The central question dogging Lady Gaga practically since she first took off her pants has been thus: riveting original or shameless hack? Are her meat dresses and dystopian dance beats and freaks-and-geeks advocacy unique, game-changing, iconoclastic moves, or simply updated versions of PR stunts already done (and done better) by earlier artists? Rather than defend herself, Gaga's strategy has always been to brazenly straddle the debate, planting a thigh-high stiletto firmly on either side and accentuating the apparent tension between the two arguments. She's a self-proclaimed one-of-a-kind "monster" hell-bent on shock and awe who's also never denied Madonna's influence on her work and who named herself in homage to her glam godmother, Freddie Mercury.
Never has the debate been more pronounced than on the release of Gaga's second album and never has her strategy been more explicit. Born This Way sounds like a tribute to every artist she's ever emulated: you say the title track is a rip-off of "Express Yourself"? Well, have a listen to the equally guilty deluxe-edition track "Black Jesus + Amen Fashion." So you've told all your Facebook friends that the Good Lady is simply re-creating glam in her own image? She'll see your T. Rex and raise you a gazillion hair-metal references, from titles like "Heavy Metal Lover" (which, ironically, is one of the dance-poppiest tracks) to Mutt Lange's production, from "Judas" (itself either blasphemy or a Judas Priestreference either way, reeking of metal) to the road-trip-with-Bon-Jovi "Highway Unicorn."
Born This Way steps ever so slightly away from the dance-pop with which Gaga has dominated the charts. "Scheibe," for instance, pairs German industrial allusions with dubsteppy bits and mall-pop hues, then folds in the Gothic cabaret cut "Bloody Mary." Meanwhile, "The Edge of Glory" opens with clubby beats before exploding into throbbing power pop and then morphing into a guitar-licked, sax-driven rock anthem (sax courtesy of E Street Band alumnus Clarence Clemons) that ends up sounding like something created by Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and a Britney Spears drag impersonator at an '80s-themed gay bar.
Beyond homage, in fact, Born This Way almost feels like a historical reenactment. It's as if Gaga is re-creating a moment in the late '70s and early '80s when glam, metal, art rock, disco, anthemic neo-classic rock and the burgeoning gay rights movement all converged and crawled into bed together, instead of feuding over their differences and boundaries. Only we're talking about Lady Gaga, so she's re-created that moment as a kind of religious movement, a philosophy for which Grace Jones and Madonna serve as patron saints. Religious references flood the album: swelling organs, choirs, potentially controversial allegories ("Judas," but also "Bloody Mary" and "Electric Chapel"). The ethos of Gaga's religion? Forget the cult of originality (or original sin). We're all freaks, baby. The overarching lyrical theme is encouraging individualism and challenging social norms, religious edicts, historical precedents and the persecution of weirdos of all stripes, be they "Lebanese" or "Bad Kids." We were all born this way.
Like this Swiss-cheese philosophy, Born This Way in general has a slapdash quality to it, as if Gaga stuck together a bunch of musical ideas and lofty philosophies and didn't quite wait long enough for them to dry. "Judas," which sounds like several other Lady Gaga hits hot-glued together, is a prime example of the slightly rough-around-the-edges feel the album has but it also still manages to get your blood racing and your fist itching to pump. It's dramatic, passionate and fervent enough to make you overlook its miniscule flaws. It's an anthem on an album full of anthems, and Gaga's enough of a charismatic cult leader to sell it. She doesn't just prompt the age-old Authenticity vs. Artificiality debate that's long plagued pop music, she embodies it. And she'll make a believer out of you.