Five Years Later, Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Is Still An Absurd, Abrasive Achievement
Lady Gaga‘s second full-length came out five years ago today (May 23), and while Born This Way may have seemed overwrought and overstuffed back in 2011, it was the moment Gaga achieved a balance of sound and image. The album turned out to be forward-thinking for its adventurous, ominous production, helping to jump-start pop’s ensuing embrace of the sinister for the next half-decade. It was exactly the left-field jolt the Gaga narrative, and pop music, demanded at the time.
As the album’s lead single and title track dropped, the knock on Lady Gaga was that her music didn’t match the subversiveness of her presentation. If we’re shedding our poker faces, the production on The Fame was dinky. The Fame Monster muscled up the arrangements — “Bad Romance” sounds colossal enough to hold up that life-giving chorus, and “Telephone” doesn’t buckle under the weight of its two megastars — but simple synth-pop club tracks just weren’t going to cut it anymore once Gaga was showing up to the Grammys in an alien egg or wearing a meat dress. So on Born This Way, the production had to be as outlandish as Lady Gaga herself.
And she achieved that not by tapping into the EDM tropes that were about to peak, or just going the juiced-up dance/synth-pop route that stars like Rihanna or Kesha were doing at the time. Instead, garish and muscular genres like industrial, hair metal and darkwave formed the core of her BTW songs and every crevice of the album was filled with noise and brittle riffs. Sax solos are the least ostentatious aspect of the album. Guitars sound like synths, synths sound like haunted house organs, drums sound like static blasts, vocals sound either operatic or demonic, everything is in the red. Dystopian robo workouts (“Government Hooker,” “Judas”), steroidal ’80s drama pop (“Marry The Night,” “Born This Way,” “The Edge Of Glory”), power ballads (“You And I”), Brian May, Clarence Clemons, Mutt Lange, DJ Snake, they all intertwined on this thing.
The hooks aren’t as memorable as those from her Fame phase, largely due to the onslaught of sounds, but these are anthems nonetheless. Like the unholy Gaga-cycle hybrid on the standard edition’s cover, the music is a metallic machine twisted into something vaguely grotesque and familiar. And five years on, it’s a clear antecedent to the pop moment we’re in now.
The grimy churn of “Government Hooker” and the warped digital burps and goth chants of “Bloody Mary” could very easily have set the template for Kanye West two years later to do a song like “Black Skinhead” and dabble in witch house on Yeezus. “Bad Kids” fits gnarly processed guitars into a dance anthem, similar to the textures Grimes would work with on Art Angels tracks like “Kill V. Maim.” The harried gabber-lite stomp of “Judas” laid the groundwork for Demi Lovato to borrow from Sleigh Bells and Justice. You can find that same BTW DNA in all kinds of places, whether it’s Allie X, those oppressive blasts that open “The Hills” or the NIN vibes of FKA twigs‘ M3LL155X.
By disguising aggro goth-pop as radio fare, Gaga provided an alternative to the super-sugary molly-pop sound of the time, ditching the rave tent in favor of the void. Of course acts like The Knife had already toyed with this idea, but when someone of Gaga’s stature decided to cling to her inner demon, it made the pop world safe for stars at the top of their game looking to go on some truly abnormal, unexpected (and un-focus grouped) musical excursions. The album’s lyrics, length and lasting effect on Gaga’s career trajectory (alien egg -> Jo Calderone -> whatever this is -> vomit art) are certainly questionable, but nobody else could’ve made such an absurd, abrasive blockbuster seem so prophetic.