Going Gaga
In Which I Take the Lady Gaga Plunge

I’m back, refreshed and invigorated after my week off. Thanks for your indulgence as I turned 37. I know, I can’t believe how damn old I am either. Forty is in sight. And not “in sight” as if it were a land mass in the distance, seen through a telescope. In. Sight. It’s crazy.

I promised myself years ago (more years than I’d like to admit) that I would never be one of those old people who loses track of new music. I know too many of them – it’s like they reached a certain age and said, “Well, I have all the music I need. I’m all set.” And they stopped looking for new experiences, and started thinking of everything “the kids” listen to as garbage – or, at the very least, not as good as the stuff they grew up on.

That will never be me, I said. So I’m constantly on the lookout for that attitude within me, clawing its way out. Don’t misunderstand me – I definitely detest a lot of the music on the radio these days, but I try not to dismiss that music without giving it a fair chance. I’m wary of that tendency anyway, but I’m extra sensitive when it comes to music aimed at the younger generation. At the same time, I don’t want to be Randy Marsh from last week’s brilliant South Park episode, pretending to love music that sounds like shit just to prove I’m not old.

So I try things. A lot of things. I end up disliking a lot of it (and not bothering to write about it in this space), but I just can’t abide recoiling from music and not giving it a chance. As a wise songwriter once said, what would you be if you didn’t even try. You have to try.

Which brings me to Lady Gaga.

For a long time, I clung to the belief that there were only a few things I knew for sure. The sun will rise, the sun will set, the planet will keep turning, the government will continue to take too much of our money, and we will all eventually die. And Lady Gaga sucks, and the world will be immeasurably better when she goes away for good. I have been known to leave the room when Gaga songs come on the radio. I simply cannot stand her.

And I said all of that for years without hearing a single one of her records. I know, I’m not proud of it. But I have reasons for recoiling – I’m allergic to image-driven pop stars, and there hasn’t been one working on Gaga’s scale in some time. I hate her stage name. I know she took it from Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga,” and that only makes me hate it more. I hate the attention-starved “outrageousness.” I hate the meat dress, the bubble dress, the giant fucking egg. I hate it all.

I can tell you why. Most of the praise I hear heaped on Gaga has little to do with the actual music she makes. It has to do with how “crazy” she is, how over-the-edge she is, how she showed up nearly naked to Lollapalooza and stage-dived, and on and on. It’s a persona. It’s not real. She’s acting outrageous when the cameras are on her, and like most stars of her ilk, she’s doing it because she has nothing to say musically. She’s manipulating the star system like no one since Madonna, and people are falling for it.

Just about every Gaga song I’d heard backed up that impression. My first brush with her was “Lovegame,” which pivots on the poetic line, “I want to take a ride on your disco stick.” If pressed, I would admit to liking “Poker Face,” but I liked it more when Cartman sang it on South Park. The other songs I’d heard – “Just Dance,” “Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance,” “Telephone,” “Alejandro” – left me utterly cold. In fact, they left me angry that so much attention was being given to this woman who clearly wasn’t any better than her peers, who clearly had nothing of any substance or value to contribute.

And with every breathless media pile-on, every “OhmygodidyouseewhatGagadidnow??” exclamation I heard, every video of some public spectacle she made of herself appearing online, I got angrier. And still, I hadn’t listened to a single record. I finally realized I had to rectify that. And the much-heralded release of Gaga’s new album, Born This Way, seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that.

But I couldn’t just buy the new record. If I was going to do this, I was going to dive in. So I dropped nearly $50, and bought everything. The Fame. The Fame Monster. The two-disc special edition of Born This Way. Even the remix record, and the three-song Cherrytree Sessions. All of it. And when I ended up hating it all, no one would be able to accuse me of not giving her work a fair shake. I did all this with a certain smugness, knowing that no matter how open my mind, this experiment likely would not change it. And I’d get to rip Gaga a new one in this space.

But then a funny thing happened. I started… well, liking some of it.

Not all of it, and certainly not at first. The Fame is pretty much what I thought it would be – a harmless, faceless electro-pop record. In fact, it’s almost shockingly anonymous. These songs could have been written for anyone, and while Gaga talked a good game during these years, she never backed it up with freaky-awesome music. “Just Dance” could be any club-ready pop star. It has not an ounce of personality. “Poker Face” still brings a smile, but virtually everything else here – particularly the fluffy “Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” and the obligatory rap cameo “Starstruck” – just slides by. There are two songs performed with guitars, but even they don’t stand out. They sound like No Doubt at their poppiest.

I didn’t end up liking The Cherrytree Sessions as much as I expected to, either. The jazzy piano take on “Poker Face” shows that Gaga can really sing, but she isn’t in the same league as, say, Christina Aguilera. And apparently her idea of a “stripped-down” version of “Just Dance” is one with the drums turned down a bit. The thing of it is this – none of the music on The Fame or its attendant EP matches the outsize personality of its author. It’s all just kind of boring.

And that brings us to The Fame Monster, her 2009 EP. The Fame Monster begins with “Bad Romance,” and so now we have reached the point in this experiment where I was, of my own volition, listening to “Bad Romance,” a song I would erase from time if I could. I’m not sure why, but I really don’t like this song. Perhaps it’s my strong distaste for Gaga’s habit of singing her own stage name in her songs. Perhaps it’s just the overall obnoxious tone. Perhaps it’s the lack of any hooks – well, not really, but the lack of any hook that makes me want to listen again.

So anyway, Gaga wants my love, and doesn’t want to be friends, and then sings in French, and blessedly, it’s over. Comparatively speaking, though, the rest of The Fame Monster sounds timid. It definitely has more personality than its predecessor, but not enough. “Alejandro” is second-rate Madonna, “Monster” is boring and silly, “Dance in the Dark,” “Telephone” and “So Happy I Could Die” are all harmless and forgettable. That leaves the vaguely Queen-like “Speechless,” which I like, and the down-and-dirty “Teeth,” which I love. “Teeth” is the best song on the EP, in fact, a relentless crawl through the jungle that leaves you sweaty and smiling.

But as far as the first four records go, the most successful is The Remix, which casts Gaga’s voice against thudding club beats and interesting electro-arrangements from the likes of Richard Vission and Passion Pit. It’s dance music that knows its place – if you can’t go big, at least as big as your public persona, then slink back and do this. It doesn’t take a pop genius to come up with clubby bangers like these, but they’re more explosive and inventive than anything Gaga had given us to that point.

So it was with trepidation that I pressed play for the first time on Born This Way, a 17-song behemoth that arrived with the media-hype force of a hurricane. By this point, I was expecting a whole lot of not much.

This next part is tough for me, because I have to admit I was wrong. Born This Way is nothing less than the first anything-goes wild pop album Lady Gaga has made, the first one that sounds like it might have been written by the weird woman in the bubble dress. Yes, there are 17 songs, and for the first time, I don’t want to skip any of them.

Born This Way is… well, it’s kind of awesome.

I know, I don’t quite get it either. The differences are not enormous. Born This Way is an electro-pop album with a couple of live-band tracks, just like Gaga’s first efforts. But it’s clear that everything before this has been a rough draft. Sometimes literally – “Bad Romance” is self-evidently an early sketch of the awe-inspiring “Judas,” which takes it to its fullest extreme. But often, Born This Way just feels like an artist finally coming into her own.

Yes, she takes from Madonna here, a lot. But she also shows off a remarkable affection for Pat Benatar, and she refuses to be ashamed of her obvious love of ‘80s pop. The album opens with the sublime “Marry the Night,” which could have fit nicely on Crimes of Passion, if not for its European techno leanings. Its glorious anthemic chorus slides into a dance-house fever dream in its second half, and it’s so exhilarating I wondered if it set a bar the rest of the record couldn’t clear.

Not so. “Born This Way,” an obvious pinch of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” works well in context, keeping the momentum going, if not impressing as a song. But “Born This Way” does exactly what it is meant to do – it delivers an anthem of individualism, a fist-pumping singalong about embracing who you are, no matter how odd others think you. That sentiment would mean nothing if the rest of the album had not been as weird and individual as it is.

Can you name another pop star who would unleash something like “Government Hooker” on the general public? I can’t. It’s German techno meets American club pop, with an uncredited sample from the Cure’s “Lullaby,” and it contains the line “Put your hands on me, John F. Kennedy.” The aforementioned “Judas” takes the “Bad Romance” template and finally makes something out of it – I don’t even mind her shouting her own name, the song is that good. The lyrics throw up religious iconography as a metaphor for making bad romantic decisions – and, of course, to get under the skin of the easily-offended. But I think she’s actually saying something with these images, and they certainly beat the bland, straightforward lyrics of her previous records.

I give Gaga points for inventiveness on most of the album’s lyrics. Even “Hair,” a song whose central conceit – that hair is the outward sign of one’s identity, and can inspire you to be free – strikes me as goofy and contradictory to the record’s theme, is unlike anything on pop radio right now. (It achieves a kind of techno-Bruce Springsteen grandeur, complete with Clarence Clemons sax solo.) There’s a thumping techno song based around the German word for “shit.” There’s a terrific mid-tempo ode to Mary Magdalene. And there’s a song called “Highway Unicorn,” which is pretty great. You’ll only find one typical lyric here – “Fashion of His Love,” easily the record’s low point.

“Fashion” is one of three songs not included on the standard edition of the record, but it’s the only one I would drop. “Black Jesus Amen Fashion” is awesome, a Europop stomp with robotic vocals and dark, slithering synths. And “The Queen” is a rave-up that drops a Freddie Mercury reference, which I suddenly don’t mind as much. In fact, Gaga wins my love by bringing Brian May aboard for “You and I,” a live-band ballad that serves as a late-album highlight. It caps off a stretch of stranger tunes that begins with the filthy, circular “Heavy Metal Lover” and continues with the guitar-fueled “Electric Chapel.”

But as interesting as these sonic diversions are, they don’t sum up the record. Most of Born This Way accomplishes the neat trick of updating early Madonna for the 21st Century, with lyrics that could have come from Marilyn Manson in his heyday. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Final track “The Edge of Glory” brings all that bubbilicious ‘80s-ness to full bloom – it’s completely cheesy, and brings back Clemons on the horn, but it’s totally satisfying. All by itself, it justifies my change of heart.

So yeah, Born This Way is the first Lady Gaga album I like, mainly because it’s the first one that’s as inventive as her wardrobe and makeup. The music is finally as eccentric as its author, and finally worthy of the attention it’s getting. For the first time, I feel like there’s something here, something worth exploring. And I’m glad I decided to hear it.

I have a running bet with a former co-worker. I bet him that Lady Gaga will be a cultural nonentity in 10 years (well, seven now, I think), that her style-over-substance attention-mongering would prove empty in time, and people would stop caring. I’m going to lose that bet, but if she’s able to make huge, crazy-ass pop records like this one, and keep doing it, I’ll be very happy to lose. Here endeth the Lady Gaga experiment, and I’d call it a success.

Next week, silly pop-o-rama, with the Feeling, Owl City and Tally Hall. That is, if my copies of all three show up. If not, it’ll be Bon Iver, or maybe Weird Al. Or maybe both.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.