By SAMUEL HUBER
February 20, 2011
If there’s anything Lady Gaga can unequivocally be said to have mastered, it’s the art of the grand entrance. At the 53rd Grammy Awards last week, Gaga was carried down the red carpet in a large, translucent egg by a small entourage of underdressed dancers. The egg reappeared later during the ceremony on stage, with Gaga emerging for a characteristically theatrical performance of her latest single, “Born This Way,” released online the Friday before. The song begins unexceptionally enough, but by the end of the first verse it’s clear that this is getting at something other than the vague, ambiguously controversial imagery we’ve come to expect from Gaga.
The chorus is as follows, and I include the whole thing because I’ll be returning to it often:
I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes,
I’m on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.
Don’t hide yourself in regret;
Just love yourself and you’re set.
I’m on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.
In the remaining few verses, Gaga proceeds to rattle off a list of all of the ways you could have been born (“No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life… / No matter black, white, or beige, / Chola or orient made…”), punctuated every so often by a reminder that these identifiers are innate, God-given, and inflexible (“Oh, there ain’t no other way; / Baby, I was born this way”).
The song’s deterministic message is both inaccurate and unwelcome—I don’t at all find it comforting to be told that an identity I had no hand in choosing is non-negotiable, even if there’s nothing wrong with it. The chorus implies an acceptance of the dangerously widespread notion that who you are is only ok if you really can’t help it, that the only reasonable justification for alternate sexualities is that they’re forced on you from birth. Queerness, in this light, is easily reduced to an aberrant but irremediable object of pity and denied the affirmative power of actually being wanted.
This is not to say that anyone actively chooses her identity any more than she is born with it; both explanations deny sexuality and gender their due complexity as products of highly local, historically rooted social systems and personal experiences. One is born into a body, but sexuality and gender only come into being through always-ongoing interactions with a larger social structure and the others who occupy it. I know Gaga believes herself to be making a positive political statement, but the implied apology of “I was born this way” has never been enough to carry a civil rights movement. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality won’t be won with a tepid “I was born this way” (even if incanted over a rousing club-friendly backtrack) but rather a confident “I am this way, I’m proud of it, and it’s more complex than you’ve yet to give it credit for.”
Despite the lingering issue of conflating racial, sexual, and gender identities, I’d object to this song less if it dropped the religious trimming and biological essentialism, if instead of “Born This Way” it were “Negotiated My Self-Conception Relative to an Existing Socio-Cultural Context and My Own Personal Judgments of and Reactions (Both Conscious and Unconscious) to That Context This Way”. It’s an absurd substitution, but maybe that’s because identity formation is too complicated and ambiguous a process to condense into a three-word hook. The song’s project is more ambitious than Gaga may have realized, and it’s all too possible that her well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt at justifying queerness is only making it harder to dislodge the misconceptions that the song unwittingly reinforces.
Gaga’s little monsters would probably accuse me of asking too much, casting “Born This Way” as an important gesture in the right direction. Or maybe they’d accuse me of thinking too much, because really, it’s only a pop song. But when this pop song will in all likelihood be heard by more people than was the President’s State of the Union Address last month, its message deserves deep and engaged consideration. I could go into established feminist and queer theory about performativity and constructivism, I could cite Butler and Foucault and Rubin, but I don’t think I need to. This isn’t an intellectual reservation about the validity of Gaga’s characterization of sexual identity; it’s an indignant refusal to accept being told who I am and how I should feel about it.
Musically speaking, “Born This Way” is probably one of Gaga’s best—pulsing, fun, varied, well produced, irresistibly danceable (and a little too heavily indebted to Madonna’s “Express Yourself”, but that’s a different essay). My objections to the song are purely lyrical, which makes it all the more insidious. I’d dance to it at a party; if the crowd were into it, I might even sing along. And it’s this image of a mass of sweaty college students euphorically chanting “God makes no mistakes” that gives me such pause. I never thought I’d say it, but it almost makes me miss “Just Dance.”
Samuel Huber is a sophomore at Yale College. He is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.