Seven months ago, a yellow-haired, pint-sized superstar with angel wings wrapped herself around me and told me I was special and beautiful. It was the second night of Lady Gaga’s sold-out Madison Square Garden concerts. It was the first night she’d performed in her New York City hometown in a venue about which little girls with karaoke machines only dream.
That night of the Monster Ball tour, July 8, Lady Gaga leveled with her fans, her devoted “little monsters.”
“Five years ago, I was a girl in the crowd, watching some bitch on stage tell me that I could do anything in this world that I wanted,” she said. “I’m here to tell you that it’s true. No matter where you come from, no matter who you are, whether you’re a freak on the subway or not, you are all superstars.”
As a black sheep in my uber-conservative family, I often changed out of my father-approved wardrobe into studded jeans and high-top sneakers in high school. Lady Gaga’s words obviously resonated with me.
This past Friday, Lady Gaga debuted the first single from an upcoming album that she is prematurely calling the “album of the decade.” The song and album are titled “Born This Way.”
The song begins: “My momma told me when I was young / We are all born superstars.”
The rest of it continues like a 2011 update of Madonna’s classic song “Express Yourself” in a musical framework that is rave-y, fearless and unapologetically pro-underdog in a way that none of her songs have been before.
Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut album “The Fame” was massively successful with over 3 million copies sold in the U.S. to date. It established her as an underdog soldier with a taste for the superficial. Yet unlike the Ke$has and Katy Perrys of the world, Lady Gaga had a powerful message as an artist. When Lady Gaga wasn’t stomping around in a pair of impossible 10-inch Alexander McQueen heels, she was leading a campaign for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that prevents gays from openly serving in the military.
Since the release of “Born This Way,” critics and fans have been divided over the song’s political, yet positive, message. Criticism has largely focused on accusations that Lady Gaga might be parroting Madonna.
When I first heard “Born This Way,” I was laying in bed with a bout of depression. Upon hearing the lyrics, “Don’t be a drag, Just be a queen,” I immediately jumped out of bed and danced my ass off.
To me, there was something powerful about those words.
How does Lady Gaga get to be a voice for others? Where does her power lie as an artist? Other current popstresses of the day could easily be singing the same tune, but they aren’t.
I talked to Brenda Weber, an IU associate professor of gender studies, for a sharper perspective on all of this. We both agreed that whether Lady Gaga is treading on the coattails of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” or not, clearly “Born This Way” is still something people need to hear. Why does Lady Gaga get to say this?
“Part of who gets a say and who doesn’t is simply in who is saying it,” Weber said. “Lady Gaga says what she needs to say without apologizing.”
Part of that, Weber said, comes from Lady Gaga’s knowledge of her own star power. Lady Gaga knows the audiences she affects, especially among the LGBTQ community. Think of Lady Gaga as the world’s currently most famous drag queen, Weber suggests, an explicit motif in the lyrics of “Born This Way.”
“Part of being a gay icon is in having a secondary story that seems bigger than the person themselves,” Weber said.
Judy Garland struggled with depression and thought hope was somewhere over the rainbow. Madonna was a dancer from Detroit who taught us to express ourselves.
Lady Gaga’s roots are as a classically trained pianist from the affluent Upper West Side of Manhattan who got her hard knocks on the Lower East Side as a performance artist in dive bars. Estranged from her parents, Lady Gaga had no money and a coke habit.
Though many of us don’t grapple with those circumstances, we still relate to others through struggle. Put simply, Lady Gaga is a living example of the American Dream.
As a rugged individualist, she emphasizes that we are born with the power to choose, and we are born with the right to express ourselves however we wish.
In that respect, “Born This Way” is not a Madonna rip-off; it’s an homage. Let’s face it. Madonna isn’t the true original people claim she is, either.
“Born This Way,” like everything Lady Gaga does, is designed to get people talking.
Another criticism I’ve heard of “Born This Way” is that the song could be better as a ballad. I talked to a graduate student in the department of communication and culture, Jason Qualls. He is also a Lady Gaga fan, and though he said he agrees there is nothing like hearing Lady Gaga belt out one of her pop tunes on the piano, there is power in the way she frames the music of “Born This Way.”
“I don’t think one type of music expresses any given emotion,” Qualls said. “It’s not just about the beat, the key, the tune or the lyrics. It’s about the first place you hear a song. It’s about someone the music reminds you of.”
In that instance, Qualls said, Lady Gaga’s club-friendly beats and harmonies extend to straight white suburban girls who also like Taylor Swift. Therefore, Lady Gaga can be a master at telling the stories of others, even as a white, privileged female from the Upper West Side.
Lady Gaga’s power also rests in her vulnerability.
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview with Anderson Cooper, she cried on the steps of her old Lower East Side apartment building when asked about how much she’s struggled and how far she’s come.
Overall, I have faith that “Born This Way” signals a revolutionary step toward the future, despite the criticism against it.
However, I will always remember the moment an angel-winged superstar sweating backstage after a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden embraced me in front of strangers and told me I was special and beautiful.
I can’t lie; it was pretty nice to hear that from Lady Gaga.
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