The biggest problem with Lady Gaga is that she always seemed to be putting her back into her image and media stunts far more than her 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 even a little. Born This Way isn't simply a bid to be a big pop album, but a great one. And she pulls it off. Like Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Gaga enlisted big-name help for her Over-The-Top bid for eternity: The archetypal power ballad "You & I" is produced by Mutt Lange and features Brian May on guitar; the sax solo on "The Edge of Glory" comes courtesy of the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons. And there are plenty of other audible touchstones. The screeching synths of "Government Hooker" recall no one so much as noisy Parisian house 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."
The context is crucial. You know how pop stars make singles, but 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, crucial to the overall arc. The title track, for example, initially seemed like a hopped-up Madonna rewrite and not too much more, 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 déclassé '80s production as any blog band's, but done with vigor and drive rather than for smirks.
Gaga here is also big on that other '80s child, self-help. "Love is the new denim or black," goes one memorable line of the opening "Marry the Night." "If you're a strong woman, you don't need permission," she assures us on "SchiBe." "Born This Way" admonishes, "Don't hide yourself in regret/ Just love yourself and you're set." Maybe weirdest of all is the chorus of "Hair": "I am my hair." Whatever that means — or whatever she wants it to mean, which is maybe more to the point. 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, Gaga has an album to match all those photos.