The Number Ones

February 26, 2011

The Number Ones: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Nobody could tell Lady Gaga shit. That’s what you need to know about Born This Way. Born This Way only makes sense when you know its context, and the context was: Nobody could tell Lady Gaga shit. A couple of years earlier, Gaga, a little known club-pop singer who’d already lost one major-label contract and who was in danger of losing another, tapped right the fuck into the zeitgeist and became the most important pop artist of an era full of important pop artists. When you pull off something like that, you get to do what you want.

Lady Gaga’s debut single “Just Dance” bubbled for months before finally rising all the way to #1. Almost immediately afterward, Gaga landed another chart-topper with “Poker Face.” Those hits, and the many that followed, utterly reshaped the face of pop music, transforming it into something much more theatrical and club-centric than it had been. Most of the songs that reached #1 in the next few years sounded like they were trying to reckon with what Gaga had done — to imitate it, to adapt it, or to cut against it. A few other hits anticipated pop’s fabled EDM era, but that era really began with Gaga.

As the pop world rearranged itself around her, Lady Gaga just kept cranking out hits. In the two years after “Poker Face,” none of Gaga’s singles went all the way to #1 — not even “Bad Romance,” an epochal jam that topped out at #2. (It’s a 10.) The Fame, Gaga’s debut album, had four top-10 hits. The Fame Monster, the interstitial bonus-cuts EP that Gaga released rather than a deluxe edition of the album, had another three. Three massive hits! From an EP! That never happens. Gaga was in outer space, coasting through the kind of imperial era that very, very few pop stars ever get to enjoy.

Through this very busy moment, Lady Gaga stayed on the road, but she also kept working on her second album, fitting recording sessions in wherever she could. She wanted to keep her momentum, but she also wanted to make big statements. Gaga knew that she was in a rare position and that she could say whatever she wanted. She was too big to fail, and her next album would be among the most feverishly awaited and scrutinized sophomore records in history. With her big-swing “Born This Way” video, Gaga didn’t even let the song start for a solid two and a half minutes. Instead, over Bernard Herrmann’s hysteric strings from the Vertigo score, Gaga intoned, “This is the manifesto of Mother Monster.” That’s exactly how she saw the song, and it’s exactly how the song was received. Manifestos don’t often make for good pop music, but then again, pop stars don’t often get the chance to issue their manifestos when they know the world is listening.

Lady Gaga began her Born This Way album rollout in September 2010, as she accepted the VMA for Video Of The Year. Gaga was teetering on vertiginous heels and draped in strings of animal flesh — the instantly-infamous meat dress immediately became a big part of her iconography. That night, Gaga had already won different awards while wearing different outfits, but this was the big one. She took it seriously. (Earlier in the night, Gaga said, “God bless pop music, and God bless MTV,” and you know she meant that shit.) Tears streamed down Gaga’s face as she hoisted the last Moonman of the night. Cher, all dressed up in the outfit from her “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, looked on, and you couldn’t quite tell if she was proud or bemused. Through sobs, Gaga said that her next record would be called Born This Way, and she belted out the hook of the title track.

Gaga didn’t have much of a budget when she recorded The Fame; she and her primary collaborator, the Moroccan-born producer RedOne, were basically unknown quantities. When Gaga made Born This Way, her situation was very different. RedOne was still involved in Born This Way, but Gaga found another prime collaborator: Fernando Garibay, a Mexican-American producer who’d gotten his start working with Enrique Iglesias, an artist who’s been in this column a few times, in the late ’90s. Garibay was an in-house guy at Interscope, working on label projects like Paris Hilton. (Garibay co-wrote and co-produced Hilton’s 2006 single “Stars Are Blind,” an absolute banger that peaked at #18.) In 2009, he worked on “Dance In The Dark,” one of Gaga’s non-singles from The Fame Monster.

While Lady Gaga recorded Born This Way, Fernando Garibay travelled with her, working on music whenever and wherever they had time. Sometimes, they laid down tracks at mega-expensive studios like Abbey Road. Sometimes, Gaga sang into laptop mics. Gaga obsessively re-recorded all the songs on the album, trying them out in different genres and arrangements. For some of the tracks, Gaga ultimately went for all-out house-music boom. On others, she shot for over-the-top arena-rock, bringing in titans like Mutt Lange, Queen guitarist Brian May, and E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons. On “Born This Way,” Gaga sort of did both at the same time.

“Born This Way” arrived after a full season of inspirational be-yourself anthems jammed up the charts, with Kesha’s “We R Who We R,” Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” all landing at #1 in quick succession. All of those songs have subtextual gay-rights themes, but none of them come out and address those themes concretely. Gaga later claimed that she wrote “Born This Way” in 10 minutes, but she was very clear about what she wanted to say with the song. Talking to Billboard shortly after the song’s release, Gaga described those goals, and her words are worth quoting at length:

I said, “I want to write my freedom record. I want to write my this-is-who-the-fuck-I-am anthem,” but I don’t want it to be hidden in poetic wizardry and metaphors. I want it to be an attack, an assault on the issue because I think, especially in today’s music, everything gets kind of washy sometimes, and the message gets hidden in the lyrical play.

Harkening back to the early ’90s, when Madonna, En Vogue, Whitney Houston, and TLC were making very empowering music for women and the gay community and all kind of disenfranchised communities, the lyrics and the melodies were very poignant and very gospel and very spiritual. And I said, “That’s the kind of record I need to make.” That’s the record that’s going to shake up the industry. It’s not about the track. It’s not about the production. It’s about the song. Anyone could sing “Born This Way.” It could’ve been anyone.

More than “Firework” and those other predecessors, “Born This Way” is a message record. Lady Gaga didn’t just want to tell people to feel good about themselves; she wanted to identify the people she was working to uplift. Years later, it’s almost weird to think that all these other pop stars weren’t using words like “gay” on their tracks. Gaga made it plain, shouting out different communities. There are only so many ways to read the line “don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” I don’t remember the word “transgender” even being in the mainstream lexicon before Gaga shouted it out on “Born This Way.”

Gaga’s lyrics haven’t all aged well. Plenty of them have that patina of well-meaning rich-white-lady cluelessness: “You’re Black, white, beige, chola descent! You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient!” (I always heard it as “you’re heaven-sent,” not “chola descent,” but no, yeek. Fifteen years before “Born This Way,” I knew that Asians consider “Oriental” to be a slur; maybe Gaga should’ve taken longer than 10 minutes to write that part.) Those lyrics clang harder than most because “Born This Way” feels more like a song of this moment than, say, “Firework” does. “Born This Way” came out four years before gay marriage was even legal in America, and its fierce empathy was both pointed and exciting. Gaga fucked some things up, but she correctly realized that she had a limited window make something culturally impactful, and she made it count. That’s worth admiring.

As a student of pop history, Gaga must’ve known that most message songs are leaden and lecture-y, and she wanted to make sure that “Born This Way” could be fun while being meaningful. She had a surprising co-conspirator there. “Born This Way” has two listed songwriters: Gaga and Jeppe Laursen, a Danish producer who’d previously been one half of Junior Senior, the giddy dance-pop duo whose frantic and ecstatic pan-genre party anthems briefly made them into a critical sensation in the early ’00s.

Junior Senior only made two albums, and they broke up in 2008, but their 2002 single “Move Your Feet” was a big UK hit that still pops up in commercials and on animated-movie soundtracks. I never loved “Move Your Feet,” but I heard it over the loudspeakers at my local indoor trampoline park a couple of years ago, and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate trampoline-park jam. (As far as I can tell, Jeppe Laursen has done almost nothing since he co-wrote “Born This Way.” Good for him. If I had “Born This Way” royalties rolling in, I would be chilling so hard that you’d never see me again.)

Lady Gaga co-produced “Born This Way” with Jeppe Laursen, Fernando Garibay, and DJ White Shadow, a dance producer who caught Gaga’s attention while playing records in LA clubs. Before working on “Born This Way,” DJ White Shadow’s only real credits were for writing songs for Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokémon-esque anime. He’s been working with Gaga ever since. There’s a lot of house and disco in the “Born This Way” production, and Gaga later claimed that the song was inspired directly by “I Was Born This Way,” a gay-pride disco epic that the singer and queer activist Carl Bean released in 1977.

But there’s another obvious inspiration for “Born This Way,” and Gaga quickly got upset when people kept asking her about it. Madonna, Gaga’s most obvious progenitor, released her own be-yourself anthem in 1989, and it sounds a whole hell of a lot like “Born This Way.” Virtually everything about “Born This Way” calls right back to “Express Yourself”: The melody, the ebullient strings, the gospel-style backing vocals, the dancefloor-positivity message. That callback isn’t a bad thing. “Express Yourself” is an incredible song, one that’s worth reviving. Madonna herself was an expert synthesist who took the sounds floating around in the air and transformed them into excellent but not-terribly-original pop anthems. If “Born This Way” came out today, Madonna and Lady Gaga’s respective teams would’ve probably worked out some kind of songwriting-credit situation. That wasn’t how it went down in 2011. (“Express Yourself” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

When asked about Madonna, Lady Gaga would always profess her love and fandom, but she’d also mention a bunch of other pop stars who inspired her. (She does it in that Billboard-interview quote above.) At one point, Gaga got mad enough to use a particular slur that’s often aimed at people with disabilities — a sad irony when you consider the content of “Born This Way.” (Gaga later apologized.) Madonna herself seemed at least a little bit pissed, too, telling Newsweek, “I thought, this is a wonderful way to redo my song. I mean, I recognized the chord changes. I thought it was… interesting.” I wonder what might’ve happened if Madonna and Gaga had embraced their similarities and formed a cross-generational bond, but that’s just now how these things usually go; just look at Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo today. In any case, when she toured in 2012, Madonna would sing a little bit of “Born This Way” while performing “Express Yourself.”

Madonna and Lady Gaga never fully went into feud mode, but their respective fan armies definitely did. As a neutral party in this particular conflict, my position is that “Born This Way” is definitely totally derivative of “Express Yourself.” The similarities were immediate and glaring and impossible to ignore. The first time I heard “Born This Way,” my first reaction was: “Oh, she’s doing ‘Express Yourself.’ Cool.” Pop songs rip each other off all the time. It’s a good thing. It’s healthy. It’s what’s supposed to happen. Usually, the biting isn’t quite so obvious, but “Born This Way” bangs hard on its own, and it does things that “Express Yourself” doesn’t do. I’m happy to live in a world where we get both songs, even if those two songs are awfully similar.

In the inevitable Madonna comparison, one advantage that Lady Gaga has is her big-ass howitzer voice. Madonna doesn’t have that. On “Born This Way,” Gaga wails up at the ceiling lights, going for full-on gospel catharsis. Tamar Braxton’s heavy-duty backing vocals do some of the work there, but Gaga holds her own. (Tamar Braxton’s highest-charting single, 2012’s “Love And War,” peaked at #57. Her big sister Toni has been in this column a couple of times.) The layered, elaborate production has gigantic house-music kickdrums and abrasive electro synth-squiggles working in concert with the melodic catharsis. It’s always reminded me of “Hear My Name,” a euphoric and under-heard banger that the New York house producer Armand Van Helden released in 2004.

Beyond the message, one of the coolest things about “Born This Way” is the way that it takes these sounds from the underground club world and transforms them into the most muscular, over-the-top pop-blockbuster production that anyone could’ve even imagined in 2011. “Born This Way” is sheer maximalism, to the point where it turns house music into stadium-rock. That sonic intensity can be exhausting when it’s not deployed right, but Gaga knows how to make those hooks land.

Gaga turned the release of “Born This Way” into a gigantic cultural event. Two days after the song’s release, she performed it live for the first time at the Grammys. The production was typically insane. Gaga came out of an egg-shaped spaceship, doing a huge choreographed dance routine with a little Phantom Of The Opera interlude, the song’s arrangement eventually morphing into what sounded like a Meat Loaf track. She really knew how to keep the world’s attention.

For the “Born This Way” video, Gaga enlisted fashion photographer Nick Knight as director, and she devised an utterly deranged over-the-top storyline about birthing a new race of Little Monsters devoid of prejudice. For much of the video, Gaga and her friends are covered in Cronenbergian birth-goop. We also see a lot of Gaga staring down the camera out next to Rick Genest, otherwise known as Zombie Boy, the late model and body-modification enthusiast who had his whole body tattooed to look like a skeleton. Gaga had herself painted up to match, though she didn’t get the tattoos. There was, it turned out, a ceiling to Gaga’s freakiness.

In its first week, “Born This Way” sold almost half a million downloads — the most in iTunes history to that point. Gaga timed that single release very deliberately. “Born This Way” debuted at #1, becoming the thousandth chart-topper in Hot 100 history. Gaga told Billboard that the milestone was the “greatest honor” of her career, as if it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. (And yes, that means this is column #1,000. What am I doing?)

The Born This Way album didn’t come out for another three months. When it arrived, it became the first album since Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III to sell a million copies in its first week, though it achieved that number largely because Amazon, in a play for Apple’s market share, sold the full LP as a 99-cent download. Before the album’s release, Gaga followed “Born This Way” with the RedOne production “Judas,” which sounded a whole lot like “Bad Romance” and which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.)

The “Born This Way” single was a legitimate smash that eventually went platinum six times over. The album was big, too, and it went quadruple platinum — a couple of million sales short of what The Fame had done. Gaga’s other singles did well; they just didn’t do as well. She reached #3 with “The Edge Of Glory,” a thumping arena-rock juggernaut with a downright awesome saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons, who had a stroke and died just a few days after shooting the video. Some days, “The Edge Of Glory” is my favorite Lady Gaga song. (“The Edge Of Glory” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)

Gaga went even more arena-rock with the epic Born This Way closer “Yoü And I,” a Mutt Lange production with a Brian May guitar solo that peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) Through the whole album cycle, Gaga indulged all of her excesses, doing award-show appearances in her invented male alter-ego Jo Calderone. It was a lot. Gaga definitely lost some people as that extra-theatrical campaign wore on. Her imperial era didn’t completely end with Born This Way, but it definitely slowed down. The end was coming.

With her next album, Lady Gaga tried for even bigger theatrics, and that’s where the imperial era definitively ground to a halt. Gaga led off 2013’s Artpop with “Applause,” a song that’s literally about needing all of the world’s attention. Taylor Swift can relate; she’s currently using “Applause” as one of her Eras Tour entrance songs. “Applause” did pretty well, peaking at #4. (It’s a 7.) The album’s second single was “Do What U Want,” a horny collaboration with R. Kelly, a guy who’s been in this column more than once. That song came out just as the world finally, belatedly turned against Kelly, and Gaga later removed it from streaming. In the moment, “Do What U Want” only made it to #13.

Artpop has its own cult, but it’s only gone platinum once, and that took four years. By Gaga’s standards, the album was a definitive flop. Lady Gaga went into rebuilding mode. She made her acting debut, playing small roles in the unsuccessful Robert Rodriguez sequels Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. She starred in a couple of seasons of American Horror Story, one of which won her a Golden Globe. She further indulged her theater-kid impulses by getting together with old show-business warhorse Tony Bennett and releasing Cheek To Cheek, an album of jazz standards. Gaga and Bennett were cute together, and their team-up clearly meant a lot to both singers.

Lady Gaga tried to score another big pop moment with the 2016 album Joanne. She went for the old reliable back-to-basics move. She wore cowboy hats. She sang personal songs. She worked with credibility-boosting rock-artist types: Beck, Father John Misty, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, future Number Ones artist Mark Ronson. It didn’t work. Lead single “Perfect Illusion” peaked at #15, and the album did exactly the same numbers as Artpop. Gaga managed one late-breaking hit when her big piano ballad “Million Reasons” eventually surged to #4. (It’s another 7.)

“Million Reasons” charted that high for a very specific reason. Upon its release, the song struggled to get halfway up the Hot 100. In 2017, though, Lady Gaga played the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and she gave a pretty great performance. “Million Reasons” got a big showcase moment in that Halftime Show. So did “Born This Way.” The Halftime Show looked like a worthy career-capper for Lady Gaga, who was clearly nowhere near the center of the pop conversation anymore. Instead, Gaga had essentially moved into her legacy-artist phase. She still had her fan army, and she’d left a huge cultural imprint. She’d already been nominated for her first Oscar, co-writing a Diane Warren ballad for a documentary about sexual assault.

You could see where Lady Gaga’s career was going: playing Vegas residencies, championing worthy causes, landing occasional movie roles. That kind of thing happens to just about every pop star eventually. Nobody can remain at the center of attention forever. And that was where Lady Gaga’s career went next. But something funny happened. While making that transition, Lady Gaga came back in a big way — not quite to the level of monocultural dominance that she’d once enjoyed, but enough that she became a different kind of pop titan. Eventually, we’ll take another look at her.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: I don’t think baby Ariana Grande, a future Lady Gaga collaborator, meant anything rude when she covered “Born This Way” and mashed it up with Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Here’s the video that Ariana made for her 2011 cover:

(Ariana Grande will appear in this column a bunch of times.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: I guess Little Big Town, a country group who I like a bunch, used to have a YouTube series where they’d play harmony-heavy acoustic country covers of other people’s songs. I had no idea! Here’s their 2011 version of “Born This Way”:

(Little Big Town’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Girl Crush,” peaked at #18.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Whenever “Weird Al” Yankovic parodies an artist’s song, he gets permission from that artist first, even though he doesn’t legally have to do that, since satire has that First Amendment protection. Weird Al spent a bunch of money making his “Born This Way” parody “Perform This Way,” but Gaga’s management team denied him permission. Weird Al posted the video on YouTube anyway — I guess he doesn’t feel like he needs permission for that — and Gaga called him up and gave her personal blessing. “Perform This Way,” like “Smells Like Nirvana,” is one of those rare Weird Al parodies that’s about the artist he’s spoofing, rather than food or TV reruns or whatever. Here’s his “Perform This Way” video:

(Say it with me now: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Last month, my colleague Rachel Brodsky interviewed Alice Cooper for Stereogum, and he said a bunch of transphobic bullshit. That sucked! Rachel was trying to give him credit as a pioneering gender-bender, but he did the disappointing stuff that old-school rocker guys do so often. Alice Cooper sang a different tune in 2012, when he covered “Born This Way” while performing at Bonnaroo and twisted up the lyrics to reflect his own androgynous history. The cover wasn’t good or anything, but the gesture was nice. Here it is:

(Alice Cooper’s two highest-charting singles, 1972’s “School’s Out” and 1989’s “Poison,” both peaked at #7. “School’s Out” is a 9, and “Poison” is an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2021, Lady Gaga released a 10th-anniversary edition of Born This Way, and she brought in a few different artists to cover her songs. One of them was Orville Peck, the glammed-out camp-country artist, who did his own version of the title track. Here it is:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. It’s beautiful in its way ’cause I don’t make no mistakes. You’re on the right track, baby, you can buy it this way.

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