Deconstructing “Born This Way”
Some prefatory remarks: (1) I really, really wanted to like Gaga’s new single. (2) Musically, it’s a pretty fun dance pop track; I’m sure it will make its way in to my workout playlists. In fact, I prefer the music of this track to anything on The Fame Monster. (3) As a philosopher, I’m neither here nor there on deconstruction. It can be useful, but generally I feel it’s a bit dated and overplayed. In 2011, it’s one method among many in the continental philosopher’s toolbox.
Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” premiered last week, both on pop radio and in a performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Both in style and in lyrical content, the track is a big rave-up and affirmation of mainly mainstream bourgeois liberal gay culture. Style-wise, it fits well within the pounding euro-house preferred in the circuit club scene. (As I will discuss below, this is just one way in which it reduces all LGBTQI identities to mainstream bourgeois gay masculinity.) As I indicate above in prefatory remark #2, the track, taken purely as music, is not particularly remarkable either in a positive or negative way—except, perhaps, for the strong borrowings from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and “Vogue.” Lyrically, however, the track is a total disappointment. The song is all about affirming an essentialist, neoliberal conception of identity and self. However, when we take the music and the lyrics together, the track nicely deconstructs itself—that is to say, the musical form/structure undercuts the politics and values expressed in the lyrical content. So, first I’ll talk about the lyrical content. Then I’ll analyze the music (i.e., instrumental track + vocal melody as melody rather than as words). Finally, I’ll show how the musical dimensions of the track work to deconstruct, in a pretty solidly Derridian sense, the values and political positions asserted in the track’s lyrics.
Before we get into the discussion, let’s take a listen:
So, first, the lyrical content of “Born This Way”:
It endorses a (neo)liberal, essentialist sense of self and identity. The chorus is the most sustained and obvious instance of this idea(ology). It says, for example, “I’m beautiful in my way cause God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track baby I was born this way.” This idea of a unique, inherently valuable individual self fits well within liberalism. The title, and the song’s oft-repeated refrain “Baby I was born this way” asserts this “individual” identity as an essentialist one—I have this one “true” self that is inherent, indeed congenital, and is anything but learned or a product of socialization.
So, I think it is fair to say that essentialism is itself philosophically and politically problematic. It assumes that our personalities, values, likes and dislikes, are biologically determined and that socialization and experience play no part in determining who we are. Gaga’s use of this essentialism is further problematic. She tries to use “Born This Way” as a catch-all for all kinds of “abnormals”—not just sexual minorities, but racial minorities and the disabled, too (Racialicious, among others, have pointed out her potentially racist deployment of the term “Chola”).* Not only are some disabled people not “born that way” (i.e., their disabilities are acquired, e.g., through disease or accident), but the “born this way” rhetoric was developed specifically to counter the charge that sexual orientation was a “choice”—and thus unlike race or gender identity. Moreover, it is often argued that the “born this way” rhetoric itself does not itself positively value LGBTQI identity. This rhetoric suggests that if one could choose to be straight and cis-gendered, one would, however, one can’t b/c one was “born this way.”
Finally, another problem with the song’s lyrical content is its centering of (often burgeois, urban) gay masculinity. Though supposedly about all different kinds of “little monsters,” the song mainly references gay men and gay culture. For example, the intro opens with “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or H-I-M”; similarly, the break repeats the line “don’t be a drag, just be a queen”—there’s never any mention of drag kings. This aspect of the song doesn’t get deconstructed by the music, but affirmed by it. The David-Guetta-meets-90s-pop-house aesthetic fits well within the sorts of dance music historically associated with gay male clubs and music aesthetics.
Now, the Music:
Even Madonna’s brother has noted the similarities between Blonde Ambition-era Madge and “Born This Way”. The two most obvious references are “Vogue” and “Express Yourself”. The spoken-word parts of “Born This Way” resemble the spoken-word parts of “Vogue”. More interesting, though, is the very very strong similarities between the melodies, in both verse and chorus, of BTW and EY. In general, there is a lot of repeated notes followed by three or so notes in stepwise descent. More specifically, compare the last phrase of the opening verse in EY to the last phrase in the opening verse of BTW:
EY: ggbbbcbggfcccccb=what you need is a big strong hand to lift you to higher ground
BTW: Bbbbbbccccccbag—My momma told me when I was young we’ll all be superstars
Both melodies use a lot of the same intervals, and have some stepwise descent after a string of sustained pitches.
The choruses are even more strongly similar:
EY: BAGAFFFGGGGABG—Don’t go for second best baby, put yourself to the test/Make him express how he feels for you then you know your love is real
BTW: BBBA#G#F#F#, F#F#F#G#EEE, EEEF#F#F#BBBA#G#F#F#–Ooo there ain’t no other way, baby I was born this way, baby I was born this way
Not only are they right in the same register, working with many of the same pitches in the same octave, but they also use the repeated pitches-then-stepwise-descent strategy. If you think they sound the same, it’s because they’re using the same sounds, often in similar arrangements!
Also notable is the way the break was played in Gaga’s 2011 Grammy Awards performance. You can see it here, at about 3:20, when she goes to play the organ:
What she plays is the opening lick from Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor—this is the same lick used in the break of La Tour’s 1991 house track, “People are Still Having Sex”—See here, at about 2:50:
This La Tour reference also makes us re-think the spoken-word parts of “Born This Way”. Gaga might not necessarily be referencing Madonna (or not exclusively referencing her)—she could also be referencing the vocal style of this track.
So, musically BTW is full of references to 90s pop house (Madonna, LaTour, others have noticed some of TLC’s “Waterfalls” in there…). Even the ponytail Gaga wears in her Grammys performance clearly references the one Madonna wore on her Blonde Ambition tour.
OK, now to the deconstruction part:
So, the lyrics give us an essentialist liberal individualism: we are born, not made. Biology is destiny, social construction and socialization are powerless to alter our congenital, inherent condition. The music, however, tells a completely different story. All the 90s pop house references, all the Madonna references, these are evidence that Gaga learned to compose by listening to others, that her musical tastes are not inborn, but developed as she grew up in the 1990s, and as she re-visits these tracks in her current listening. This song was not created ex nihilo, it is the result of a web of musical influences. It’s intertextual, not essentialist, so to speak. The music completely undermines the thesis proposed in the lyrics: Gaga, as a musician, as a singer and a songwriter, was most certainly not born that way: she was shaped by Madonna, LaTour, and countless other musicians. The song deconstructs itself: the music does something that refutes what the lyrical content says.
As usual, you say what I wanted to say more eloquently 🙂 Love this blog!
I take the ‘Born This Way’ statement not literally but rather as an affirmation of some vital quality, not denoting some congenital attribute but in fact a learned quality, a quality absorbed to the point of self-identification. For me, the lyrics are hyperbole. Taken literally, they become quite troublesome indeed (though readings done on these grounds are fair game of course)!
On the Express Yourself/Born This Way melodic comparison – this is interesting and valid, but surely a more fundamental correspondence is the fact that the harmonic progression (I-bVII-IV-I) at those points is pretty much identical in both songs, albeit with the key shiften down a semitone in BTW.
Good reading as usual though.
Thanks, robotsdancingalone. That’s a great point about the harmony.
Now that you have access to the video, I wonder how your assertions on the strictly essentialist reading of the lyrics might have changed. Given the “Manifesto of Mother Monster” and perhaps too her comments in her interview with Jay Leno, she seems to be advocating not for a single birth that gives rise to one essence, but for a process of constant rebirth, of being continually born this way.
The homages at the end of the video also would make nice additions to your commentary on the development of her style musically from Madonna and Michael Jackson.
I’ll have to admit, I was very upset when the single first came out over its essentialist leanings, but given the video, I’m not sure I’m justified in that any more.
P.S.- The Zombie Boy sections of the video made me think of your commentary on her as post-goth
I had some thoughts of my own that I’d like to share and get your opinions/thoughts on.
Firstly, as you stated that ““Baby I was born this way” asserts this “individual” identity as an essentialist one—I have this one “true” self that is inherent, indeed congenital, and is anything but learned or a product of socialization.” While I believe this to be true, I believe that Lady Gaga speaks about one’s ability to push through during times of hardship. She doesn’t mean to say if one is crippled it’s necessarily because they were born that way. rather, she speaks of any hardships encountered during life, such as hatred (outcast, bullied or teased), unfortunate accidents (disabilities), and the likes, are countered by ones ability to ‘survive’ and be ‘brave’.
Quite the opposite of your statement that “It assumes that our personalities, values, likes and dislikes, are biologically determined and that socialization and experience play no part in determining who we are,” Lady Gaga tries to get out the message that life does shape and mold us, but only to the extent that we allow it to, “so hold your head up girl and you’ll go far,” and “give yourself prudence… I must be myself,” ‘myself’ being how one has decided to shape (what they can control) themselves.
Finally there’s your line that states “the “born this way” rhetoric was developed specifically to counter the charge that sexual orientation was a “choice”—and thus unlike race or gender identity.” Do you think that perhaps of Lady Gaga’s reputation as an activist leads people to think that this song focuses mainly on the LGBT community? She talks about loving God, which can cause a lot of controversy since quite a few religious communities condemn homosexuality and the likes, she speaks about loving oneself for who you are and how you’ve come so far, about walking the path that one chooses to follow and disregard negativity that may come at you during your life. The main points she tries to get across are to love God (if you believe in Him, not that she forcefully attempts to shove religion down our throats), love yourself, and love those around you. While you might argue that she says “Believe capital H-I-M,” I believe this is only due to the fact that she’s trying to emphasize to the religious that “A different lover is not a sin” who would definitely bring the “God debate” in to counter her lyrics.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts I’ve had and would love if you could share some more insight with me. I just started University, I’m not doing anything Gaga-related, I’m just a fan of hers and enjoy listening to others’ ideas about her and her music and lyrics.
I’m assuming the notes that you wrote for the melodies were correct, and if so, I can’t believe that people are calling this plagiarism. Madonna doesn’t own those notes or those intervals…and believe me we could go find a hundred songs that came out before express yourself with just as many musical similarities. They had the same chord progression, and those are notes that fit nicely within the progression…that’s basic song writing. There’s 12 notes and only so many ways to use them.
@Anon: I’m not arguing that it’s plagiarism–quite the opposite. I think musical citation is really, really important, and ought to be encouraged, not punished. In this entry, I’m interested in showing how all the *musical* influences offer evidence that the song is not created ex nihilo–it wasn’t “born that way,” it was MADE that way…