Why Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Album Is Still as Critical as Ever a Decade Later

“My mama told me when I was young/ We are all born superstars.”

The familiar opening line of “Born This Way,” the title track from a certain seminal album, carries just a little weight for Lady Gaga, who was born Stefani Germanotta, and who by her own volition became a classically-trained, boundary-pushing social provocateur with a vital presence in the pop zeitgeist. It takes a certain caliber of artist to become mononymous: Prince. Madonna. Gaga.

Lady Gaga and pop culture both looked quite different in 2011 during Born This Way’s initial release, and reviewing Gaga’s boldness from that time — both in her melodramatic public persona and innovative production choices — serves as a reminder for how much has changed in the decade that has passed since. Gay marriage had not yet been legalized in America in 2011; themes of same-sex romance run like an electric current through the record. Born This Way was, by any metric, risky. Upon release, it was also, by any metric, an absolute smash.

Off the heels of The Fame Monster, Gaga’s explosive debut studio album, anticipation for Born This Way was through the roof. (Remember, this was before Twitter standom as we know it today, so such hype was mostly expressed through message boards, the flying off the stands of magazines featuring Gaga, iTunes downloads, and good ol’ word of mouth.) Ahead of the full record, the single “Born This Way” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold 448,000 digital downloads in three days — the most downloads in a first week by a female artist at the time. Upon release, the full album went platinum immediately, selling over a million copies its first week.

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Appropriately, for an album heavily rooted in themes of catharsis and freedom, Born This Way allowed Lady Gaga to shed just a few of her many brightly colored layers and begin to refine her voice as a fully-formed artist.

If you’re to believe the numerous think pieces about it, it’s the far more recent release of the film A Star Is Born that marked an upward shift in Lady Gaga’s artistic legitimacy. This isn’t entirely fair. Granted, her work on the film, from writing to performance, is exemplary, even revelatory in places — but Gaga has been creating authentic art from the start.

Born This Way includes writing in four different languages: English, Spanish, German, and French. Gaga wrote on all fourteen tracks on the album. And for the record, “You And I,” a bona fide country-rock song dripping with yearning more fitting for people far beyond Gaga’s then-25 years, wouldn’t have sounded out of place in A Star Is Born.

The cover art for “You And I” famously featured Gaga’s foray into dressing in drag, a dramatic front for a vulnerable song. Audiences flocked to every one of Gaga’s eyebrow-raising tricks, only to be met with moments of incredibly wise songwriting, hook, line, and sinker. Elsewhere, her relatively meteoric rise to superstardom arrived with plenty of criticism and a huge number of accusations that her work was of a gimmicky, derivative nature, but part of Gaga’s brilliance is that she never pretended that what she was doing was entirely novel. She knew, like any great actress, that she was just playing her part of the popstar perfectly.

Born This Way is genre-spanning, and the 2021 remixes and covers prove just how well the songs hold up. The more raw moments that serve as predecessors to Gaga’s later work, particularly Joanne, are not any more important than the pure pop found elsewhere on the album, though. Born This Way ushered in a refreshed era — an entire decade, even — that underscores the absolute necessity of joyful, cathartic pop.

This past year in particular proved how much this exact strain of pop music matters. This time of isolation and stagnancy proved what many communities — particularly queer communities — have always known to be true: that celebrating moments of pure jubilation, simply rejoicing in the act of being alive, is a happiness all its own.

The overwhelming darkness that hovered over 2020 was pierced by albums like Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia. Appropriately, it also included Lady Gaga’s duet with Ariana Grande, in the form of the unrestrained joy that is “Rain On Me.” Few musical moments speak to the experience of quite literally making it through 2020 as the chorus of the Grammy-winning hit: “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive.”

It’s undeniable that Gaga played a huge part in inaugurating this decade’s pop renaissance — she is the baton-twirling grandmaster in an ecstatic procession. Born This Way opens with “Marry The Night,” and the Lady Gaga of 2021 has laid her heart bare in so many ways throughout this past decade that a lyric like “I won’t cry anymore/ I’ll hold my whiskey up high” feels consistent and unsurprising. But there, tucked away in the bridge of a 2011 track, it was Lady Gaga stepping fully into herself, the Mother Monster for us all.

I asked a friend what “Born This Way” and the album as a whole might mean to her. She told me that in the moments when she’s heard the song playing — pressed between strangers or friends under dim lights — these are the moments when she’s felt the happiest she’s ever been to be gay. In 2011, Lady Gaga stood on the Grammys stage and sang with her entire chest: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life, I’m on the right track baby/ I was born to survive.” She was born to be brave. She also told an entire generation that they could be brave, too, simply by making it to another day.

After a decade, this message rings true, and it rings loud, and Lady Gaga is still carrying that baton. How lucky we are to be part of her parade.

Music

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