Grappling with Gaga:Making sense of Lady Gaga’s identity politics in Born This Way and the political implications of her lexical choices

27 Jun

This post originally appeared on Gravy

Victoria Cann

 This paper considers the relationship between popular music and minority rights. It works on the basic premise that words are fundamentally important in helping people make sense of the world and their location within it. I therefore argue that song lyrics hold significant political value, particularly in popular music where the song is widely consumed. I turn then to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way as it was written and promoted as an ‘anthem’, a song that aimed to contain messages of “equality and love” (Vena, 2011). I suggest that when a song has been so explicitly marketed to confront issues of social inequality, the political implication of the words that are used are heightened. I did not approach Gaga’s Born This Way with the intention of nitpicking, but rather it took one listen of the song to hear the glaring contradictions between her aim and her outcome.  

Although Lady Gaga has become something of a cultural institution, the subject of this paper does not lay with the analysis of the performer, nor her cultural presence, but instead her lyrical choices. I will look at the implications and connotations of what I consider to be a problematic area of her lyrics and begin to question the wider implications this may have on its use as an anthem for the LGBT movement and a song of liberation for other oppressed groups. Due to the sheer scale of analysis that would be required to look at the whole song, the discourse analysis that I am utilising here will focus on the following passage:

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

 

I’m beautiful in my own way

‘Cause God makes no mistakes

I’m on the right track, baby

I was born this way

I believe it would be hard to disagree that Lady Gaga is an important cultural icon of our time. When scholars would once draw on Madonna as an exemplification of postmodernism, cultural imperialism and postfeminism, I suggest that the prevalence of Lady Gaga has resulted in a similar outcome (however lazy such a comparison may be). What makes Lady Gaga hold particular significance is that her cultural presence not only requires attention, but actively shouts out for it. Keller has argued that Lady Gaga has been a “powerful force in recent popular culture” (2010) and it is because of this force that I believe it’s crucial we respond with critical engagement.

I’m not trying to pick holes in Lady Gaga’s lyrics just because, but because I think they highlight fundamental issues in both pop music and lyrical decisions more widely. Maybe it’s because I’m a lyrics person[1], or maybe because I am a feminist, but to me, the lyrics in Born This Way matter. This is because I believe that when you are one of the biggest selling pop artists of your generation and you pen a self-declared gay anthem, your lyrics take on greater meaning and you have to pay particular attention to the words that you use and the connotations that they hold. In this paper I am admittedly critiquing only a small part of Lady Gaga’s song and welcome responses from those that take an oppositional reading. However, I aim to demonstrate that through analysis of the lexical choices she makes, we have to question the extent to which we can take seriously a song that aims to be liberating when using essentialist, racist and outdated words in attempting to do so. The aim here is not to answer questions of effects, that would be far beyond the scope of this paper, but instead to raise these questions of progressiveness within Gaga’s identity politics and whether this song can ever live up to the expectations it has placed upon itself.

I aim to locate this paper within the widening academic literature that interrogates Gaga as well as considering the implications of the discourse she is constructing in terms of identity politics. In August of 2010 In Media Res ran a week long special on Lady Gaga’s ‘Gender and Queerness’ and what I would suggest can be seen as common theme amongst the articles was Gaga’s ability to play with identity. For example, Moore suggested that Gaga’s greatest tool was her “ability to be glamorous and grotesque at the same time” (2010) with her appearance at the 2010 Grammy’s directly addressing gay culture, relying on “the bass notes of drag and the seriousness of camp to get its point across” (ibid.). Meanwhile Keller critiques such a position, questioning the extent to which Gaga can be considered empowering when her “empowerment then becomes more about a stylized performance […] rather than actual social change” (2010). The nuances of grappling with Gaga then became highlighted by Fairclough who suggests that the result of Gaga as spectacle means we are no clearer to understanding Gaga as either ‘the only progressive mainstream pop star of the twenty first century’ or speaking only to ‘self-mimicry with no purpose’. These are issues that I suggest are reflected within her music.

I’m on the right track, baby

I was born this way

While Stefani Germanotta’s performance of Gaga reveals the constructedness and artifice of identity in true postmodern style, the lexical choices in Born This Way mobilise a conception of sexual identity that is rooted within essentialism. The very notion that one is born a particular way is one that I find incredibly problematic. For example, the core of the song centres around the notion that sexuality is an essentialist category, and indeed that any element of identity is, for example in race black white or beige, ability whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased; class, whether you’re broke or evergreen. This is problematic as I locate myself within the anti-essentialist school of thought, arguing that identity is socially constructed, that it is learned and regulated through everyday experiences. What I do not believe then, is that any identity is an immutable fact, that it is fixed and determined from birth. Even if you do not locate yourself as fully as I do within anti-essentialism we can surely see the problematic implications of a ‘gay anthem’ that is rooted so heavily within an essentialist understanding of sexuality. This is because the relationship between sexuality and biology is far more nuanced than Gaga’s Born This Way implies. For example, long before the release of Gaga’s single, Rahman and Jackson have argued that “[i]n the absence of a political understanding of sexuality as socially constructed, the idea of being ‘born that way’ becomes attractive to many gays and lesbians” (1997: 120), however, “[p]ositing sexuality as immutable obscures the hierarchical ordering of heterosexuality and homosexuality within which the latter is constructed as the deviant category in relation to the other” (ibid.: 121). Therefore, the very notion of being ‘Born This Way’ lends itself to one of inevitability, and removes the agency awarded individuals to question the cultural system that reproduces discourses of heteronormativity. Meanwhile to say, just be yourself and embrace who you are, it encourages action only on the part of the individual. Gaga’s anthem then, is not offering an attempt for collective consciousness raising, nor does it question the dominant discourse in an attempt to subvert the ‘natural’ assumption of LGB = deviant. When referring to LGB rights, Rahman and Jackson conclude, “in campaigning for change [we must] ensure that we effectively challenge social inequalities rather than leaving them more firmly entrenched” (1997: 126). The ‘we’ here therefore becomes highly important in connecting individuals from minority groups to one another, particularly as a means through which to question the normative values that place them within a position of subordination.

While Gaga may speak at public events and rally for LGBT rights, I would argue that this is not an ‘anthem’ that helps her cause. My anti-essentialist sentiments lead me to believe that nobody was born to be any particular way. Although I do not ignore the structural constraints that are placed on individuals within society, to suggest that one was born a particular way, differently, is to imply that their subordinate position is an inevitable ‘fact’ of life because of this ‘natural’ difference, but it’s not. It is society that constructs these divisions and understandings of sexuality as dichotomous, not nature. What Gaga should be doing then is breaking down these social discourses, not leaving them unquestioned and thus reaffirmed within her song.

No matter black, white or beige

Chola or orient made

 A further area of Gaga’s lyrics that I believe undermine the integrity of her ‘anthem’ can be located in the use of the words ‘chola’ and ‘orient’. As with ‘born this way’, I understand her intention is to garner a sense of empowerment, and speaks to these ‘groups’ in order to highlight her awareness of ‘their’[2] minority position within American society. But I argue that the words she uses do little more than to perpetuate the alienation of these groups through the use of imperialist, racist and derogatory labels. For example, when prefixed by no matter white, black or beige use of the word Chola is implies she is talking about a racial group. This is something that groups such as Chicanos Unidos Arizona and MEChA have been understandably critical of. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Chola’, a term not widely used outside of America , it is used to describe Latina girls in gangs. While I would argue that the female members of this subculture are powerful and subversive, to characterise all Hispanic women in this way is to imply that “all Hispanic women are gangbangers who live in the barrio” to quote Reyes (2011b). Meldonada, spokesperson for Chicanos Unidos Arizona has also criticised the stereotypes that the word ‘Chola’ draws upon, while Cardenas has also noted his concern that use of the term ‘Chola’ to describe Latino women could now become a more commonly used insult (Perez, 2011). While I do not wish to speculate upon effects, I believe Meldonada raises an important point. While Gaga may not have intended harm in using this word (indeed, I imagine she intended the opposite) what she has ultimately achieved is to bring a derogatory word such as ‘Chola’ to the masses. Therefore, without critical engagement, the negative connotations that this word holds remain unaddressed and unknown to many of her vast audience and those that are aware of them have been understandably concerned of its use.

Further to this, Gaga’s use of the word ‘orient’ to describe persons of Asian heritage is also highly problematic and further undermines the empowering message of her song. Without delving too deeply into the nuances of Said’s thesis in Orientalism, I think it’s fair to say that Gaga’s use of ‘Oriental’ to describe a racial group is not only outdated but is also rooted firmly within racist discourse. The word, used to describe persons of Asian heritage has been heavily criticised for its connections to imperialism, and remains an important purveyor of colonial discourse with a post-colonial context. The term ‘Oriental’ is a vast and sweeping statement that places together persons of distinct racial and ethnic histories into a homogenous group. While this in itself is problematic as it acts as an ‘Othering’ force, it also understands people to exist within the same category as objects. This is because the word ‘Oriental’ is largely used to refer to goods. In addition, to use the word ‘Orient’ is to define persons of Asian culture in relation to the Occident, that ‘they’ are not of the Western world and instead ‘exotic’, different and inherently ‘Other’. As with use of the word ‘Chola’ I do not believe that Lady Gaga intended to be racist, indeed it seems that the word might simply have been used largely because of a tenuous rhyme it has to the word ‘descent’, but if nothing else her ignorance to the connotations and histories of the words she uses are highly dangerous.

The reason I believe it to be dangerous or irresponsible rather than just ignorant is not because it undermines the very integrity of her ‘anthem’, but is instead due to Gaga’s vast cultural presence within the world (as noted above). Gaga’s unreflexive use of essentialist accounts of the self and racist words such as ‘Chola’ and ‘Oriental’ are placed within a discursive context that normalises their use. Her fans, and wider listeners are therefore being asked to hear these words (many for the first time) with connotation to empowerment. While some of the sources I have cited above have responded critically to her use of these words, Lady Gaga does not appear to be inviting critical readings, nor is she opening dialogues about what these words might mean or imply. As I have mentioned before, discussion of effects is beyond the scope of this paper, but I do wish to raise examples from new media networking sources of how Gaga’s celebrity status means that her fans are not responding critically to her use of lyrics and instead are actively taking on the ‘born this way’ message. For example Francesco adopts Gaga’s essentialist account of the self in describing it as “about human beings and how we are born the way we are” (Vena, 2011) with one fan describing her as “our generation’s John Lennon” (ibid.). While these are just two examples of fan responses, they do demonstrate the ways in which Gaga’s fans have been resistant to the possibility that this song carries lyrics that are anything but empowering. Indeed, in the research I conducted in writing this piece I found that fans are highly vocal in expressing their disgust that these lyrics would even be questioned, or the very suggestion that they might be problematic. Fans have argued instead that those critical are reading too much into things or misinterpreting Gaga. I think these fans make a fair point, I don’t think Lady Gaga is a racist and I don’t believe she intends to normalise a heteronormative or racist hierarchy, but I would argue that these are discourses that she is ultimately engaging in through her lexical choices.

Musicians need to be cautious of the words that the use when writing lyrics for songs, especially if they are penning a self-professed anthem that is intended to be listened to by many. This is because the lyrics they choose mean things, and because of this they have the ability to undermine the very message that they are trying to make. Words are important, while they have the potential to be liberating as a tool of communication, I argue that they are ultimately constraining. Words can never adequately describe the nuances of the human experience. Not only are we limited in our access to vocabulary, words are weighted, they have connotations, have histories and because of this, words are political. I would suggest that this is an issue that is demonstrated very clearly in Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

 

 

[1] I’ve always thought of music audiences as split into two camps, ‘the lyrics people’ and ‘the music people’, for me it’s the lyrics that stick out for me first and foremost. That’s not to say that I think lyrics are the most important part of the song, but rather that, for me, it’s the lyrics that stand-out first and thus why perhaps I have taken this considerable interest.

[2] Writing as a white person, I am cautious that my use of language may very well marginalise in the way that Gaga’s does. This further demonstrates the constraints of a language that operates using dichotomies and difference.

 

 

References:

Fairclough, K. (2010) ‘Mainstreaming the Avant-Garde: Gender and spectacle at GAGAKOH’ In Media Res http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2010/08/02/mainstreaming-avant-garde-gender-and-spectacle-gagakoh <Last accessed 31/03/2011>

Keller, J. (2010) “I’m not a feminist… I love men”: Rethinking Lady Gaga’s Postfeminist Rhetoric and its Potential for Social Change’ In Media Res http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2010/08/01/im-not-feminist-i-love-men-rethinking-lady-gaga-s-postfeminist-rhetoric-and-its-potential <Last accessed 31/03/ 2011>

Moore, M. (2010) ‘Lady Gaga and the High Heels of New Feminism’ In Media Res at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2010/08/03/lady-gaga-and-severity-glamour <Last accessed 31/03/2011>

Perez, M. (2010) Phoenix Latino Groups Criticize Lady Gaga for ‘Racist’ Lyrics at http://www.examiner.com/civil-rights-in-phoenix/phoenix-latino-groups-criticize-lady-gaga-for-racist-lyrics <Last accessed 30/03/2011>

Rahman, M. and Jackson , S. (1997) ‘ Liberty , Equality and Sexuality: essentialism and the discourse of rights’ Journal of Gender Studies 6 (2) 117-129

Reyes, R. (2011b) Is Lady Gaga a Racist? At http://newsblaze.com/story/20110205105230reye.nb/topstory.html <Last accessed 31/03/2011>

Vena, J. (2011) ‘Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Lyrics: Fans Weigh In!’ MTV News http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1656848/lady-gaga-born-this-way-reactions.jhtml

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