Lady Gaga is at once the biggest pop star in the world and not really a pop star at all — at least not in the conventional sense. In myriad ways, she’s unlike Britney Spears, who despite a recent string of hits and a well-received album seems about as removed from her own career as she can be while still being physically in the room with a mic strapped to her head. And she’s a totally different animal than real-life friends Katy Perry and Rihanna, hit-makers who share an affinity for letting big-name producers and songwriters do their artistic heavy-lifting.
Like her above-mentioned pop diva counterparts, Gaga works with top-notch producers to swaddle her songs in dance floor-ready beats, but her skills as a lyricist set her apart from the flock. She has co-written all of her songs to date, and on her forthcoming album ‘Born This Way,’ she is upping her artistic game, producing alongside collaborators both old — RedOne (‘Bad Romance’) and Fernando Garibay (‘Dance in the Dark’) — and new, including DJ White Shadow and Robert “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC and Def Leppard), while penning a majority of the album’s songs solely and co-writing the rest.
“People are expecting a lot,” Billboard editor M. Tye Comer says of ‘Born This Way.’ “It’s funny to think that she’s only really had one full album, one-and-a-half albums really, so the body of work that she has amassed compared to the amount of attention and acclaim that she’s received is really striking.” With her second LP dropping in just a few weeks and anticipation at a fever pitch as the release of the second single draws closer, it’s hard not to wonder what’s at stake for Gaga with ‘Born This Way.’ Will this be the album that defines her career?
“I think that with the first two albums, what she’s done is firmly cemented herself as an important pop culture figure. I think that this album has the potential to put her into a long-lasting artist mindset,” Comer says. “She has that already to some degree, but I think that if there’s something at stake, it’s that. I think that this will further increase the stronghold that she has on the pop music world in general, but also expand her influence more as a songwriter, as a creative force, as a person who is going to be a long-term career artist, like Madonna, like Bowie, like the people that she’s being mentioned in these new conversations with.”
At just 25 years old, Lady Gaga has already won five Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums. She is the most followed celebrity on Twitter, with nearly 9.5 million followers, her videos have been viewed over a billion times on YouTube and she has more fans on Facebook than the president of the United States. Legends in the music industry — Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Madonna among them — routinely sing her praises.
Of working with the singer on the ‘Born’ track ‘Edge of Glory,’ E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons told Rolling Stone, “It was a day I’ll never forget. When I left the studio, it took me a few days to come down. What she does, man, it just blows my mind.”
“I think that she’s in a very unique position because I can’t think of another artist, another recent artist, that has risen to such an iconic status, and I don’t use that word loosely, but I really do think that she is an icon at this point,” Comer says. “When she made her first album, she didn’t have all of this. She was any other artist who was looking for a break and wanted people to hear her record. She didn’t have this icon status. But now that she’s won Grammys and done this huge stadium tour, now that she has an audience that is paying attention, it’s about what she has to say.”
Apparently, she intends to say a lot. “‘Born This Way’ is just the beginning of this album,” Gaga recently told Rolling Stone. “It’s certainly not even the biggest hit on the album. … “It’s a marriage of electronic music with major, epic, dare I even say, metal or rock and roll, pop, anthemic-style melodies with really sledge-hammering dance beats.”
“The breadth of the album is enormous,” Gaga told Billboard for its cover story when the titular single debuted atop the Hot 100, the 1,000th song to do so. “My fans are going to enjoy the journey.”
During a concert in Gdsank, Poland, late last year, she promised concertgoers ‘Born’ would be the “greatest album of this decade.” A social media expert, Gaga uses Twitter to keep her devout fans in a near-constant frenzy, leaking bits of information, song lyrics and photos (sometimes even stepping out ahead of the announcements to post that she intends to say something soon).
And she’s already revving the buzz machine engines for the second single from ‘Born This Way.’ ‘Judas’ drops on April 19, and the video for the song is already being talked up, sight unseen. The video’s co-director and Gaga’s creative director, Laurieann Gibson, told MTV the video will be “groundbreaking,” though she also admitted the controversial subject matter nearly caused her to back out of the project.
In the clip, Gaga reportedly plays Mary Magdalene. Without seeing so much as a picture of the singer costumed as the biblical figure, Catholic League President Bill Donohue told Hollywood Life, “She thinks she is going to be groundbreaking. She is trying to ripoff Christian idolatry to shore up her talentless, mundane and boring performances. This is a stunt.”
Of the song itself, Rolling Stone says, “‘Judas’ is a classic Lady Gaga pop banger with three huge hooks, a thumping house music breakdown and a vocal part that borrows a bit of Rihanna’s distinctive cadence. Gaga has written about falling for the wrong guy before in ‘LoveGame’ and ‘Bad Romance,’ but this time around she’s a bit less dark and dramatic.”
All Gibson and Donohue are doing by commenting on a video that only recently finished filming is feeding Gaga’s hype machine — Gibson likely with her blessing, Donohue without it. Gaga has often said that she has “mastered the art of fame,” so she knows better than anyone that, with few exceptions, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
But creating anticipation the way Gaga does is a risky endeavor for any artist, because while it can drive album sales, particularly early on, it also sets the bar, and with it the potential for letdown, pretty high. When you combine the frenzied expectation with the promises of grandeur and her deep involvement in the artistic direction of her career, it becomes abundantly clear just how much she has riding on this album.
Comer, for one, believes the ‘Bad Romance’ singer can count on her loyal fan base to deliver impressive sales figures and hit singles. “Let’s be real, it’s going to be a hit. It’s definitely going to sell,” he says. “She is a very smart woman who knows how to play the game, and there’s going to be a few singles on there that are going to be ready for the radio, ready for the club and are going to be immediately embraced by the audience she’s amassed so far.”
But unlike Spears or Perry, Gaga’s previous acclaim does compound her situation: Even if she posts blockbuster record sales, there is an expectation that she will deliver a creative achievement. While Comer knows that sentiment exists, he doesn’t see ‘Born This Way’ as a make-or-break endeavor for the singer’s long-term career prospects.
“If it [‘Born This Way’] doesn’t quite reach that mark, I think it will be close, and I think that she has pervaded popular culture enough that if she doesn’t do it with this record, she has other records to do it with,” he says. “You definitely saw a progression from ‘The Fame’ to ‘The Fame Monster’ EP, the songs were bigger, they more anthemic, a little darker, it showed more confidence in her as a songwriter. I think she’s getting better at her craft. … She knows what she wants, and she’s wants to be more than a Britney, she wants to be a Bowie, she wants to be that sort of artist and I think that she’s going to push for it.”