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 khổng lồ 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 menu outside of “straight.”
How many other pop songs could vì a job lượt thích this? How many songs let listeners make a statement, understandable khổng lồ just about everyone, by simply singing along? A fritzing and fidgeting masterpiece of disco didacticism, “Born This Way” seems to lớn 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 clip 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 tuy vậy itself salutes not just the LGBTQ community, but also people of various skin colors, nationalities, & abilities, plus “subway kid
” and “the insecure.”
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“Born This Way” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011, stayed in that spot for six weeks, và then never really left the cultural consciousness. It became the title of Gaga’s best-selling second album & the name of her mental-health nonprofit, which is still active today. It rang out at unlikely venues: Alice Cooper shows, country-music performances, & the 2017 Super Bowl, with Mike Pence in attendance. Today, the single still loops in grocery stores & at socially distanced drag shows. “I want to lớn 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 khổng lồ mention Gaga’s invitation to sing at Joe Biden’s inclusion-themed inauguration—would seem khổng lồ suggest that legacy is secure.
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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 & censors in Malaysia, the loudest knocks on the tuy nhiên 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 tuy vậy “Express Yourself,” which in turn invited conversation about how many other classic songs “Born This Way” borrowed from. Asian American & Latino commenters understandably took issue with Gaga’s lyrical use of the words Orient & chola. Many queer pundits generally found the song too presumptuous, too pandering, & too simplistic. “The Lady Gaga Backlash Begins,” said the headline to lớn a 2011 Guardian piece that noted “the heavy-handed way that the tuy vậy assumed stewardship of an entire portion of humanity.” It was one of many similarly titled articles reporting grumbles from onetime Gaga devotees.
The tuy nhiên survived such criticism, but the skepticism didn’t quite end. Rather, the skirmishes around “Born This Way” phối the table for a decade of arguing about representation, empowerment, & 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 thanh lịch about proved to lớn 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 lớn books of Andy Warhol’s writings—Gaga knew that, historically, the most devoted audience for female-led buổi tiệc nhỏ pop has been found on queer dance floors. The reasons for that are numerous. Divas such as Cher, Donna Summer, và Madonna show how you don’t need khổng lồ play by traditional gender roles to lớn attain dominance in a male-dominated world. They sing songs of independence, survival, and forbidden love. Their ecstatic melodies và rhythms liven up spaces where someone might go lớn pursue stigmatized desires. By showing up at Fire Island with a light-up prop she called her “disco stick” & singing about “Boys, Boys, Boys,” Gaga positioned herself in this tradition from the start.
Unlike many of her predecessors, though, Gaga spoke to lớn 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 khổng lồ destabilize gender too. While other divas shellacked themselves into paragons of feminine glamour, Gaga’s grotesque fashions seemed khổng lồ satirize the idea of the socialite, the model, và 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 & obnoxious speculation, Gaga made sport of it. “I vị 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” & “Alejandro.” But she still needed lớn tackle the much-feared test of longevity facing new stars: the sophomore full-length album. For this, she would go lighter, brighter, & make all her subtext into text. Lớn record the tuy nhiên “Born This Way,” Gaga turned to producers—Fernando Garibay, Jeppe Laursen, DJ trắng Shadow—who were conversant in both disco history & the new EDM sound that was trending at the time. Lyrically, she sought to lớn make as clear a statement as possible. “I want lớn write my this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem, but I don’t want it to be hidden in poetic wizardry và metaphors,” she told Billboard. “I want it to lớn be an attack, an assault on the issue, because I think, especially in today’s music, everything gets kind of washy sometimes và 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 khổng lồ change. Barack Obama’s first years in office saw Beyoncé, Kesha, Katy Perry, và other peers of Gaga’s make feminist messages a de rigueur subject on top 40 radio. The emergence of Kendrick Lamar—who spoke to lớn the grievances underlying the nascent đen Lives Matter movement—marked a renewed period of forthright political engagement in commercial hip-hop. MTV created a new award, Best clip With a Message, in 2011, and “Born This Way” won it.
Really, though, Gaga’s tuy vậy reached back in time as much as it looked forward. The track drew from the 1970s Motown tuy vậy “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 và you criticize ’cause I’m happy, carefree & gay / Yes, I’m gay.” Talk about a this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem, right? In a năm 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, và 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, & there was a huge dislike for the war in Vietnam. You started khổng lồ hear, little by little, messages that spoke to lớn 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 và 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 lớn her being bullied in high school, she generally worked lớn 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 khổng lồ the über-generic. A litany of identity groups—not only the L’s, G’s, B’s, và 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 lớn defy the male gaze. “Hair,” a glorious hybrid of Abba & 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 lớn another. This sense of can-do possibility, fortified by the solidity of Gaga’s voice và the hammering of her beats, still gives Born This Way a claim khổng lồ being the best pop album of the 2010s.
Even so, Gaga’s fanatical devotion lớn her own cause led to overreach. “Dear monsters, let your identity be your religion,” she wrote to lớn her fans in a newspaper editorial, và if this was lớn 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 lớn speak for all of mankind’s misfits? Was it not a bit dicey for a trắng woman to lớn position herself as a messiah who could stitch all of human difference into one class? Her blithe use of terms such as Orient, chola, & 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 khổng lồ 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 và 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 & again, whether you look khổng lồ 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 & accumulate—has pushed back against supposedly color-blind liberalism. Heightened scrutiny of cultural appropriation would ding Gaga today for the Mariachi hóa trang of “Americano.” The emboldened left would question Gaga’s portrayal of marginalization as a mindset rather than a material condition.
You can look to lớn other instances of trắng 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 lớn 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 khổng lồ the plights of gay people, Africans, Muslims, Israelis, Native Americans, and rape victims. She’s lucky the song wasn’t catchy enough khổng lồ spark controversy.
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Message music still abounds, but what’s changed in the past 10 years is a swerve back from generalized sloganeering to lớn 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 lớn the United Kingdom. Gaga, too, has stepped back from the gauzy & universal to lớn write more specifically about her own place in society. Her năm 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 & has also described herself as an LGBTQ “ally.”)*
Yet as Siwa’s “Born This Way” đoạn phim demonstrates, plenty of people still find use in messianic acceptance-pop delivered with preposterous zeal. For another example, you might even look to lớn 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 nhà trắng with shopworn rainbow-coalition messaging about unity, unity, unity. Ever since the hopey-changey era of Born This Way, right- & 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.