It’s a miracle it even came to existence, really. After the incredible run Lady Gaga had from The Fame and The Fame Monster (her first 11 Top 40 singles went top 10 on the Hot 100; eight peaking inside the top 5), Born This Way was inevitably going to be a let-down. So what if the lead single spent its first month on the charts at #1, it was a Madonna retread after all. So what if the album sold 1 million* copies in its first week, a lot of albums would if they sold for 99 cents, right? If there was a break, Lady Gaga couldn’t catch it, especially in 2011.
After the announcement that Gaga is returning with new music this September – with a single produced by Mark Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, no less – her presence in pop music is as welcomed now as it was when she burst on the scene with “Just Dance.” As welcomed as it, it also is a reminder of just how much Gaga has been taken for granted since she reached her commercial peak with The Fame Monster. Born This Way – the follow-up to her massive companion EP to The Fame – was responsible for top ten hits including the title-track, “Yoü and I” and “The Edge of Glory,” yet it certainly felt at the time that it was the beginning of Gaga’s grip slipping from the pole position. Looking back some 5+ years after Born This Way‘s release, the album holds up shockingly well, a forceful reminder of just how vital Gaga’s presence is in pop’s increasingly arid landscape.
Not everything works on Born This Way, which is part of the beauty. Gaga stuffs so many ideas into the album it’s bound to flop at times it’s supposed to strike, but overall it features more hits than misses. While a song such as “Highway Unicorn” is as comical as its name suggests, and “Judas” is as clickbait-y as the song’s name suggests, neither weighs down what is actually an album that is held together pretty damn well. What’s most striking about Born This Way is the thematic cohesion to it as Gaga supports marginalized groups – predominantly the LGBTQ community – through muscled, leather-strapped, euro-club dance bangers; the strength she espouses in her vocals finally equalled with strong and independent instrumentals. “Americano” fixates with Gaga’s operatic vocals over a pulsating 4-4 beat, using the plight of Hispanic immigrants as a metaphor for the frustrations felt by Americans after Prop 8’s victory in California. “Scheiße” addresses women’s rights, screeching synths and an industrial thrust acting as a bulldozer breaking down the glass ceiling. “If you’re a strong female, you don’t need permission,” Gaga asserts, before admitting, “I wish I could be strong without somebody there.” It’s perhaps the most honest, personal moment on an album meant for YOU, and it’s no accident it occurs under a cacophony of heavy metal love, a eurodisco flare. She’s not the first to admit she’s self-conscious, but she’s the first to dance it off.
Listening back to Born This Way, that is its most successful quality. Whether it be “Born This Way” or “Americano” or “Scheiße,” Born This Way is most powerful when Gaga aims her bow-and-arrow towards the dance floor, turning adversity and limitations into celebrations and gains. While The Fame/The Fame Monster signaled her commercial peak, and ARTPOP marked Gaga finding a voice closest to her own, it’s on Born This Way, where Gaga takes on the mantle of social progressive, a voice for the marginalized, that she feels most at home. She throws so much to the wall here – nothing unusual for any of her releases – but it takes on a different context on Born This Way. On this album, it feels more like Gaga inviting disparate voices to the table to have theirs’ heard than indecisiveness or lack of editorial control.
There’s a good chance that when “Perfect Illusion” comes around this September, it will mark another stepping stone in the evolution of Lady Gaga, one that is just as vital to pop music’s consciousness as her turn on singles “Just Dance” through “Telephone.” But for now, it’s Born This Way that best showcases Gaga’s untapped potential, as well as the depth of her reach some eight years into her career. Five years on, Born This Way is growing in stature, revealing itself more and more as a platform for Gaga to flout tired societal mores, to usher in new perspectives. Born This Way may have been the beginning of the end of Gaga’s reign as pop’s main attraction, but it served a greater purpose, an awakening of Gaga’s true voice. Chances are, sooner rather than later, we’ll hear more of that.