Born This Way: a retrospective

12 Sep

I used to fucking hate Born This Way (the song; the album is fantastic). I remember feeling so let down when it was first released: the cheesy chord progressions, the all-too-obvious attempt at being an anthem, the outmoded and problematic gender politics, the even more problematic ethnic references. I thought it was patronising, hackneyed, and useless. I couldn’t understand how Gaga could have gone from Telephone to this.

But I have (almost) totally changed my mind, much like I did about Lady Gaga herself because, of course, it took me until The Fame Monster to shake the conviction that she was an attention-seeking dilettante with nothing meaningful to offer and certainly no pop sensibility (I am often wrong, but never in doubt). Make no mistake: I still think that the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, and I will never believe that ‘no matter black, white, or beige/chola or orient made’ is anything other than horribly misguided, imperialist guff that I would be surprised to hear coming from Boris Johnson and that should never, ever receive airplay; it is partly for this reason (and also because it’s far more musically interesting) that I wildly prefer the Jost & Naaf remix. I don’t want to prioritise a mode of liberation that is fundamentally geared against benefiting anyone who is not white, and I understand that a part of what makes me feel entitled to write this piece is my whiteness (and my middle classness).  That said, I believe that the way Lady Gaga has used her cultural capital to further acceptance of (some people’s) alternative sexual and gender identities is worth acknowledging, in the hope that it will pave the way for less problematic attempts in the future.

It’s been said before, but I genuinely believe that Lady Gaga has successfully pulled the wool over many people’s eyes. When she first emerged, there was little to distinguish her from the ten-a-penny Ke$ha types whom I also didn’t like (although Ke$ha didn’t release her first single until a year after The Fame was released I still think she works as a comparison. Needless to say, I also like Ke$ha now). The Paparazzi video was the first that caught my attention as being interesting and weird, but our induction into the fuller extent of Gaga’s uniqueness has been a slow, if not entirely steady, one. Sure, she appeared at the 2010 VMAs in a meat dress – but, to my mind, that is in no way as culturally challenging as spending the entire 2011 VMAs in character as her drag alter-ego, Jo Calderone.

I mean, come on. Who the fuck gets away with turning up at one of the most samey awards ceremonies I have ever seen dressed as “the opposite” gender? (Was it me or did literally every category feature exactly the same artists and pretty much exactly the same songs? Did every other segue into an introduction not suck ass for being entirely contrived and poorly performed? IT WAS LARGELY AWFUL. Anyway.) There’s a history of genderplay in pop music – Annie Lennox, Patti Smith, and David Bowie are only a few examples of this – but I know of no other musician who has gone beyond playing with androgyny and full-on committed to a differently-gendered persona (although if you know any please let me know, because this is right up my alley). I also know of nobody else getting away with taking to an internationally-watched stage and delivering the monologue that Gaga did not only at the VMAs but as its opener, which I strongly recommend you watch here if you haven’t already seen it; it should be the first video in the list on the right-hand side and it’s entitled ‘Lady Gaga’s Jo Calderone Monologue.’ If you don’t fancy doing that, here’s the monologue in full:

Hey. My name is Jo Calderone. And I was an asshole. Gaga? Yeah her – Lady Gaga. She left me. She said it always starts out good. And then the guys – being me, I’m one of the guys – they get crazy. I did, I got crazy. But she’s fuckin’ crazy too, right? I mean, she is FUCKING CRAZY. For example, she gets out of the bed, puts on the heels, she goes into the bathroom, I hear the water go on, she comes out of the bathroom dripping wet and she still got the heels on. And what’s with the hair? At first it was sexy but now I’m just confused. She said I’m just like the last one. I’M NOT LIKE THE LAST ONE. And I think it’s great, y’know, I think it’s really fucking great that she’s such a star. A big beautiful star in the sky. But how am I supposed to shine? I mean, I think I’d be okay with it, you know, if I felt like she was being herself with me. And maybe she is, I’m starting to think that’s just who she is, y’know? Maybe that’s just who she is. ‘Cause when she gets on that stage she holds nothing back. That spotlight, that big, round, deep, spotlight follows her wherever she goes. Sometimes I think it follows her home – I know it does…. I gotta get in there. When she comes, it’s like she covers her face ’cause she doesn’t want me to see that she can’t stand to have one honest moment when nobody’s watching. I want her to be real. But she says ‘Jo, I’m not real. I’m theatre. And you and I – this is just the rehearsal.’

I mean, where do I start. The bit that I liked the most, I think, when I first read it (it took me a few days before I was able to source the footage because MTV removed all the videos on YouTube of it due to copyright), was the bit about Gaga coming. It’s just so unexpected, and quite shocking, and obviously really hot but that’s not really the point of it at all. Getting on stage as a dude and committing entirely to that persona is one thing but then talking about Lady Gaga coming, exposing that intimate moment to an audience of by now millions, is just superb. It asserts Gaga (once again) as an autonomous sexual being. It positions her as a sexual being with power, since she is ultimately the one revealing this information – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true that she covers her face when she has an orgasm; what matters is that she’s presenting an image of herself coming, in a culture in which much of the sexual imagery available focuses on masculine sexual pleasure. It also invites anyone watching, fan or otherwise, into a part of the Gaga mythology that makes them feel uncomfortable – even I felt a bit uncomfortable about it, which I think goes to serve as an indication that probably lots of other people felt that too, because I’m not exactly a prude.

Upon accepting the award for either Best Female Video or Best Video with a Message (both of which Born This Way won; I don’t know which this happened in because MTV doesn’t seem to have footage of either of these) Gaga as Calderone told the audience what Gaga would say if she were there: that she would thank her little monsters, and that it doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, bi, or transgendered: you were born this way. Although I still have issues with the idea of being ‘born this way’ as a justification for any sexual or gender “deviancy,” it kind of made me tremble when she said that, in the same way that I trembled when, in his acceptance speech, Obama mentioned gay Americans; it made me tremble because she was fucking mentioning a group of people that never get mentioned like that in such high-profile media spaces. Of course, I don’t want it to be really special when these things happen – I want liberation and wider acceptance for my queer peers – but that doesn’t change the fact that, for now, it *is* special, and we need to go through a period of it being special before we can reach a stage at which it isn’t.

The success of the publicity Gaga has brought to issues of sexuality and gender is particularly highlighted when you compare this speech with one made by Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys at the MTV Awards in 1999. This is, I feel, a fucking failure of pop activism. Ad-Rock does not engage the audience at all like Gaga did and, as far as I can tell, had not built up to this moment so as to prepare the ground for acceptance of what he was saying in the same way that I think Gaga did with her high-profile involvement in the campaigns to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and legalise gay marriage in New York. Unlike Gaga, Ad-Rock wasn’t being specific about what needed to be done about “his” issue, the safety of women from rape and sexual assault at gigs; he was just saying ‘we artists need to do something,’ which I think is horribly lazy. This might seem unfair, but I get the impression from the way he was talking and the way he presented the issue that he thought that, as a popular musician, he was therefore an Important Person who was entitled to use his time on stage to talk about something he cared about because of who he was rather than because he genuinely wanted to change things. By contrast, I see Gaga as actively cultivating her status as someone to whom others will listen by publicly involving herself in campaigns and doing it properly by doing some ground work. She knows she can’t just rock up somewhere and be like, so, homophobia and transphobia are shit and we really should do something about that – she knows that that wouldn’t be effective. It might seem churlish of me, but I actively resent attempts as unsuccessful as Ad-Rock’s – I feel that he actually, intentionally or otherwise, appropriated the traumas caused primarily to women because of rape culture(s), because all he really succeeded in doing for me was alerting the public to the fact that he cared about the issue, which just amounted to making the issue something that was about him. I feel that, if he really cared about it, he would have taken the time to prepare something far more engaging. Gaga manages to associate herself with issues of queer and trans and gay and bi liberation without doing this, because she actually affects change. Even though there are still plenty of criticisms to make about it, Born This Way is way closer to ‘how you do it’ than what Ad-Rock did.


One Response to “Born This Way: a retrospective”

  1. howardoyoudo September 20, 2011 at 19:38 #

    Oh hey! I really enjoyed this blog post, just sayin’! Passionate and refreshing, I was thoroughly engrossed; an eyegasm. Consider yourself retweeted, Lizzo 🙂 I am also really pleased that I read this because it lead me to a place where I could actually watch the full monologue and performance in full. I too had been searching through vids on Youtube to no avail! Obviously Jo’s performance was amazing, however, I was just as pleased with the reactions of the celebs in the audience. Firstly, skipping to 0:55, revealing just how much Justin Bieber really doesn’t have a clue. Secondly zooming on to 2:49, Dave Grohl’s (Lifelong hero of mine) sheer elation when Brian May is thrown into the pot. It’s a kind of magic. Thank You!

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