The Great Gaga Experiment, Part 1: The Music

If you’re reading this, you know Lady Gaga isn’t exactly my scene. I’m a curious fella, however, and seeing as how she has officially transcended the title of phenomenon and become a mammoth pop-institution, I figured the release of her sophomore album, Born This Way, made for a pretty good opportunity to try and wrap my head around her popularity.

I spent the better part of a day listening to her discography, reading about her and digging through the annals of pop history in an attempt to get a grasp on what has made her so popular and to form a valid, informed opinion of my own. I’ve split my findings into two parts, starting here with the music.

Let’s do it:

The Music

While there is a clear evolution of sound throughout her discography, Born This Way makes it pretty clear that she has a limited range of musical ideas. Her stuff boils down into two categories. There’s the typical dancefloor romper which lands squarely in between electroclash and 90’s Eurodance. Here are a couple of good examples of that particular sound I’m talking about:

The majority of Born This Way, for example, is made up of riffs on this idea. Add some sax here, some Madonna there, some opera over there and, ooh, some foreign languages.

Then we have the ballads (ex: “You and I,” “Speechless”) which are pure arena rock. Gaga cites Queen as one of her biggest influences and it shows–Brian May actually provides the guitar bits on “You and I.”

Arena rock serves a bigger purpose in her music, though. The lessons taught by Queen, Journey and Kiss permeate her discography. You can hear it in the chorus of any Gaga song.

There’s no denying she has a powerful voice. Just take a listen to the a cappella breakdown of “Born This Way.” The music it’s matched up with, however, is extremely tired European-inspired synthpop. There’s a reason why many dance musicians worth their salt have moved past these kinds of sounds. They are a product of a far-gone era: the 1990s. But Gaga embraces these anachronisms full on, drenching her songs in cheesey synths, four-on-the-floor bass and now with Born This Way, laughable 80’s saxophone solos (sorry Clarence).

Structurally, she’s reached a formula for songs that’s especially evident on this latest album. During the verses her voice darkens up, turning into a vicious growl. The electronics follow suit with grinding synths and striking interval jumps. This is what gives songs like “Judas” and “Bad Romance” their almost menacing tone. Next we reach the chorus and the tone changes completely. Gaga’s voice is unleashed and she belts through  arena-shaking, anthemic sing-alongs. Again the electronics back her up, transforming into bubble-gum synths and spewing feel-good, dancefloor chords. Add some backing vocals to further accentuate the bigness of it all and you’ve got yourself a hit Gaga track right there.

This penchant for massive sing-along choruses is definitely one of the biggest appeals of her music. The other half lies, of course, in the hooks. Her discography has brilliant, catchy hooks in spades. All of the “Ohs” and gibberish on “Bad Romance?” Genius. The “Juda-ah-ahs” of “Judas?” Perfect. There’s a downside here, however. Gaga is continuously pulling from the same small bag of tricks. Yeah, those two examples I gave of  “Bad Romance” and “Judas” make for some great hooks, but they’re also the same exact hook.

Want another good example? Take a listen to the first few bars of “Highway Unicorn.” Yes, that is “Poker Face” you’re hearing.

The weakest part of her music is, for me, the lyrics. Most of her writing seems to boil down to kitschy slogans that are more about getting stuck in your head due to their oddity rather than any sort of intellectual stimulation. Yeah, I know: intellectual stimulation isn’t the point. Her music is meant to just get you dancing and singing along. Sure, that’s fine, but some of this stuff is just silly to the point of annoyance. That said, her songs do have clear meanings and themes, which is more than you can say about most modern pop music. It’s just her method of delivery that bothers me a little (“ear condom?” Was that really necessary?).

There is a reason, however, why she chooses such lyrics rather than a more direct or poetic approach. The lyrics themselves become hooks, fascinating people with their bizarreness and at the same time falling in line with her greater strategy of…well…fascinating people with her bizarreness. I’ll talk more about that in the second part.

So do I understand why people love her music so much?

Sure. It’s simple, fun, upbeat and dancey pop. The hooks are monstrous and the choruses even more so. She’s occupying a space that no other modern pop star has really taken up. The constant comparisons to Madonna, one of her principal influences, are completely valid. Is she ripping Madonna off? Kind of. It seems more likely that she’s just filling the void in the pop landscape that Madonna’s absence has created. As for ripping off “Express Yourself,” that’s pretty much undeniable. That melody shows up at least three times throughout Born This Way and its accompanying b-sides.

Regardless, while her music still isn’t really for me, I can see why it appeals to as many people as it does. It’s perfectly serviceable pop. I’d say it’s actually pretty damn good pop compared to a lot of the schlock that gets shoveled onto top 40 radio. It’s most definitely, however, not the kind of thing the holds up to deeper scrutiny.

After listening to Born This Way a couple of times you start to realize just how similar her songs are. There’s the good one that starts the album and sounds kind of like Whitney Houston, then there’s the title track, the one that sounds especially like “Bad Romance”, the Spanish one, the one with the saxophone, the German one, the ones with the guitar and then the other one with the saxophone. After a while they all just sort of blend together, a side-effect of using that same that same verse-chorus formula over and over again.

Lady Gaga has done a great job of carving out a little slice of popland for herself. A visionary, as some critics have called her, she most certainly isn’t. She is DAMN smart, though, with a firm grasp on fashion, pop art, pop music and the elements of each which appeal to people. I’ll go into that in part two.

My discog standouts:

  • “Paparazzi”
  • “Bad Romance”
  • “Telephone”
  • “Speechless”
  • “Marry the Night”
  • “Hair”
  • “Bloody Mary”
  • “Americano”

The next installment will be – Part 2: The Image

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

One Response to The Great Gaga Experiment, Part 1: The Music

  1. Pingback: The Great Gaga Experiment Part 2: The Image « Rated J, For Janky

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