For The Record: The Liberating Joy Of Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' At 10
It's hard to imagine a more theatrical arrival to any event than Lady Gaga at the 53rd GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 13, 2011. Encased in a translucent ellipsoid, carried like a palanquin down the red carpet by a quartet of latex-clad models, Gaga herself was barely visible, but her presence was undeniable. Later that night, when she emerged from the egg-like container onto the GRAMMY stage, she wasn't simply performing her new single-she was introducing the world to a new era of her artistry.
Released on May 23, 2011, Born This Way was one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year; upon release, it sold more than 1 million copies in its first week, making Lady Gaga only the fifth female artist to reach that milestone. While eye-catching couture was de rigueur on her pre-release tour between February and May, the topic of her red carpet "vessel," as she called it, was still hot when she appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" on release night.
It was a symbol of her rebirth, she explained, deliberately facing the studio audience. "I believe that you can be reborn over and over again until you find that part of you that is the best you that you can be. I encourage everyone to do that."
She then cheekily turned to Letterman. "I wonder what would happen if I put you in an egg."
In some ways, the ease with which Gaga can flow from sincere expressions of depth to ribald humor is the essence of the artist. At once, she is both serious and facetious. It's how she can simultaneously convey absurdity and ferocity on the cover of Born This Way, which pictures her as an anthropomorphized motorcycle, or how she can take liberties with the German language on the song "Scheiße" without undermining a pining love song like "You and I."
If the biker babe aesthetic of the cover wasn't enough of a clue that Born This Way was here to rock, the album opens with the full-throttled aggression of the guitar-heavy "Marry The Night." In what would become one of her signature songs, Gaga declares herself a free spirit while simultaneously committing to a figurative union with darkness, in a vocal produced with radiant clarity by Fernando Garibay.
The sonic motif continues on the penultimate track, "You And I," the most surprising collaboration on the album. Known for producing albums by AC/DC and Def Leppard as well as Shania Twain, co-producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange delivers his pop-by-way-of-metal pedigree, which is uniquely suited for the moment, if only to remind listeners that the guitars on Born This Way aren't a fluke and neither are the hooks.
Even though Garibay, along with producer RedOne, had worked with Lady Gaga before, neither rehash their former glories here. Born This Way is remarkable for its unrelenting reinvention of the woman we know as Lady Gaga. A classic house and experimental techno enthusiast, Garibay is perhaps most audible in the album's decided turn away from Gaga's polished electro past toward a more raw, EDM-influenced future. Tracks like "Government Hooker" and "Heavy Metal Lover" play with Gaga's vocal as if she's inhabiting different skins, each reflecting various parts of herself and all creating soundtracks for stomping across strobe-lit dance floors.
On album closer "The Edge Of Glory," Garibay and Gaga deliver a benediction. "There ain't no reason you and me should be alone tonight," the song starts, implying the impending end of the LP isn't the end of our time with the singer. Before performing the song for Oprah in the final weeks of the host's daytime talk show, Gaga described how she wrote it at her piano as a tribute to her grandmother shortly before her passing. The rawness of her emotion is palpable as the song is both a celebration of life and a full-throated embrace of vulnerability. Even though E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons underscores Gaga's rock and roll daydreams with a record-defining run on the bridge, this ain't Gaga's "Thunder Road."
Instead, Born This Way is Lady Gaga's Ulysses. From her rebirth to her acceptance of mortality, the album is an epic journey of an artist as a young woman. At times, it comes across like a casual stream of consciousness by a pop star who knows how to conquer a dance floor and is laying claim to more. Elsewhere, she subtly reveals that she's actually always in total control. Just as James Joyce's novel once courted controversy, so, too, did Born This Way.
It's easy to forget how the overtly political title track was culturally polarizing only a decade ago. The song's message of self-empowerment through self-acceptance wasn't necessarily new on its own, not even when set to a high-energy dance beat. In fact, for decades, the combination of dance floor bangers with universally relatable lyrics had been embraced as unofficial gay anthems, signaling an unspoken but loudly sung message of validation and equality to LGBTQ+ audiences while carefully never disrupting the sensibilities of listeners intolerant of what was often described as a "lifestyle choice."
On "Born This Way," Lady Gaga, who is bisexual, is unequivocal: Not only are all people worthwhile, "no matter gay, straight, or bi," she sings on the track, but their sexuality is a birthright to be proud of. It's a succinct statement of love and visibility that's hard to dispute. As Oprah put it, "you encourage people to be comfortable being born the way they are, being born that way."
Just as it's hard to imagine a time before Lady Gaga was a household name, it's hard to remember that before 2011, LGBTQ+ rights weren't widely accepted or even openly discussed. For decades, artists had been discouraged by their managers and labels from taking similar stances, either in their music or in the press. Paralyzed by fears of alienating parts of their audiences or becoming targets of morality campaigns, pop artists were quiet at best when it came to issues of LGBTQ+ equality. With the forces of change moving quickly toward progress, thanks to a string of legal and legislative victories, "Born This Way"—as a credo and the first bona fide gay anthem that explicitly advocates for gay rights—arrived at the exact moment when Americans needed it.
In the hands of an artist without Lady Gaga's credibility, a song like "Born This Way" could have been dismissed as pandering or propaganda. In the three years between releasing her 2008 debut album, The Fame, and Born This Way, Gaga had already established herself as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. For all her theatricality, as an artist who existed beyond the confines of concert stages, music videos and even music itself, Gaga routinely shattered the illusion of a fourth wall to connect with her audience. Her 24/7 commitment to being Lady Gaga created often-unfiltered content for emerging social media platforms, notably Twitter, where fans were eager to like, retweet and devour her every move. Whether she was walking the 10 feet from her hotel to a car or staying up all night with a bottle of wine to respond to tweets about her album on the eve of its release, Gaga made herself accessible, reachable and knowable. She also knew her fans.
As much as she expressed herself through her art, Lady Gaga was unapologetic about who that art was for. While the story of most fan bases speaks to the positioning of an artist in the market and the reception of their work by customers, the relationship between "Mother Monster" and her legion of "Little Monsters" became uniquely vital to her craft on Born This Way. Lady Gaga showed the world that her fans weren't simply there to respond to her work—they were actively inspiring it.