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Born This Way (And That Way, And That Way, Too)

Lady Gaga's On the Record With Fuse interview saw the artist being uncharacteristically clear about her artistic aims, which, all told, maybe makes making sense of Born This Way even harder. While Gaga's sophomore album isn't exactly Finnegans Wake, she’s just as fastidious as Joyce when it comes to the relationship between artistic self-interpretation and its self-expression.

While Gaga had much more to say about the ethical aspect of her album, she's a lot more talented at expressing herself aesthetically. Two interesting themes emerge about Born This Way. One is aesthetic, and the other is sort of moral.

As her interviewer, Touré, points out, Gaga's music seems to have taken a darker turn in her post-"Bad Romance" work. Gaga's latest album is accurately described by her as showcasing "dark and heavy sledgehammering beats," aping conventions of "stadium rock." Indeed, the highest points of Born This Waythreaten to blow out your speakers with layer upon layer of ducking bass hits, sawing synthesizers, and glam rock guitars. "Marry the Night" builds to an extremely satisfying crescendo of frenzied resolution; "Hair" comes in like a cheesy '80s yacht pop vehicle before throwing out all the stops (and schlock), fitting right in with the epic "fantasy techno rock" that Gaga set out to produce; and even a fairly silly song like "Yoü And I" fits right into the album's narrative thrust. By Born This Way's end, you feel as if you’ve woken from a dance-induced fugue state, wandering out into the early morning sun. It is an immensely satisfying pop album, from front to back.

But Born This Way is also a very moral (or political) album, which is where it kind of runs off the rails. While Gaga may actually be the self-described "warrior for pop music" she thinks she is, the culture war she's fighting is somewhat murky.

There is a tetchy moment in the Fuse interview where Touré points out that Gaga's latest mantra is "Born this way," but that she was not born as Lady Gaga. Rather, she has (in her own words, even) "self-created Gaga."

Gaga's reply is that, sure, if you want to get literal about it she wasn't "born this way," but her project is to challenge "what it means to be born." She posits that people can be reborn constantly, throughout their lives. But then, what’s the difference between being "self-created" versus being "reborn?"

It would seem that the difference between being a product of your own constantly evolving, highly-curious artifice versus constant rebirth is just a surprisingly naturalistic tendency on Gaga's part to privilege biology over art. Looked at less charitably, Gaga's use of "born this way" is her way of silencing all critics and any criticisms, whether or not they’re deserved.

Her moral philosophy comes off fairly childish, sometimes literally, as in "Bad Kids." The song starts out swinging: "We don't care what people say. / We know the truth. / Enough is enough with this horse shit. / I am not a freak. I was born with my freedom. / Don't tell me I'm less than my freedom." The song goes on to mention that the protagonist ruined her parents lives and caused them to divorce; that she doesn't know wrong from right; and that she doesn't give a damn when you're mad. Calling the singer a "bad kid" may be too charitable; she sounds like a sociopath. Her only redeeming quality (besides being "born free," whatever that means) is that her heart is pure. Of course, you'd never know she was pure hearted from the way she behaves.

Another song that smacks of childish histrionics is "Hair." 

A kid’s hair is a wonderful symbol for personal expression. “I am my hair” sounds like a timeless youth rebel rally crying. But the freedom to mess up your hair stops being liberating once you start to see real freedom and its absence: The gay-rights movement that Gaga champions, racial equality, social justice—these are the talking points surrounding Born This Way, and they’re decidedly underrepresented by the song “Hair.” People’s personal freedoms don’t get legislated against based on their hair, they don’t get fired or beaten for their hair. The weirdly childish symbolism of the song undercuts any sweeping statement the song tries to make about freedom.

The problem with Gaga’s privileging the natural authority of birth and rebirth is that it removes all choice and reason from moral thinking. A hatemonger can say just as easily as anyone else that he’s just “born this way.” The bad kid with the “pure heart” is indiscernible from the bad kid with a rotten heart—they’re both “born this way,” and it doesn’t seem like Gaga cares to judge anyone’s actions (unless they happen to be formally religious).

Perhaps because of the format—interview rather than song—her moral point overshadows the aesthetic one. When Gaga’s talking about her songwriting process, the music itself gets bogged down in her “born this way” rhetoric. 

She seems aware of her perhaps over-seriousness, though. 

In the midst of running down how Born This Way is meant to address a variety of social issues, Gaga says that “liberation through fun and through togetherness and through celebration of life is also part of what the record is about.”

Gaga masters “fun” and “celebration” in a way that few other performers can meet. We’ve seen a darker shift in pop music led by the likes of Ke$ha, whose songs focus on the apocalyptic and self-destructive aspects of the party. Even as they maintain a darker, sophisticated sound like her contemporaries, Gaga’s songs are sillier and more fun. Her music cuts to the most natural place in the human heart: a desire to move, an affinity for rhythm, the enjoyment of getting lost in a catchy melody. We were born this way.
Fuse May 24, 2011

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