There's a lot to be cynical about when discussing Lady Gaga's new song "The Edge of Glory." The timing of its release both couldn't have been better and couldn't have been worse—less than a month after the weird and intermittently wondrous "Judas" was released to less-than-resounding acclaim and lackluster sales, here comes "Edge" to save the day. Whereas "Judas" was arguably the most quintessentially Lady Gaga song (and video) thus released by young Stefani, with its religious iconography, guilt-laden sexuality, high-art-aspiring video, and Eurodance-via-Ace-of-Base production, "Edge" is a song that could find success sung by just about any established diva out right now.
Releasing "Edge" now serves not only to undercut "Judas," but Gaga's singular persona, as if to say "Hey, was that last song a little too much me for you guys? Well, here's one that barely even sounds like it's by me at all!" If it ended up being anything less than one of the best pop songs of the year, Gaga would be in big trouble, leaving herself open to accusations of selling herself and her fans short, to compromising her always lofty ideals and claims to being a true Top 40 innovator in favor of a song all but guaranteed to keep her tethered to the top of the iTunes chart.
Well, looks like Gaga lucked out on this one, then, because not only is "The Edge of Glory" one of the best pop songs of the year, but it's probably the best thing she's done since those first two blockbusting singles, "Just Dance" and "Poker Face." You know, the ones that hit before Stefani was burdened by the weight of her totemic status as Lady Gaga, the ones whose popularity was based on her skill as a pure pop star, and not as the boundary-crossing, expectation-challenging, cultural force of nature that we know her as today.
The source of Gaga's musical salvation is a song that's equal parts classic disco and classic pop-metal. Whereas "Born This Way" filtered Giorgio Moroder through late-80s Madonna, "Edge of Glory" goes in via Slippery When Wet Bon Jovi—with a huge, unspecifically anthemic and absolutely inarguable chorus ("I'm on the edge of glory / And I'm hanging on a moment of truth") that sees Gaga holding on to what she got, not giving a damn if she makes it or not. But really, it's choose-your-own 80s touchstone here—Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time," Vixen's "Edge of a Broken Heart" and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" all make allusive appearances at one point or another, not so obviously that they end up weighing the song down, but instead giving "Edge" a sort of historical credibility, welcoming it to their proud and rich tradition of glorious pop bombast.
And oh yes, it is bombastic. The simmering verses set the table appealingly enough, with their repeated "tonight, yeah baby" hook (why don't more pop writers ever think to sneak in an early mini-chorus in the middle of the song's verses?) and vague but dramatic-sounding lyrics ("Right on the limits where we know we both belong tonight"). And the barnstorming chorus of course takes things to the next level, with its full-on, multi-layered synth release, and Gaga scaling the heights of melodrama with her repeatedly higher-reaching shouts of "I'm on the edge / The edge! / The edge! / THE EDGE!" Two verses, two choruses and an outro, and no one could have possibly said that "Edge of Glory" didn't go hard as a motherfucker.
But the song's not-so-secret weapon, what really puts it over the top, is the bridge. News that E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons would be making an appearance on "The Edge of Glory" was met mostly with bemused chuckles, and listening to the song's first three minutes, you wonder how the hell Gaga exactly plans on shoehorning him into this thing. But as the waves of overbearing synths part and the Big Man stands alone wailing, just as he did on "Jungleland" so many years ago, common sense goes out the window somewhat and you're just left in awe of the size and spectacle of this absolute monster (no pun intended) of a club anthem. Then new synth riffs start piling on top of it, the beat kicks back in, and by the time of the last chorus, damned if you're not right there on the edge, the edge, THE EDGE! with Gaga, in complete surrender to the transportive power of pop music.
So does Gaga deserve to be taken to task somewhat for what, when viewed objectively in the context of her career, smacks somewhat of artistic compromise? Well, perhaps this should instead be viewed just as a reminder, for us as well as for Gaga, that no one artist stands above the specter of pop music, that as much as she may try to push the limits of mainstream acceptability with her increasingly odd lyrics, productions and videos, there's still an untouchable quality to the most straightforwardly accessible and pressure-principle satisfying Top 40 fare that the genre's biggest stars should never drift away from permanently. And even after the meat dresses, the alternate-universe music videos, the foreign-language lyrical slips and the messianic interview quotes, Lady Gaga is still a pop star, first and foremost. Perhaps "The Edge of Glory" comes not a moment too soon after all.
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