Was Gaga ‘Born This Way’?: The Problems with a Natural Argument

In case, you missed it, Lady Gaga released a new single last Friday, got inside a giant egg, and was hatched (born?) at the Grammys where she gave a lackluster performance (lackluster only by her own standards – no one was bled on, there were no flames, nothing was shattered, and there was a disappointing lack of men in women’s underwear or kilts) and kicked off the marketing campaign for her sophomore album.  The single “Born This Way” promises to soon be EVERYWHERE with its catchy, nineties dance beats and its clear homage to Madonna.  And apparently, there’s a backlash against it.  Backlash meaning the sort of digital media mimetic vertigo that’s become standard in this 24-hour entertainment news cycle we all feed on – bloggers/news outlets tell us there’s a backlash, we read, we respond, others mirror our response and if feeds a continued backlash. I predict that soon enough “Born This Way” will join Gaga’s other singles as one that’s imprinted on our brain alongside our PIN numbers and such.  The difference however, comes in the overt message of tolerance Gaga has chosen to tackle with a Whitmanesque laundry list of sexual and racial “others.”  (for some reason, I cannot embed the video but check this link for a fairly good vid of the Grammys performance)

“Born This Way” is exciting in the way that Barack Obama’s simple use of “lesbian and gay” in speeches is exciting – because even without doing anything, the song dares to actually speak the identity categories so many have fought so hard to get acknowledged.  Gaga sings:

No matter gay, straight or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to survive

The song’s message of survival, of being yourself, of being openly a member of the LGBT community is inspiring and will surely provide comfort for many that face a mainstream culture that remains uncertain about or cruelly turned against difference.  In the current glut of “be yourself” rock/pop spilling onto the radio, who else is saying “transgendered” and “bi”?  Katy Perry’s song “Fireworks” is a mere celebration of liberal individualism paired with a video that elaborates on that theme through representations of white people and only shows people of color in crowds or beating up a man in an alley.  Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” is a similar paean to being yourself and the video makes it clear that being yourself is principally concerned with being Ke$ha (there’s an excessive amount of medium shots of the singer) and buying the tequila that the vid is clearly advertising.  This is not to say that these songs, along with P!nk’s recent singles “Fuckin’ Perfect” and “Raise Your Glass” cannot function for listeners as anthemic performances of self as recognized in spite of hegemonic intolerance.  Rather, there’s a certain kind of frisson in hearing your self hailed by a song by a label you’ve chosen, one that you may have fought hard to understand.

Gaga has always been quite vocal about her support for LGBT folk, following Madonna in expressing an appreciation for the gay community’s support in the early days of her career and wading into current politics around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Zack Rosen’s vitriolic rip on Gaga over at the Advocate seems to want to crucify the singer for making a bad song, to chastise her for inconsistent politics (a deal with Target chief among the crimes), to rail against any notion of a coherent gay community (a fair argument) and indulge in lots and lots of homophobic barbs of his own.  I have a problem with someone that wants to decry the hegemonc fashioning of “gay culture” and writes sentences like:

That noise is one million gay men simultaneously vomiting up the kool-aid of arbitrarily prescribed cultural icons. And I don’t know why it took so long.

Because, see, it’s okay if gay men, like Rosen, bash each other, and make sweeping generalizations about queer folk – just not anyone else.  I don’t agree.

I agree with Rosen’s sadness that Gaga has reached pop ascendancy instead of more independent queer performers – he talks about Antony Hegarty – but her place in the pop cosmos does not preclude theirs, and her message would not reach as many people if she were not in bed with corporate America at least somewhat.  Cold hard facts of capitalism.  Not ones I support, and I will support the overthrow, but for the moment if “Born This Way” means viewers of the Grammys or radio listeners Google the lyrics and find out what “transgender” means, than isn’t that somewhat exciting?

“Born This Way” is not, however, just about sexual orientation/expression/desire.  Gaga’s politics get thornier in her shout-out to racial/ethnic difference:

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

Gaga’s invocation of “Orient” as a racial category seems outdated and racist, unless one follows Ann Powers’ suggestion over at the LA Times that this could be understood as a pun on the idea of “orientation,” a level of wordplay that follows the use of “drag queen” earlier in the verse.  The use of “Chola” has raised the ire of some Latin American/Chicano American organizations because of the term’s origins as a pejorative meaning “mutt” and its more recent use to describe Chicano girl/woman street gangs.  Racialicious discusses the conflicted meanings of the word and says for some organizations Gaga’s use is tantamount to employing the “N word” as shorthand for Latino/as, bringing back into the public eye a negative term that has fallen out of use.  This argument could also apply to the use of “Orient,” since not all listeners are going to be in on the pun.

Critics that argue “Born This Way” is a clear Madonna rip-off seem to misunderstand popular music as an arena for originality instead of an arena for songs we already know we like.  But also, it’s not as if Gaga’s career hasn’t been marked by a frequent reference to Madonna’s bag of tricks and songbook.  The younger singer’s engagement with communities of color similarly cribs from Madonna, and bell hooks’ discussion of Madonna’s use of blackness/otherness could as easily describe Gaga:

And indeed what some of us like about her is the way she deconstructs the myth of “natural” white girl beauty by exposing the extent to which it can be and is usually artificially constructed and maintained.  She mocks the conventional racist defined beauty ideal even as she rigorously strives to embody it.

Despite their deconstructive tactics, both artists remain white blondes in a white blondes world.  The difference, I think, comes from the extent to which Madonna has courted sexiness throughout her career, while Gaga’s aesthetic has increasingly sought to present her as an unnerving objet-de-art.  Gaga can always return to the safety of her whiteness and femininity, but in making herself a spectacle – wearing a meat dress, or a dress covered in Kermit the Frog, or neutral tone body suits – the singer has consistently tried to disavow her placement as a hegemonic sex object.  The next step in this progression can be seen in the prosthetic bones that Gaga wore in her Grammys performance giving her the appearance of horns on her shoulders and face.  Writing about Madonna, Steven Shaviro notes that her privileged status was never threatened by her appropriation of black musical forms and that her own transformation of identity was limited.  Shaviro writes:

Fashion is infinitely malleable, in a way that a sex-change operation, or a cyborg implantation, is not. These latter sorts of transformations of identity are irreparable: they penetrate the body in depth, and from them, there is no hope of return.

Gaga’s bony protrusions, also on the cover of her single, suggest her attempt to embody the type of transformation or becoming that Shaviro is describing.  Her birth from an egg is a rather obvious bid to be read as animalistic, non-human, or post-human.  In contrast to the other performers at the Grammys, mostly concerned with shoring up their performances of hegemonic femininity and masculinity, Gaga’s aesthetic and performance is fascinating.

The irony, here, however is that Gaga must re-cast her birth in order to present herself as “born this way” and to attempt a distancing from the identities that circulate around her celebrity – whiteness, femaleness, able-bodied, etc.  Her rebirth as a monster follows the themes of her previous album and EP, and her own anointing of her fans as little monsters.  “Just put your paws up,” Gaga sings in the opening of her song, “cause baby you were born this way.”  “Born This Way” hails listeners as similarly monstrous, but as Ann Powers argues the song attempts a streamlined version of difference – as in, we’re all monsters, we’re all different, we’re all unique, let’s all learn to live together.  Not that that’s a bad message, but the rhetoric of “naturalness” in being “born this way” is troubling.

In Love The Sin, their attack on religious conservatives and liberal tolerance, Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pelligrini have a chapter entitled “Not Born That Way.”  The authors believe that the “born this way” argument has “serious, even dangerous, limitations.”  Arguing that homosexuality is innate divorces action from identity and often leads to a world in which “it might be okay to be a homosexual, but it is not okay to act on homosexual desire” – gee, I’m sorry you’re gay, and I’m fine with it, and it’s gotta be rough but please don’t ever discuss your sex life, especially not in the military.  By the way, wanna see pictures of my wife and kids?  Jakobsen and Pelligrini also cautions against the alignment of sexual desire as natural with similar arguments about race and sex because historically the natural argument has been used as a weapon of domination.

Returning to Gaga’s song, it can be seen how the insights of Jakobsen and Pelligrini unsettle a song that argues “Ain’t no other way, Baby I was born this way” and “God makes no mistakes.”  As exciting as it may be for many listeners to here their personal desires described as innate and unchangeable, for many of us our identities are not static and will change throughout our lives.  Some of us may look back on our childhood and recast our actions as clearly presaging our gayness/queerness, but others may not see their lives as one long march towards an inevitable identity.  Race, gender, sexuality – these are all things that are experienced as very real fictions.  Gaga’s song writes them as fact but her own status as a celebrity – an inevitably incoherent collection of personality, image and performance – belies the inexplicability of a natural self.  A more queer understanding of “Born This Way” might understand it through theories of affect and gesture – as a song written for dancing, perhaps we might see Gaga’s pop confection, like most, as one to be experience momentarily and thus describing that fleeting moment of self that we can only grasp for a couple beats before there’s a dance breakdown.  In this way, it’s not about freezing us as gay, Lebanese, or monsters, but rather about dancing through that moment and in the relentless pursuit of becoming, one that the singer herself is chasing.

7 thoughts on “Was Gaga ‘Born This Way’?: The Problems with a Natural Argument

  1. brilliant post, as usual jbs.

    so i was thinking about your question on the effect of gaga simply talking about trasngender. and i’m not convinced that it is such a cool thing. first because most people won’t bother looking up the lyrics, and even if they do, that doesn’t mean they’ll be invested in transgender politics. lgbt are hailed in this song as liberal citizens, their queerness essentialized (and therefor de-queered) by their naming.

    which brings me to the second point. you also mention that this excitement we feel that pres. obama even acknowledges the existence of lgbt. but let’s not forget that both Obama and Gaga’s acknowledgment is predicated on co-opting a small segment of the lgbt community (mostly white, upper class gay men) into their own agendas. in the case of obama, inclusion of lgbt is based largely on their service to the American imperialist project in the form of DADT repeal. In the case of Gaga, “inclusion” comes at the price of commodification. In both cases, liberal citizenship comes at the price of violent exclusion.

    all that being said, i’m fascinated by the possibilities you find in your queer reading.

  2. This is really brilliant. This song was crying out for an academic analysis and you’ve really done it justice. xoo

  3. @ty, i agree that visibility does not necessarily equal education, tolerance, empathy, sympathy or an end to hatred/ignorance. hopefully i didn’t sound too utopic – you’re right, googling transgender or the lyrics to this song overall doesn’t bring about revolution. and i agree, inclusion in this song is about whitewashing difference into a singular category. BUT, i think this is the damned if you do, damned if you don’t nature of popular discourse – there is a different violence done by complete exclusion of anyone from the public sphere. when i spoke to the excitement of hearing “gay and lesbian” spoken by obama and gaga, i wasn’t speaking as a theorist, but as a person who identifies as a gay/queer man and was excited to finally be spoken to – even if the expense of that hailing was being co-opted into a limited liberal project. you’re right, the hegemonic mainstream media/popular discourse is not friendly to anyone that is not made in their ideal of liberal individuals (read: white, male, masculinist, upper class, etc) but i am uncomfortable with this meaning we cannot try and be recognized. as academics, i think we often skip the middle step between being ignored and being radically different and that’s what i see both figures providing – is it radical? by comparison to the homophobic discourses around it, yes. should it be better? obviously. just because the agendas of obama and gaga are commercial or invested in a liberal happiness doesn’t mean we must receive their messages in that manner. as radically queer individuals, we can still read deeper and hear other things, while being aware of their intentions.

    thanks for the kind words, ty and CON

  4. Yeah this is pretty awesome!

    In response to aataa, I would say that a lot of what pop culture is about is packaging the unique experiences of all sorts of groups into manageable morsels of consumption. The fact that now trans people might get to be in on this looks to me like a step forward. Hopefully the next step will be somewhat more substantiative, but as a start? I’ll take it.

    Apropos of very little, I’m amusedly reminded of the “rumors” that Lady Gaga was herself trans..

    Added: I just got around to listening to the song. Just in and of itself.. wow, it’s kinda lousy. We’ll see once I’ve heard it 9,000 times.

    Well econometrics has turned my brain to mush, quite clearly, so just to reiterate: thanks for this piece, J Brendan, I really enjoyed it.

  5. J. Brenden—nice piece. I really, really enjoyed it.

    I also find her rhetoric interesting: her choice of simply being natural, “born this way” is a loaded one (you explicitly hint at this noting that it can be “dangerous”). In history (and I believe other disciplines), scholars have tracked two central arguments for gaining greater equality/acceptance/rights in society. One relies on Gaga’s choice here: gay men, lesbians, and transgendered individuals are simply “born”, not made. It is a tempting choice of argument (and hardly only an argument to some—many undoubtedly believe this about themselves and others, gay and straight). It says to those who would oppress you, “It’s no use trying. You can’t change me.” But, therein lies the danger. Relying on biological essentialism is always iffy business. “Well,” a neo-Nazi might reply. “I have no interest in changing you.”

    Ultimately, her choice of cover art is strange. Making it appear that she has horns does not bode well for winning over conservative, especially evangelical, tolerance. Indeed, it equates being LGBTQ-ness with being monstrous (again, you hit this). This seems like not so much of a step forward.

    And, lastly (I can’t resist): “God makes no mistakes”? What the fuck is Gaga talking about?

  6. I agree PR, and I didn’t quote it at length in the post, but did note that “Jakobsen and Pelligrini also cautions against the alignment of sexual desire as natural with similar arguments about race and sex because historically the natural argument has been used as a weapon of domination.” In their book the authors go much deeper into the problems with this argument, and interestingly also address the notion of tolerance you bring up in considering Gaga’s alignment with monstrosity. J & P are equally vocal in their discomfort around notions of liberal tolerance. I think that Gaga is not courting a conservative audience in this move, and I think it’s perhaps among the more radical things she’s doing here.

    Her use of God is interesting because she says also “It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital HIM” thus aligning gay male love with love of God and possibly evangelical Christianity which could be quite humorous.

  7. Pingback: Girl Culture « Women's Studies 230: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Popular Culture

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