There’s always been a disconnect between Lady Gaga’s outsized visual presence and the fairly safe club music of her first album, The Fame. The transitional EP The Fame Monster closed that distance considerably, and on her sophomore full-length, Gaga’s musical ambition finally catches up to her persona. Born This Way is a grand statement of purpose that’s unapologetically theatrical and calculated from the first note to the last, the kind of album that could only come from someone who proudly states, “I prefer a giant dose of bullshit any day over the truth.” Subtlety and introspection have no place in Gaga’s world; it’s all brazen sloganeering (“We’re all born superstars,” “I’m on the edge of glory”) and arch, absurd sentiment (“I’ll die living just as free as my hair,” “She’s got a rainbow syrup in her heart that she bleeds”), seemingly conceived with future stage shows and music videos in mind. Gaga’s commitment to her concept is strong enough that even when she stumbles—as she does repeatedly on Born This Way, particularly lyrically—she does so with panache, purpose, and a sly wink.
It helps that Born This Way has a clutch of mighty hooks propelling Gaga’s headlong charge. From the neo-disco thump of “Marry The Night” and the “Express Yourself”-on-steroids glam of “Born This Way” to the campy Latin cabaret of “Americano” and Elton John-like power balladry of “You And I,” the music is familiar, even derivative. But it’s also strange, blowing comforting pop elements into synth-addled, funhouse-mirror interpretations. (See: not one but two throwback-y dance songs featuring saxophone solos from E Street’s Clarence Clemons.) Born This Way is as ostentatious, referential, and self-indulgent as Gaga herself, dancing right up to the line of self-parody, then spitting on it.