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Meaning

Elton John predicted that "Born This Way" would be the gay anthem for the new millennium, and he was almost right. He missed a few key points, though. The LGBT community has made a lot of headway in terms of visibility in the last couple decades, and they aren't necessarily looking for the sole, unifying, dance-club friendly front-woman Lady Gaga is sometimes perceived as. What's more, the umbrella of "LGBT" identity represents a wide, diverse swath of people whose musical and aesthetic tastes are not easily summed up by drag queens and disco references. Some gay people might have been looking for an anthem—but plenty are chomping at the bit to make it known that Lady Gaga does not, in fact, represent them ("Her songs are too disposable to be highbrow, and her public persona too self-important to be lowbrow or camp," wrote the Advocate, after calling her new single "the latest lump of sequined coal to fall from Stephanie Germanotta's meat diaper into our open ears." Ouch.)

On the other hand, John was right to predict that a lot of gays and lesbians were going to embrace the Gaga hit as their own. The song is an obvious shout-out to gay rights: whether or not anyone can be "born gay" is a topic of hot debate that is both political and scientific in nature. The argument says that if gays are "born this way," it should be okay to be gay because, well, it just can't be helped. And, as L.A. Times columnist Ann Powers cites, "This belief in a predetermined sexual orientation is most visible in the emerging conservatism in the gay rights movement" (the quote is from Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene by Robert Alan Brookey). The argument is perceived by some gay rights activists to be conservative because it continues to imply that homosexuality is a social ill—simply one that is innate, and thus deserving of a basic level of tolerance.

Interestingly, the ever-enigmatic Lady Gaga's own view of identity is actually a lot more complicated than the "born this way" argument she has associated herself with: "It's a process of living and it's also not ultimately a goal. It's something ever-changing. Something you can ignite at any moment. (…) My fashion is part of who I am, and though I was not born with these clothes on, I was born this way," she told Billboard in 2011. Gaga, in other words, believes in being "born this way," but she also believes in being born again, another way. Identity is as mutable as what outfit we choose to wear, something that constantly changes. What we are born with is something more elemental, not a sexual orientation so much as an essential self. Key in Gaga's self-proclaimed worldview is the idea that the self we are born with is mutable, changeable, and—this part is key to understanding Gaga-land—performable.

For example, asked about the differences between Stefanie Germanotta (her given name) and Lady Gaga, here's how she responded: "I don't create any separation between my birth name and my subsequent birth name--Lady Gaga. That's the point of what I'm trying to say. Gaga is not manufactured . . . it is not artificial. I wish I could give that gift to everyone on the planet—the ability for you to create an idea and perceive of something, whether it be a name or a vision for yourself, and just choose to become it. The world, and I base this on the music industry, is obsessed with artists and glamour and creativity and fashion. And artistry has become something that people believe is artificial. For myself, it is my reality. I exist at all times halfway 
between reality and fantasy. That's the way I was born."

In other words, when Lady Gaga goes all popping-out-of-the-egg on us, or when she births "a new race of humans" in the "Born This Way" music video, or when she shifts from high femininity to high androgyny in her performances, the point is not that she has some innate identity reflected in performance. Her only innate identity, she seems to say, is her ability to engage with and embody fantasy.

"The nexus of 'Born This Way' and the soul of the record reside in this idea that you were not necessarily born in one moment," Lady Gaga told Billboard. "You have your entire life to birth yourself into becoming the ultimate potential vision that you see for you. Who you are when you come out of your mother's womb is not necessarily who you will become. 'Born This Way' says your birth is not finite, your birth is infinite." That's the way she was born: as a performer with a mutable identity, a monster-lady, an outsider mutant. It has a very cool sound to it, no?

In addition to making identity into a neat performance shtick, though, Lady Gaga manages to align herself with the colorful recent history of feminism and gender theory. The feminism that came out of the 1990s went somewhere that previous feminist efforts had not fully gone: right into the middle of low-brow pop culture (read all about Beyoncé, the Spice Girls, and 1990s feminism here). The new wave of feminism, sometimes called "the third wave," had a more playful take on image, performance and identity—the idea that we are always performing gender was advanced (and widely adopted) in academic circles. Third wave feminism also rejected separatist arguments and pretty much anything that was perceived as trying to over-essentialize identity—for example, the idea that women can't be "girly" and be feminists at the same time, or the idea that we have to stick with the gender identity we were born into. "Third wave women are also determined to cast off the unflattering stereotype of feminists as dour, dogmatic man-haters who resent everything pretty, feminine and fun," writes one book review. "They flip the second wave mantra of 'the personal is political' on its head and play out a variation of feminism in which outspoken individualism is applauded as a form of radical resistance." If you've been paying attention to Lady Gaga lately, that description should sound a whole lot like what she is up to.

During the same 1990s-2000s time period, transgender, transsexual, and cross-dressing people began to make far more frequent appearances in the mainstream, becoming so well-known that by the time Lady Gaga made it big, she was broadly perceived as imitating a drag queen. By 2010, "gender-bending celebs" were positively celebrated by the likes of CNN.

Lady Gaga is a polarizing figure. Clearly, some hate her for embracing drag queens, transsexuals, gay men and gender-bending. Others are offended by her obvious irreverence, particularly with regard to Catholicism (the religion she was raised in). And there are the masses of people who hang on her every word, on Twitter and beyond. But another group, feminists and gay activists in their own right, just dislike the way she goes about waging her culture wars. "She is post-gender, hear her roar," writes music critic Ann Powers with more than a hint of sarcasm. Powers is troubled not by the fact that Gaga advocates for gay causes, and more by how the causes are framed: "'Born This Way' never hints that outsiders should remake the world in their image, instead invoking God and mommy to suggest that society's frameworks need not change, only open their doors a little wider. This is the same glass ceiling smasher's dream of liberation promoted on 'Glee' and through projects such as the It Gets Better Project; it's pragmatic and focused on personal epiphanies rather than sweeping social change." 

Ann Powers is absolutely right to sum up Lady Gaga's campaign as one that is driven by individuality. Her crusade is not so much to revolutionize society as to encourage society to accept "outsiders" into their fold—and to encourage outsiders to accept themselves. As she told Vogue, "I am the jester to the kingdom. I am the route out. I am the excuse to explore your identity. To be exactly who you are and to feel unafraid. To not judge yourself, to not hate yourself. Because, as funny as it is that I am on the cover of Vogue—and no one is laughing harder than I am—I was the girl in school who was most likely to walk down the hallway and get called a slut or a b---h or ugly or big nose or nerd or dyke."

Some criticize her for her support of gay rights causes; no one can criticize her for not supporting those causes. Unlike a lot of celebrities, she has the track record to back up the talk. She has gone public with speeches opposing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" laws and supporting gay marriage rights. In 2011, she made an exclusive deal with Target on a deluxe version of Born This Way, and then had to do some backtracking when she noticed that Target had been targeted not all too long ago for making political donations to anti-gay candidates. Less than a month after the issue arose, it was announced that Gaga had cancelled her exclusive deal with the company because she was disappointed with their response to repeated criticisms by gay rights groups and by Gaga herself. Target said they were "surprised and disappointed"; the Gaga camp basically just said, "see ya later."

The debate about what Lady Gaga stands for, what Lady Gaga is good for, and whether or not Lady Gaga is good at all is almost endlessly fun. But at the end of the day, Lady Gaga is pop star—a cool, wacky, controversial pop star who is really, really hated by those who hate her, and really, really loved by her fans. But a pop star nonetheless. Is "Born This Way" anything more than the pop hit of the moment for mid-2011? Does it represent a shift in thinking about issues of gay rights, identity, or feminism? Or is it just a well-executed single by a performer whose area of expertise is stealing the show?

Rolling Stone, for one, thought it could be all of the above, giving the single a glowing review: "…[Lady Gaga] takes on Britney, Rihanna, Katy, Ke$ha and the rest of the radio queens, pimping her we-are-all-superstars message with a voice that reminds everyone who got this party started in the first place. That's what makes 'Born This Way' sound so audacious and so amazing." And even Ann Powers had a word for the song's ability to be a frankly good pop song: "Mainstreaming diversity may be Gaga's favorite political cause, but it's something that music effortlessly accomplishes -- at least in the good old utopian space of the sweaty club."

What of the accusations that she ripped off the music and the feel of the song from Madonna's "Express Yourself"? Well, unfortunately for her detractors, Lady Gaga knows her roots, and gives credit where it's due: "Harkening back to the early '90s, when Madonna, En Vogue, Whitney Houston and TLC were making very empowering music for women and the gay community and all kind of disenfranchised communities, the lyrics and the melodies were very poignant and very gospel and very spiritual and I said, 'That's the kind of record I need to make.'" Love it or hate it, the woman hit the formula for a 2011 pop hit square on the head. Whether the impact of Gaga madness will last—well, that's a question for thirty years from now. For now, we'd recommend you just dance. The Gaga may not be going anywhere.
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