Never before has the American fame-o-meter been as fickle and as fiendish as it is now. Pop culture builds modern stars with the life spans of fruit flies. It's hard to stay hot in 2011, and that goes for pop culture's reigning queen, Lady Gaga, once seemingly undentable, now dealing with whispers of overrated and the much more wickedly succinct over.
As a result of the backlash, Gaga's new album, Born This Way, released Monday, will be picked over harder than most pop records; anything less than perfect or as perfectly built as hits Poker Face and Bad Romance will be considered failure. That's not fair; Gaga is a legitimate artist with a bounty of smart ideas. Her tour grossed $227 million, one of the most profitable of all time. And her 3-Way cameo on Saturday Night Live was classic.
That said ...
Her new album is dull.
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Oh, it's not terrible, mind you. In fact, here and there, it sounds crisp and tough and bold, like when you heard Cameo's Word Up for the first time. Black Jesus + Amen Fashion, off the album's deluxe edition, is fiendishly good, an electro slap-fight with a catchphrase that's reverent and slightly offbeat: "Jesus is the new black." The equally church-tweaking Judas is a slamming beast of a clubber. Good stuff.
Too bad there's not more of it.
Gaga sold this sucker as if it would change the world, and after the success she has had, who's to doubt her? But more often than not, Born This Way is alarmingly same-sounding, with all those familiar keyboard clashes and wiggly synth tricks. It's as if energy and volume would mask the lack of genuine hooks and ideas.
If Gaga, 25, once sounded elastic and way ahead of the pack, she now sounds tired and in neutral.
The album opens with a rote dance exercise, the go-nowhere Marry the Night. It reveals a few increasingly glaring Gaga crutches that repeat over the course of the album: the puh-puh-penchant for muh-muh-making every hook a pronunciational exercise, as if she's teaching English as a second language in stripper clothing. She's also intent on selling every song as if it's an ode to her devoted Little Monsters, the diehards whom she assumes are lonely and sad when they're not in her orbit.
She tries to tweak the powers that be with Government Hooker, which works as neither a gadfly nor a good tune. Americano is a kitchen-sink take on immigration law — a rave-up of Dean Martin's Mambo Italiano — but it plays like a forced remake of Alejandro, a far better wanderlusty love song. The new single Hair wants to be brash and anthemic, but instead it plays like a Mad Libs version of Gaga. "I'm the spirit of my hair"? It's bad when you can't even match the hirsute poetry of Willow Smith's Whip My Hair.
Much has been made of Gaga's biting of Madonna, and yes, there is definitely a lot of that, especially on the ubiquitous title track, a sloppy love child of Express Yourself and Vogue. But that's excusable. Emulating the Material Girl's music and sartorial style isn't a crime; it's a natural evolution. At this juncture, and after this album, Gaga would be far smarter to copy Madonna's most underrated skill: survival.