It’s difficult enough to follow up a promising debut album, whether it’s commercially or critically successful. When the debut album in question is not only critically and commercially successful, but was one of the biggest-selling albums of the year for the past two years, the pressure to follow through with a successful follow-up is unquestionably increased.
Such is the situation Lady Gaga finds herself in with her new album, Born This Way. With 2 million physical copies of the album made for the initial pressing in the U.S. alone, where copies will be sold in non-traditional places such as Starbucks, CVS, Hot Topic, and Nordstrom, the music industry clearly anticipates that the album will be a major seller.
Meanwhile, Gaga’s promotional efforts, launched with the revelation of the album title at the MTV Video Music Awards last September and amplified with the release of the title track as the first single in February, have only gone full-force in the last few weeks. No less than three official singles have been released before the album’s release, with all three hitting the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
With all of the anticipated success, the major question for Born This Way is: is it any good? The answer is yes.
For fans of Gaga’s previous works, The Fame and its EP follow-up, The Fame Monster, there’s not a significant amount of common ground found on Born This Way. From song topics to vocals and production, Born This Way is a different beast of an album. This is by no means a bad thing, but it’s certainly not in line with the previous works.
Unlike those previous works, Born This Way is a more cohesive album. Part of it comes from the production, largely courtesy of Gaga and producers Fernando Garibay (who previously helmed The Fame Monster’s “Dance in the Dark”) and DJ White Shadow. Producer RedOne, largely responsible for the production of Gaga’s biggest singles off of her previous albums, including “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” shows up for three tracks, while veteran rock producer Mutt Lange produces the rock ballad “Yoü and I,” and while their tracks carry traits that normally run through the production on other songs, Gaga’s role as producer on every track helps to maintain consistency on the album.
While the album is being classified as “pop” in large part because of Gaga’s popularity, the music is pure, unadulterated dance music from start to finish. In this regard alone, the tracks manage to separate themselves not only from Gaga’s previous works, but from everything dominating Top 40 these days. While fans have not been overly enthusiastic about lead singles “Born This Way” and “Judas,” the decision to release these two songs first becomes clearer when listening to the album. The biggest pop artist in the world has made an album that is decidedly not commercially friendly. The album plays like a modern take on classic 80s music, with influences ranging from Madonna, Whitney Houston and Belinda Carlisle to Bruce Springsteen and Def Leppard.
Just because the songs aren’t commercially friendly doesn’t mean they won’t be successful, though. It’s important to remember that when “Just Dance” came out initially, dance music was still largely ignored on American radio stations. Meanwhile, when “Born This Way” debuted back in February, it sounded nothing like the dance-pop dominating the airwaves, but it managed to log six weeks at #1 on the Hot 100.
Meanwhile, the lyrical content of Born This Way adheres to messages more in line with the persona Gaga has created than her previous albums have produced. Much has been made of the messages of freedom and individuality on “Born This Way.” Those themes do recur on the album, most notably on “Hair,” an ode to the use of hair as a means of self-expression. The song may seem like the antithesis of another recent hit song about hair – namely India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” – but the messages of both songs are different. Where Arie’s song refuses to reduce the protagonist’s worth down to a physical feature, Gaga’s song uses a physical feature as a means of expression for a whole being. Both messages work without being contradictory.
The album’s other prominent recurring theme, though, is also present in “Born This Way” – a religious theme. Songs like “Judas” and “Bloody Mary” are the most obvious examples, with Gaga taking on the identity of Mary Magdalene on both tracks. Of the 14 tracks on the standard edition, though, at least half make at least a religious reference. This isn’t a bad thing. If anything, it’s a welcome relief from the onslaught of themes currently found in pop music. Gaga’s references to religion are not heavy-handed, with the possible exceptions of “Bloody Mary” and “Judas.”
What helps sell the songs, regardless of theme, is the passion of Gaga’s vocals. Unlike her previous albums, Born This Way was recorded almost literally on the road; Gaga’s tour bus included a full-fledged studio that would pull over repeatedly for Gaga and her producers to work on the album, with many of the vocals recorded after Gaga’s live performances on the Monster Ball tour. The passion that previously infused her live performances carries over to the album.
These various elements combine to make an album that is uniquely Gaga: loud, brash, and dripping with excess. It may not be the album of the decade, as Gaga once claimed it would be, but it’s definitely the album of today, and in that regard, it’s an extraordinary success.