Like everything Lady Gaga does, the hype campaign for her new single, “Born This Way,” has been so grandiosely theatrical that it seems, simultaneously, like genius and a joke. Ever since the summer, she has been teasing concert audiences and interviewers about the record with the subtlety of a grindhouse mare, establishing the title as a catch phrase months before she revealed the song. Lobbed a set-up question in a TV interview, she said she already knew what she would call a movie of her life: “Born This Way.” Fan cell-phone videos made at concerts all over the country last year show her doing a kind of Pentacostal motivational-workshop speech, invariably ending with variations on the phrase, “You’re a superstar, and you were born that way.” Finally, this Monday, she tweeted: “Can’t wait any longer, single coming Friday.” Two days later, her publicists issued a statement that Lady Gaga, “the most influential music artist in the world,” would indeed release “Born This Way” (not the exclusionary “That,” but the inclusionary “This Way”) at precisely 6:00 a.m. on February 11, two days before the Grammys. The Lady neatly co-opted the manufactured buzz of Grammy weekend, a trick I can only admire; her buzz is better made than the Grammy machinery’s.
If only “Born This Way,” the song, was as well-made as its hype. The song is a mess: catchy and inflated, musically, and deeply, even dangerously mixed up lyrically. “I’m beautiful in my way,” Lady Gaga sings, “‘Cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby. I was born this way.” Crafted as a fight song of self-pride, “Born This Way” is already widely talked about as a gay anthem. Elton John, in his cover-story interview in the current Rolling Stone, calls it “the anthem that’s going to obliterate ‘I Will Survive.’ I can’t think of how huge it’s going to be.” That’s great to hear, because I’ve been tired of “I Will Survive” for 20 years now.
What’s unfortunate about “Born This Way,” lyrically, is that it grossly over-simplifies issues of identity that Lady Gaga, in every aspect of her outrageous constructedness, presents as wonderfully complicated. After all, the notion of inheritance and destiny as inextricable informs both prejudice and pride in sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and class. Until this song, everything Lady Gaga has done has been a challenge to the proposition that identity is God-given and fixed at birth. I’m not calling Lady Gaga a Nazi when I point out the fact that a conception of individual identity as a matter purely of genetic make-up is a dangerous thing. It denies the endless possibilities of Max Factor make-up, too.