Lady Gaga loves the '80s. And music critics mostly like her loving the decade, although a few are in hate with the new record's retro tendencies.
"Born This Way is her Eighties arena-rock move," writes Rolling Stone in a four- (out of five) star rave, noting that the new album "has all the electro-sleaze beats and Eurodisco chorus chants that made her the Fame Monster. But the big surprise is the way Gaga pillages the Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and Eddie Money records of her childhood... The whole album thumps like the soundtrack to a lost Eddie and the Cruisers sequel, one where Eddie gets crucified by Roman soldiers, while Gaga stands under the cross weeping and sending dirty texts to the DJ."
The Washington Post also was reminded of '80s movies, but did not enjoy the flashback. "At its worst, it sounds like reheated leftovers from some '80s movie soundtrack," the paper grouses. "For an information-age superstar who's managed to squeeze us all into a global group-hug, shouldn't Gaga be delivering something a little more zeitgeisty?"
"I've got a question: Did Jim Steinman work on this record?" asks the New Jersey Star-Ledger, comparing Gaga's latest work to the bombast of two Steinman proteges, Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler."The most daring aspect of Born This Way may be its unabashed nostalgia," points out USA Today, in a two-and-a-half-star mixed notice. "A number of tracks are heavily influenced by '80s rock"—presumably the two that include Clarence Clemons sax solos and the one that has a Brian May guitar solo.
Believe it or not, a Bonnie Tyler comparison pops up again. "These individual nuggets beat us about the head with the kind of bombastic, over-reaching production we're used to from Elton John, Guns 'N Roses or especially Bonnie Tyler," says the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper makes a more material comparison, too. "Even without the lingering criticism of the title track's litigation-ready echo of Madonna's 'Express Yourself,' the Born This Way album plays like a souped-up, muscle-car rebuild of The Immaculate Collection, Madonna's 1990 singles collection."
Or is it the '90s and early '00s that Lady Gaga is really shamelessly plundering?
Contends the Los Angeles Times, in an outright pan: "Some parts sound like dumbed down Daft Punk, and those that don't could have been swiped from a Basement Jaxx track from 1999," complains Randall Roberts. "The main difference, though, is that most of Born This Way is not funky." Apparently, there is a funk limit when you're co-opting Daft Punk and Pat Benatar simultaneously.
But wait! Maybe it's the 1960s we should be talking about, not the '80s or '90s. Writing for NPR.com, Ann Powers (the former lead critic for the L.A. Times) invokes the counterculture/folk era in assessing the cultural impact of Gaga's inclusiveness. It's a protest-era comparison that Powers knows will have some readers protesting themselves. "She engages with and seeks to define the cultural conversation in ways that remind me of similar moves made by Bob Dylan circa 1963," Powers writes. "Few will think of street rallies and sit-ins when they hear this music, but Gaga might as well be singing 'We Shall Overcome'."
As music critics cut the umbilical cord on Born This Way today, they're mostly pleased by the "little monster" they see before them... even if they admit that, in the great tradition of the movie It's Alive, this voracious new creation wants to devour them.
How overpowering is the new record? "Gaga doesn't know when to hold back—and it's a damn good thing," gushes England's NME, adding that she "can be guilty of trying too hard. But do you really think that's wrong?" The Guardian agrees: "Enthrallingly, the album never lets up, as her producers chuck entire studios at her fulsome vocals." That British paper particularly loves "The Edge of Glory," "a song pitched somewhere so bombastic and hysterical that one is forced to genuflect."
Some critics, however, just want to cry uncle after the album's relentless barrage of sound and sloganeering. "The barrage becomes wearying over an entire album," says the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot. Concurs the Boston Globe's James Reed: "Gaga mines her usual themes—acceptance, tolerance, religion, sex—but the songwriting feels thin, especially when buried under the layers of bombast. Nuance is her enemy on this album."
The L.A. Times is also her enemy, at least in this album review. "The inclusiveness Gaga believes so so strongly in apparently doesn't extend to music fans interested in sonic open space, unfiltered vocals and surprising rhythms, bridges and hooks," writes pop music editor Randall Roberts. "She's speaking to everyone, it seems, except fans of artistic innovation... If Gaga had only spent as much time on pushing musical boundaries as she has social ones, Born This Way would have been a lot more successful."
Following is a roundup of key reviews of Born This Way, alternating raves with slams...
PICK Rolling Stone (four stars): "The more excessive Gaga gets, the more honest she sounds... What makes Born This Way so disarmingly great is how warm and humane Gaga sounds. There isn't a subtle moment on the album, but even at its nuttiest, the music is full of wide-awake emotional details."
PAN The Washington Post: "Lady Gaga's new music is everything that she's not. It's boring... Her second full-length album finds pop's most enthralling figure preening in a maze of drab melodies—gunmetal gray dance tracks that attempt to embrace the freaks of the universe while refusing to get all that freaky."
PICK NME: "Rather than an exercise in hype, what Born This Way really is is an exercise in the pushing of everything to its ultimate degree. And it passes that test with flying colours."
PAN The Boston Globe: "After months of hype, tease, and a handful of singles, Lady Gaga's new album has arrived—and it's a letdown, the most deflated moment in pop music this year... Everything on the album is meant to be consumed as one download at a time; if you add up the moving parts, you'll get a clutch of songs bound together by nothing more than the same release date... It's astonishing how seriously Gaga takes herself on 'Hair,' an ode to self-empowerment... Her championing of underdogs and outsiders has always been noble, but a slogan doesn't equal substance."
PICK BBC Music: "Cut away the hype, image and psychobabble and there's still a great pop album here... It's a storming collection of high-concept pop brilliance designed to soundtrack every preposterously tremendous Gaga moment for the next 18 months... Please enjoy someone actually putting a bit of of effort and imagination back into pop, and keep the sneering and lazy comparisons in check. Not that they can take anything away from what it is, simply, a marvelous record."
PAN The Chicago Tribune (two and a half stars): "At her concerts, Gaga usually dials back for a couple of stripped-down songs at the piano, and Born This Way could've used a couple such back-off moments... As it is, (the album) feels rushed—from the cheesy, photo-shopped cover art to the hyperventilating music... Gaga herself used the word 'sledgehammer' to describe the beats on this album, but she might as well have been describing the lyrics too."
PICK Consequence of Sound (three stars): "By the end of it, there's little doubting Gaga's sincerity. For all of her schlock and posturing, it's hard to remember the last time a pop star was this sincere."
PAN Chicago Sun-Times (two stars): "The music on Born This Way is certainly pre-Y2K, borrowing from so many sources that she effectively contradicts her lyrical mantra of being yourself. That doesn't mean some tunes aren't fun... While her 'I'm OK, you're OK' shtick is an important basic message, particularly among younger listeners—and her lyrics on this album also address bullying as well as empowering women—her application of it is annoyingly didactic. As a gay man myself, I can tell you I'm beyond weary of this hanger-on insisting she's my unelected cultural ambassador..."
MIXED NPR.com: "I don't always agree with Gaga's approach to sloganeering. I'm turned off by the biological determinism contained in the very phrase 'Born this way'... At 25, Gaga is still very much a work in progress. But then, so was Bob Dylan when he went to Washington at 23."
MIXED New York: "Lady Gaga is neither a subtle person nor a minimalist, which serves her well... (But I) wish I could fast-foward 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."
If there is a most universally loved song by critics, surprisingly, it's the track produced by Robert "Mutt" Lange, which is the closest thing to a ballad the record has. Rolling Stone says: "The friendliest cut is 'You and I,' her love song to a 'cool Nebraska guy.' She has been playing it live for a while, but who knew she would let Mutt Lange put 'We Will Rock You' drums all over it? Or bring in Queen's Brian May to play guitar?" Eat your heart out, Lady Shania...?
- Lady Gaga