Good news about Lady Gaga: She’s smart enough to know precisely when to stop acting smart.
Consider this: I just woke up, at five-thirty in the morning, to attend to the unveiling of her big new single, “Born This Way.” (Big enough that there was basically no question, before anyone even heard the thing, that it would run straight to No. 1 on the charts Billboard’s 1,000th official chart-topper, actually.) I dragged diligently out of bed. I made a serious pot of coffee. I got all psyched to bring as much high-level analytical skill as I could muster to whatever this song turned out to be. Time to make the critical doughnuts, etc. no point in rolling out of bed early just to say “nice song.”
And this one seemed like it might be complicated, too. Because we’d already seen the lyrics to “Born This Way,” and I can’t even tell you how skeptical they made me. “You’re black, white, beige, chola descent / You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient?” Gaga said she wrote this in ten minutes; rhyming “chola descent” with “Orient” is what happens when you do that. The main hook — “don’t be a drag, just be a queen” — that’s a good one, good for pop, applicable to all. But it comes after months and months of what one terrific critic has already called “The Great Gay Pander-Off of 2010”: A long run of housey dance tunes in which half the women of pop sing reassuringly about embracing and celebrating ourselves for whoever we are.
These songs are all fundamentally good-hearted and probably good for the world, but they’re also strange. They nod to gay struggles, or all the attention that’s been paid to bullying and suicide. (Ke$ha has variously claimed that “We R Who We R” was inspired by teen suicide, or else by seeing a drag show long before “It Gets Better” was a thing.) But the real goal is to do what pop does, and open up that circle of self-acceptance to anyone who wants in. And that’s something worth thinking about, and maybe even being skeptical of, because at some point we might all start using gay men as simple totems or avatars for whatever little personal struggles we go through, right down to the point where some horrible egomaniac on a reality-TV show starts talking about having been born that way. This is a weird amount of pop songs in which, to put it really bluntly, white women point to gay men to explain to all of us how to survive. Not bad, just weird. Because all of these songs get to look like they’re giving something to a community they’re really taking something from.
“Born This Way” opens up the circle as wide as it can, shouting out ethnic backgrounds with fascinating specificity, and working in a line about the disabled. Never mind that I guarantee you Lady Gaga will eventually make some aesthetic choice that offends or disappoints members of every community she reaches out to. Consider instead that the greatest trick Lady Gaga has pulled — the thing that makes her a genuinely impressive pop star — is creating an atmosphere where people can legitimately feel like revolutionary all-embracing gender-queering “little monsters” by listening to one of the most popular artists in the country. That’s rare and makes for vital pop.
And it’s with all this in mind that I sit down with the serious pot of coffee and listen to “Born This Way,” wondering what all will be in there and how it will make me feel about all these issues, wondering what kind of musical presentation can possibly pull off these somewhat bonkers lyrics about being-who-you-are — (the only people excluded by this type of song are those who are not exactly sure who they are in the first place) — and the answer comes and it’s … bonkers mecha-disco! The sound of Lady Gaga shouting in my ear that I am totally overthinking things, this time. The song’s so disco that the mention of a mother’s “boudoir” in the first verse becomes totally natural and hilarious. The song’s so disco that the line about people being “Orient-made” barely even registers, because it sounds like something nobody would have thought twice about saying in 1978. The vocals are so bonkers disco that I almost wish we could make them extra-bonkers by having Christina Aguilera sing them. Beyond which, this song has Gaga, an artist constantly compared to Madonna, cheerfully swiping some melodies from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” — because this is not the kind of song where that feels like a big deal, or anything much at all seems like a big deal.
I guess I’d forgotten that this is the thing to do when you’ve reached the top, and everyone is celebrating you and awaiting your next move: Just sort of celebrate back. “Born This Way” is loose and uncomplicated and fundamentally just fun; it uses fans’ goodwill toward Gaga to throw a party instead of an art happening. After a year of everyone up to Camille Paglia bringing all kinds of intense critical thought to everything Gaga does — what does she mean, what is she saying, what is her effect on the culture — this is smart: Come raging back with something simple, gleeful, and straightforward.