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Is Lady Gaga on the Right Track?

Our long national nightmare is over! Given her supreme media saturation, it seems nigh impossible, but before last Friday it had been 296 days since Lady Gaga’s previous single, “Alejandro.”

You wouldn’t know she’d been absent from the music biz for so long, though. From her Don’t Ask Don’t Tell activism to her constant Twitter updates, Gaga hasn’t exactly been hiding. “Born This Way” has had a similarly public gestation: She teased a bit of the song during the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, tweeted the song’s lyrics last week; and finally performed it for the first time on the grand stage of the Grammys.

Now that “Born This Way” is here, we can see that it’s arrived with a serious pedigree. To begin, it sounds like Madonna’s “Express Yourself” on performance enhancing drugs. In her Grammy acceptance speech, Gaga said she wrote the song while picturing Whitney Houston singing it. There’s certainly a lot going on in the song, and many people are already calling it a classic.

“Born This Way” gained some powerful traction when Elton John predicted last fall it would replace “I Will Survive” as the “new gay anthem.” Since then, practically everyone who’s heard the song has used the phrase “gay anthem” to describe it. The editors of Advocate’s website even went a step further and called the song Gaga’s “gay rights anthem.” 

The song certainly seems like a clear statement of purpose. When Lady Gaga belts out, “No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life, / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive” the song is undeniably about surviving and celebrating every lifestyle; the equal footing she gives to various orientations and genders removes their status as “alternative.” Rather, she claims a natural foundation for one’s being, the titular line, “I was born this way!”

“Born This Way” is a huge-sounding club banger, for sure. Thirty seconds into it, and you’ve already heard a faux-orchestral introduction, vacuum-buzz saw synth line, and an airy (Madonna-aping) verse. Putting aside for a moment the song’s lyrical content, “Born This Way” is a particularly well-made song. It has borrowed a few plays from Gaga’s strongest songs, “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face.” It’s built on a backbone of bass percussion; it varies its approach, alternating between a bursting forth synthesizer figure and a relatively empty spaces to showcase lyrics. Some songs seem made for a boombox or even headphones; “Born This Way” was made for those giant JBL monitors found in every club and theater around the world. Gaga makes the kind of songs that you can envision hearing from outside the club, the thumping bass and seesaw orchestration seeping through opening and closing doors. Aside from any larger implications, “Born This Way” is a visceral and pleasing romp.

Of course, the larger implications are always the most interesting thing about Gaga’s work. “Born This Way” is clearly about naturalizing the differences among people. But there is a feeling that the recent wave of “It gets better” pop perhaps operates in a cynical manner. The problem most artists have deal with connecting with other people, with expressing an artistic intent through a medium. When the artistic intent just is connecting with people, the dynamic between artist and audience becomes slightly warped. Rather than finding that a certain song speaks to a certain person or group of people (like the oft-cited Mexican love for Morrissey), such an act preemptively claims an audience. And Gaga really casts a wide net with “Born This Way

She shouts out to everyone who’s ever felt regret and insecurity, young people, speakers of Italian, the poor, the rich, blacks, whites, beiges, cholas, Lebanese, and Orientials. Gaga calls for the disabled, the outcast, the teased. She offers succor to the LGBTQ community. On the one hand, Gaga’s inclusiveness is certainly broad and really quite progressive. On the other hand, she get’s kind of weirdly specific. She’s down with Lebanese folk, but what about Syrians? She’s fine with the re-appropriation of “chola,” but it’s unlikely she’d be comfortable using the n-word. The oddest turn of phrase may be referring to Asian people as “Orient made.” She’s not talking about carpets, right?

The point is the lyrics of “Born This Way” are simultaneously empowering and pretty wacky. But you’d expect that from a song written in 10 minutes. Philosophically, it’s interesting that Lady Gaga—of all people—champions a naturalistic interpretation of being. Since she’s known primarily for her wit and artifice, it’s an interesting stance of her’s that we’re all perfectly fine just the way we’re born. Her performance of the song at this year's Grammys featured her wearing artificial shoulder bones that jutted askance grotesquely. Surely she wasn't born that way.

In the end, “Born This Way” will be an undeniable hit. It takes an extremely progressive political stance, and it contains an allusive shout-out to various religious transgressors with its constant invocations of god (“capital H-I-M”). But like most pop songs, it seems to wilt a bit under more intense critical scrutiny. Though none of that will matter the next time you’re out at the club and “Born This Way” starts burbling through the speakers. You’ll grab your partner—no matter gay, straight, or bi—and hit the dance floor running.

Fuse February 15, 2011

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