Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in February 2011
Two months before “Born This Way” debuted and peaked at #1 for six weeks, a lame duck Congress about to lose its Democratic majorities after the 2010 midterm election slaughter repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Events don’t control artists, but art assumes tints that the artist neglected in response to events. In those heady and bewildering months of continued Republican assault on the idea of a black president who tried every tactic of accommodation, “Born This Way” accrued a declamatory power emboldened by this historical moment. Certainly it would’ve been more powerful after a squirming and obviously uncomfortable George W. Bush declared his support for traditional marriage in the spring of 2004, anticipating an election cycle in which men and women afraid of sodomy and the two nice women who lived next door and greeted them before going to work voted to give this man another four years in the White House.
It’s not that “Born This Way” was too late — it’s that for this homosexual “Born This Way” was a gesture of well-meaning vacuity. And it wasn’t for me — Gaga, like Barack Obama, aimed to convert the center of politics and commerce with which so many are besotted, whom, Gaga and Obama assumed, would submit to, if not the logic, the pathos of their rhetorical intentions. As support for gay marriage became a majority in 2011, it seemed like Gaga had won while the Obama-indebted 2009-2010 Congress had moved just as a majority — but not a plurality — of the American public had decided the last eighteen months had unfurled as an example of perfidious overreach.
Confident about its ebullience, “Born This Way,” I’ll repeat, was not for me, a thirtysomething gay man at the time who had been dancing to blatantly gay material for years and, because he had felt pop music down to the smallest capillaries, had read queer subtexts in the sweatiest of songs. Look, if the pedantry of “Born This Way” keeps a gay boy from jumping off a bridge, fantastic; but I evaluate neither the intentions nor consequences of pop music. “Born This Way” isn’t, like great pop, incidentally “universal.” She endorses a featureless universalism. Her voice, while robust and arena-ready, doesn’t grate or register merely as a signifier of Fun and Abandon, it’s colorless. On “Born This Way” she declaims like an HR vice president. If the beats were any good, the point would be moot.With considerable help from DJ White Shadow and Jeppe Laursen’s stentorian and inflexible ULTRA Music Festival-indebted beats, Gaga diminishes the power of its “message,” a sad irony, for its collage of transnational ciphers (“black, white, beige, chola descent”) incarnates the kind of “diversity” that doesn’t honor differences so much as reduce them to signifiers of empowerment. Why else would Gaga include the lyric, “We are all born superstars”? Gay kids don’t want to be “superstars” — they want to date and love in a world that respects the abyss between them and their straight brethren. They want to be Clark Kents. They want to live boring lives that don’t wince in terror when they kiss their lovers in public. The culture had changed in the ten years before “Born This Way” such that this putative anthem sounds like a breathless artifact.
Pop music is inherently political; sex is political; our sensibilities decode the songs. Nobody needed to tell me that George Michael’s “A Different Corner,” New Order’s “1963,” Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”, Luther Vandross’ “If Only For One Night,” and Halsey’s “Strangers,” to cite random examples from my iTunes library, didn’t lack for “subtext.” For all the comparisons to Madonna, Gaga has no clue how her predecessor’s singing voice glued together the video personalities, cryptic but never abstract odes to abandon, pretensions to respectability, and, most shrewdly, the space in which commentators from Camille Paglia to Tipper Gore acted out the culture wars. At the time Gaga was a whirl, a rummage sale of several decades of failed camp.
The album Born This Way, however, is better. I heard more abandon in “Hair” and “Government Hooker” — more queerness. It remains her best album. Although it looks like her New Jersey, I’m happy millions embraced the bulk of this bizarre mainstream triumph. By the time she released Joanne she looked more like Madonna in 2008 than Madonna in 1989, yet no one can say she didn’t throttle her cultural moment.