“I was born this way”: Lady Gaga, Carl Bean and the disco protest song

So, Born This Way. If you have any interest in pop music then you’ve probably heard it, or at the very least heard about it, this being the most anticipated release since Aung San Suu Kyi’s. I think it’s fine, if effective rather than innovative. Using Madonna maths, Born this Way = Express Yourself (imperious self-help vibe) + Vogue (deadpan spoken-word bit) x Confessions on a Dancefloor (whooshy electro-disco rampage).

What I like about Gaga is the way she endeavours to put some political weight behind her celebration of her “little monsters”, the underdogs and outcasts she considers the core of her fanbase. By speaking out against Arizona’s tough new immigration laws and campaigning intelligently for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell last year, she connected the self-conscious, stylised outsiderdom of the pop fanatic with the genuine persecution of certain social groups. Interviewed about my book recently, I told someone that I dreamt of a huge, undeniable protest song coming straight from the heart of popular culture, which in 2011 basically means Lady Gaga.

Though she calls it “a message song”, Born This Way isn’t quite the real deal. It’s calculated to be a Gay Pride anthem but one that won’t scare the straights, or indeed anybody else: “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life… black, white or beige/Chola or orient made…” That just about covers it. Unattached to any specific community, the message of overcoming obstacles and “lovin’ who you are” is pretty much the same you could get from Oprah, albeit with a whiff of amyl nitrate.

I hope it will lead some people to look up the inspiration for the title, Carl Bean’s 1977 disco anthem I Was Born This Way. It was written in 1971, just two years after the Stonewall riots, back when there was no such thing as a gay anthem, at least not an explicit one. Bunny Jones, a straight, black, Christian woman, ran a string of beauty salons in Harlem and was shocked by the bigotry suffered by her gay employees. The lyric says homosexuality “ain’t no fault, it’s a fact” (compare Gaga’s “God makes no mistakes”) and builds towards the joyously blunt chorus, “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay/I was born this way.”

The lyric became a song in 1974, with music by Chris Spierer, and the first version (by 22-year-old Valentino) was distributed by Motown. “No major company has ever had to deal with a gay protest record before,” said Jones. “No one ever stood up and said, ‘I’m gay.’” She soon found out why, because the record flopped. “When the song came on, immediately people would begin dancing, and then when people got to that one word they would stop dancing,” said poor Valentino. “It’s really strange how one word can upset so many people.”

Jones and Motown tried again in 1977, recording a much stronger version with Carl Bean, a gay gospel singer who once attempted suicide in anguish over his sexuality. It, too, failed to cross over but it was a vital and stirring statement in the same year that the Christian conservative singer Anita Byrant led a legal “crusade” against homosexuality. “I am using my voice to tell gay people that they can still feel good about being gay even if there are people like Anita Bryant around,” said Bean. I Was Born This Way still sounds both ecstatic and courageous because of those two words, “I’m gay.” Bean was singing about himself; Gaga is addressing her constituency. His specificity makes the song better. What’s more, Bean’s song (like those of his disco contemporary Sylvester) has a sense of liberating joy, captured in the space and movement of the arrangement; Gaga’s song is dense and unyielding, with that will-to-power hardness that Madonna brought to pop. Bean’s song sounds like it’s bursting upwards; Gaga’s sounds like it’s bearing down on you.

But I don’t want to use Bean’s record as a stick with which to beat Gaga’s. The hype around Born This Way’s online premiere breeds snap judgements (like this one) but I think the song’s significance will only become clear a few months down the line. In the disco era, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive was a post-break-up song inspired by a potentially career-ending back injury; McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now was simply celebrating the duo’s emergence as major artists after years as underappreciated songwriters; and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family described the tight bond between the four sisters, but they all became anthems for black, gay and feminist listeners because that’s what the audience demanded. I can imagine Born This Way in contexts where it will sound radical and fierce, and others where it will be no more than glittery wallpaper. Listeners — the little monsters and beyond — will decide the song’s cultural fate, which is how it should be.

UPDATE: Jon Savage, among others, reminded me of yet another Born This Way, recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1990. I notice on YouTube that some people have posted it as proof of Gaga’s heinous plagiarism but it’s not – it’s just further evidence of the title phrase’s staying power.

UPDATE 2: The Daily Beast, in a piece called “Gays Turn on Lady Gaga”, spoke to Carl Bean about Gaga’s song:

Asked what he thought of Gaga’s latest song, Bean was diplomatic. After a lengthy pause, he said “Uh, it’s dance. I heard it. I can’t really critique it. I don’t like to judge other artists.” He quickly added he takes it as a “compliment” that Gaga did a song that is clearly, on some level, an homage to him.

Note: A couple of comments on this blog made me think more about how the born-this-way idea has changed over time. In the 1970s, it was a strong argument to use against religious homophobes — God made everybody so how could homosexuality be wrong? In 2011, not only has the debate moved on, but it actually contradicts Gaga’s usual argument about how you can be whatever you want to be, about remaking your identity, as she is constantly doing. But at this point I just accept that she probably latched on to the phrase because it’s catchy and don’t expect it to represent her views on genetic determinism and the nature of human sexuality. It is, after all, a pop song, not a research paper.

37 Comments

  1. You are quick off the mark, Lynskey. And power to your elbow for that-though you did have the lyrics in advance so this is a different kind of immediate pop journalism than it would have been in the old days!

    All the things you like about this song are all the things I dislike about it. And I disliked them before you stated your opinion so I am not being ‘contrarian’. I just didn’t write a blogpost in time! Damn! Damn!

    But I did write on the Guardian blog that it reminded me of Express Yourself, before I read this. So I am at least, still able to remember my 1980s.

    It just even as an anthem sounds weak to me but let’s see what the little monsters make of it.

  2. 1990s? when did Express Yourself come out? Oh dear I am as old as I thought.

  3. I didn’t even know about ‘Born This Way’ until you started tweeting about it this morning, so I am clearly well into middle-age before I even knew it. Indeed, I am not entirely confident that I could sing along to any Lady Gaga song… I think my only direct experience of her was that toe-curling interview on Jonathan Ross a couple of years back.

    Anyway, I think it’s interesting that a significant element of gay rights, both in popular culture and otherwise, has been ‘I was born this way’, or, in essence, ‘I can’t help it.’ Surely the truly enlightened thing to do would be to accept that everyone of consenting age and sound mind has the right to have sex with whomever they wish, even – especially – when by choice rather than by necessity. Of course take that the extreme and it argues for the right of people to have sex predominantly with people they’re not attracted to.

    • Good point. When Bunny Jones wrote her lyrics in 1971, that “born this way” argument was a good way to rebut the evangelical right whereas 40 years later it seems way too limited. After all, was Gaga really born this way? What way? Didn’t she consciously reinvent herself? Is every action the product of a genetically predetermined personality? And so on.

      • in America the gay lobby is still focussed on rebutting the evangelical right. Because thats the only sector of society still opposing gay rights. And they want to be ‘born this way’ it makes them feel special, and specially oppressed.

  4. I totally agree John. The ‘born this way’ message is the message of ‘gay rights’ activists, who argue for equality along the same lines as heterosexuals by arguing that homosexuality is as ‘natural’ as heterosexuality. Discrimination is easier to campaign against if you are saying people are discriminated against for things they can’t help – eg their sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, disabiltiies.

    But this argument ‘discriminates’ against people who either claim they are not ‘borm this way’ or people who fall through the net by seeming more ‘unnatural’. e.g. bisexual people, though mentioned in Gaga’s song, tend to get marginalised by gay rights groups. Why can’t they just make up their mind? How can their bisexuality be natural when they can choose to fancy/have sex with men or women?

    Gaga sings about all these ‘monsters’ but really it will be the white, middle class gay lobby that will be creaming its knickers over this single release the most, I believe.

    • Actually, as a bisexual person, I completely disagree with you. Because I’m attracted to men and women, doesn’t not mean I can “choose” who I fall in love with. If I were to prevent myself from being in a relationship with/have sex with a woman I was attracted to and/or in love with, I’d be denying who I was and stifling my feelings the same way gay people often have been pressured to. We don’t CHOOSE to fancy “either or”–we are attracted to both, meaning we can fall in love with both. How would you feel if you fell in love with someone and felt you had to suppress those feelings?

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Caitlin Moran, Dorian Lynskey, Job de Wit, John Self, Mike Atkinson and others. Mike Atkinson said: RT @DorianLynskey New blog post: "'I was born this way': Lady Gaga, Carl bean and the disco protest song." http://bit.ly/g8aiKN […]

  6. […] from: "I was born this way": Lady Gaga, Carl Bean and the disco protest song 33revolutionspermin… Related Posts:Hogg and Pease: Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" criticized for […]

  7. someone reminded me of this today. A kind of anti-anthem.

    ‘No remorse I was born that way’

  8. but why wouldn’t your own pop songs reflect your own views Dorian? I would never ever write a pop song called ‘Born This Way’…

    and neither would Morrissey.

    • Just a gut feeling. Feels to me like it’s about the phrase rather than the science.

  9. Like you said (apologies if I am repeating myself I think my last comment got deleted by me but may reappear!) the meaning is really produced by the reception of the song.

    It’s not totally separate from Gaga’s intentions but it will depend largely on the fans/critics/people who want to use it for their political ends.

    So far, the Big Gay Anthem, ‘Born This Way’ essentialist message seems to be the dominant one being promoted. But it’s early days yet!

  10. Jon Savage is latching on very much to the nature/v nurture aspect of the song’s lyric, and falling heavily on interpreting it as saying that sexuality is innate:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/feb/14/lady-gaga-gay-anthem

    ‘The idea that sexuality is inborn, rather than some lifestyle choice or unfortunate disease, is at the heart of much modern gay identity formation. It flies in the face of the old contra naturam argument, and gives the lie to the idea that homosexuality can be converted, or “cured”. It also offers a kind of counterbalancing self-assertion that is necessary in the face of hostility and prejudice: as Lady Gaga sings: “In the religion of the insecure/ I must be myself.”‘

    I reject his analysis, but I expect Lady Gaga doesn’t.

  11. […] effusively but equally ‘gay’, Dorian Lynskey and Jon Savage of the Guardian have placed the song in the tradition of gay and other minority […]

  12. I don’t think you can so easily dismiss the ramifications of her promoting the ‘genetic determinism’ explanation for homosexuality as you did in your disclaimer. She appears to have very deliberately chosen the phrase ‘born this way’, apparently as some kind of justification for homosexuality. I don’t think you need a research paper to understand how problematic (and contradictory) that is, particularly to the significant proportion of women in the lesbian community who’ve chosen to be lesbian for political and/or personal reasons. I understand we all have different experiences of our homosexuality, but this song does not speak for me as a lesbian who very consciously chose to be one. I also question why it’s neccesary to justify ourselves at all, whether we’re born homosexual or not.

    • Hmm. Well I’m not gay so I don’t presume to understand the whole debate but pretty much all of the gay people I have spoken to about their sexuality have talked in terms of knowing they were gay at an early age rather than choosing it. That’s not to say that’s the only way of looking at it, but nor is it a minority viewpoint so I think it’s fair enough for Gaga in the context of a pop song. I don’t know how anybody can be expected to reflect the whole spectrum of human sexuality in under four minutes. The point of my footnote was that I wonder about how far she’s thought this through because so much of her rhetoric to date is about remaking yourself and not being what you were born as – precisely the kind of choices you’re talking about. The fact that the phrase already existed in pop music makes me think that the phrase came to her first and the argument followed.

      I don’t quite understand your last point though. Don’t gay teenagers in less than sympathetic environments (who, I gather, are the main spur for this song) feel the need to justify themselves? Would you have told an African-American in 1968 that there was no need to sing “I’m black and I’m proud” or “Black is beautiful”? I interviewed a gay musician recently who had a tormented childhood and adolescence and was in desperate need of someone to tell him that his sexuality was fine and that he wasn’t going to hell after all. Surely that’s the kind of person this song is intended for.

      • I am not gay either Dorian but I understand this debate quite well.

        I agree with May.

        The point is that lots of young people have troubled childhoods and they can’t all explain it away with a minority sexual identity.

        And that gay musician you met is buying into, in my view, what I might call a ‘pathologising’ discourse of homosexuality, the same pathology that is used by the far right to demonise it.

        He was in desperate need of someone to tell him his sexuality was fine and he wasn’t going to hell after all…

        Yes that is the kind of person the song is intended for. That is why it draws so heavily on religious imagery/words.

        I reject that way of framing our identities completely. The two sides of the coin- homophobia and ‘born this way’ need each other.

      • I’m not saying your theory is wrong but it’s not the only theory and it’s not as helpful to the proverbial gay teen in Omaha, which is who this record is aimed at. You can reject that idea all you like, but that doesn’t make it invalid.

        I don’t see the point of your third para. Of course lots of straight people have troubled childhoods too. So?

  13. By the way, catchy tune. Props to Madonna.

  14. I am not trying to be combative here, despite my reputation.

    This is an issue I have done a lot of research into. Of course all positions are ‘valid’ but I think some are oppressive. I think ‘Born This Way’ is part of an oppressive narrative.

    what I am saying is that suffering of children, at the moment, in the states in particular, is being described in terms of minority sexual identities. This does not alleviate the suffering of the majority of kids who cannot take comfort in a fixed sexual identity.

    There are lots of ‘heterosexual’ people who experience ‘homosexual’ desire at some point in their lives. They may suffer as a result of this being taboo. And they may be bullied for not conforming to gender norms. But they can’t solve this problem by being ‘gay’. The ‘born this way’ essentialist story ignores most people’s confusion over sexual identity, and most people’s suffering.

    • I don’t mean you’re trying to be combative. I just disagree with you, especially your second paragraph. Everybody has their own issues growing up but the struggles of gay teenagers in conservative environments are to my mind worthy of special attention because there is a long history of mainstream prejudice and legal censure. The message of this record is incomplete, oversimplified and often clumsy but to call it oppressive seems melodramatic to me.

      • its not melodrama its a philosophical perspective.

        I could give you some references to back it up but I don’t want to get all academicky.

        The work of Mark Simpson is basically a riposte to the Born This Way narrative, for example. As is the work of Foucault, and to some extent, the work of Freud.

        But Mark Simpson is the only one of those three who has a blog!

        http://www.marksimpson.com

        He wrote ‘Anti Gay’ which sums up this philosophy I am advocating very clearly.

        I maintain that gay rights movements in America, especially, are conservative in their ethos. I agree with Ben Trott from the Guardian article on Gaga, that Gaga is pandering to that conservatism with this song.

      • I read Mark Simpson’s stuff on your recommendation a few months ago. I didn’t like it.

        Q: Do you think Bunny Jones was wrong to write I Was Born This Way in 1971? Because that was a very powerful liberating song during the late 70s battle over gay rights with Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell et al. Has that idea always been wrong, in your estimation, or is it just outdated?

  15. I think it has always been wrong. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say artists are wrong to write songs. I’d say that journalists and gay lobbyists and pop fans are misguided to interpret those songs as liberational when they are not.

    Mark Simpson is an amazing writer and expert on this subject. I am sorry you didn’t like what you read. Maybe it wasn’t gay enough!

    • I know you’re a huge fan of his and I’m sure he knows his stuff but it doesn’t make him either right or likable. We can’t all like the same people, can we?

      • No. If everyone liked Mark Simpson I’d go right off him. I do have some vestiges of contrarianism in me. But it’s not the reason I rate his work.

  16. Thanks for your discussion of the (better) 1970’s disco song. I appreciate the research and quotes.

    As someone who teaches what people call “Cultural Studies” (even if I don’t call it that), I can tell you that the REAL problem is more complex than you are stating.

    The ideas we have of both race and sexuality were constructed in the 19th century. Race is NOT genetic nor is it biological, but that lie is what lead to its Modern invention (the science on this, as SJ Gould has stated is “almost totally” proven … one never says “totally” or 100%, but “almost”). Skin color refers not to race, but to geography and of those genes that determine skin color, they are very few and far between (nowhere near enough to account for the concept of race). As a species, we are remarkably similar. The idea of other “races: of people is completely absurd as science. yet what has the effect of this (mistaken) idea been? It has quite literally trapped and excluded entire populations of people.

    While we know less about the “science” of sexual orientation, we do know that the modern concept of a homosexual and heterosexual person was born in the 19th century, through discourses of health that sought to illuminate a sexual “other” (and while there were other figures leading up to these “persons” none of them have the exact same meaning). Both race and sexuality were constructed around a paradigm of health and biology, which sought to attribute deep and hidden “causes” to bodies (socially constructed as others). Biological causes. None of which have ever been proven and, in the case of race, “almost totally” proven to be false.

    The problem with GaGa’s song is that it celebrates the very things that CREATED race and sexual “others” (if you will, racism and homophobia) in the first place. It is a remarkably stupid song, on this level, and your dismissal of her support for the very things that turned us into “others” in the first place indicates that you do not understand her colossal mistake nor how these “discourses” of race and sexuality work. Such discourses and their power are not transmitted (necessarily) by research papers. They are transmitted in popular culture, the media, and everyday ways of speaking about and seeing something we call “race” and “sexuality” (something we assume we know and take for granted, as fact). As Foucault would say, power (in this era) is often “humble” “minor” and comes from “below” (rather than the top down). This is what makes Gaga’s song so destructive. Moreover, she is a complete fool for not realizing that this will kill her academically (as someone cultural theorists … although not this one… take seriously). Clearly, she does not realize the huge mistake and miscalculation she has made.

    Just because people do not choose their “sexuality” nor their skin color does not mean that race or sexuality are biological or genetic. It is MORE THAN LIKELY that, like race, sexuality will never be proven to be biological nor genetic (our brains and bodies simply do not work this way–the way we socially and culturally want to attribute meaning to them). It is simply a mistake for people to believe that just because people are “born” with a certain sexual attraction that this is genetic or biological. These do not mean the same thing. At all. Jones and Spierer’s song has none of these problems. Lady Gaga’s song is drenched in them. My take is that she will never recover her reputation among academics as a result of this song and she has no idea, literally, what she has done.

    • Thanks for your comment Rob. I don’t know how to respond except to say that academic theories of human sexuality are beyond the remit of this blog and my expertise. I’m writing about it purely as a record. I agree with you when you conclude that you don’t think Gaga has really thought through all the implications of this phrase so my only issue with it is where it contradicts her own ideas about being a “monster” and the power of remaking yourself.

      I think you might overestimate how much the biggest pop star in the world cares about her reputation among academics.

  17. When I first heard Gaga’s song I thought it was a remake of Reverend Bean’s song. I like the message, but shame on her for stealing it and not giving credit where credit is due. She should give credit, apologize, and donate a sizable sum to Reverend Bean’s church, Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, Los Angeles. http://www.ufclosangeles.org/

  18. “In 2011, not only has the debate moved on,”

    The debate has NOT moved on. There are so many people who believe gay and bisexual people are not born that way. They use this argument, that it’s a choice, to discriminate and hate.

    Just look at the comments here to this article (http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-02-14/lady-gagas-new-single-born-this-way-makes-gays-turn-on-her/2/ ) and you’ll see the many people who think “being born that way” is an opinion. It’s horrifying. And every day, we’re hearing pastors and other figures refer to homosexuality as a “lifestyle” or “sin.”

    • I mean that it has moved on in the sense that there is more debate and controversy about the “born this way” idea among gay people than there was in the 70s. As I said above, this blog is about music not sexuality so I don’t presume to take sides in that debate but I think the range of opinion in these comments alone shows that it’s an open question.

      • Oh alright! I get what you’re saying now. Sorry about the misunderstanding. After reading more of the comments after posting mine, I regretted posting my comment because i then got the sense that you made update was due to the controversy among those who responded to your article. That said, I really liked your blog post. I think it’s interesting to see how attitudes about sexual orientation have changed since the early years of the gay rights movement.

    • Thanks for the kinds words Erica. And thanks for commenting. Nice to have as many different views as possible on the thread.

  19. […] Try Dorian’s blog for more background information and for the link between Carl Bean, Dusty Springfield and Lady Gaga. […]

  20. are you stupid or just cant read. yes god made everyone, but the devil make sin. no one is born that way. god 1ce destroyed an entire city of homosexuals. in the bible it says that homosexuality is a sin and shall be cast into the lake of fire. why would anyone want to go to a place where you will burnfor ever. thirst hunger remember your loved 1s. a place where sickness is neverhealed. a place for the devil and his angels. hell was not made for us. it was made for the devil andhis angels. the only way to heaven is to accept jesus as your personal savior. and not keep sinning. so fornication (sex b4 marriage, homosexuality, murder (abortions), cussing, drinking, stealing, hate, etc. are all things of the devil. the devils doings. god did not create anything nasty. i will pray for you who think ppl r born this way. the devil makes ppl think their a certain way. we wouldnt have sin in this world if adam and didnt eat the forbidden fruit. plus we would not be here. but god did make away for us to get to heaven, and jesus was born and that is why we have christmas. and he died on the cross for our sins. yes people didnt believe jesus then. they mocked, made fun, didnt believe. exactly what ppl r doing today. so if u dont believe in history then christopher columbus or george washington must not be real either bc have u ever seen them in real life???? just bc something happened in the past that we was never there. doesnt make it not real. everything that is happening in the world now is in the bible. the falling of the twin towers was in the bible. the world being circular was in the bible and that has been way b4 someone discovered it not flat. so stop letting the devil control your minds. and stop listenin to false teachings. what obama is doin is in the bible. we need him out of office

  21. Best Wishes


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