I’m still trying to prioritize writing about female musicians (at least for now), and the one I stumbled upon is a particularly infamous one. I’m sure I don’t need to explain who Lady Gaga is to most people reading this, but I will offer a brief synopsis of the performer anyway. She began her solo career back in 2008 with her album The Fame, which instantly skyrocketed her to international fame and commercial and critical success. This continued with The Fame Monster and even Born This Way, from which the single of the same title comes. You’re probably very familiar with all of her super famous electropop hits from the peak of her career, including “Poker Face”, “Bad Romance”, “Telephone”, and this song. Although her third solo album Artpop received very mixed reviews, she bounced back splendidly with her next album Joanne which was released in late 2016 (and is one of my favorites of the entire year – but hopefully I can get around to that particular post soon!).
My personal opinion of Lady Gaga tends to do back and forth, with more emphasis leaning on the “love” side of the spectrum. I think the fact that she’s a female singer-songwriter with such a defined, powerful artistic vision – the likes of which is hardly ever really seen in the mainstream – is hugely admirable, especially considering her commercial and critical success and thriving fanbase that pushes beyond her pronounced, decidedly non-feminine weirdness. Yes, I’m talking about her meat dress, but I’m also talking about the kind of mind that conceives such huge, bombastic oddities as “Bad Romance” and “The Edge of Glory”, both of which fill me with such vibratey waves of joyful energy, the likes of which is hard to really put into words. Besides her multiple accolades and numerous top twenty singles, though, she is also an active philanthropist. She wrote and recorded the Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You” for the documentary The Hunting Ground in support and empathy for survivors of sexual assault; moreover, she is openly bisexual and has been a proud advocate and spokeswoman for the LGBT community throughout her entire career.
Needless to say, there is so much about Lady Gaga that ticks off so many important boxes for me. As I mentioned before, I am a queer woman, and though I haven’t talked about it much, I am also a survivor of sexual assault (please don’t ask me any questions about this second part; I’ll divulge more when I’m ready). On top of all this, I am a fan of really huge, campy, disco-esque dance music, especially those with lush, layered production and especially those with female vocalists. “Bad Romance”, for example, is one of the best songs I have ever heard. So, wouldn’t that make “Born This Way” a shoe-in for yet another awesome Gaga single for me? Well, not quite. I would like to point out the positive aspects of this track before I move onto my criticisms. Like Gaga’s best songs, this one has a well-defined hook with a melody in the chorus and verses that won’t soon be forgotten. The chorus in particular practically urges young listeners to scrawl its lines in their school notebooks – “I’m beautiful in my way / ‘Cause God makes no mistakes / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way”. If this were from any other artist, I might have written this off as a capitalistic pandering to a minority (see: specialized) group, but I’m more than positive that her heart is in the right place with this recording.
And now, let’s just address the elephant in the room. Yes, this does sound quite a bit like Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. If you listen to the two side-by-side, the similarities are even more pronounced. And quite a big fuss was made about this phenomenon when the song was first released. Yet I don’t recall there being much similar remarks when Bruno Mars released the Police-inspired “Locked Out of Heaven”, nor when Katy Perry released “California Gurls” with a chorus that is pretty much the exact format of “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha. Having recently listened to Madonna’s entire discography, I think a more accurate remark would be that “Born This Way” sounds more like a mish-mash of a bunch of different Madonna songs – a generous helping of “Express Yourself”, with the 90s house vibes of “Vogue” and “Deeper and Deeper” melded with the more modern electro-disco production of Confessions on a Dance Floor. She’s openly confessed to this being inspired by dance music from the 90s that empowered women and those in the LGBT community, so I don’t think it’s fair to point it out as an immediate markdown for the song.
And now for the other elephant in the room: those lyrics. I’m not talking about the relatively harmless, empowering lyrics of the chorus and verses, but some of the more problematic elements of the bridge wherein Gaga lists off a selection of minority groups, supposedly as a way to say “this song is for you”. Yet, I think the song could have done without the empty name-dropping, especially since it’s clear that Gaga herself doesn’t have any personal connection with those who are Black, broke, and/or transgender, so results could have only ended up as well-intentioned as best and harmful at worse. This is particularly clear with the line, “You’re black, white, beige, chola descent / You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient”. “Chola” and “Orient”, while generally derogatory, are known to have been reclaimed by their retrospective communities as a mark of empowerment, but it’s really not the place of Lady Gaga – who is rich and White – to drop such labels casually and expect to get away with it. White people are simply not allowed to take derogatory labels and phrases and place it upon people of color without their consent; just because it is reclaimed doesn’t mean it ceases to be offensive to many.
Generally, Gaga’s lack of coyness is a positive trademark in a lot of her songs, but when she blurts such aforementioned lines with such extravagancy, it just comes off as obnoxious and needy of taking up as much space as possible. Generally speaking, she is a great singer, and while I can rarely ever say that she sings badly, so to speak, her vocal performance here isn’t quite as up to par as what I know she is capable of. And I’ll just say it – the production here sucks. The rumbling synth and buzzing bass is supremely unattractive to the ears and there’s generally just too much going on at once; since it’s pretty obvious that this song was made to be blasted on huge speakers in a full stadium, I can’t imagine that it would sound very good as such high volumes. I feel like a cleaner, electro-disco production would suit it much, but much like most of the tracks on Born This Way, this just sounds ugly. This was her most panned release up until this point, and with such a positive message tied to it, I really wish I weren’t on the side of the dissenters. But I don’t think I could ever recommend this to anyone who was ambivalent as to how they feel about Gaga – for that situation, I would immediately push “Bad Romance” or “The Edge of Glory” swiftly in their direction.