The Lady Gaga Anthem That Previewed a Decade of Culture Wars
Released 10 years ago, “Born This Way” made unity sound defiant.
Updated at 5:45 p.m. on February 11, 2021.
The social-media celebrity JoJo Siwa has built an empire by dressing in sparkly rainbow outfits while chattering about individuality and self-acceptance. But when she wanted the world to know that she was queer, she let Lady Gaga do the talking. In a TikTok last month, the 17-year-old Siwa filmed herself grinning and lip-synching to Gaga’s 2011 hit “Born This Way.” In the comments section, fans immediately began congratulating Siwa for coming out. “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track, baby,” Gaga sings—and Siwa, her later posts confirmed, was announcing herself as being somewhere on that list outside of “straight.”
How many other pop songs could do a job like this? How many songs let listeners make a statement, understandable to just about everyone, by simply singing along? A fritzing and fidgeting masterpiece of disco didacticism, “Born This Way” seems to have fulfilled the outrageous ambitions Gaga signaled when she released it 10 years ago this month. She promoted the debut single off her second album by wearing prosthetic cheekbones and hatching from an egg at the Grammys. A seven-minute music video packed with ab-flashing extraterrestrial dancers began with the recitation of “The Manifesto of Mother Monster,” which touts “the beginning of the new race … a race which bears no prejudice.” The song itself salutes not just the LGBTQ community, but also people of various skin colors, nationalities, and abilities, plus “subway kid[s]” and “the insecure.”
“Born This Way” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011, stayed in that spot for six weeks, and then never really left the cultural consciousness. It became the title of Gaga’s best-selling second album and the name of her mental-health nonprofit, which is still active today. It rang out at unlikely venues: Alice Cooper shows, country-music performances, and the 2017 Super Bowl, with Mike Pence in attendance. Today, the single still loops in grocery stores and at socially distanced drag shows. “I want to be remembered for the message behind ‘Born This Way,’” Gaga said in a 2018 Vogue interview when asked about her desired legacy. “I would like to be remembered for believing that people are equal.” Incidents such as Siwa’s coming out—not to mention Gaga’s invitation to sing at Joe Biden’s inclusion-themed inauguration—would seem to suggest that legacy is secure.
Yet at the time of the song’s release, the staying power of “Born This Way” wouldn’t have been taken for granted: Controversy and dismissal swarmed from the start. Gaga’s lyrics about gay acceptance of course invited homophobic outrage, but outside of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church and censors in Malaysia, the loudest knocks on the song didn’t come from conservatives. Rather, the left-leaning pop culture that Gaga had thrived in began to roil. Madonna mocked “Born This Way” for sounding like her song “Express Yourself,” which in turn invited conversation about how many other classic songs “Born This Way” borrowed from. Asian American and Latino commenters understandably took issue with Gaga’s lyrical use of the words Orient and chola. Many queer pundits generally found the song too presumptuous, too pandering, and too simplistic. “The Lady Gaga Backlash Begins,” said the headline to a 2011 Guardian piece that noted “the heavy-handed way that the song assumed stewardship of an entire portion of humanity.” It was one of many similarly titled articles reporting grumbles from onetime Gaga devotees.
The song survived such criticism, but the skepticism didn’t quite end. Rather, the skirmishes around “Born This Way” set the table for a decade of arguing about representation, empowerment, and identity across American culture. After “Born This Way,” queerness became more visible than ever, but its mass ambassadors—whether RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run, or Taylor Swift’s Pride anthem—faced potent criticism about the limits of visibility as a goal in itself.
With all the subtlety of a confetti cannon, Gaga had attacked the notion that pushing a social agenda prevents having a mass audience. But the coalition she sang about proved to be fragile—if it ever really existed at all.
When the 20-year-old NYU dropout Stefani Germanotta took on the name Lady Gaga around 2007, some of the early, pivotal gigs she booked were at gay clubs. This move was, among other things, smart. As a student of pop culture—she had taken a highlighter to books of Andy Warhol’s writings—Gaga knew that, historically, the most devoted audience for female-led party pop has been found on queer dance floors. The reasons for that are numerous. Divas such as Cher, Donna Summer, and Madonna show how you don’t need to play by traditional gender roles to attain dominance in a male-dominated world. They sing songs of independence, survival, and forbidden love. Their ecstatic melodies and rhythms liven up spaces where someone might go to pursue stigmatized desires. By showing up at Fire Island with a light-up prop she called her “disco stick” and singing about “Boys, Boys, Boys,” Gaga positioned herself in this tradition from the start.
Unlike many of her predecessors, though, Gaga spoke to the LGBTQ community as one of its members. She told interviewers that her 2008 hit “Poker Face” was about masking her own same-sex desire, and in a 2009 Rolling Stone cover story she identified as bisexual. In clear ways, she set out to destabilize gender too. While other divas shellacked themselves into paragons of feminine glamour, Gaga’s grotesque fashions seemed to satirize the idea of the socialite, the model, and the doll. A rumor took hold online alleging that Gaga was actually a man in drag, or maybe a woman with a penis. Rather than seem offended by the plainly transphobic and obnoxious speculation, Gaga made sport of it. “I do have a really big donkey dick,” she told an interviewer when asked about the matter. Her bracing 2010 speech calling for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell demonstrated Gaga pairing her aesthetics with activism.
Gaga’s 2009 EP The Fame Monster added leather-goth angst to her sparkly brew, resulting in smashes such as “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro.” But she still needed to tackle the much-feared test of longevity facing new stars: the sophomore full-length album. For this, she would go lighter, brighter, and make all her subtext into text. To record the song “Born This Way,” Gaga turned to producers—Fernando Garibay, Jeppe Laursen, DJ White Shadow—who were conversant in both disco history and the new EDM sound that was trending at the time. Lyrically, she sought to make as clear a statement as possible. “I want to write my this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem, but I don’t want it to be hidden in poetic wizardry and metaphors,” she told Billboard. “I want it to be an attack, an assault on the issue, because I think, especially in today’s music, everything gets kind of washy sometimes and the message gets hidden in the lyrical play.”
Indeed, outside of Chistina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” scattered Black Eyed Peas tracks, and Kanye West’s provocations, the 21st century’s first decade was not a banner time for social conscientiousness in pop music. But as the always online, famously idealistic Millennial generation came of age, the tides began to change. Barack Obama’s first years in office saw Beyoncé, Kesha, Katy Perry, and other peers of Gaga’s make feminist messages a de rigueur subject on Top 40 radio. The emergence of Kendrick Lamar—who spoke to the grievances underlying the nascent Black Lives Matter movement—marked a renewed period of forthright political engagement in commercial hip-hop. MTV created a new award, Best Video With a Message, in 2011, and “Born This Way” won it.
Really, though, Gaga’s song reached back in time as much as it looked forward. The track drew from the 1970s Motown song “I Was Born This Way,” which was popularized by the openly gay singer Carl Bean. Its first lines go: “I’m walking through life in nature’s disguise / You laugh at me and you criticize ’cause I’m happy, carefree and gay / Yes, I’m gay.” Talk about a this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem, right? In a 2016 Vice interview, Bean explained how his openness was—maybe counterintuitively, given how much gay rights have progressed since then—of its era:
At the time, what the disc jockeys coined as “message music” was pretty big, and that’s what I wanted to do. Message music came out in the late ’60s, and it caught on with the young folk at the time. We were in the middle of the civil-rights movement, women were staging sit-ins, and there was a huge dislike for the war in Vietnam. You started to hear, little by little, messages that spoke to what people were dealing with everyday—what people were feeling … Whether you’re in the club or wherever, you were hearing about the times.
Message music never fully died out; Gaga was also inspired by the early-’90s period of TLC and En Vogue singing of empowerment and safe sex. What’s notable is how these obvious predecessors for “Born This Way” were created by Black people speaking clearly from their own individual experiences.
Gaga’s approach was not so autobiographical. Though she often said that her self-love lyrics were a response to her being bullied in high school, she generally worked to keep her personal identity obscured in the public eye. So while her single opens with a first-person vignette—“My mama told me when I was young / We are all born superstars”—it soon spirals out to the über-generic. A litany of identity groups—not only the L’s, G’s, B’s, and T’s, but also the “black, white, beige,” the “outcast, bullied, or teased,” the “broke or evergreen”—all get the same advice: “Rejoice and love yourself today.” Gaga, whipping between R&B-inflected exuberance and Beat-poet deadpan, embraces the comedy inherent in the song’s encyclopedic nature. One passage is in Italian; another directs, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.”
When the album Born This Way arrived in May 2011, it continued her work of asserting common cause between every conceivable type of marginalized person. With shivers of Latin guitar, “Americano” relays the story of a bilingual lesbian marriage threatened by American immigration policy. The rave sirens of “Scheiße” rally “blond high-heel feminists” to defy the male gaze. “Hair,” a glorious hybrid of Abba and Bruce Springsteen, rages against coiffure-related persecution. In linking the tackiest genres of all time—spandex metal, German techno, gospel pop—for one dizzying, anthemic journey, Born This Way’s sound reflects the wacky sprawl of its subject matter. On highlights such as “Judas,” the seams between genres aren’t hidden, but rather celebrated: You get a tingle whenever one mode of bombast switches to another. This sense of can-do possibility, fortified by the solidity of Gaga’s voice and the hammering of her beats, still gives Born This Way a claim to being the best pop album of the 2010s.
Even so, Gaga’s fanatical devotion to her own cause led to overreach. “Dear monsters, let your identity be your religion,” she wrote to her fans in a newspaper editorial, and if this was to be the birth of a new faith, it’s clear who would be treated as a god, or at least as a prophet. Did Gaga have a right to speak for all of mankind’s misfits? Was it not a bit dicey for a white woman to position herself as a messiah who could stitch all of human difference into one class? Her blithe use of terms such as Orient, chola, and transgendered (rather than transgender) certainly demonstrated the dangers of doing so. When an interviewer asked her about “Born This Way” allegedly ripping off Madonna, Gaga used another slur to describe her critics: retarded. She quickly apologized, but the gaffe still felt telling. Evidence was piling up of how easily a fearless belief in self, especially when held by the powerful and privileged, could bleed into insensitivity.
The past decade has provided plenty more examples of that dynamic. The language of oppression, self-acceptance, and individuality has been misused time and again, whether you look to Rachel Dolezal or wellness bloggers embracing QAnon. Progressive culture’s internal tiffs have largely centered on the fear of such hijackings. Intersectionality—a framework showing how different forms of oppression overlap and accumulate—has pushed back against supposedly color-blind liberalism. Heightened scrutiny of cultural appropriation would ding Gaga today for the Mariachi cosplay of “Americano.” The emboldened left would question Gaga’s portrayal of marginalization as a mindset rather than a material condition.
You can look to other instances of white divas singing would-be savior songs in recent years for signs of how times have changed. Taylor Swift’s 2019 queer-pride anthem, “You Need to Calm Down,” still feels tinged with awkwardness for the way it equates virulent homophobes with the mere haters of Swift’s music. Katy Perry drew more skepticism than applause from queer audiences for employing drag queens in the promotion for her 2017 album, Witness. Madonna’s 2019 track “Killers Who Are Partying” presents the Queen of Pop as relevant to the plights of gay people, Africans, Muslims, Israelis, Native Americans, and rape victims. She’s lucky the song wasn’t catchy enough to spark controversy.
Message music still abounds, but what’s changed in the past 10 years is a swerve back from generalized sloganeering to personal testifying. Lizzo’s inspirational performances explicitly channel her experiences as a Black fat woman who plays the flute. Troye Sivan is a gay man singing about gay love. One disciple of Gaga’s, the up-and-coming singer Rina Sawayama, makes bombastic pop that’s grounded in her experiences as a Japanese immigrant to the United Kingdom. Gaga, too, has stepped back from the gauzy and universal to write more specifically about her own place in society. Her 2016 album, Joanne, centers on family history. Last year’s addictively fun Chromatica nods toward Born This Way’s themes by portraying a sci-fi dimension of love and harmony—but the album’s main lyrical preoccupations are Gaga’s own struggles with trauma and pain. (She still identifies as bisexual and has also described herself as an LGBTQ “ally.”)*
Yet as Siwa’s “Born This Way” video demonstrates, plenty of people still find use in messianic acceptance-pop delivered with preposterous zeal. For another example, you might even look to Gaga’s wonderfully hammy rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Biden’s inauguration (best theater-kid moment: Gaga squints and looks around for “the ramparts we watched”). Amid a pageant of ROYGBIV fashions, Gaga helped fete a leader who won the White House with shopworn rainbow-coalition messaging about unity, unity, unity. Ever since the hopey-changey era of Born This Way, right- and left-wing voices alike have become more persuasive at questioning the dogma of togetherness—especially when that dogma is preached by famous people interested in accumulating power. But it would be a dreary day if we couldn’t still take some joy from Gaga’s central argument that we are all born superstars.
* This article has been updated to clarify that Lady Gaga still identifies as bisexual.