“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.