It’s been five years since the release of Born This Way, an album that marked the point in Gaga’s career that she stopped studying her fame and used it to further her own message
Five years ago, Lady Gaga released her second album Born This Way, one of the highest-selling albums in musical history. The album’s success shouldn’t be surprising considering that, at that point, Gaga was in the middle of an imperial reign over pop music: her debut The Fame (filled with self-described ‘soulless electronic pop’) had sold over 10,000,000 copies worldwide, the single “Bad Romance” was at the time the most watched music video in YouTube history, and a blockbuster collaboration with Beyoncé had cemented her star credentials. So, when Gaga tweeted the announcement of her new album on New Year’s Day 2011 alongside a monochrome teaser image lensed by Nick Knight, it seemed that nothing could go wrong. Instead, Born This Way is today remembered by critics to be a misstep in Gaga’s career, and the start of a downward descent that she’s still yet to fully recover from. Yet listening back half a decade later, it’s clear that the album is Lady Gaga’s most ambitious musical project to date, as well as a poignant reminder of the media’s power to create and subsequently break down an artist’s reputation.
“Listening back half a decade on, it’s clear that the album is Lady Gaga’s most ambitious musical project to date”
The campaign kicked off with industrial techno banger “Born This Way”, a powerful self-acceptance anthem that caused a stir with its deliberately literal lyrics. Nowadays, in a world where Hari Nef walks the runway at Gucci and Laverne Cox remains a beacon of hope for trans women of colour worldwide, the inclusion of the word ‘transgender’ in a pop song may not seem so controversial. Things were, however, different in 2011. Despite being an advocate for gay rights since the beginning of her career, “Born This Way”s trans lyric was seen as a mainstream artist deliberately painting herself into a niche. She also faced somewhat of a backlash from her gay fans and spoke in retrospect, namely at 2014’s SXSW, about how her label argued she’d become ‘too gay’. Ironically, “Born This Way” also soured relations with another gay icon, Madonna, who famously branded Gaga’s music ‘reductive’ after eagle-eyed listeners drew comparisons between the hit and Madonna’s “Express Yourself”.
Problems persisted in the build-up to the album’s eventual release date. The human-motorcycle cover was branded a joke by fans and critics alike, despite visually encapsulating the fusion of flesh and metal that defines the album soundscape. The Catholic-baiting “Judas” video was similarly divisive, while its Easter Sunday release date sparking accusations of shock tactics. Again, the old argument of ‘style before substance’ reared its head but, this time, it seemed to personally affect Gaga, leading to the star breaking down in frustration in a famous NME interview. The final straw came the week after the album’s release, when press outlets worldwide seemed to solely attribute the album’s astronomical first-week sales to a deal with Amazon which saw the LP sold at just 99p. Of course, things are different now – platforms such as Tidal and Spotify have added a new ambiguity to chart rankings, making them less headline-worthy than ever before.
“(Born This Way) proved that Gaga could be sleazy, unhinged, and downright brilliant when she set out to be”
Lyrically, Born This Way’s themes range from government corruption and gay marriage to to “Heavy Metal Lover”s brilliantly filthy opener “I want your whisky mouth all over my blonde south”. Elsewhere, the anthemic chorus of “Hair” is underpinned by a metaphor that likens creative freedom to a good weave, whereas “Scheiße” contrasts off-kilter feminist lyrics with a spoken-word German bridge that literally translates as nonsense. Sonically, the album begins with church bells and soon descends into experimentation with glam rock, heavy metal, honky-tonk country and mariachi-tinged techno. It seemed that the artist formerly branded superficial and disingenuous was on a one-woman mission to smear her soul onto a metallic canvas; the results proved that Gaga could be sleazy, unhinged, and downright brilliant when she set out to be. Yet, no matter how celebrated the work was as a whole, it seemed nobody could shake the lack of a “Bad Romance”-sized hit. One SLANT review lamented the lack of huge pop choruses (“what’s a pop song without a good hook?”), whereas the general fan consensus was that a string of poorly-selected singles had alienated fans.
Five years later, Born This Way can be seen as the first introduction of the negative stigma that lingered with the star until and after the release of her subsequent album, ARTPOP. The press were particularly brutal in 2014 – writers and editors worldwide penned op-eds with names like “Drowning, not Waving: The Slow and Bitter End of Lady Gaga’s Career” and “Lady Gaga was the Biggest Pop Star in the World: What Happened?” After she fractured her hip on the Born This Way Ball tour, Gaga began to slowly live out a career demise that she had predicted herself in the epic seven-minute “Paparazzi” video just a few years earlier. Interviews such as her 60 Minutes special highlight the star’s in-depth studies of the rise of celebrity – in fact, she once claimed that “one of my greatest artworks is the art of fame. I am a master of the art of fame.” Five years later, Born This Way still represents the point in Gaga’s career when she deliberately stopped studying her own fame and tried to use it to further her own message. It was the moment that she stopped being branded an artificial pop behemoth and started to become the searingly honest, sometimes over-emotional human being that we now know well. For someone that had studied the art of fame, it seemed that, after exploring its dark side on The Fame Monster, she was no longer interested.
“Born This Way... represents the point in Gaga’s career when she deliberately stopped studying her own fame and tried to use it to further her own message”
What’s fascinating is that Born This Way has aged remarkably well. The songs still sound as fresh as they did when it came out, and despite the lack of any obvious pop juggernauts, the album still stands as the best in her back catalogue. Looking back, it seems bizarre to see the myriad positive reviews as the album campaign was overshadowed by its controversy; her tour injury is largely credited as the moment that things began to go awry, making the 2014 press backlash inextricably linked to her persona around Born This Way. In fact, the album campaign sparked a wave of negativity that Lady Gaga has only just managed to shake off with the release of Cheek to Cheek, a collaborative jazz album with Tony Bennett, a handful of award show performances, and a starring role in American Horror Story. It also proved that Gaga was perhaps too human to live up to the artifice she had constructed around herself; if anything, the NME interview belied a series of distinctly human traits that showed she perhaps didn’t care too much for the studied fame that she had eventually achieved. Finally, her career trajectory shows that the mainstream media is still largely baffled by high-profile women outside the ‘pretty pop girl’ box; with her ‘ugly’ facial prosthetics Gaga was branded weird, over-ambitious, and ‘too gay’ for the mainstream. It may well be the case that she’ll never reach the heights of “Bad Romance” again, but it may also be the case that she doesn’t particularly care.