Lady Gaga is neither a subtle person nor a minimalist, which serves her well. For one thing, the root and theme of her music is personal liberation, and we live in a culture that tends to believe liberation and subtlety do not get along—that you’re not really “being yourself” unless your self is messy and loud. For another, Gaga has quickly reached that brief apex of stardom where anything an artist does is compelling simply because she’s made the decision to do it. To make this record successful, all she needed to do was produce something—almost anything—bold enough for people to react to. And Born This Way is, from the cover on in, a fire hose of such things. On one single, Gaga says she “vomits her mind,” a metaphor that’s hard to improve upon.
Said mind-vomit includes enough striking events that most early online reactions were just catalogues of highlights larded with exclamation points. Giant, gleaming condensations of three decades’ worth of gut-pleasing unsubtle club music! A sense of pop bombast imported from sometime circa Gaga’s 1986 birth! (Including a wailing solo from Queen guitarist Brian May, sax breaks from sax-break legend Clarence Clemons, and some ambient quality that makes Laura Branigan show up in fan conversations!) The kinds of quasi-blasphemous Catholic tropes Americans of all faiths have been trained to perceive as weighty and sexualized! (Centering, naturally, on Judas and Mary Magdalene.) Plus, sex, power, feminism, immigration (yes, really!), four different languages, John F. Kennedy, prostitution metaphors, a rock tune with Def Leppard producer “Mutt” Lange, callbacks to European electroclash acts, queer sexuality, motorcycles, unicorns, heavy metal, Madonna, and the collision of every subcultural aesthetic that ever involved people wearing large amounts of leather, Lycra, or PVC in urban settings. Born This Way is like the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit of pop: a well-worn format, ramped up to messy sensationalism, part bloody earnest drama, part playful ridiculousness, and definitely hoping you will ask out loud whether that last thing really just happened.
Here is the thing about Lady Gaga records, though: They tend to mellow very quickly from the initial sound and fury, revealing themselves as not just “underpinned” by conventional pop but mostly devoted to it. This is great news for her fans (it’s a big reason why the music can be lived and bonded with), bad news for those of us who wish the conceptual strangeness of everything else about Gaga were more integrated into her songs (instead of smeared around them), and great news again for pop aficionados: No matter how much time her previous work spent shuddering and convulsing, it tended to be immaculately crafted. But once Born This Way mellows a bit, you begin to see the complexities of having the most successful mind in pop and trusting whatever it spits out. For an album that comes on so grand and imposing, Born This Way is fascinatingly slapdash, like a great Brutalist building constructed from cocktail-napkin sketches instead of blueprints. The ideas topple over one another in excess; certain lyrics feel like raw first-draft blurts. There are a few moments where swimming in Gaga’s mind-vomit is exactly as pleasant as it sounds.
But this is precisely how she’s conquered pop, isn’t it? With a jumbled, expulsive approach to creativity, in which ideas and passions are machine-gunned without apology, self-censorship, or fussing over coherence? In which the lessons of personal liberation are adopted as the keys to art-making and pop? It’s odd, though: My favorite part of Born This Way doesn’t come when she’s rallying misfit fans or reveling in freedom. It’s in a song called “Scheisse” (German for merde) where she seems to be lamenting what women get when they try to wield power. It makes me wish I could fast-forward to the point in her career where it’s no longer interesting to just declare, celebrate, and write triumphalist hymns about freedom—to when it’s time to think about what, specifically, to do with it.