They don’t make them like this anymore. I can’t think of very many albums released in the 2010s that offered the same level of spectacle as Born This Way. Lady Gaga was the last gasp of omnipresent pop music. Born This Way, or at least its singles, served as a great unifier, blasting out of suburban minivans and gay club speakers alike. The album, which came out 10 years ago this weekend, spent six weeks on top of the Billboard 200, and that was only a small fraction of the time that Gaga spent in the public consciousness in the years leading up to and surrounding the release of her sophomore album. There were enough award show appearances (meat dress!), hit singles (four top 10s), and controversial conversation starters (“Judas” coming out during Holy Week) to keep the rollout for Born This Way going for nearly an entire year.
It all started when Gaga announced the title of her new album in characteristically dramatic fashion while accepting the Video Of The Year award for “Bad Romance” at the MTV Video Music Awards in the fall of 2010. After thanking all her little monsters, she belted out the chorus of the album’s title track and eventual lead single “Born This Way”: “I’m beautiful in my way because God makes no mistakes/ I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” It served as both a teaser for her new era and a reflection of the dominance that she had established over the few years prior to that night. Coming off two commercial behemoths in The Fame and The Fame Monster — which between them spun off two #1s and even more hits — she was poised to make something momentous. Whatever she did next couldn’t fail, which means she had enough leeway with her label to do whatever the fuck she wanted and enough resources at her disposal to realize her ambitious vision.
That vision included a sprawling and gloriously overstuffed album in Born This Way. Its essential expanded edition clocks in at 17 tracks spanning an hour-plus and is stuffed to the gills with world-conquering pop bombast and satisfying deep cuts. Gaga’s cast of collaborators included RedOne (who was behind her earlier trio of hits “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “LoveGame” and followed her to “Bad Romance”) and Fernando Garibay (who pushed Gaga in a more arena rock direction on “Dance In The Dark”) but the motivation to succeed was all Gaga’s own. She was not going to fuck this up. Born This Way was her chance to make good on the revolutionary promise of her pop beginnings and blend it with an inspirational message. She wanted to solidify her legacy and she wanted that legacy to be one of acceptance, specifically for the LGBTQ community.
Lead single “Born This Way” accomplished those aims. It’s easy to forget how different the culture was when it came out only a decade ago. The big topic of the times was repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Gay marriage was still four years away from being legalized countrywide. Drag Race was still in standard definition. While 10 years later the US still struggles to provide basic fundamental human rights to trans people, “Born This Way” was a beacon of hope for so many. It’s completely over-the-top and clunky in some of its wording — feel free to cringe at “No matter black, white, or beige/ Chola or orient-made” — but it became anthemic for all the right reasons.
“Born This Way” is a pumped-up pop glitter-bomb — its big-budget music video opens with an excessively theatrical two-and-a-half-minute voiceover in which Gaga presents inclusivity as a biblical battle between good and evil, culminating with the only part of the speech that’s retained on the album version of the track: “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M/ Just put your paws up/ ‘Cause you were born this way, baby.” So begins a pop song so commanding that it’s basically impossible to resist. With a futuristic squelch of digital noise and a reliable fist-pumping beat, Gaga carves out the sort of place she wants to see in the world.
The making of Born This Way matched Gaga’s lofty aspirations. Garibay, one of the album’s main producers, once talked about the rigorous recording process behind Born This Way: “It reminded me of those documentaries with mega bands from the ’70s like Pink Floyd, who would record in these big studio sessions. It felt like that. It felt like we were creating something really special.” The album took over a year to record and sessions took place all over the world, from Abbey Road in London to a recording studio in Miami Beach. In addition to the many producers that have a hand in any major-label pop album, Gaga brought in some names from the rock world, namely the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons and Queen’s Brian May, to help her achieve the album’s blend of glam metal and Springsteen anthemics.
The album is all over the place in the best way possible, a constantly evolving eternal party full of razor-sharp pop choruses and songs that mix science fiction oddity with classic rock (and classical) sounds. Every track is high drama and high concept, creating different worlds every time a new one starts up. “Americano” channels Fiddler On The Roof through a pounding disco beat. “Government Hooker” serves electrofunk conspiracy slut with gleefully naughty lyrics like “Put your hands on me John F. Kennedy/ I’ll make you squeal, baby, as long as you pay me.” “Hair” is transcendent Broadway treacle by way of ABBA. “Scheiße,” despite being potentially cursed, is a club banger of the highest order. And that’s only the first half of the album! The rest is just as far-reaching and varied, with dance floor-ready jams and songs where Gaga fuses rock excess with the trash-pop aesthetics of her earlier iteration.
Throughout, Gaga returns to the idea of acceptance. On “Bad Kids,” she conjures up a group of misfits who are just trying their best to survive. “Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure,” she sings to them. “You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid, baby.” On “Hair” she croons: “I just wanna be myself and I want you to love me for who I am.” Her songs often speak directly to the listener, offering understanding to an audience who are so often misunderstood. It’s no coincidence that Gaga is referred to by her fans as Mother Monster. She’s a comforting presence, a theatrical oddball who encourages everyone to embrace their inner oddball. By side-stepping specifics and offering blanket redemption, she does what a good pop song is supposed to do: make you feel better for a few minutes at a time.
Born This Way ends with two of Gaga’s most enduring classics. There’s “Yoü And I,” a song so palatable that even my 93-year-old grandmother likes it, on which Gaga sounds the most like Stefani Germanotta as she tells a classic American tale of love and loss complete with whiskey and muscle cars and laments for her cool Nebraska guy. And closer “The Edge Of Glory” brings back the rest of the album’s electrified edge: “It’s hot to feel the rush, to brush the dangerous/ I’m gonna run right to the edge with you/ Where we can both fall far in love.” Both songs serve as a reminder of Gaga’s one-of-a-kind vocals and underline her ability to capture the realities of human emotion as fantastical pop songs.
On the album’s ridiculous cover art, Gaga’s head is superimposed on top of a motorcycle. It’s ugly (sorry!) but it’s also an apt reflection of the balance of her music on Born This Way: mostly machine, but with an unmistakable humanity. “I am half-fantasy and half-reality,” she once said in an interview. “And I am endless in my ability to transform.” The reason why Gaga was so successful, and why Born This Way still holds up today, is that she was one of the last pop stars who didn’t have to try and be relatable. She could be anything and everything — she was an avatar of acceptance for those who needed her, a lightning rod for controversy for those who needed that. She was authentic, but there was never any sense that we knew Lady Gaga, at least at this point in her career — she was pure invention. As the industry has chased likes and relatability over global domination, the music populating the charts has gotten both more personal and more anonymous. Gaga was perhaps the last major pop star who felt unattainable yet endlessly intriguing. She was defiantly weird and injected a much-needed dose of unreality into pop music.
I’m reminded of a recent quote from Charli XCX — another pop auteur, who is in some ways carrying on the Gaga mantle. “I want to see the hyperreal, the fantastical, the absolutely avant-garde and out of this world,” she said. “I don’t want to be friends with my favorite pop star. I want to be like, ‘Oh my God, they would, like, stomp on me, they’re so sick!'” The dramatics that Gaga exhibited on Born This Way might have receded from the mainstream, but they have thrived in the underground pop world, where artificiality is a given. It’s no wonder that so many of today’s pop luminaries, from Dua Lipa to Rina Sawayama, look toward her for inspiration, passing over many of her contemporaries. It’s why Gaga managed to adapt so well to the current pop landscape with Chromatica last year — despite her brief foray into exploring her more personal side, she’s always thrived when pushing the boundaries of what pop music can be. A decade on, Born This Way represents Lady Gaga at the height of her powers — a forward-thinking vision of both the world and the way that music can define it.