I’ve been known – much to the chagrin of many of my Little Monster friends – to handily and mercilessly knock Lady Gaga at every whim. Perusing online, I’ve come across countless times my exaggerated disgust for her machinations resulted in comments curious of her longevity. Well, something funny happened during the course of 2010. No, my opinion of her music wasn’t altered much, but my respect for Lady Gaga – as a woman and public figure – took a turn. And, believe it or not, I have Oprah Winfrey to thank for that.
Previously avoiding all print/online/TV things Gaga (I mean, after all, there was nothing this attention whore could possibly invoke that would negate my aversion), I admittedly watched with prejudiced curiosity. What happened was something I didn’t expect. Here was arguably the most popular entertainer on earth – the most talked about, the most controversial, simultaneously the most maligned and worshiped since the heyday of Madonna’s hierarchy, and there didn’t seem to be a haughty bone in her body. Rarely have I witnessed such humility, such earthiness (I know!), such devotion to fans from a pop star of Gaga’s uber-popularity. For all the comparison hubbub, here was the antithesis of Madonna.
It was almost an epiphany. Was I allowing my distaste for her glaring attention-seeking shenanigans (and ersatz first few singles) to miss the abutment of performance art and commerce, from a tough New York cookie with a heart of gold? Sure, such combinations aren’t that new. Madonna – minus the heart of gold, natch – explored the art/commerce agenda brilliantly since her “Like A Virgin” performance at the VMAs over two decades ago (most unsuccessfully – in idea and ideal, anyway – during her EROTICA/SEX/BODY OF EVIDENCE debacle). Purely as an entity, I wanna hang out in the East Village with Gaga, smoke some pot, and throw back a few whiskey sours. And I’ve never smoked pot and loathe whiskey. The Power Of Gaga! (Of course, such brazen tangibility just might be a small ingredient in Gaga’s world domination brew…)
One should always let the music speak for itself, of course, and not be deterred one way or the other from outside sources, so I thought, in light of my ‘a-ha!’ Oprah/Gaga moment, that it was my duty to spelunk her debut with a different, less prejudiced mindset.
THE FAME still felt sonically antiquated, overstuffed; a dance neophyte who had yet to pass the audition. True, THE FAME MONSTER (a sorta addendum to THE FAME, and actually released around the world as a ‘deluxe’ edition) proved an infinitely hookier, more psycho-sexualized transgression. That it includes a song for the ages, “Bad Romance” didn’t hurt. But I just couldn’t get over the feeling that I was being (musically, anyway) conned.
Remember, Miss Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta wasn’t born Lady Gaga. She started her career as another whiny piano-playing singer/songwriter (never had enough of those in the late 90s early aughts, huh?) playing the night club circuit who, when she got nowhere fast because she sounded like every other angsty girl-with-a-piano, decided to write chintzy dance pop songs we’ve heard a thousand times before, only juxtaposing her aesthete was a concoction of cult figures, myriads and icons alike. There was more than a mere dash of Dale Bozzio, more than a smidgen of Grace Jones, more than a measly modicum of Leigh Bowery. All gelled together, with a heaping dose of the Material Girl thrown in, she sought to conquer what she most desired – fame – and became victor.
Yeah, yeah, I know – since time immemorial, Rock ‘N Roll’s been populated with “borrowed” musicality. You can hear the history of Muddy Waters in Led Zeppelin’s whole catalogue; you can feel the ectoplasm of early archetypes like Waters, Bo Diddly, Little Richards, etc. throughout the Rolling Stones’ classic canon. The sounds of gay, urban, black 70s era R&B and disco saturates the bloodline of Madonna’s 20+ year chartulary. There are shades of music history’s past in every present.
But there’s a fine line between “shades of” and “blatant”. “Born This Way” is such an elaborate – maybe intentional? – “Express Yourself” sound-alike that I half expect Gaga to move to England and acquire a phony, uncomfortable English accent! Forget melody (too obvious) – even the chord progression is too close for comfort. And, to my ears, there are more that a few tints of TLCs “Waterfalls” in the verse cadence. When, on release day, I posted on Facebook (and on YouTube) that perhaps it should be renamed “Express Waterfalls”, Gaga’s army went on the attack. That I wasn’t the only one who heard echoes of T-Boz, Chili and Left Eye was little consolation…though I do thank you, YouTube stranger, for this:
Even though he’s using the wrong section of “EY” (it should be the bridge), am I wrong to think Madonna and TLC should reap in royalties?
These accusations aren’t new to Gaga, of course. It was almost a year ago that Gaga faced similar accusations when her controversial video and single for “Alejandro” was released. The song’s/video’s overt similarities (in sound) to Ace of Bace’s “Don’t Turn Around” and (in vision) Madonna (again) were palpable and evident and the blogosphere couldn’t get enough. Every icon has his/her “haters”, true. Gaga’s haters hated, and her minions steadfastly stood by their queen.
One might surmise, not incorrectly, that the “Born This Way” (or “Express Yourself”, for that matter) theme of self-empowerment isn’t exclusive to the LGBT community. Absolutely. But given Gaga’s historical gay alignment, one can’t argue that “gay rights” is at the core – and the genesis – of its central theme (and none of these latest attacks/accusations negates its Hi-NRG exuberance or its surefire gay anthem aesthetics; the clubs will be thud-thud-thudding this along for months to come, straight into and beyond this summer’s gay pride festivities). Its imminent status in the gay rights movement is almost a given.
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way
No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to be brave
Hey, no one’s ever accused Gaga of a poetic hierarchy, as these lyrics hammer-point home. But, while her choice of vernacular and syntax might be confounding (her use of the word “orient” is causing some minor controversy), rarely – probably never – in the history of pop music has someone of her mega-status been so forthright, so adamant, so positive, so universal in a pro-gay (read: human) rights stance.
I won’t proclaim absolute conversion just yet (and as a 45 year old, it would be – or should be – an embarrassment to call myself a “little monster”), but as homogeneous guilty pleasure, it’s hook-laden and damned catchy. More importantly, though, if “Born This Way” influences one disillusioned youngster – downtrodden by the darkest forces and most vile animosity from so-called humanity, terrified of the world that refuses to accept their innateness – if it breaks free the shackles of suicide as a pain-ending finale – then let it ring from the mountain tops and across the globe.
If ever a musical were created on the concept of Dan Savage’s important and groundbreaking It Gets Better project, “Born This Way” should not only be it’s theme song, but it’s mantra.