Thoughts on ‘Born This Way’

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I?

After the premiere of the video yesterday led to another outpouring of utter drivel, I wanted to articulate my feelings about the whole ‘Born This Way’ thing. Not least because I know that some people who know me undoubtedly believe that my response to it is largely determined by ‘the Madonna factor’.

First of all, I will admit that I have been dubious about Gaga from the moment I heard ‘The Fame’. To be specific, I loved ‘Just Dance’ when I first heard it (when it was first heard in the U.S.) and downloaded ‘The Fame’ when it first leaked. I was immensely disappointed – most of the album is terrible. It also betrayed that what Gaga swiftly became was somewhat of an accident. You don’t make records like ‘Eh Eh’ if you’re intending to end up at ‘Bad Romance’. But end up there she did, and ‘The Fame Monster’ is undoubtedly a huge improvement on ‘The Fame’ and a great pop record in its own right. ‘Bad Romance’ will forever be iconic and was a perfect example of an artist taking their influences and building something uniquely theirs. It is brilliant.

  Now I could write a book about all of that, but onto ‘Born This Way’. It is a dreadful record. Clunking, patronising, lazy and downright stupid. I’ve heard it said that Lady Gaga has been racing through Madonna’s career – if this is the case then ‘Born This Way’ marks her swift arrival at Madonna’s humourless, worthy and superior persona (without the fun stuff inbetween). Where to begin?

Firstly, taken exclusively on its musical merits, the song is undeniably derivative and largely generic. No great crime, but when you’ve spent almost a year being told that this is going to be the greatest thing to have ever happened to music (by Gaga and by people around her) it’s understandable that this provokes a reaction against it. Now when you factor in the ‘gay element’, this takes on a new meaning. Gaga chooses to celebrate the ‘difference’ of homosexuality by returning to disco, the most stereotypically ‘gay’ music genre and one which every pop star who wants to appeal to a gay audience seems to run to at some point or another. It reminds me of ‘G-A-Y’ by Geri Halliwell, except Geri at least had the good sense to make it a b-side and not build it up as being akin to the Emancipation Proclamation beforehand. Already the difference Gaga is celebrating is a very narrow one.

It’s worth noting here that since the backlash against the song, many of Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ have been backtracking on the gay aspect of the song and arguing that it’s a wider anthem of tolerance. Yes, the lyrics are more general but to deny that Gaga (and her team) have specifically focused on the gay theme is either being completely stupid or completely disingenuous. I could trawl Google to provide countless quotes to illustrate this but I think it’s pretty self-evident. However, taking that wider theme, the song both patronises and fails. It patronises because it lists minorities in a ‘shopping list’ of difference where we are all interchangeable but the same in our ‘difference’. This celebrates nothing other than Gaga’s self-identification with ‘outsiders’ and, so, Gaga herself. I won’t add to the furore over her use of ‘chola’ and ‘orient’ but I have nothing intrinsically in common with ethnic minorities (except on a broader human level and arguably in terms of places in wider power structures, which I will look at in a second). What we see is a privileged (both in her race and her wealth) woman revealing more than she probably cares to about her very banal (and frighteningly deadening) notion of ‘difference’.

It fails because it does not even coherently follow through on this already misguided notion. Perhaps half-aware of the above argument, she adds religion, ‘white’ and ‘evergreen’ to the shopping list. In adding the powerful and privileged (and, not incidentally, those responsible for much of the oppression faced by the ‘different’) she reduces her point to nothing except ‘be happy’. The suggestion that the power structures in society are ‘born’ is actually counter-productive to any message of acceptance and neglects to tackle the reasons behind homophobia, racism etc, instead reducing all of the social, political and economic circumstances to the hilarious implication that bigots are also ‘born this way’ and should just…not be, while also reducing all identity to a one-note caricature based on a presumed biological foundation.

Clearly most listeners won’t delve this deep into the song, so what if it’s just taken on a superficial level? The one argument that I have heard wheeled out repeatedly in support of it is that it will help closeted gay children. This argument is invariably put forward by out and proud metropolitan gay men and as such I think it’s a ‘straw man’ argument that hides the true purpose of the record – that is, to take a specific gay identity and affirm it back at gay people, and thus commodify it. As I noted above, the difference Gaga celebrates is a very narrow one. It is one largely dictated by privileged Western gay men and one which takes its cues from mainstream gay culture. We must not forget that this culture is not the totality of any of us. It’s not even a small part, for many. Yet its success and position depends on the affirmation of gay people’s differences to, and subjugation at the hands of, everyone else. Gaga is celebrating ‘gay as victim’ and in the process reinforcing a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture. Much has been written about the pressure for gay people to conform to this, from ‘the body beautiful’ to the ostentatious display of wealth. Gaga reinforces every one of these points, identifying gay people with muscular dancers in designer clothes and raising product placement/endorsement to almost religious levels (and also largely ignoring lesbianism, save as titillation or as comedy).

Now, tackling directly the argument about gay children – of course I think it’s positive for gay kids to have role models. But why are we so willing to applaud the crumbs from the table of Lady Gaga and ignore everything else? Is a repressed gay child with a bigoted family really going to be helped by a woman who repeatedly identifies homosexuality with ‘freaks’, ‘monsters’ and aliens (the visual accompaniments to ‘Born This Way’ have underlined this point)? Sure, it may help cement a sense of victimhood and a fledgling desire to ‘fight’, but that is ultimately counter-productive. The fact is that in America (which is where we are always talking about) we have a President  who has explicitly reached out to gay children in speeches. So have many of his peers. He has appointed gay people to high-profile jobs in his administration. We have little to say about this. We have had little to say about the gay celebrities who have come out and…lived their lives. We have little to say about it because it is painting gay people as ordinary people who happen to be gay, and not fabulous angelic creatures who are scorned by all around them. Gaga is not an intergalactic social worker fighting homophobia in a vacuum. She is a pop star whose image and success is tied up in the notion of not being part of the power structure she undoubtedly is (which is also why she has gone to such great pains to downplay her wealthy background, and create urban myths around being a starving ‘artist’).

With ‘Bad Romance’, Gaga was winning me over. In stumbling so clumsily and stupidly into the realms of sexuality, identity and difference, she has re-affirmed all of her worst aspects.

And I didn’t even mention ‘Express Yourself’!

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