. (Proof? It's so nutty that I just made an Edith Wharton reference in a pop album review.) There are plenty of irresistible club beats to be had here, such as the ice-cold, Teutonic-tinged “Scheiβe” and the robotic goodness of “Government Hooker”, a sinister number that would not be entirely out of place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or on a runway (in fact, she debuted it at a Thierry Mugler fashion show during Paris Fashion Week). “Americano” is an electric gypsy-tango number begging for a cameo from Gogol Bordello. “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” has already caught fans’ attention as it’s an autobiographical single about Gaga’s first encounter with the Manhattan club scene and it would not have sounded out of place with Madonna’s first singles in the early 80s. In fact, the album’s primary dance sensibility is heavily 80s-influenced, but it also embraces rock elements with considerable abandon. Gaga may not have been around for the days when CBGB was taking over from Studio 54 as the major party zone of the glitterati, but she has successfully tapped into its frenetic spirit.

Strangely and perhaps ironically, Gaga is at her best when she puts her nose to the grind on the musicality, which allows her to focus on emotional detail and less on the big, relentless dance beats. Gaga displays a flair for narrative piano rock, such as the contemplative and personal “Yoü and I”. These moments give a hint of grit to the album and an intimate cabaret feel. It’s when Gaga doesn’t try to be deliberately outrageous or political – not that the Blogger opposes her views at all – that she gets down to the business of showcasing her musical genius. Gaga might want to consider staging a cabaret tour with only a piano and her voice, without (too many) pyrotechnics to distract from her gorgeous voice and her powerful words. Her critics may overlook the warmth and humanity that inform her music, but it’s always there. If she ever gets too tired to dance, Gaga can resume her career as a piano balladeer.

For the closure, Gaga goes for the ultimate big finish, that being current single “The Edge of Glory”. Originally written as a tribute to her late grandfather at the moment before he leaves this realm, its slightly ambiguous meaning lends itself to other readings. (Perhaps the Rapture-mongers missed an opportunity to use it as a marketing tool?) It could also be read as a victorious Gaga standing on the precipice of fame, at its very zenith, proudly telling the world just where she is. It can also be a defiant anthem in the same vein as Edith Piaf's immortal "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien". In any event, this is a song that can be played on the dance floor, in a sing-a-long, and would not look out of place at an unorthodox funeral. No one else could have written this. It’s an absolute stunner and is the long-awaited anthem that she had previously stated the title track would be. As the closer, it simply demands to be heard, a glittering pop masterpiece and the crown jewel of the entire set. It is not meant to warm up the crowd or to get a party started: it lives with the sole purpose of creating lasting euphoria.

Yes, Gaga is a total nutter whose work is chock-full of excess and envelope-pushing. What she accomplishes is nothing less than sonic nirvana with potentially endless repeat listening value. 

And by the way: how many tracks total does Born This Way ultimately have, including the bonus tracks and remixes? Twenty-three. Don’t tell me that wasn’t planned.