We can sense your skepticism from here. But go with us on this one. Because rather than being a lab-devised, formulaic chart-killer, we see Gaga as the latest in a long line of defiantly strange, proudly odd and fiercely idiosyncratic pop stars. Her latest, Born This Way, purloins the best bits of European techno and – believe it or not – early-’90s darkwave and refashions them to suit Gaga’s willfully bizarre image. In this Six Degrees, Michaelangelo Matos positions Gaga in the great tradition of pop iconoclasts. – J. Edward Keyes, Editor-in-Chief
The biggest problem with Lady Gaga is that she always seemed to be putting far more effort into her image and media stunts than the music. Certainly, she had her moments, and it helps that those early hits made their way into the hearts of hardy skeptics eventually; I was one. But even if I grew to admire "Paparazzi" and adored "Alejandro" immediately, with most of the rest at least registering favorably, it nagged at me that someone with that many ideas wasn't putting more of them into the recordings. That no longer applies; not even a little bit. Born This Way isn't simply a bid to be a big pop album, but a great one and she pulls it off. The screeching synths of "Government Hooker" recall no one so much as noisy Parisian electro duo Justice, while "Heavy Metal Lover" is a slow grind with all kinds of Princely touches, not the least of which is the opening line: "I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south." You know how pop stars make singles and the albums are kind of incidental? Born This Way is the opposite. Songs that didn't quite gel on the radio are, in this context, revealed as crucial to the overall arc. The title track, for example, seemed like a hopped-up Madonna rewrite and not too much more on the air. But here it serves as a keynote for an album that identifies aggressively with the underdog, from gays to the "Bad Kids" who were made that way by their parents. That includes music: The synths are as obsessed with dclass '80s production as any blog band's, but done with vigor and drive rather than for smirks. Gaga is also big on that other '80s child here: self-help. "Born This Way" admonishes, "Don't hide yourself in regret/ Just love yourself and you're set." That palpable urgency to simultaneously accept everything and push it out at the edges gives those platitudes more charge than usual. They could come from anywhere, but only one person would put them together like this. Finally, an album to match all those photos.
The R&B Predecessor
The debt Lady Gaga's Born This Way owes Janet Jacksons second album with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could only be more obvious if she'd put "1814" at the end of the title. Both are the product of smart young women who've decided to use their powers for good by gearing their lyrics toward a social awareness that's historically rooted and a little gauche, a very pop combination. In Janet's case, she had golden-age early-'70s R&B to draw from ("Rhythm Nation" is built on a loop of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)") and a burgeoning sense of hip-hop consciousness to prod her on. (That was true even when the music wasn't aimed at urban dance floors, such as the rocky "Black Cat.") Of course, there would be lots of regular-type hits from the album: "Escapade" became so ubiquitous that it became a punch line on SNL (during a Sprockets sketch in which Dieter [Mike Myers] announced it as being No. 1 for the fifth week in a row on a chart full of fake German industrial dance music). "Miss You Much" returned her to the vulnerable-but-levelheaded romantic of the slower parts of Control. And the slow jam "Someday Is Tonight" set the stage for the next phase of Janet's recording career.
The Fellow Nightclubber
Lady Gaga is pop because her celebrations of nightclub decadence have more than a tinge of awe. But it's impossible to imagine her without the Jamaican-born, ultra-jaded club icon Grace Jones. It isn't simply that Jones was a model first, committed to unforgettable imagery, particularly with photographer (and lover) Jean-Paul Goude, with whom she collaborated on a series of stunning, sharp-lined shots (many of them LP covers) familiar to any student of fashion particularly one as canny as Gaga. Jones's wry approach and sense of high camp are in the DNA of pretty much anyone who came after her, and her 1980 album is saturated in both. Nightclubbing's title track refashions the standout of Iggy Pop's The Idiot as a discoid skank (Sly and Robbie were her rhythm section), while a similarly haute rendition of "Use Me" makes Bill Withers sound anything but down-home. The masterpiece here is "Pull Up to the Bumper" ("In your long black limousine"), though, a sex song that's unambiguous, coy, commanding, and seductive all at once. Just like its maker.
The Real Fame Monster
Britney is hardly the first pop star to wrestle explicitly with her own fame on record; it's a practice that goes back as far as the Beatles' "Help!". But her public late-'00s spin-out coincided with (and was edged along by) the rise of TMZ fame-as-lifestyle-programming in a 24-hour news cycle presented as the next manifestation of modern culture and/or hell. Yet out of it came Britney's best (and darkest) album. Blackout kicks off with "Gimme More": "The cameras are flashing/ While we're dirty-dancing" may not be Tom Wolfe, but it captures the spirit of its age as well as anything. The album's sleazy electro and unapologetic lyrics form a strangely enrapturing tandem, and not just for celebrity rubberneckers: "Freakshow" puts to shame most of the early-'00s electroclash that it recalls, while the weird, woozy hook of "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" adds a weird sense of menace to the track's rather pretty computer flutters.
The Prefab Post-Disco Queen
Cristina Monet became a self-styled post-disco diva partly as a joke. She was a drama critic for the Village Voice who dated Michael Zilkha, head of Ze Records, who, in time-honored music-mogul fashion, signed her as a vocalist. Cristina wasn't a singer, to put it mildly, but she projected so much tongue-in-cheek ennui that, when given talking/moaning/whatever she did over August Darnell's swinging, romping, historically aware constructions, the effect worked beautifully. Her first album, initially titled Cristina, provides a crucial picture of downtown New York in 1980, particularly in this expanded edition: Once you've heard "Blame It on Disco," just try not walking around humming it to yourself. "Disco Clone," a single, sends up club culture while still luxuriating in it. Most notoriously, there's "Is That All There Is?" the Lieber-Stoller classic done by Cristina with hell-for-leather raucousness, so much so that the songwriters had it pulled from circulation. (It was restored in 2003, when the Ze catalog was reissued.) It's still shocking, even years after Kink.com has inured everyone with a Web connection and a dirty mind to hardcore S&M and still as funny as "Disco Clone" itself.
The Snarling Individualist
A '90s hit-maker for Max Martin before the Backstreet Boys or Britney came along never mind Lady Gaga Robyn pulled off one of the more impressive self-reinventions of the '00s. She didn't give up on pop just took the reins herself. And with good reason: She's as good at it as any outside producer-writer would have dared to impose, because like Gaga she believes in pop as a means to glory in itself. Body Talk came five years after the EU release of her self-titled comeback, and it improves on it nearly every way each of these 15 songs clicks, individually and as a group, most deliciously "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do" (an it's-about-time pop rewrite of Green Velvet's "Answering Machine") and the delicate-hearted "Hang with Me" ("If you keep it tight/ I'm gonna confide in you"). But you know damn well that whenever the time comes for Gaga to do a legacy-minded paying-tribute-to-my-brilliant-showbiz-peers extravaganza, the Body Talk song she's going to include is "Stars 4-Ever." "The moon shines down like a spotlight": Robyn wrote it, Robyn sings it, Robyn owns it, but it's the most Gaga lyric imaginable.