The Rapture did not arrive as scheduled this weekend, but Lady Gaga's new album showed up, bringing with it enough sound and fury to please the most exacting eschatologist. Born This Way is windswept, end-times pop music: pummeling beats, huge choruses, screeching hair-metal guitar solos, crescendos straight out of a Broadway curtain closer. There has been a notable plus-sizing of pop in recent years, with everyone from indie rockers to southern rappers embracing music on a vast and symphonic scale. But Gaga has decided to outdo them all, to put out a record that is bigger, more emphatic, more ferociously campy than anyone's. It's one thing to title a ballad "The Edge of Glory"—to belt out lyrics about "hanging on a moment of truth" and "dancing in the flames" over the gustiest possible power chords. It's another, in the middle of that maelstrom, to unleash a saxophone solo of the sort that hasn't been heard since 1987. This is the place where pop schlock becomes, if you will, rapturous—where a song slips the surly bonds of earth, gusting heavenward to touch the cloudbank where Jesus, or Meatloaf, gazes down from a golden throne.
Of course, you'd expect nothing less from Lady Gaga. The most impressive thing about Born This Way is simply that it is acceptably audacious: It manages to reach the bar that Gaga sets higher each time she releases a video or appears on a red carpet wearing New York sirloin. She's pulled off her act by sweating the details. Beneath its roar, Born This Way is a model of fine, small-bore songcraft. The music is intricately arranged, with every synthesizer strain, beat, and computer-generated vocal fillip slotted precisely in place. Gaga and her collaborators (including the Mexican producer Fernando Garibay, DJ White Shadow, and longtime comrade RedOne) focus on dynamics, building slow-boiling introductions that erupt into booming refrains. Those huge choruses are Gaga's specialty, but her tunes would hold up if played on an acoustic guitar.
Not that you'd want to hear them that way. Big is the point: big sound, big sentimentality, big silliness. In nearly every song, Gaga flirts with absurdity, charging right up to the line where catharsis turns into comedy. A song like the album-opener "Marry the Night" feels almost like a science experiment. Can we reanimate the corpses of Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler? How many windy pop-rock clichés can be pumped into a modern club anthem before it bursts? On the album cover, Gaga's appears with circa 1985-style big hair, and in "Hair," she sings a ridiculous liberation anthem about teased tresses. ("This is my prayer/ That I'll die living just as free as my hair!") Then there's "Americano," about a lesbian wedding in East L.A. It's a cabaret-style ballad, awash in Latin kitsch: swooping "gypsy" strings, flamenco guitars, castanets.
In these songs, Lady Gaga draws on a tradition of camp that extends from drag queen cabaret to Broadway and disco. Gay men are Gaga's core constituency and, not coincidentally, her cause; for Gaga, activism and careerism are one in the same. Exhibit A on Born This Way is the title track, which hitches a melody from Madonna to some inspirational sloganeering: "Whether life's disabilities/ Left you outcast, bullied, or teased/ Rejoice and love yourself today/ 'Cause baby you were born this way/ No matter gay, straight, or bi/ Lesbian, transgendered life."
These lyrics do not roll trippingly off the tongue. Gaga can be hard to take when she tries to be high-minded. And when she tries to be high-concept. "I've made it my goal to revolutionize pop music," she's said, but the self-consciousness with which she undertakes that mission sometimes has a distancing effect. "Judas," her current single, screeches to a halt for a rap that sounds like an excerpt from a bad cultural studies seminar: "In the most Biblical sense/ I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind/ But in the cultural sense/ I just speak in future tense." Even for those of us who love thinking about pop music "in the cultural sense"—who make a living pondering pop stars' mind-vomit—a song like this is a bummer. Beyoncé makes music that is just as fascinatingly multivalent as Gaga's, and she does it without interrupting her songs to provide Cliffs Notes.
But Gaga's real concern isn't politics or conceptual art—or even hair. It is, for lack of a better term, rock 'n' roll. Remember, she wasn't born this way. Before she was Lady Gaga, pop revolutionary, disco queen, and Muppet dress fancier, she was Stefani Germanotta, a young singer-songwriter with a good voice, reasonable piano skills, and a desire to be the next Tori Amos or Fiona Apple. Or was it the next Def Leppard? One of the new album's standout songs is "You and I," a straightforward pop-rock power ballad, produced by "Mutt" Lange, the studio legend behind albums like Leppard's Hysteria.
Gaga is a rocker at heart. She has little feel for, or interest in, black music; there's almost no hip-hop on her records. Her songs are powered by blunt foursquare house beats—a European sound that, thanks to Gaga, has become the default pulse of American pop.
Yet on the new album, this Europhile stakes claim to her Americanness. Forget Madonna: Gaga's new muse is Bruce Springsteen. She swathes song after song in Springsteen's open-road romanticism. (That's Clarence Clemons playing sax on "The Edge of Glory" and "Hair.") Sonically, Born This Way is a club record; spiritually, it's Born to Run, with Springsteen's Marys and Wendys recast in the lead roles. In "Highway Unicorn (Road 2 Love)," Gaga sings: "She's just an American riding a dream. … She's a free soul, burning roads/ With a flag in her bra." Gaga's thudding music has something in common with Springsteen's, too—it's a disco-fied update of the Boss' walloping "dinosaur beat." It's an overwhelming sound. In the album's best moments, it simply drowns out all the white noise that surrounds Lady Gaga: You stop thinking about Gaga's newest dress or Tweet or succès de scandale—you stop puzzling over Gaga in the cultural sense—and surrender to the music's crude power. You just dance.