A few days is a long time in pop music. Since Lady Gaga released her much-anticipated single, the eponymous track of her forthcoming album, the critics have been quick to help us decide how to interpret it. Sometimes a pop song is just a pop song-but not when it is by someone as famous and controversial as Gaga, and not when it is overtly about sexuality and identity as Born This Way purports to be.
Most of the critics have been, predictably maybe, going along with the official line, that it is a new ‘gay anthem’. Born This Way is ‘the gayest song ever’ according to Elton John, destined to replace and obliterate Gaynor’s I Will Survive as the gay anthem to end all gay anthems.
Less effusively but equally ‘gay’, Dorian Lynskey and Jon Savage of the Guardian have placed the song in the tradition of gay and other minority anthems that have included ‘You Make Me Feel’ by Sylvester, ‘I Was Born This Way’ by Carl Bean, and ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge.
Jon Savage places Born This Way firmly in the essentialist, innate camp of the nature/nurture debate when it comes to sexuality:
‘The idea that sexuality is inborn, rather than some lifestyle choice or unfortunate disease, is at the heart of much modern gay identity formation. It flies in the face of the old contra naturam argument, and gives the lie to the idea that homosexuality can be converted, or “cured”. It also offers a kind of counterbalancing self-assertion that is necessary in the face of hostility and prejudice: as Lady Gaga sings: “In the religion of the insecure/ I must be myself.”
But, there is one voice of dissent that has not jumped on the Gay Pride float of Born This Way.
Ben Trott and Arturo Garcia also at The Guardian have pointed out how, up till now, Gaga had challenged the concept of fixed identity, by always changing her image, refusing to be pinned down about her sexuality, and even alluding to a gender identity beyond the male/female binary.
“I am the excuse to explore your identity,” she told Vogue. Of her fans, she says: “I look at them, and every show there’s a little more eyeliner, a little more freedom, and a little more ‘I don’t give a fuck about the bullies at my school’.”
It’s against this background that Born This Way is such a disappointment. Gaga claims Elton John called it the “gayest song” ever. In reality, it’s a very conservative portrayal of sexuality as god-given or natural. It’s the polar opposite of the monstrosity meme. Of course, sexual desire is a complex thing and not simply a matter of free will either. Where Gaga is at her best, though, has been in playing with precisely this complexity, and encouraging others to do the same’
I agree with them. This song is a disappointment, not just musically but also in terms of what Gaga has come to symbolise.
Also, despite the fact she sings in the song, ‘don’t be a drag, just be a queen’, her first performance of the song, at the Grammy’s last night, was definitely a drag. In all senses of the word. Madonna in drag.
There is more to say about this song in terms of the politics/’science’ and cultural attitudes towards sexual and other identities. There is more to say also about how it draws on religion:
‘I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way’
I am still hoping that my favourite pop cultural commentator, Mark Simpson, will sum up some of the implications of the song before the dominant ”gay anthem’ version has become the ‘correct’ interpretation of it. In Anti-Gay, back in 1996, he and his co-writers asked, ‘Gay Culture- Who Needs It?’ I think that question is worth reiterating, especially against the din of the consolidation of ‘gayness’ that we are experiencing today, as it informs the sensibilities of commercial pop, popular culture and popular ‘received wisdom’. Maybe Mr Simpson has his hands over his ears. I wouldn’t blame him if that was the case.
One thing is for certain. The place that Born This Way is to occupy in our pop culture psyche will become clearer as time goes on.
But like I said, these days a few days is a long time in pop music. And I think the meaning has probably, sadly, already been established.
Born This Way? It’s gay.
UPDATE: Mr Anti-Gay (and a previous Gaga fan) Simpson has spoken and he says:
‘It’s a catchy single, of course, and will make a lot of money, but everything about this song is backwards. The music, the lyrics, the mentality. For all the self-righteous posturing it’s completely free of any content. But brimming over with bullshit. Not only are we ‘born this way’, and ‘God makes no mistakes’, and being gay is an ethnic trait, sexuality is now some kind of smug fucking railway – ‘on the right track baby’. It’s as if someone decided to remake The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a GLAAD public service announcement, with Harvey Fierstein in the role of Frankenfurter…
Maybe I’m completely and utterly wrong. Maybe this is a genius masterstroke. Maybe she’s deliberately parodying American gayness with her rainbow vomit lyrics and slavish Madge idolatry to show it up in its worst possible light – to inoculate The Gays against… themselves.
I mean, after the global-scale, towering cackness of ‘Born this Way’ can there ever be a ‘gay anthem’ again?’
I do hope not.
UPDATE 2: This is a comment from the author of the cif Guardian article, Ben Trott:
‘I think the song represents a change in direction for Lady Gaga (or her and her peeps). And more over, I think this change coincides with a general trend. Basically, there’s a resurgence of the culture wars in the US at the moment, and conservatives are very much on the offensive. Progressives have been forced onto the back foot (and a meaningful left is nowhere to be seen!) Born This Way is symbolic of this progressive retreat. Gaga, until now, has sort of stood for one of the most out-there, stereotype-challenging forces in the very mainstream of pop culture. As I try and argue in the article, up until now, she hasn’t just been saying we-all-have-a-right-to-be-who-we-are. She’s been more radical than that: She’s been saying, I can also become who/what I want – and have an awesome time doing it! That’s part of why she’s got so much flack from conservatives. With this song, though, she’s very much on the defensive. She’s moved away from the world of fantasy and monsters, moving onto the terrain of the Christian right by invoking God. (She sings: “I’m beautiful in my way / ‘Cause God makes no mistakes / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born this way”.)
The song is obviously partly a response to the awful, recent spate of teen suicides in the US as a result of homophobic bullying. Obviously, it’s great that people like her – and all of those that are involved with things like the ‘It Gets Better’ project – are speaking out. (Jon Savage says some good things about this over on the Guardian’s music blog). But the question I think is worth asking is this: What’s the best way of fighting in this culture war? How should progressives/the left/LGBT(IQetc…) people respond to the attacks by the right? Is Lady Gaga right to move away from the offensive and onto the defensive? Personally, I think it’s bad strategy: too much of a retreat, conceding too much ground too quickly’.