10 Year Retrospective: Lady Gaga’s polarizing and eclectic ‘Born This Way’

A decade later, Lady Gaga’s second full-length album is just as rambunctious but not as prophetic as she might have hoped.

10 years ago, Lady Gaga was indisputably the hottest musical act on the planet. Her debut album The Fame and its accompanying EP The Fame Monster had completely reshaped the pop landscape with an unprecedented six consecutive number one hits at Pop radio and single sales rocketing to tens of millions. In Gaga’s wake, the decade-defining pop-rock sound from Maroon 5 and Coldplay was completely swept out from Top 40 radio in favor of a barrage of dance-floor ready electropop. Katy Perry‘s rock-tinged debut, One of the Boys, was followed up with the sugary sweet Teenage Dream. Nicki Minaj and Kesha broke into superstardom, and French DJ David Guetta emerged as the foremost producer in the game. This shift had all been years in the making, with artists like Madonna and Rihanna releasing club hits before Gaga broke in late 2008 with “Just Dance,” but her hold on pop culture was unlike anything since Britney Spears debuted 10 years prior. Every musician from KISS to Beyoncé was poised with the question on every American’s lips: “what do you think of Lady Gaga?”

Her sophomore album Born This Way was butted right up against this success, forced into the shadow of The Fame from its first breath. Gaga revealed the album’s name donning her infamous “meat dress” after her history-making night at the MTV VMA’s, in which she took home eight (8) trophies, including “Video of the Year.” Nearly four months later, at the strike of midnight New Year’s Day, she finally revealed the release dates for the album and its eponymous lead single another five and two months away, respectively. In the days and weeks leading up to the single’s release, the anticipation spilled over from her Little Monsters and into popular culture: Ellen Degeneres enlisted Justin Bieber (and James Blunt) for a skit to speculate on the title track’s sound before its release.

This enthusiasm is partially what pushed Gaga to release the single two days earlier than initially expected, on Friday, February 11th, instead of Sunday the 13th. With the Billboard tracking weeks back then ending on Sundays, it was an unexpected gamble from a regimented starlet. But boosted by a Grammys performance – to which she arrived in an “egg” or “vessel” – the single launched straight to No. 1 with a record-breaking sales week in just two days and became the fastest-selling song in the history of iTunes. The reception from fans and critics, however, was far more polarizing than this instant success suggested. Madonna comparisons aside, the single’s production, Transformer-like in its size and timbre, only made the song’s message of maturity feel cheesy, and its lyricism was equally cringeworthy. While the song was an instant success and remained at the summit of the Hot 100 for six weeks, it quickly tumbled down the chart, going recurrent after just 20 weeks.

While that rollout was only gauche instead of bungled, the second and third single rollouts were exactly that. The four on the floor banger “Judas” was also released two days earlier than expected after a leak began making its rounds on the internet. And while her hardcore fans seemed pleased with its sound, it, of course, found copious amounts of Illuminati controversy with its hook “I’m still in love with Judas, baby.” The single underperformed commercial expectations,[1]Billboard initially projected sales of 350,000 to 400,000 in its first full (seven-day) week, yet the single only reached 318,000 downloads in 10 days. and the music video’s release on Easter weekend seemed to only handicap Gaga’s image rather than shock-factor the song back to life. With “Judas” quickly tumbling down the Hot 100, the instant-grat track “The Edge of Glory,” which had exceeded commercial expectations, was confirmed as the third radio single less than a month after the release of the second. Suddenly promotional slots on shows like Saturday Night Live and The X Factor were squished to fit awkward medleys of two tracks that couldn’t have been more disparate.

Then came the album release and the legendary Amazon controversy. To promote their new music service, the company – not Gaga’s team – decided to sell the album for 24 hours at just 99 cents, racking up a whopping 440,000 downloads and propelling the album’s first-week projections from approximately 650,000 to over a million. With such an unconventional and improvised rollout, the industry developed the impression that the release was chaotic. And the ultimate reveal of the record’s eclectic mix of influences from mariachi to glam-rock only made this theory more salient. Compounding this was the separate battering Gaga’s image took during this time. The “Judas” video offended religious audiences already skeptical of her after the “Alejandro” video and sharpened the Madonna critiques. Yet, she also made the inexplicable decision to lie about the clearly prosthetic protrusions on her face and shoulders by claiming they were her natural bones.[2]“They’re not prosthetics. They’re my bones.” The fun party girl that the public had grown to love during ‘The Fame’ was suddenly nowhere to be found, replaced by a (literally) unrecognizable and pretentious musician who read like she needed to prove something and would do anything to achieve it.

While these controversies certainly clouded the judgment of some reviewers going into the album – the “zero” score from Tiny Mix Tapes will forever live in infamy – the record was still generally well-received, albeit not lauded. Rolling Stone magazine placed it in their Top 5 Best Albums of 2011, while other outlets were a bit colder on it. Born This Way now boasts a quadruple platinum certification, but its commercial performance was compared unfavorably to other contemporary records such as Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream and, of course, Adele‘s 21. This, by and large, signaled the end of Gaga’s “imperial” era, where her commercial success and cultural permanence waned, even as she added new achievements to her legacy. That understanding doesn’t seem to have shifted very much over the last decade, especially in the wake of last month’s #BuyARTPOPOnItunes campaign, which launched a new wave of think pieces on her successive album’s performance.

That being said, Born This Way should have been and should be regarded as a good record. Overall, the album’s production is full-bodied, exhilarating, and diverse, despite stumbles on the title track and the offensively bizarre “Americano.” The range of 80s influences from Whitney to Springsteen to Iron Maiden are well utilized and are an honest representation of Gaga’s childhood. While never the strongest lyricist, Gaga’s lyrics are by and large thoughtful and thought out, from feminism and self-empowerment to sexuality and religion and the intersections between them. The fan-favorite “Bloody Mary” still boasts her most compelling songwriting, and thematically, the album is her most rewarding record to date.

The problem with Born This Way, like most Gaga records, is that it’s actually a little overthought. She’s laser-focused on including every footnote of every idea that it becomes difficult for anyone not in her direct orbit to parse through. That mindset results in the album being a little longer than it needs to be at just over an hour, with the weaker tracks (“Hair,” “Electric Chapel”) drawing just as much attention as the stronger ones (“Heavy Metal Lover,” “Scheiße”) and diluting the album. But when she’s on the ball, she knocks it out of the park.

Despite its haphazard promotional campaign and commercial performance, Born This Way is still Gaga’s most personal record and also the best representation of who she is as an individual. An outcast and a rebel, pretentious and driven. While she can certainly be overwhelming, she is even more welcoming.

References

1 Billboard initially projected sales of 350,000 to 400,000 in its first full (seven-day) week, yet the single only reached 318,000 downloads in 10 days.
2 “They’re not prosthetics. They’re my bones.”

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