Review By: Michael Strait
Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.
After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking.
Lady Gaga could, in an alternate universe, have been one of the brightest and best popstars ever to grow up in the United States of America. I really do mean that, too. This album contains a fair few really good melodies, and if given the right arrangements and cut free from the filler that surrounds them they could have been the first step in a long and fruitful career dedicated to excellence in the field of pop music. But it was not to be, for Gaga is unable to shake her eternal fascination with all things camp, dumb and intentionally silly, and it’s not even close to as endearing as she thinks it is.
That’s not the only problem, either. This album sounded dated the moment it was released, and it hasn’t gotten any younger over the intervening years. The synths on this album sound simultaneously cheap and glitzy, like an evening in Reno, Nevada, all full of plastic pomp and fake wealth. It’s a flaw that permeates almost everything on the record, never outright ruining an otherwise-good song but certainly making all the best ones a little bit less good than they should be. “Just Dance” takes the biggest hit from this sad phenomenon, sounding instantly like a tragic relic of a bygone era even as the melodies (written, in a maddening sign of pop genius, in ten minutes) proudly display all of Gaga’s best traits. Melodically this song is very efficient, sticking itself firmly in your head with a thousand tiny hooks, sticking a new one in with every line in the verses. It’s so ridiculously catchy that I could forgive anyone for finding it annoying, but I don’t – not at all. Melodies this efficient and compact are, to my ears, a beautiful, admirable thing, almost scientifically precise in the incisions they make in your brain. If anything, the chorus is the least immediately memorable part of the whole song, save of course for the useless guest verse the label tacked on near the end there. Seriously, does ANYONE remember Colby O’Donis? Did he ever accomplish anything other than trying his damndest to ruin a set of nearly perfect pop melodies?
To reiterate: the problem with the synths isn’t that they sound inherently old, as if that were a bad thing. It’s that they’re so flat, lifeless and lacking in any sort of atmospheric weight or cathartic punch that date is the only thing they can evoke at all, and then only by contextual accident. The autotune has a similar effect, being as it is a relic of the era where the tool had really only just been discovered and thus wasn’t really being exploited to its full potential by anyone yet. Songs like “Starstruck” and “Paper Gangsta” are moments where it feels like Gaga is bowing meekly to trends of the time, eschewing the melodies she’s usually so good at in favour of the cheapest, most perfunctory attempt at musical futurism I can imagine. The autotune-ladened, not-quite-rapping-or-singing vocals sound rather more like LMFAO than, say, Future, and in case you’re one of them dadrock-addicts who doesn’t know the difference I can confirm that those two things are worlds apart. It’s horrid, and tragically boring; later Gaga failures would be fascinating and unique, but these are the sound of an artist too new and inexperienced to rebel yet.
The awful tracks in the second half just keep coming and coming. “Boys Boys Boys” has kind of a fascinating, almost ominous charisma emanating from Gaga in the verses but then ruins it with a meatheaded, sappy-sugary chorus that feels more like some sort of joke than anything else. “Money Honey” has a kinda nice vocal melody that totally fails to recover any quality from the tragically perfunctory synth riff and the weak, underwritten hook. “I Like It Rough”, meanwhile, might be the most utterly boring track Gaga ever made, displaying absolutely no unique qualities and leaving me nothing at all to write about. Seriously, this album’s reputation has rather elided how dull so much of it is – Gaga’s famous for her extravagance, but here her worst failures are the moments where she sounds most like she’s been tied down against her will and forced to sing normal electropop songs.
Failures of overcampensation (haha!… sorry) do exist on the album, though. “LoveGame” is the most notable, and I gotta confess I don’t find it as funny now as I used to. The truth is there’s no way anyone could write the lyrics “Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick/ I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” without realising how terrible they were, and listening to this gives me rather the same queasy, “am I being exploited?” feeling I recall filling my bones when I sat down and watched Snakes on a Plane. Ironically bad lyrics are still bad, and when the hook is this bad (seriously, Gaga – you can do so much better than this rhythmic garbage) it’s really not enough. It’s a horrendous song, and I derive no enjoyment from pointing and laughing at how camp it is – at least, not anymore. Listen, Gaga, I know you love Queen, but the lyrics are not the influence I’d take from that band, alright?
There’s really only a few good songs here, and most of them aren’t any better than just, y’know, good. “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” comes dangerously close to missing good entirely, what with how sugary-sweet it sounds, but I can’t deny that it’s a basically competent song with a good rhythm section and a very workable set of pop melodies, and it’s over quickly enough that I can’t complain too hard. “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” leans a bit too hard into the camp appeal Gaga loves so much, but this time it mercifully benefits from actually being good, with a nice, sparse introductory buildup (just drums and vocals for a while) and a cathartic transition into the hook, which is laden with enough disco basslines and sassy swooping synths to satisfy any pop lover’s dopamine centres. And then there’s the title track, which has more lyrics I’m pretty sure Freddie Mercury would be proud of (hint: that’s a very bad thing) but makes up for it with a very catchy little guitar line and a rather cathartic building vocal melody. It’s propulsive and danceable, and I do certainly enjoy listening to it, but it’s hardly a pop masterpiece.
There are a couple of songs on here which are, in fact, held up as pop masterpieces by many of my fellow poptimists. I think one of them – “Poker Face” – is a little overrated; it’s certainly got a great synth riff (just about the only one on the album that’s aged at all decently), and the verses have a nicely sultry, sensuous tone that’s accented by that wonderful millennial whoop in the prechorus. The hook, though, doesn’t quite fit; it’s a bit too sweet and sunny for the rest of the song, excellent on its own merits but not quite of a piece with its surroundings. I like the song, but I don’t love it – to me it seems the product of a pop talent still exploring herself, yet to fully reconcile her conflicting artistic desires into a coherent package.
The other song, though, is totally fairly rated, and alone forms a searing justification for the existence of this mostly dreadful album. All the dated synths in the world can’t ruin songwriting as fantastic as “Paparazzi”, one of the best pop songs of the era and one of my personal favourite pop songs ever written. When you’ve got a hook as astonishing as this one, there’s really no grounds for criticism at all; it’s blistering, dripping with contempt for the people Gaga finds so deeply loathsome, coated with mockly simpering, venomous sap, spearing their souls with childlike softness. The verse melodies, too, are excellent, sounding far more portentous and dangerous than a song like this has any right to, giving every chord change a cathartic weight most pop songs only manage with the biggest possible hooks. Her vocal performance, too, is at its best here – she explores the purest, brightest and prettiest ends of her voice while still delivering every line like an epithet, filling every inch of the song with her hatred. I don’t blame her at all, of course, since paparazzi are fundamentally evil beasts, but hey – if they inspired a song this good, I can’t be too mad about their existence.
There’s another great song on this album, though, that almost everyone overlooks. “Summerboy” claims an easy second place on the rankings of tracks here, closing out the album on a remarkably high note considering the string of awful shite that immediately preceded it. It’s a lovely indie guitarpop song, sticking totally true to its title and evoking summer as prettily as anyone could ask for. The riff’s catchy in its simplicity, but the big attraction is that gorgeous, bright hook, all glowing with pleasure and temporal regret as Gaga ruminates on the inherently temporary nature of relationships in her busy, action-packed life. The last iteration of the hook is my favourite, with Gaga transmuting her voice into pure sunbeams, exploring its uppermost reaches of beauty as she revels in the warmth. That blink-and-you’ll-miss-it prechorus – “suuuummeeeerbooooooy…” is lovely too. It probably wouldn’t have made a great single in the commercial sense, but it’s definitely the album’s only real hidden gem and the only deep cut worth digging out and preserving for future playlists. I love it – I just wish I could say the same for the album as a whole, which is, by and large, as disposable as it gets. I confess I almost gave this a 2.5 simply because I’d long since deleted “Starstruck” and “Boys Boys Boys” from my edition of the album, and only a quick check of the official tracklist reminded me, regrettably, that they exist and bring the album’s average down. It’s a bad album, no question about it, but the flashes of brilliance do shine through and Gaga’s underlying talent is unquestionable. Alas, she never blossoms like I’d like her to, but on a couple of upcoming occasions she does at least come close. That’s all for now, folks.