Her second full-length album "Born This Way" 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.
Yes, "Born This Way" is a dark, dense and surprisingly aggressive listen. But musically, it feels conservative and predictable. And at its worst, it sounds like reheated leftovers from some '80s movie soundtrack. 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?
Sing along and it's a different story. The 25-year-old's lyric book is a 5,000-word self-help seminar, brimming with affirmation and possibility. "Don't hide yourself in regret/Just love yourself and you're set," she declares on the title track. "I'm on the right track, baby/I was born this way."
In a Facebook world that requires us to share every facet of our being, self-esteem is a must. That makes "Born This Way" a handy survival kit for the weird, the worried, the shunned and the bullied — kids (and adults) growing up in an era when the false embrace of hyperconnective social media can make anyone feel like an outcast.
One problem, though. Gaga is still a pop singer. And she seems to have forgotten that pop singers catch more flies with honey than with minor-key tunes inspired by Depeche Mode.
The paucity of sweet stuff on "Born This Way" feels almost punishing. These aren't songs you want to dive back into the nanosecond they start to fade out, they're feel-bad tunes with feel-good words. There's no "Bad Romance" to sink into. No "Paparazzi" to get lost in. No"Telephone" to hold close.
The album's title track is its brightest. But when it surfaced on the internet earlier this year, many said it wasn't genuine pop sunshine so much as a lousy Madonna dye-job. Sure, the song's melodic and rhythmic DNA can be easily traced back to Madonna's 1989 hit "Express Yourself," but its lyrics are far more powerful — yet clumsier.
"No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgender life/I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive," Gaga sings over a pounding club beat. On paper, it looks like activist pop. In the air, it sounds like a jumble of syllables from a singer whose music is secondary to her message.
And tangled up in that message comes the strange central theme of "Born This Way" — resigning to fate.
"I'm a bad kid/That's the way that they made me," she sings on "Bad Kids," a lighter-thumping tune that comes with a pat-on-the-back chorus: "Don't be insecure if your heart is pure/You're still good to me if you're a bad kid, baby."
In other words, Gaga loves you, you love her, she loves herself (clearly), you love yourself (hopefully), and everything's going to be alright.
That's because Gaga posits herself and her followers not as outsiders by choice, but by nature. And that perspective siphons off a lot of the album's potentially rebellious energy. She doesn't sound like she's leading insurgents against society's norms, so much as encouraging a blizzard of snowflakes to accept their infinite shapes.
She also, somehow, expects us to accept "The Edge of Glory." It's the album's grand finale and a truly dreadful song — a sped-up power-ballad worthy of a montage scene in a "Karate Kid" flick. The fact that it comes from the most boundary-pushing superstar of our time feels like some perverse existential joke.
"It's hard to feel the rush/to push the dangerous," she sings. "I'm gonna run right to, to the edge with you/Where we can both fall over in love."
This is not the edge. This is pop's dull, soft, gooey center — a place where Clarence Clemons can parachute in for a saxophone solo without causing anyone to flinch. (Good solo, but it feels like a cheap ploy to spark boomer interest. Or, an expensive ploy, depending on Clemons's hourly rate.)
"The Edge of Glory" makes a song like "Government Hooker" seem much more daring than it actually is. But of all the murky, spooky club-thumpers collected here, this one remains the most interesting. Over a mechanical beat, Gaga assumes the role of a prostitute with a John whose last name is "Kennedy," middle initial, "F." She plays call-and-response with a voice that sounds like it belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger. And amid all the sexy-talk, she lets slip what might be her truest declaration: "I could be anything, I could be everything."
Words to live by the next time around.
Recommended tracks: "Bad Kids," "Government Hooker"