Snap Judgment: Lady Gaga, 'Born This Way'
In pop, liberation is often the linchpin in a marketing plan. Whether or not personal conviction compels an artist to tell stories that inspire listeners to strive toward greater compassion toward themselves and others, pop stars and their producers know that fan loyalty is most predictably earned by generating good times: A sad song usually gets its hooks into listeners one at a time, but with a party song, you can acquire the jumbo pack. The savviest crowd pleasers perfectly balance danceable music that sheds inhibitions like so many jackets thrown off on a dance floor with bearably pious lyrics that make getting down feel like a form of moral uplift.
Ladies and queens, Gaga gives you "Born This Way."
Notable not only because it's the first single from her upcoming album of the same title, but also as a statement of purpose for the monster-diva at this phase in her career, "Born This Way" is a freak anthem (one of the basic formations in Gaga's double playbook of dance music and classic rock) that directly connects to the most powerful trend in current liberation movements -- which doesn't necessarily point toward the joyful subversion of norms that Gaga seems to otherwise champion.
"This belief in a predetermined sexual orientation is most visible in the emerging conservatism in the gay rights movement," the communications professor Robert Alan Brookey has written, noting that "assimilationists attempt to show that homosexuals can embrace the same values they are supposed to threaten." Instead of embracing pacifism, gays and lesbians fight to participate in the military; the dream of building new, polymorphous versions of sex and family gives way to the fight to have a matching-tux or white-gown wedding.
Gaga's new song serves as the perfect expression of this bold mainstreaming of cultural outlaws. "Don't be a drag, just be a queen!" she chants in her fierce voice, pointing her fans away from the incendiary trickery of the flamboyant transvestite and toward a more feel-good form of individual celebration.
She imitates Madonna's deadpan rap from "Vogue," but where Madge's song celebrated the way Harlem drag artists (and stars like herself) made posing into a defensive warrior stance, Gaga offers a clever update on the Benneton ad concept of marketable variety -- "You're black, white, beige, chola descent, you're Lebanese, you're orient," she intones, her clever if odd list ending on a pun that invokes both "Orientalism" and "orientation." When Madonna recorded "Vogue" and "Express Yourself," which "Born This Way" also recalls, intense arguments about what shape liberation should take dominated liberal circles. Gaga's moment is different: "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. Gaga's clear embrace of this stance reinforces her status as the ideal rock star for a world struggling to center itself -- for all her flash and grotesquery, she means to be a steadying force, not a revolutionary.
Yet "Born This Way" does unsettle things through one reliable route: its production. Whether its sound comes too close to one or another Madonna song seems beside the point; what current pop hit doesn't go green by recycling something familiar? More intriguing is the unstable sonic base created by Gaga and her co-producers, Fernando Garibay and DJ White Shadow.
Though nowhere near as compelling as the work Gaga has done with RedOne, "Born This Way" throws a lot into its four minutes: a clacking hint of dubstep, the thump of Hi-NRG disco, a breakdown that borrows from the Latin dance floor that Garibay has previously visited with Enrique Iglesias. 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.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Lady Gaga at the 2010 Grammys. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times