Not long into the ceaseless promotional parade for Born This Way, Lady Gaga’s second full-length record and easily the most anticipated record of the 2010s, a certain sense of inevitability crept into play. It was inevitable that Born This Way would be an escalation of The Fame, it was inevitable that Gaga would go where others feared to tread, it was inevitable that it would be bigger than any other record thrown down in 2011, both in its scale and success. This drumbeat, pulsating as insistently as Eurodisco, is so persistent that there is an inevitable feeling of anticlimax upon hearing Born This Way for the first time and realizing that Lady Gaga has channeled her grand ambitions into her message, and not her music. Gaga has taken it upon herself to filter out whatever personal details remain in her songs so she can write anthems for her Little Monsters, that ragtag group of queers, misfits, outcasts, and rough kids who she calls her own. Gaga is hardly insincere -- this isn’t an act, she’s been instrumental as a gay rights activist -- but her conquistador stance ironically reduces Born This Way to a collection of songs about fashion, freaks, and religion, with the occasional respite arriving via German unicorns.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t play quite as weird as it reads. Whatever performance art shock Gaga had on The Fame/The Fame Monster has turned into pure theater. Her drama club ambition to marry rock & roll rebellion with her disco beats turns Born This Way into Like a Prayer by way of Bat Out of Hell. Gaga has chosen not to dig under the skin. She’s quite content to state her themes then let them be, using them as the connecting thread on an ‘80s pastiche set to a relentless Eurotrash throb. Echoes of Whitney Houston, Pat Benatar, and Bruce Springsteen -- whose longtime running partner Clarence Clemons blows sax on two songs --- can be heard throughout, but it is naturally Madonna who is the cornerstone, giving Gaga the “Express Yourself” melody -- which is reworked on no less than three songs on the Deluxe Edition (and really, with an album this over the top, why skimp with the standard edition?) -- and a pop precedent for Catholic guilt. Lady Gaga doesn’t so much rip off Madonna as knowingly recontextualize the Material Girl for a post-modern collage, the sly similarities offering tangible reminders that Gaga is the heir to the diva throne. And Born This Way does solidify her standing as something of a pop visionary, although Gaga is a little bit too eager to embrace her role as messiah, letting her skills as a songwriter slide ever so slightly. Gaga’s true gift is her considerable dexterity at delivering the basics. Unlike so many of her peers, she does not cut and paste her tracks digitally, she constructs from the chords up, then accessorizes at will. She doesn’t abandon this sensibility on Born This Way, but she does take it for granted, never pushing her compositions or productions into unpredictable territory. She serves up the expected, which can be quite satisfying: “Marry the Night” glistens with a neon pulse, “Born This Way” has a giddiness to its self-importance, “Judas” turns “Alejandro” into towering gothic disco, she achieves her metal-disco fusion on “Bad Kids,” and she even shows vulnerability on “Yoü and I.” All well and good, and all very entertaining, but this is an album that’s meant to be more: it’s intended to be a soundtrack to a way of life, but it winds up playing as a collection of songs.