I thought I’d have to listen to a lot of Lady Gaga to find something worthy of a piece. I was pleasantly surprised. Today we’re listening to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.
To understand this video, you have to understand two things. First her core audience (for this video) of 12-18 year old girls. If you can’t put yourself in the mind of a 13 year old girl, you’ll never get it.
The second thing you need is some kind of sense of music history. “Wait, Nap, what do 13 year old girls know about music history?”
What makes Lady Gaga so hip is that you don’t need anything to appreciate her, except an open mind. She blends poignant spectacle with hints of myth and legend and wraps it up in a lovely, made-for-the-new-millennium empowerment package. She’s incredibly accessible, but again, only to those with an open mind.
With that said, let’s examine the video. It opens with a couple of symbols, the unicorn and a pink triangle. Then Lady Gaga with her hair done like a pope’s hat. There’s no rhyme or reason here, it’s a mashup. She gets right to the point. “This is the manifesto of Mother Monster.” She’s declares a new race. Not a new community, not a new movement. A whole new race of people. There’s a reason she used that particular word. “A race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.”
It’s a direct shot across the bow. “Manifesto” is a powerful word. It instantly separates you from everybody else. She’s setting a language and a tone for her audience. She’s creating a subtext.
All throughout this, remember these are kids watching. They don’t really understand pink triangles, unicorns or pope hats. These are just images they’ve probably seen and heard about. The only thing that’s going to strike the mind of the 15 year old when they see a pink triangle is that whole Teletubbies thing. Maybe they know it’s somehow connected with LGBT, but that’s it.
They don’t know the history and that’s the point. When they think of the pope, they think of the pope’s hat. They don’t know anything about the gay community, and really, they don’t care. All they know is that these images annoy grown-ups.
They know that grown-ups are messes, ready to go off about things, giving little to know explanation, for their sake. When the grown-up yells, “Why are they putting all these gay images on the TV? Won’t somebody think of the children?” the child wonders what all the fuss is about. Therein lies the subtext. Here’s the secret language Lady Gaga is speaking with her audience, the shared understanding among these kids when they complain to each other at school about their parents.
A pink triangle means nothing to them. They’d need years in that subculture before they could begin to understand the symbolism and the history. She similarly cherry-picks words, not for their real meaning, but what they mean to kids. “Mitosis, temporal, multiverse.” These look out of place until you consider the audience. They let kids engage in the myth making by teasing their intellectualism. Their curiosity. This is why people are calling her a genius, this facility, this plasticity with communication.
It’s the next evolution of symbolism. Before, you could count on a symbol to have a philosophy, a culture, a long history behind it. Now with today’s mashup culture, you can create a language with all these symbols, speaking in a much richer way than we used to, even though the symbols themselves seem to lose meaning. She’s using them phonetically. The time when we needed symbols to serve as the rallying points for human effort are over. We’ve all got a general idea, thanks to the Internet, of where we as a people want to go, now the symbols become mere hints, reminders.
This is how she deals with sexuality. In previous videos, she portrays herself as androgynous, in this one she’s wearing a bikini, definitely female. She’s talking to the girls, giving them a blueprint for dealing with their own sexuality. Media these days is bombarded with sexual images, and grown-ups are unwilling to take up the task of explaining it, so it falls to Lady Gaga to do it for them.
She portrays sexuality by having her “evil” half split into two. Morality becomes a “pendulum of choice.” A pendulum swings back and forth automatically, you don’t choose for it to go back and forth. Evil is a force to protect good.
There’s so much there that the casual observer would miss. The total upending of conservative ideas on good and evil. Pop music is raising our children better than we can ourselves. “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital ‘H-I-M’” The demolishing of religion, in one fell swoop.
You’re not paying attention, but your kids are. It’s very easy to miss, and that’s why it’s so powerful. You don’t care, so you’re not going to bother looking up the lyrics and ask yourself what this song’s really about. All you have to go on is the images and the spectacle, which are carefully crafted to hide what’s going on underneath. While the rest of the world screams on about the images, the far more subversive conversation is taking place right under your nose. The mythology she sets up is explained only in the video, something you’re not going to see unless you go looking for it or spot it on TV, where you won’t be paying your full attention.
“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” Kids don’t know what drag or a queen is, at least not until their friends tell them. She uses the words intentionally, re-defining them, playing the same game with language gay guys do when they call each other, “fag.” She repeats the phrase many times, offering it up to be used as a catchphrase. She’s taking the fire, the emotion out of them. It helps that “drag” rhymes with “fag.”
The image of her naked with zippers where her breasts are is really striking as well. How’s this going to hit the young mind? A naked body doesn’t elicit the same response in a 12-14 year old, and even 15-17 year olds have become far more comfortable with such images. But they know their parents freak out over this stuff. So there’s that subtext.
But the real message of that image is to not take sex too seriously. Even if you’re naked, your sexuality is still locked up behind the zippers. You don’t have to feel uncomfortable wearing the revealing clothing demanded by today’s youth culture. She’s teaching kids to play with their sexuality the same way she does, light-hearted and fun. The machine gun reports create a phallic imprint on the screen. These are the weapons evil is using to defend good.
She does actually use the words, “gay, straight, bi, lesbian, transgendered,” in the song. But they’re really hard to make out. Much more prominent is the racial angle. Sex she deals with visually.
Notice the guy not doing much, just sitting there looking evil while Lady Gaga swings her pink Rapunzel wig all over the place. Why’s he just sitting there? He’s a representation of boys. That’s how boys act these days, and that can be very confusing to a little girl. She’s telling the girls to not put their identity in these reticent boys, to rock out to their own tune, and deal with the boys when they’re ready. This sort of visual communications can be a lot more effective than spelling it out, and you can fit a lot more of these little messages in a 7 minute video, than in a one page sheet of lyrics.
Identity is the entire point of the song. Mother Monster created all of her evil children to protect that which is good in the world. You were born into this new race of people who do not judge or hate, but are free. It’s a new mythology for a new time. Are there any good people? Not in the video. Everybody’s evil. Good people get stepped on. What keeps evil people from getting stepped on? Their identity, their refusal to sit still and be silent.
Don’t you want to be evil, too?