Born This Gay?

Posted: February 14, 2011 in Identity
Tags: , ,

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.

http://www.prefixmag.com/media/lady-gaga/born-this-way-live-on-the-grammys-video/49352/

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’.

Comments
  1. markwoff says:

    I don’t think it’s just about sex.

  2. Mark says:

    Oh, I think you’ve pretty much covered it, QRG. But I always have something to add….

    This is such an atrocious, disastrous mistake on Gaga’s part. Really, it’s quite mind-reeling. It could very well end her career. She’s laid a… giant egg. It’s just Too Gay To Play. I suspect it’s too gay even for the gays. Too patronising and crass. They’ll pretend to love it for a few weeks and then quietly forget all about it. It will be the shortest-lived ‘anthem’ ever.

    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.

    In my humble opinion, Gaga should never write about sexuality again. Ever. That’s her only hope of recovering the post-sexual charge that made her seem interesting and relevant. She embodies it better than anyone – but she clearly can’t articulate it self-consciously in her lyrics. To be fair, it might be impossible for anyone to do that – but almost anyone could make a better fist of it than Gaga in ‘Born That Way’.

    Musically, the homage’s to Madge were much better done on The Fame Monster (though actually it was the Boney M salutes such as ‘Bad Romance’ and ‘Poker Face’ that were her best tracks). In 2011, especially after being dubbed ‘the Diva of Deja Vu’ by Camille Paglia, she really, really needed to escape the gravitational attraction of Planet Madge. But she wanted this song to be GAY!!! so she returned yet again to the nipple of the original gay Borg queen at her gayest. And as I say, she may have poisoned herself fatally with this tragic pastiche.

    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?

  3. ‘towering cackness’ was the phrase I was looking for thanks Mark.

    I hope it is the last Gay Anthem. It is certainly one of the worst.

  4. markwoff says:

    Weeeeell… ‘patronising and crass’ would also be assuming there are certain types of music assigned at birth. ‘Too gay even for the gays’? ‘…but the middle bowl was JUST gay enough.’
    The song seems (to me) more likely intended as part of the ‘personal empowerment for princesses of all descriptions’ kiddie muzak canon, starting (at least musically) with the obvious ‘Express yourself’ forerunner, and marking its way down to the same chart that ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry is in. Additionally besequinned with soul-transformative pop alchemical symbolism (a giant egg borne on a litter indeed). I just don’t see ‘gay anthem and gay alone’ as a reading. Though it is pretty gay.

    • I like that link with the pop princesses markwoff. yes the ‘express yourself’ similarity is not just in the tune but also the lyric and ethos.

      The ‘be who you are’ ‘unique individual’ ‘beautiful snowflake’ idea that infects our current consciousness is definitely there.

  5. Jenny says:

    So you like the idea of homosexuality being monstrous? I’m kinda confused.

  6. Jared says:

    Meh, I’ve allways found Gaga pretty boring. Probably should have tried to read further into her, but it always just seemed like a bunch of superficial glitz and artifical shocks.
    My guess is that her luck’s run out; that artistically she was never really a “monster” just someone who chanced into a theme they couldn’t maintain because they didn’t really understand.

  7. arctic_jay says:

    Why are gay anthems always completely void of any eroticism? That depresses me much more than the banal melodies and clammy, desperate politicking repackaged as mindless lyrics.

  8. […] defended Gaga last year. So I’ve re-posted and amplified here a long and bitter comment I made on Quiet Riot Girl’s smart blog post about… ‘Born This Way’.This is an atrocious, disastrous mistake on Gaga’s part. It’s […]

  9. […] and often male) gays are outraged that their worldview and their sense of self, and how they were born this way is not being prioritised. If sexuality is, to some degree, a choice, as Cynthia says it is for […]

  10. […] Gaga last year. So I’ve re-posted and ampli­fied here a long and bit­ter com­ment I made on Quiet Riot Girl’s smart blog post about… ‘Born […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s