“Born This Way” was not love at first listen for me: I found the opening lines banal and drab, the melody weak and the song as a whole monotonous and sort of, well, boring. Compared with “Bad Romance,” the debut single off her second album The Fame Monster, with its epic climbs and falls, its oh-u-oh-u-ohs, its screeching profession of love, “BTW” seemed lackluster. But I listened to it again, trying not to make it into something it’s not – that’s right, it’s about to get real meta in here – and I liked it more.
I played it again and liked it a bit more. I played it again and liked it even more. By the fifth listen I was dancing in my bed – where I was sitting after waking up at 5 a.m. to hear the song – and picturing a sunny, warm New York afternoon, walking around the city in shades and jamming out to this track. It reminded me of her summery tracks circa The Fame, with the same upbeat lyrics and happy-go-lucky “I love life” attitude.
In fairness, the track wasn’t particularly surprising. Lady Gaga has been saying for months that it would be the gay anthem of our generation (even Elton John vouched for this), and she’s been saying since the beginning of her time in the spotlight that the key to a happy life is loving yourself and having self-confidence. With the release of the lyrics via her Twitter account – a bizarre move that made me wonder why an artist would want to release a piece of work chunk by chunk – we got the message loud and clear. It’s a gay anthem all right, in the most in-your-face way possible.
With the release of the song in its full form –with melodies, bass and tempo – the literal nature of the lyrics made more sense. It seems the whole Internet is up in arms because, they argue, the song sounds identical to Madonna’s 1989 freedom anthem “Express Yourself,” but aside from a similar melody and chord changes (newsflash: all pop and rock music operates on about four chord progressions) I don’t think it’s identical at all. In fact, I saw more similarities to Madonna’s anthem from the following year, the epic “Vogue” – which, if we’re being honest, also sounds a lot like “Express Yourself.”
“Vogue” was a gay anthem for the 1990s, taking its inspiration from the underground New York gay clubs chronicled in Paris is Burning, where voguing was a dance form and a lifestyle. BTW’s lyrics mirror those in “Vogue” much more directly than anything in “Express Yourself”: “All you need is your own imagination/So use it, that’s what it’s for/Go inside for your finest inspiration/ Your dreams will open the door; It makes no difference if you’re black or white/If you’re a boy or a girl/If the music’s pumping it will give you new life/You’re a superstar, yes, that’s what you are, you know it” mirrors Lady Gaga’s verse: “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.”
“Vogue” and “BTW” are the same – they have the “same DNA,” if you will – in that both Madonna and Gaga aimed to produce pop songs that would speak to the masses while representing a culture they wished to pay homage to. The difference is this: in 1990, Madonna had to be subversive in her lyrics, because homosexuality was more of a fringe-society experience than it is now; in 2011, Gaga doesn’t have to, so she simply doesn’t. Perhaps the literalism of her lyrics is just her attempt to capture the zeitgeist for a generation not prone to holding much back re: expressing ourselves. We curse, we talk dirty, we promote weirdness and, yes, we love the gays. Gaga has said she wrote the song in just 10 minutes, which has pros and cons. But maybe if she really aimed to write the anthem of her and our generation, all she had to do was sit down and let the words flow. It seems that’s what she did – how successfully she’s done it will be determined over the course of the next 20 years. For now, beauty’s where you find it.