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.