In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Lady Gaga- “Born This Way”
HIT #1: February 26, 2011
STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks
Very rarely do you find major pop hits that make topical or political statements. Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a period recognized for its abundance of music that dealt with the turmoil of the day, topical and political protest songs didn’t really have much success on the charts. At best you have hits like Barry McGuire’s lashing out at the state of the world in his 1965 folk #1 “Eve of Destruction” (It’s a 9.) and Stevie Wonder attacking Richard Nixon in his funky 1974 #1 “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” (It’s a 10!) But most of the time, hit political/topical statement songs aren’t that overt about their subject matter and tend to get watered down for mass appeal. As music critic Chris Molanphy has noted, the more overt a song is about its political message the lower it charts.
In a lot of ways, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Billboard’s 1000th #1 single since the Hot 100’s 1958 inception, can be seen as a major pop music awakening. By 2011, gay rights had reached a new high point with the repeal of the U.S.’s discriminatory “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy and support for same-sex marriage reaching a new high with over 50% of Americans being in favor of it for the first time (My home state of New York became the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage only a few months after “Born This Way” hit #1). All this was happening as news reports were dominated by teenagers killing themselves due to bullying they suffered over their sexual orientation leading to the creation of the It Gets Better initiative. Clearly there needed to be a song that directly addressed these issues and the LGBTQ community.
“Born This Way” wasn’t the first #1 to do it. Kesha had hit #1 a few months before with “We R Who We R” a song she had been inspired to write after seeing news reports of gay teenage suicides. But that song was basically a generic dance song in vague empowerment clothing. P!nk and Katy Perry both got to #1 in between with “Raise Your Glass” and “Firework” respectively which highlighted gay people in their music videos but both songs were more generic empowerment dance songs. All those songs didn’t go as far as what Lady Gaga did on “Born This Way” a song that only Gaga herself could get away with at that moment in time at the height of her imperial phase.
Gaga, born Stefani Germanotta, knows what it’s like to feel alienated and counted out. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Gaga took up music at an early age beginning piano at 4 with her parents encouraging her to pursue music and the arts gaining a wide variety of influences like Madonna, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, John Lennon, Queen, Andy Warhol, etc. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Gaga pursued her passion for the arts studying acting, performing in various school plays, and at 15 landed a part in a 2001 episode of HBO’s The Sopranos meaning she’s already cooler than you and I will ever be.
At 17, Gaga gained early admission to New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts and their Collaborative Arts Project 21 conservatory where she furthered her studies in music but it wouldn’t last long. Gaga dropped out of NYU during her sophomore year to focus more on her music career forming a band with some university friends performing for a while at various clubs on the Lower East Side. She later met the performance artist Lady Starlight and began performing burlesque shows together at various Manhattan clubs as “Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue” which was big enough to land them a performance spot at the 2007 Lollapalooza festival.
During a songwriters event, Gaga was referred to music producer Rob Fusari, the man who had written and produced the #1 hits “Wild, Wild, West” for Will Smith in 1999 (It’s a 7.) and “Bootylicious” for Destiny’s Child in 2001 (It’s a 4.). They eventually started working on music together and even dated for a little while. It’s Fusari that helped give Gaga her stage name which derived from the Queen song “Radio Gaga.” They sent their recordings out to various music executives which led to Gaga’s first signing to Def Jam Records in 2006 but lasted only three months before being dropped.
Soon after, Vincent Herbert, a record executive at Interscope Records and president of its label imprint Streamline Records discovered Gaga and after being introduced to Interscope head Jimmy Iovine was signed to the label in 2007. That was only the beginning. After hearing her sing a reference vocal, Akon, the R&B star who in 2007 was at the height of his imperial phase, was immediately impressed by Gaga’s talents and got Iovine to sign Gaga to his short-lived vanity label KonLive. Soon after, they teamed up with the Moroccan producer RedOne and suddenly everything came into place to help launch Lady Gaga to stardom.
But it took a while before the big hit came. There had been concern about how Lady Gaga’s European inspired electropop would fit into the American mainstream of the 2000s where pure dance music was largely absent from the charts in an era where dance music was largely R&B and hip-hop driven with crunk being the biggest dominator. And the few pure dance songs that managed to crossover in the 2000s were generally flash in the pans. Many stations originally considered Gaga’s music as too underground and dance-oriented for mainstream play.
When Gaga’s “Just Dance,” the lead single from her debut album The Fame with fellow KonLive artist Coby O’Donis, was released in April 2008 it didn’t make much of an impact at first. Looking back, it isn’t much of a surprise with 2008 being dominated by crossover Southern rap led by Flo Rida, Lil Wayne, and T.I. (All three of these artists will eventually appear in this column.). But by August, “Just Dance” debuted on the Hot 100 and began its slow climb up the charts taking 22 weeks until it finally hit the #1 spot in January 2009 and well deserved (“Just Dance” is a 9.).
After that long rise, more hits followed quickly with three more singles from The Fame hitting the Top 10 with Gaga’s second #1 “Poker Face” in April 2009 (It’s an 8.) along with “LoveGame” (#5) and “Paparazzi” (#6) (“LoveGame” is a 5. “Paparazzi” is a 9.). The success of the singles helped push The Fame to #2 on the Billboard album chart going triple platinum. More importantly, with the high art imagery in her videos, her fashion, and her performances she instantly became an ‘80s MTV star for the internet and social media age while reviving pure dance music on the U.S. charts. After spending the last few years getting kicked around labels and working her way up in music, Lady Gaga had finally achieved her dream and it was only the beginning.
To capitalize on the success of The Fame, Interscope pressed for an immediate follow up of an eight-song EP eventually released as The Fame Monster in November 2009. More hits followed with The Fame Monster launching three Top 10 singles: the soaring electropop jam “Bad Romance,” (#2) the big-budget Beyonce collaboration “Telephone,” (#3) and the mellow dance track “Alejandro” (#5) (Each single is a 10, 6, and 7 respectively.).
By 2011, Lady Gaga was arguably the biggest and most talked-about artist in the world with everything she did being an event from her high budget music videos to her outrageous fashion like the famous meat dress she wore to the MTV VMA Awards in 2010. So when Gaga put out Born This Way, her first full studio album since The Fame, anticipation was understandably very high. By her standards, the album was a smash selling just more than a million copies in the first week, an unprecedented figure in the digital age, debuting at #1 on the Billboard album 200 chart and launching four Top 10 hits starting with the title track debuting at #1, a single Gaga wrote in dedication to her fans and as a major statement.
Gaga wrote “Born This Way” in 10 minutes while on her worldwide Monster Ball tour in England which she described as a magical experience like the Immaculate Conception. Gaga also described the song as her freedom record and wanted to make an equality anthem that would directly get to the core of the issue and not have it watered down in poetic metaphors. She also talked about being influenced by ‘80s and ‘90s artists such as Madonna, Whitney Houston, TLC, En Vogue who were making empowering music for disenfranchised communities such as women and gay people (The Madonna inspiration will come back later on.). Talking to Billboard, “Born This Way” co-producer Fernando Garibay recalled seeing Gaga coming in distraught a lot while working on the Born This Way album on tour after many emotional meet-and-greets with her fans saying, “She talked about how there needed to be a voice, and some action, anything we could do. We realized that we could do something through song.”
There are many ways in which to look at “Born This Way.” One way to look at it is as a genuine political and empowerment statement on a major equal rights issue. Another way to look at it is an artist at the ultimate height of their imperial phase taking full advantage of their clout to make a grand political statement knowing it will sell because of their name. Honestly, both explanations work. There’s no way “Born This Way” would have gotten as big as it did if it wasn’t for Lady Gaga doing it. The whole song and its huge rollout with a Grammys performance and huge music video come across as a massive imperial flex, a “Because I can” moment. And considering her massive gay fan base and Gaga herself bisexual, it makes sense that she would use her imperial phase to bring attention to her fans and the difficulties they face being one of them herself.
On “Born This Way,” Gaga sings about loving who you are no matter what and sings about the advice she was given from her mother, “We are all born superstars/”There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are” She said, “‘Cause he made you perfect, babe.” And this part on the chorus comes across as a major imperial flex in making it about herself, “I’m beautiful in my way/’Cause God makes no mistakes/I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way.” She also makes several references to God and assures her audience that it’s okay to be gay and religious, “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M.” And on the bridge, she explicitly shouts out various groups of sexualities and ethnicities making it clear who she was dedicating the song to, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen/Whether you’re broke or evergreen/You’re black, white, beige, chola descent/You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient/No matter gay, straight, or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life.”
Musically, “Born This Way” definitely sounds like an artist in the middle of an imperial phase with the type of production that only Lady Gaga at the time could afford to make. It’s got a big loud electropop thump almost reminiscent of disco complete with loud expensive-sounding synths that seem to overpower every part in the song. It sounds like they were trying to put in every sound possible to make it sound as big as it does. Gaga sings the song with the feeling that she means everything she sings and some pseudo-rapping on the bridge.
Seeing that I’m not in the intended audience Gaga was reaching out to with “Born This Way” I can’t say it’s made a huge impact on me but for what it was attempting to do it does its job well. “Born This Way” isn’t my favorite single from the title album and yet it still holds up showing the best ways an artist can capitalize on their imperial phase while helping to uplift and bring attention to one of the major social and political issues of the 2010s just as it was picking up steam.
Almost a decade later, “Born This Way” has still made a big impact on our culture. Shortly after the song’s success, Gaga and her mother founded the Born This Way Foundation designed to combat youth bullying and Gaga’s performance of “Born This Way” during her Super Bowl LI Halftime show in 2017 marked the first time a Halftime performer ever mentioned the LGBTQ community. As Garibay pointed out, “We were able to make social justice cool and relevant again in pop music.” That’s not a bad legacy for a pop song to leave behind.
Aside from its message, “Born This Way” also generated attention and controversy over its perceived similarities to Madonna’s 1989 classic “Express Yourself” (“Express Yourself peaked at #2. It’s a 7.). Gaga was quick to point out that the only similarities the songs had were their chord progressions and mentioned that chord progression had been used very commonly in disco music. Gaga further complained that she shouldn’t be called out for musical plagiarism just because she’s the first artist to use the chord progression in a long time. As for Madonna, she seemed to be all okay with the similarities saying to Newsweek in 2012, “I thought, this is a wonderful way to redo my song. I mean, I recognized the chord changes. I thought it was…interesting.”
Now obviously, Gaga has cited Madonna as a major influence so she would have heard “Express Yourself” which would make this situation seem more sinister than it is. But I have to agree with Gaga on this. Sure, the chords and vocal melodies do sound alike but so do a lot of other songs like it. Chord progressions are basic ideas of music and are allowed to be used many times for different effects. Plus, it’s not like Gaga sampled “Express Yourself” or copied its main melody line. It’s able to stand on its own.
After “Born This Way,” the title album launched four more singles with the next three hitting the Top 10: “Judas,” (#10) “The Edge of Glory,” (#3) and “You And I” (#6) (Each single is a 6, 9, and 9 respectively.). After that, Gaga would continue riding high but “Born This Way” would be her last big hit for a long while. She followed up Born This Way with 2013’s Artpop, an album designed to continue Gaga’s ambition for making high art pop music. But despite a massive promotional push, the album represented a big downgrade from Born This Way with lower sales and mixed reviews.
In the wake of Artpop, Gaga split from her manager and began shifting her focus elsewhere such as recording a jazz duets album with Tony Bennett, acting in American Horror Story, sang “Til It Happens To You” for the sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground which she co-wrote with legendary songwriter Diane Warren which landed Gaga a nomination for Best Original Song at the 2016 Oscars losing to Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” from the James Bond film Spectre. Later on, she changed her sound and image to a more rootsier country and rock style on 2016’s Joanne. We’ll see Lady Gaga again in this column eventually and by then she’ll be singing movie soundtrack balladry karaoke with Bradley Cooper. We’re far from the shallow now.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s gloriously funny “Born This Way” parody “Perform This Way.”
THE NUMBER TWOS: CeeLo Green’s goofy profanity-laced retro-soul kiss-off “Fuck You” or “Forget You” if you’re going by the censored version peaked at #2 behind “Born This Way.” It’s a 10!