- We intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy, the strength of daring.
- The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt…
- We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A race-automobile adorned with great pipes like serpents with explosive breath… a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace…
- There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without the stamp of aggressiveness. Poetry should be a violent assault against unknown forces to summon them to lie down at the feet of man.
Remind you of anyone?
The quote above is from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” of 1908, but it’s also a pretty good description of Lady Gaga’s new album Born This Way. On the cover, Gaga has become a machine, a motorcycle “adorned with great pipes like serpents,” her teeth bared “in the stamp of aggressiveness”. Her arms are joined to the front wheel, her torso the insectoid flank of the fuel tank, handlebars jutting from the sides of her head like the wings of a Valkyrie. It’s an apt image for Gaga’s new music.
In contrast to The Fame – which after its four lead singles trails off into filler – and the deliberate melange of The Fame Monster, Born This Way has a formidable unity of purpose. Like the chrome monstrosity on the cover, the music is unrelenting and loud, “a race car which seems to rush over exploding powder”. It’s the noise that accompanies speed, the triumphant roar of an engine. It’s a complete artistic statement, and though I find it exhausting I also admire its rude power.
In some ways it’s curiously old fashioned. It’s not only the presence of rock totems Clarence Clemons and Brian May or the echoes of familiar pop melodies (not just Madonna but TLC, The Cardigans and 4 Non Blondes) but Gaga’s slightly exhausting conviction that pop should be an event. Not since Michael Jackson have music videos been released with such fanfare, or so much anxiety about their status as art. Gaga’s idealism – her belief that she can effect change through art – is old fashioned too. She’s not afraid to make big claims for her music. The fast tempos (there’s no reprieve until “Bloody Mary”, eight tracks in), the buzzsaw noises, the deliberately blown-out vocals, the testing-herself-against-the-night self-mythologising – it all indicates an impatience with limits, with things as they are, and the belief that music has the power to transform them. It’s the sort of idealism that leads people to write manifestos.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Marinetti and his fellow Futurists imagined a violent technological utopia, where machines would destroy old standards of beauty and remake society in their image. Much of the impetus was impatience with their bourgeois lives, with the safe status quo; they wanted life to be more dangerous that it was. The first song on Born This Way, “Marry the Night”, casts a night out in similar terms: Gaga is a “warrior queen” in her fishnet gloves. She depicts it as a life or death experience – a desperate woman pitting herself against the world. It’s a grandiose, self-serious approach: when it works, it achieves an intensity beyond the range of her cooler, more measured peers. When it doesn’t, it sounds like stentorian nonsense.
One of Gaga’s faults here (one shared by the Futurists) is an unwillingness to modulate. I rarely listen to more than a few tracks at a time: it’s exhausting in its relentless fortissimo. Gaga has little use for instruments other than her voice: even the hooks on these songs – usually the title broken into syllables – are sung. It’s wall-to-wall Gaga: by the time you get to the guitar on “Electric Chapel”, the sonic variety is well overdue. The rhythms, too, are uniform, an implacable four-four: between the beats, the dense underlying keyboards, and Gaga’s vocals, there’s very little air in this music. I find myself grateful for the small moments of humour: “Don’t be a drag/Just be a queen”; the weird, pseudo-operatic vocal that opens “Government Hooker”.
She could self-edit more, too: the quality of the songwriting dips noticeably after “Hair”, and the album could be four or five songs shorter. Some of the outré stuff – like the connection between religion and sexuality on “Judas” and “Bloody Mary” – feels a bit rote, like Madonna’s leftovers.
The most enjoyable thing about the album is Gaga’s role-playing. For an omnipresent pop star, her persona is strikingly hard to pin down. The song “Born This Way” is a reasonably straightforward celebration of diverse identities, but it’s immediately qualified by “Government Hooker”, where Gaga defines herself by the roles she plays for someone else’s sexual gratification. Is she the character who falls in love with “a girl in east L.A.” in “Americano”? The teenager with a Samson complex in “Hair”? The New Yorker going back for her “cool Nebraska guy” in “You and I”? She might be none, or all of them. (The situations allow her to vary the arrangements as well: acoustic guitars and handclaps; piano and booming drums out of Phil Spector; Mutt Lange producing a great lost Shania Twain song.) This is the woman who morphs into a motorcycle; the woman who (to quote “Government Hooker”) “can be anything”. She admits no limitations.
I’ve spent more time listening to Born This Way than inclination dictated, trying to figure it out. It’s not, finally, an album I much enjoy. I prefer pop stars with a more modest sense of reality and what pop music can do: people like Robyn and Lily Allen, who describe the world rather than turn it inside out. But there’s something admirable – perhaps even awesome – about this earnest shape-shifter and her machine music.