Over the past few years, we are meant to have witnessed the death of the monoculture. The collapse of a single, shared experience of dominant cultural figures into niche interests and specialist communities enabled by technological advances has been discussed, dissected and bemoaned by critics and commentators for more than half a decade. The shared meal in the common household of society has been superseded by a smorgasbord from which individuals can pick and choose according to their tastes and whims.
It's no surprise that much of the discussion has come from pop critics: is there any field that would be affected more than one that simultaneously trades on transience and relies on myth-making and star power? Pop, after all, is a youthful art form, still easily dismissed in favour of high culture; its proponents' trump card has long been that its megastars - Madonna, say, or Michael Jackson - are worthy of serious attention because their overwhelming cultural dominance outweighs their inherent disposability. It's a somewhat self-hating tack that does a disservice to both those figures and to pop as art - but it does explain the keenness of the critical profession to declare artists "important cultural figures" and not just talented music-makers. (These days, the importance is often for search engine optimisation purposes, with certain artists' names facilitating those all-important page views.)
Are "important cultural figures" possible without a monoculture? It's a chicken-and-egg question - but certainly, in 2011, predictions of the demise of the shared cultural experience feel a little hasty. There's the popularity and rapid proliferation of internet memes, for one thing; from another angle, the suspicion that the monoculture probably wasn't as across-the-board as nostalgists like to think. (Did grandmothers really care about MTV?) And then there's Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, who has revived the possibility of a dominant pop star in an era when that no longer seemed possible: video releases as drop-everything cultural events, hits so ubiquitous and catchy that this correspondent's own mother is able to sing Bad Romance (the first pop song in living memory that this applies to).
Gaga's own importance is certainly a concept that the lady buys into. Initially, the gap between her rhetoric and her output was glaring. In interviews, she would happily place herself in the same company as luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Grace Jones, all the while opining loftily on her contribution to their lineage. On record, though, no matter how much Lady Gaga tried to push the angle that her music was a self-aware parody of vacuous pop, there was little substantively different between her own club-pop - from the wasted party girl persona to the lowest common denominator dance beats - and the equally brash, campy Pussycat Dolls.
It's to Gaga's credit that she widened this gap so comprehensively with 2009's The Fame Monster mini-album, a collection of eight tracks so strong and forceful that even her most vociferous critics wound up caving in. Even beyond its singles and the videos, The Fame Monster also offered tantalising glimpses of the range of Gaga's talent - and where she might go next: "Speechless", the dramatic, bluesy ballad that she took to performing at awards shows at a burning piano; and the deeply odd "Teeth", probably the only moment on record where she has been as unfathomably strange as she likes to think she is. The critic Tom Ewing coined the term "imperial phase" to describe that period when it seems as though a pop megastar is unable to put a foot wrong: unquestionably, 2009-10 felt like Lady Gaga's. As befits an artist in an age of rapid turnover, she had arrived at this status unusually early.
The Fame Monster may have blindsided critics with its quality, but 18 months later, Gaga's powers appear to be slipping. The first indications that all would not go to plan came with the reception of her third album's title track, "Born This Way": in sum, this supposedly original talent and self-proclaimed visionary had, for a much-anticipated lead single, appeared to do little more than lift, uncredited, the melody and chord progression of Madonna's 1989 hit "Express Yourself". Worse, its lyrics - an attempt to craft an anthem of inclusion and self-empowerment - were ham-fisted and, what with the references to "chola descent" and "you're Orient", not exactly couched in unproblematic language themselves.
These are faults that recur throughout the album, much of which is derivative - in basic, obvious ways, not in the shamelessly cannibalistic sense that pop tends to thrive on - and prone to tripping over its own good intentions. "Fashion of His Love" bears a striking resemblance to Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)". The squealing, burning-rubber synths of the second single, "Judas", reprise the trick that served Gaga so well on "Bad Romance"; the piano-driven soft-rock epic "You and I" is an obvious attempt to reprise "Speechless".
Meanwhile, for all Gaga's fixation on artifice, the most striking aspect of Born This Way is its sincerity. Quietly, she has made something of a reversal of her original raison d'être: the deliberate fixation on the superficial, played for winking irony and dressed up as pop art, on The Fame. For all of Gaga's theatricality, Born This Way is slathered in good intentions - but she's at once too specific and not specific enough to make it thematically coherent. She spells out her causes in neon capital letters - this is an album for "degenerate young rebels" and marginalised misfits everywhere. But Gaga walks a fine line between romantic idealism of these archetypes - allied to her more propulsive melodies, she can capture genuinely anthemic feelings - and merely retreading subculture clichés. It's an approach somewhat reminiscent of Pink, another pop star who largely eschews subtlety.
Gaga's strategy of peppering her songs with as much religious imagery as she possibly can is more egregious. She seems to desire the notoriety of being blasphemous (albeit in an age when few in the West are shocked by it), but seems to have little to say about religion itself beyond vague manipulations of its icons. Compared to, say, Madonna or Tori Amos, whose specific criticisms of the limits of their religious inheritances were unavoidable throughout their work, Gaga comes across as a lightweight; she veers from blithely and meaninglessly titling a song "Black Jesus † Amen Fashion" to declaring that "God makes no mistakes" on the title track.
These criticisms are not, however, an emperor's-new-clothes indictment of Lady Gaga; rather, they are indications of an immensely talented performer and songwriter who, still relatively early in her career, appears to have slightly misfired under the twin pressures of heightened public expectation and her own ambition.
Born This Way is no masterpiece - but when it works, Gaga is still able to demonstrate what makes her special. She can overwhelm like few others, whether with pounding arrangements or powerhouse vocals, or simply the force of her hooks. Gaga's voice rises from "Government Hooker" like a disembodied horror movie hand reaching out to grab you by the throat. On "Americano", she turns the unpromising pop cliché of flamenco guitars and Latinate signifiers into a demented, sinister dance of death simply by ramping the tempo and electronic fuzz up as high as she can. A glorious sax solo from the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons is the perfect, overblown climax to the urgent peaks of "The Edge of Glory".
It can be wearying if one isn't in the right mood, but the endorphin-driven rush of Born This Way is no mistake. These are songs designed to make the listener feel strong, invulnerable and 73 feet tall - and what Gaga doesn't always manage with her lyrics, she achieves with her sound. It is also confirmation of a key thread running through the record: Born This Way is less an attempt to be all malleable things to everybody (as one might expect of a pop star in her imperial phase), and more a pact of loyalty with Gaga's devoted, cultish fan base (the Little Monsters, as she calls them). Unusually in an era when cross-pollination in pop is par for the course, Born This Way is a remarkably self-contained album, Gaga turning to her community of fans and speaking to them in a common language.
The tension between the idea of this community and the inherently individualistic thrust of Gaga's be-yourself self-empowerment is at the heart of the album's best, and most interesting, song. "If you're a strong female, you don't need permission," glints the pre-chorus of "Scheiße" over whiplash synths. But it's the doubt Gaga goes on to express in the chorus - "I wish I could be strong without somebody there … I wish I could be strong without the scheiße, yeah" - that exposes the fragility underlying the diktat. What Gaga seems to be frustratedly lumping together is everything she ostensibly thrives on: her drama, her rhetoric, her outfits, her community. It's simultaneously the acknowledgement that they are necessary and the desire to be free from that need. For once, Gaga seems genuinely conflicted - and it's a mark of how compelling she is that this is where she's also at her most identifiable.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.