Lady Gaga’s brief reign as the Queen of mainstream Pop music came to an end over the course of 2011 for two reasons. One was that Adele showed up that year and immediately made her look like a poser. The other was the quality of her work that year. I don’t know how much of her actual target market listened to entire albums at all at the time, but I have to believe that her fall from the top was at least partly a judgment of artistic karma for making this album.
Lady Gaga was never remotely the genius her followers touted her as at the time, but her first album, The Fame, did contain quite a bit of good material, and her second release, The Fame Monster EP, was actually one of the best mainstream albums of 2009. This trainwreck, however, was completely unworthy of what talent she did have, and the fact that it was one of the best-selling albums of 2011 thanks to her pre-existing stature at the time is still one of the more embarrassing memories from an otherwise excellent year in music. And even after all these years, this is still easily Lady Gaga’s worst album…even her disappointing ‘comeback’ album, Artpop, was at least more competent than this.
Admittedly, this record does contain a handful of gems. The Steinman-esque Rock anthem “The Edge of Glory” and the Pop-Country pastiche “You and I” are two of Lady Gaga’s all-time classics, and the House Music-influenced “Marry the Night”, the wildly intense “Hair” and the Latin-flavored “Americano” also hold up well. But the rest of the album is a ghastly mess of cliched songwriting and unlistenable overproduction. And frankly, apart from perhaps “The Edge of Glory”, even the good songs don’t entirely escape the album’s pervasive production issues.
The production on Lady Gaga’s first two albums, by unsung genius RedOne, made the material seem better than it really was, but the production on this album is absolutely horrible, reaching near-Skrillex levels of migraine-inducing static. There are also a couple of extremely ill-advised attempts at a Heavy Metal sound here (like the aptly named “Heavy Metal Lover”), which have all the power and sophistication of Limp Bizkit on an off day.
The songwriting is better than the production, but not by much. This album was evidently intended to be some kind of love letter to Pop music in general, with varying attempts at pastiche of every variety of Pop music in history. Unfortunately, like all of Lady Gaga’s work (at least in her Pop era), it didn’t have the substance or talent to fulfill its supposed ambition, coming off instead as derivative and scattershot. At times she even seems to be copying herself…for example, “Judas” is just a blatant retread of earlier Lady Gaga songs like “Bad Romance” and “Monster”, only with all the qualities that made those songs interesting removed. Also, I can’t be the only person to notice that the chorus to “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” is just the hook from “Poker Face” with different lyrics.
The lyrics are even worse, loaded with clichés and incredibly cheesy but also painfully earnest and self-important, clearly believing they’re articulating profound truths with lines like “I’m a nerd/I chew gum and smoke in your face/I’m absurd”. “Bad Kids” is one of the most generic attempts at a youth rebellion anthem I’ve ever heard, which is no mean feat. “Scheiss” is clearly trying to be Rammstein, with its faux-German nonsense-word chorus, but without that band’s Heavy Metal intensity, it never manages to capture the campy thrill of the original, coming off more as straightforwardly embarrassing.
“Government Hooker” apparently managed to get Lady Gaga in actual trouble with the government, but it’s just another in a long line of controversy-baiting cries for attention, using a lot of shocking buzzwords without ever actually saying anything. At least when Green Day did this kind of thing, they set it to music intense enough to obscure their lack of real content (of course, it also helped quite a bit that said music was actually listenable).
There are also tons of self-consciously positive messages spread throughout this album, which are apparently supposed to make up for the quality of the actual music. Hell, it seems to have worked, at least so far as the title-song is concerned…it became extremely popular for a few years because people felt its message was important, despite the fact that virtually no-one seems to like it as a song. Not only is it a blatant plagiarism in both melody and subject matter of Madonna’s much better song “Express Yourself”, but it is hopelessly cheesy in lyrics and delivery and features the worst case of overproduction on the entire album.
“Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” is even more ridiculous. I can see how the concept sounds progressive in theory, but any attempt at meaningful content is ruined by moronic jokes like “Jesus is the new black”. The result is not only inane, but also insufferably pretentious, which is something of a perennial problem for this album as a whole. It’s like the progressive movement’s gospel according to Paris Hilton.
Of course, judging from the singles alone, many Pop listeners may not have been aware of what a travesty this record was, since most of the very worst material never made it onto the charts. Still, this thing did set sales records as an album, so I think it still probably had a major role in destroying (or at the very least, vastly diminishing) Lady Gaga’s career as a mainstream Pop singer.
This has actually had some positive side-effects, since the quality of her work significantly improved after she stopped trying to regain her old stature as a Pop star and settled into making things like standards albums and socially-conscious Oscar Bait songs and drawing her influences from Classic Rock and Country. Indeed, I imagine we can also indirectly thank this album for a lot of the positive developments in Pop music around that time, given that it helped kill the Club Boom of 09-10, making room for more interesting material to enter the mainstream consciousness. Still, five good songs are not enough to make this a good album, at least when the rest of the material is this appalling, and despite its short-term commercial success, this ranks as one of the spectacular career-destroying disasters of the decade, arguably on a par with Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz.