Last week’s release of Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” was the most-anticipated pop moment of the new year, and it came off with Gaga’s usual aplomb: a snippet previewed during her meat-dress-bedecked AMA acceptance speech back in December, a bubblicious entrance into the Grammy Awards, an immediate ascent to #1 … and the ignition of a new controversy, when it became clear that “Born This Way” was in fact born as Madonna’s “Express Yourself” back in 1989.
Here at Popdose we’ve already debated whether the familiarity of “Born This Way” is the result of unconscious plagiarism or intentional homage; for me the only clue necessary was Gaga’s Grammy ponytail, a hair extension that may as well have been snatched from the propmaster for Madonna’s 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour. But lost amid the concern over the songs’ similarities is the thematic evolution the new single represents – a pop-paradigm shift with implications much more profound than one singer wresting the dance-diva tiara from another’s aging head.
“Express Yourself,” like Madonna’s other ’89-’90 smashes “Like a Prayer,” “Vogue” and “Justify My Love,” was constructed to be a pop-culture event as much as it was a pop single. The songs themselves were designed to hit a variety of hot buttons that would advance Madonna’s reputation as a provocateur – religiosity, female empowerment, a fashion-fueled dance craze, unrepentant lust – while their videos pushed the envelope even further, into the realms of race, blasphemy, S&M, gay iconography, and … well … unrepentant lust. Still, in each case the aural and visual imagery was non-specific enough that the songs and videos could communicate separate messages to the distinct audiences she was targeting. A mainstream listener could titter at the exposed skin of “Justify My Love” or try out the dance moves in “Vogue” without worrying too much about the symbolism Madonna was imparting to the gay and kinky-sex subcultures whose ambitions fed her artistic choices, and vice versa. With a series of media-saturating moments, Madonna helped bring those subcultures closer to the mainstream – with long-term effects that are undeniable today.
“Born This Way,” on the other hand, drags the mainstream toward the subculture – and does so with a message so specific that its cultural impact reflects Madonna’s only in a funhouse-mirror kind of way. Gaga, unbound by the 20th-century conventions that (barely) corseted Madonna and freed by two decades of social and intellectual advancement, has created a hit that speaks directly to her gay devotees, while simultaneously challenging the pop masses to acknowledge, accept and even celebrate that gay subset of her audience. Indeed, she’s demanding that those masses accept a premise that remains the topic of significant culture-war debate – that homosexuality is predetermined by genetics, and not some sort of deviant “lifestyle choice.”
To look at it another way, a quarter-century ago Madonna found a way to position herself as a mainstream artist who drew inspiration from feminist, gay and other subcultures, in the process incorporating their themes into her own persona with a subtlety that said, “I want you with me.” Gaga’s contemporary message to her subculture base in “Born This Way,” on the other hand, couldn’t be more explicit: “I’m one of you.”
Of course, Gaga has been heading in this direction ever since her career went supernova in 2009. While her videos for “Paparazzi,” “Telephone,” “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro” have certainly been button-pushers, the real revelation came when mainstream fans snapped up tickets for last year’s “Monster Ball” tour, then discovered they had stumbled into an event that was equal parts pop concert and celebration of various misfit subcultures. Yes, there were plenty of out-and-proud gay men, many of them attempting to dress more flamboyantly than Gaga herself. Yet one couldn’t help but sense that Gaga’s shows were a magnet for the disaffected, the depressed, the closeted, and others (both gay and straight) who had come there looking for a place where they belonged, in a way they don’t in their everyday lives. They responded emotionally to Gaga’s frequent declarations of love for and identification with her “little monsters,” and to her exhortations for them to let their freak flags fly. In a sense, “Born This Way” is merely Gaga’s most unambiguous digital statement of the theme that has come to define her in the popular imagination.
What’s extraordinary to me, as Gaga claims her cultural moment, is that it’s taken her this long to make a record that so thoroughly embodies her ethos – and that, in the meantime, so many other pop divas have grabbed her mantle and forged huge hits over the past year. Pop radio these days is like the self-help section at Barnes & Noble, replete with Misfit-Empowerment anthems sung by the reigning queens of the charts directly to their audiences.
There is P!nk’s late-autumn smash “Raise Your Glass,” which is perhaps most blatant in its appeal to Gaga’s audience – “So raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways / All my underdogs / We will never be anything but loud and nitty gritty / Dirty little freaks…” – yet which serves nicely as an outward extension of the I’m-a-weirdo meme P!nk established as far back as 2002’s “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” (Her follow-up single, “F**kin’ Perfect,” operates in a very similar way.) And there’s Katy Perry’s Christmastime #1 “Firework,” a sincere paean to self-esteem that stands in stark contrast to her usual aren’t-I-naughty? shtick, and whose message is like to resonate long after she’s finished melting our collective popsicle.
And then there’s the curious case of Ke$ha, who “has been a cultural icon for weeks,” according to no less an authority than Brittney on Glee. Her ubiquitous singles of the past year – “Tik Tok” and “We R Who We R” – position her as the leader of a rambunctious gang of “woo girls” (to borrow a phrase from another TV comedy, How I Met Your Mother) who think the world of themselves, but who are clearly more than a little bit … off. (Personally, I adore the latter song’s rapid shift from the self-love of “You know we’re superstars” to the shrugging resignation of “We r who we r.”) On one level she’s singing straight-up party anthems, but the subtext that sits barely beneath the surface is, “Get it while you can, girls, because sooner or later we’re gonna have to sober up.” And that marks Ke$ha (or “Keh-Dollar Sign-Hah,” as Principal Figgins calls her) as a goofball worth following to see if she can lead her woo girls to the promised land of adulthood.
Speaking of Glee … the show is, of course, the televised exemplar of Misfit Empowerment, from the generalized struggles of the outcast (and frequently Slushie’d) choir geeks to Kurt’s specific troubles as a bullied gay teen who’s just starting to learn that It Gets Better. Say what you want about the show, but there’s no denying its cultural impact, particularly on the kids on both sides of the conformist/misfit divide who need it most. And while you’re at it, say what you will about the rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’” that launched Glee from curiosity to phenomenon — but the 30-year-old song managed to perfectly encapsulate the premise of a show that couldn’t be more of its own moment. And while the track’s popularity helped Misfit Empowerment become the dominant pop-music theme of the day, it also proved that the theme is hardly a new one.
Indeed, it’s been around forever — from “In My Room” to “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” to “Livin’ on a Prayer” to “American Idiot” to “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” (C’mon, Bruce fans! Even the Boss would admit that the gulf between your fist-pumping sing-alongs and a Gaga crowd is no wider than Thunder Road, even if at this point your disaffection is more a distant memory than an immediate concern.)
What does seem new, however, is the prevalence of these anthems among the catalogs of today’s biggest female singers. The most popular divas of the previous two decades – Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, etc. – were monuments to self-aggrandizement whose songs, when they weren’t all about “learning to love yourself” (“The Greatest Love of All”), were frequently of the “look-how-great-I-am-because-of-you” variety (“Because You Loved Me,” “I Will Always Love You,” Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”). Heck, even the melisma-tron Mariah’s “Hero,” while claiming “that hero lies in you,” practically screamed, “No, it’s in me! Love me! Identify with ME!”
Something happened around the turn of the century, however, that put a damper on such diva conceits. Perhaps it was 9/11 and an attendant turn toward communitarianism; perhaps it was the slow, steady skankification of Whitney and Mariah through the ’90s (and Celine’s Vegas-ication during the early aughts) that made their self-worship less credible. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of our culture’s general repudiation of “elites” of all stripes – or perhaps it’s just that the fragmenting of the music industry, combined with the glut of instant pop stars engendered by American Idol and its imitators, has leveled the playing field (and diluted the talent pool) to the point where no one has the stature to pound her chest while insisting “My Heart Will Go On.”
Idol, with its increasingly terrible finale anthems, has flailed for years against the tide that drowned the divas. (To be fair, however, it must be noted that the best self-empowerment single of the decade, “Breakaway,” came from Idol alum Kelly Clarkson.) In a new pop landscape where Glee can have Lea Michele appropriate “Firework” for her own purposes even before Perry’s version has begun its chart descent, it will be interesting to see whether the new crop of female Idolettes might finally begin to define themselves less by offering clichéd imitations of Whitney and Mariah, and more by singing songs that speak directly to the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the Idol audience – or at least to the misfit subsections of it.
Then again, the more relevant questions may be, How soon will Kurt perform “Born This Way” on Glee? And, How will he look inside an egg-shaped bubble?