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.