Cross-posted from ERiC jost BLOG.
Lady Gaga’s new song, “Born This Way,” debuted to much fanfare this morning. The lead single off the album of the same name, which Gaga predicts will be the album of the decade, is a self-empowering anthem that speaks to her “little monsters” and tells them to embrace who they are.
Unfortunately, like much of what Gaga has done recently, the song has been met with mixed reactions and skeptical criticisms.
I was one of the first to purchase “Born This Way” when it was released on iTunes at 9am, and I also had a less than ecstatic reaction upon first listen (compared with my reaction when I first heard “Bad Romance”). I first feared the worst when Gaga released the heavy-handed lyrics on Twitter, but reserved judgment until I heard the song in its entirety. And now that I’ve listened to it repeatedly, my thoughts are similar to those I had towards Britney’s new single, “Hold It Against Me” — not my favorite song, but I accept it as the next step in her musical repertoire.
As I’ve been reading through music blogs, Facebook comments, and tweets, much has been made about the so-called similarities between “Born This Way” and Madonna’s 1989 empowerment anthem, “Express Yourself.” We heard similar rumblings when “Alejandro” came out last year, with Gaga decriers screaming that is was nothing more than “La Isla Bonita” redux.
I am an avid, even fanatic, Madonna aficionado. She remains my all-time favorite singer, despite the legions of pop stars who have attempted to dethrone her. However, while I think there are definite similarities within the backing music and lyrical sentiment, I don’t really hear “Born This Way” as a replica of “Express Yourself.” And, although I love both artists and truly believe Madonna set the standard for all female pop acts after her, I think we are forgetting just how much Madonna “borrowed” from those artists before her.
Let’s look at one of Madonna’s more recent works, 2005′s Confessions on a Dance Floor. After the commercial disaster that was American Life, Madonna plagiarized her 1980s self to make a triumphant return to the club with songs reminiscent of her glory days. However, the album that earned her a Grammy (Best Dance/Electronic Album) was full of samples and blatant rip-offs. Lead single, “Hung Up” featured the infectiously catchy sample from ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight);” while second single “Sorry” borrowed an uncredited bassline from the Jackson 5. And album-track “Future Love” is clearly Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and the two were performed together by Madonna during her Confessions Tour.
Confessions proved to be Madonna’s second most successful album of the 00s (after 2000′s Music), yet never was she met with accusations of ripping off other artists. Granted, Madonna is Madonna and she had 20+ years under her belt, but sampling and “homages” are nothing new to the music industry, and Madonna certainly hasn’t been above copying someone else’s sound or style.
The LGBTQ community, who has so far been Gaga’s biggest supporter, has been particularly lukewarm to “Born This Way,” both pre and post release. Some (not Elton John) resent Gaga for trying to force a so-called “gay anthem” upon them, which is traditionally not how it happens. Gloria Gaynor, we believe, didn’t set out to make the epitome of gay anthems; neither, again allegedly, did Kylie Minogue. Gay anthems are organic in nature, and those artists who consciously attempt to make one are rarely successful.
However, as much as I love Madonna, she was nearly as blatant in her appropriation of and regurgitation to the LGBTQ community as Gaga is today. If you don’t believe me, rent Paris is Burning. We would have never had “Vogue” had Madonna not stolen the very style from NYC gay clubs and made it more readily available for public consumption. Likewise, her androgynous clothing in “Express Yourself” was nothing Annie Lennox hadn’t done years earlier. Fortunately for Madonna, being gay in the 80s was still very taboo and her appropriation of LGBTQ culture went unnoticed by those outside the community. And the community simultaneously embraced her for doing so. But even if you’re quick to judge Gaga and praise Madonna, if you believe either (or any straight gay icon) embraced the LGBTQ community without seeing the pink dollar flashing in their eyes, you’re out of touch with reality.
This brings me to the question: why are we still relying on straight women to sing our gay male anthems? Traditionally, back to Judy Garland and before, gay men (and women) found comfort in songs that spoke of unrequited love and feeling like an outsider. Music was the escape from a life that was often hateful and violent. But in 2011, shouldn’t LGBTQ artists be the ones making gay anthems? And it’s not like we are hurting for openly gay musical acts! Scissor Sisters, Adam Lambert, Tegan and Sara, Gossip. And while all have seen some measure of success (especially overseas), none of them have come close to matching Madonna or Gaga’s popularity.
Right now, Lady Gaga is going through something the Aussies call “tall poppy syndrome.” It’s a moment in time when a person, a celebrity, becomes so popular that the fans that brought them fame and success are the same fans that try to tear them down for some unknown reason (it’s theorized that it might be envy). Kylie Minogue went through it in the 1990s, as did Madonna. Although many consider it uniquely Australian, I think this is exactly what Gaga is going through right now in the US (and around the world). Perhaps it’s her overt self-confidence that borderlines on arrogance. Maybe it’s because she refuses to respond to the comparisons to Madonna and other artists. But whatever it is, right now, Gaga’s little monsters are trying to eat her alive.
It was naive of Gaga to attempt to consciously create a gay anthem and force it upon us. However, as Dodai Stewart over at Jezebel points out, “Even if you find this kind of cause-dropping a leeeetle pedantic and slightly holier-than-thou, the fact that kids around the world — from gay bars to guido-filled clubs — will be shimmying and fist-pumping to a song celebrating ‘transgender life’ is pretty notable.”