When “Born This Way” emerged five months ago, beloved Internet personality Dave Holmes wrote a wonderful piece comparing the song to a garish portrait of his mother painted by a crazy uncle.
Thing was, we loved Uncle Freddy, and he did tend to drop by from time to time. So this big, dumb thing we didn’t ask for was going to have to be hung in our home.
“Well,” my Dad sighed. “This is ours now.”
That is exactly how I feel this morning, as a gay man, about “Born This Way.”
It was how I felt myself: “It is somewhat difficult to enjoy Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way,’” I wrote, ‘knowing that I am destined to hear it at every gay bar I go to, ever, for the rest of my club-going life.’
So far this prophecy has proven true: rare is the night out in the Castro, or anywhere, really, where “Born This Way” or one of its many remixes does not come blaring out of the speakers at least once. I was prepared to hate this fact of life, owing to a nagging suspicion that Lady Gaga’s wholehearted embrace of the gays was as much a marketing calculation as it was a human rights campaign. It followed too naturally from what Rich Juzwiak, who is right about everything, called “The Great Gay Pander-Off of 2010.” Nitsuh Abebe, pivoting from Rich’s argument, wondered whether gay rights hadn’t become an empty signifier:
“[A]t some point we might all start using gay men as simple totems or avatars for whatever little personal struggles we go through, right down to the point where some horrible egomaniac on a reality-TV show starts talking about having been born that way. This is a weird amount of pop songs in which, to put it really bluntly, white women point to gay men to explain to all of us how to survive. Not bad, just weird. Because all of these songs get to look like they’re giving something to a community they’re really taking something from.”
As it turns out, the best place to test these hypotheses was not the Internet but the club — and at the club all our tortured hand-wringing about Gaga and the gays comes to feel useless. In the months since “Born This Way” emerged I have seen countless gays, of all ages, dancing to this song with wild abandon — while shouting the lyrics at the top of their lungs, their faces straining from the effort. However fond our community may be of irony, “Born This Way” is a song that we find ourselves taking unexpectedly seriously.
And why not? At its root “Born This Way” conveys the kind of maternal love that queer people risk losing when they come out. Gaga’s mother, teaching her how to apply lipstick, says the words we all waited to hear from the moment we realized we were different: “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are, she said, / Because he made you perfect, babe.” It’s a platitude that, given the political environment, feels unexpectedly radical. The more I hear Gaga run down her litany of the oppressed — blackwhite beige chola-descent! — the more I think to myself, Fuck yes.
To Nitsuh the whole business reeked of flimflam: “The greatest trick Lady Gaga has pulled — the thing that makes her a genuinely impressive pop star — is creating an atmosphere where people can legitimately feel like revolutionary all-embracing gender-queering ‘little monsters’ by listening to one of the most popular artists in the country.” And this is true, so far as it goes. But it is also true that there is an actual community of gender queers, one that has been historically underserved by the most popular artists in the country, and here in “Born This Way” they have a world-beating banger that ranks with the best pop anthems.
Fame can diminish art, just as it can diminish an artist. It is often said that Dickens didn’t begin to get the respect he deserved until after the stink of popularity faded from his work. “Born This Way” arrived with great expectations that, initially, it seemed to fall short of. But every night on the dance floor, its value is revealed. Unlike the little monsters Gaga cultivates, her biggest hit was not born a superstar. In time, though, it has become one.