By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
Even Lady Gaga's most ardent admirers would have trouble contesting this point: The woman who just replaced Oprah as Forbes' most powerful celebrity is more famous for her voracity and canniness in chasing fame ? and clinging to it ? than she is for any singular talent or accomplishment.
That might not be a problem if Gaga were a Real Housewife, a C-list Dancing With the Stars contestant or any number of aggressively unexceptional media hounds who have somehow managed to captivate the public in recent years. But for an artist who has achieved her level of prominence, and clearly cares about old-school virtues such as respect and staying power, it's a precarious position.
On Gaga's new album, Born This Way (**� out of four), out Monday, it's not always easy to distinguish between her creative ambition and her desire to simply sustain and milk our fascination.
This has been true of other pop icons ? notably Madonna, whom Gaga apes shamelessly on the first single and title track. But at this stage in her career, Madonna's singles had a freshness and genuine yearning that defied attempts to cast her as a mere provocateuse.
Gaga's new tunes seem cooler and more calculated, sucking you in (or banging you over the head) with a barrage of bracing grooves that can grow numbing. There's the pummeling electronica of Judas, the breathless Eurodisco of Scheibe, the winking, Latin-tinged dance-pop of Americano.
Other songs embrace more classic and conservative textures, evoking radio hits from and before the 25-year-old singer/songwriter's preschool years.
In fact, the most daring aspect of Born This Way may be its unabashed nostalgia. A number of tracks are heavily influenced by '80s rock. E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons is a guest, and you could easily imagine the power ballad You And I, with its soaring vocals and bombastic guitar riffs (by Queen's Brian May), being played in an arena as the audience waves lighters in unison.
Gaga's platform, too, is at its core a very traditional one for a pop star. Let your freak flag fly, she tells fans, and let everyone else do the same. There are numerous references to New Testament figures (and here's to you again, Ms. Ciccone) and a bit of quasi-social commentary. Predictably, Gaga fares best when she keeps her observations general and peppers them with wry humor.
"I'm a disaster ? just a freedom hussy," she sings on the buzzy, bubbly Bad Kids, adding, "I will survive." Time will tell whether Gaga protests too much, but Born This Way, for all its shortcomings, should ensure that we don't forget her any time soon.
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