The two most-hyped albums of 2011 thus far, and the two that I’ve spent the most time with, don’t have that much in common to the naked eye. However, they strike me as being oddly similar in the way they double as statements of purpose from two of the most widely-dissected figures in pop music in the last couple of years. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin are messy, complicated, and flawed records from blossoming icons of very different cultures who rose to fame in the most dissimilar ways imaginable.
Born This Way and Goblin are intriguingly analogous of one another because, on the surface, their makers seem to be polar opposites. Gaga is the biggest star in the world at the moment, while Tyler and his LA skate-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are, despite the recent influx of hype, still a decidedly underground movement. Where the songs on Born This Way seem like they were designed in a laboratory to appeal to as many people as possible, Goblin positions itself as the most insular, restrictive, and uninviting supposed “pop” record in years. Tyler can barely go five words without a “bitch” or a “faggot”; Gaga, on the other hand, seems bent on becoming the face of the entire gay-rights movement.
At the same time, though, I can’t help but think that they fascinate us for many of the same reasons. What makes them both compelling figures is their shared ability to bend the interests of mainstream audiences to fit their own visions, rather than the other way around. I have a difficult time picturing Tyler’s “Yonkers” getting radio play next to Drake and Rick Ross, but this obviously must happen, or else there wouldn’t be New Yorker investigations into the whereabouts of his MIA cohort Earl Sweatshirt. By the same token, for as indelible as “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face” are as radio fare, Lady Gaga is legitimately weird, which doesn’t always translate to Top 40 success.
Their latest records have been hyped in much the same fashion, and deliver strikingly similar payoffs. Gaga has been built up to the second coming of Madonna, the type of star who will never entirely drop out of the top 10 most important celebrities on earth, and will probably intermittently top that list throughout the rest of her life. Tyler, meanwhile, has become this kind of star on a much smaller scale. The last several months of Odd Future hype, particularly the time since their star-making performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in March, have vaulted Tyler into the upper echelon of Pitchfork figures of interest, right next to your Animal Collectives and Arcade Fires. In both cases, their outsized personalities are informing their notoriety just as much as their music. Gaga has crafted some of the most memorable pop songs of the last several years, but her bonkers award-show outfits have netted her just as much attention. Tyler’s singles “Yonkers” and “Tron Cat” betray a grasp of dexterous wordplay well beyond his 20 years of age, but his Twitter feed is nearly as quotable. Neither of these records would likely hold as much interest if they were released by anybody else.
These are also their first releases since becoming the musical and cultural icons that they are, and Tyler and Gaga have responded in pretty much the exact same way: by throwing a fucking lot of music at their audiences and letting them make what they will of it. Born This Way and Goblin are sprawling, wildly inconsistent works. Listening to these records, I don’t get the impression that either one of them makes a habit of surrounding themselves with people who would tell them their ideas sucked. These are purely their visions, for better or worse. This means that we have to take the “Marry the Night” with the “Americano” and the “Yonkers” with the “Bitch Suck Dick,” but it also means that Gaga and Tyler have given us complete, warts-and-all pictures of themselves.
What this could be is a sort of unconventional reaction to the music industry’s transition back to a primarily singles-oriented culture over the last decade and a half. Where bands like Radiohead and the Mars Volta defy the trend by releasing ornately crafted concept records that demand to be listened from start to finish, Goblin and Born This Way seem to take the approach of acting as sounding boards for every idea bouncing around their makers’ heads. If they have any inkling that people would describe either of their albums as “bloated” or “self-indulgent,” they likely don’t care. People like me who spend way too much time thinking about pop records love to play the game of debating how many tracks from a particularly long album could have been cut (and this dialogue has been had as far back as the White Album). But Tyler, the Creator and Lady Gaga are such complex, multifaceted characters that a short, concise album with nothing potentially controversial or polarizing would do a disservice to either one. What you see (or hear) is what you get.
The obvious blueprint for this more-is-more school of thought among this new crop of pop icons is Kanye West’s analyzed-to-death 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The difference, though, between that album and either of these is that West mastered the art of record-making with four singularly brilliant, meticulously crafted albums before attempting something on the scale of Twisted Fantasy. By the time he recorded that album, he was already thoroughly aware of his own artistic identity and was operating at the height of his creative powers. Neither Lady Gaga nor Tyler, the Creator are there yet, but the fact that they’re attempting these veteran moves as a vehicle for musical self-discovery makes the prospect of either one of them as a mature, fully-formed artist all the more tantalizing.
The releases of Goblin and Born This Way have been met with no shortage of controversy, mostly from the places you’d expect. The religious right has objected to Gaga’s at-times gratuitous use of Christian iconography in the video for the single “Judas,” most of which seemed like it was designed specifically to draw ire from those very sources. Goblin, meanwhile, has been widely condemned in the gay community for its Eminem-circa-1999 levels of homophobic language. GLAAD has put Tyler on its watch list, while Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara called out fellow musicians for buying into a movement this supposedly hateful. The influential rock critic Jim DeRogatis recently conducted an unintentionally hilarious interview with Pitchfork editor Ryan Schreiber that was intended to take the indie tastemakers to task for the messages they support, but came off more like Bill O’Reilly accusing Marilyn Manson of personally instructing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to kill a dozen of their classmates. It’s all pretty predictable, not to mention contrived. It’s the exact same dialogue we had about Eminem and the Insane Clown Posse a decade ago. If Tyler and Gaga are as talented and creative as we think they are, they’ll outgrow these easy shock tactics in time. Manson didn’t, and he can barely sell out a state fair these days. Eminem did, and he’s practically an elder statesman of rap at this point. Talent always wins out, and Tyler and Gaga both have it in spades.
In the end, that’s what makes Goblin and Born This Way worthy of this type of attention and scrutiny. They aren’t merely collections of beats and hooks — they certainly are that, but they also act as windows to the singular visions of two of the most diametrically opposite yet similarly significant pop-music figures of our time.