When Lady Gaga’s most recent album, Born This Way, was released at the end of may, it sold 215,000 copies in Britain, more than the rest of the top 10 combined. In the US, it sold 1.11million. It was a huge album – in sales, but also in some of the publicity it received. Church leaders were queuing up to condemn the video for Judas before it had even been released. But the album has clearly struck a chord with a lot of people. So here, at long last, are some of my responses – as a fan, and as a Christian.
There are two themes running through Born This Way. One is identity, particularly focussing on sexuality but it’s bigger than that. And there’s a tension as Lady Gaga explores identity. At points (Marry The Night, Born This Way, Americano, The Queen), the message is you are your own person, be who you want to be, don’t listen to people’s expectations and judgemental attitudes – you’re welcome here. But other tracks on the album (Government Hooker, Hair, Judas) highlight the pressures on us to conform (or perform?), whether they come from the Government, from other people, or from yourself. The question is, can you ever really be who you want to be? Can you really have an identity which is independent of other people?
The other big theme is religion, specifically Christianity. Some of the songs draw heavily on religious language and imagery (Judas, Bloody Mary, Black Jesus†Amen Fashion), while there are hints and references in lots of the others. In lots of these, I think she uses religious language to give borrowed significance to some of what she’s saying; a song about betrayal appears much bigger when you use Judas and Jesus as metaphors. But it also reflects something of Lady Gaga’s upbringing and the worldview she references, even as she critiques and challenges it.
For the most part these two themes are kept separate, but occasionally they collide, and often the idea is that religion keeps people from being themselves.
Interestingly, I think Born This Way is the most significant song on the album in this respect. Judas is basically Bad Romance with a veneer of Christian imagery. But Born This Way makes big statements about who we are, who God is, and how we’re to live in his world. Surely that’s significant? Lady Gaga herself sees this song as her most important one. In an interview with Popjustice, she explained that this was the point where she felt she was really making a difference with her music, not just her hair and shoes. As a Christian, this is the song I want (and need) to be able to respond to (I made a start here). The other songs on the album dealing with identity and acceptance basically reinforce the message of Born This Way.
I think all of the tracks on the album are pretty good – the low point for me was probably Sheiße, although even that has a catchy chorus, and the madness of it all is entertaining. But there are some particular highpoints too.
I really enjoyed some of the more obvious tracks on the album like Born This Way, Judas and You and I (which is a little bit country, and sounds like something Shania would be proud of) – all songs which were great teasers for the album. I also loved Americano, a tremendous foot-stomping Mexican fiesta that starts off sounding like Dean Martin and ends (via a demented “la-la la la la-la-lah” chorus) like a bull fight. It’s basically about a lesbian love affair, and the song tackles issues of gay marriage, immigration and the experiences of minority communities.
My favourite track on the album has to be The Edge of Glory, the final track on the album. It’s a brilliant place for the album to end. For one thing, it’s a huge dance track and a fitting crescendo to an album which has a lot of other thumping dance numbers. I love how the chorus spirals up and out until you can’t really do anything except stand with your arms in the air. But the song is also really personal; it was written as Lady Gaga’s grandfather was dying in a hospice. The ‘edge of glory’ is your final moment, and on one hand the song is a celebration of life. Make the most of every moment, because we’re all standing on the edge of glory. But while it appears to celebrate life, I wonder if it isn’t also glossing over the reality of death – concentrate on the final moments of life because there’s nothing beyond them to look to with hope?
There’s a lot on the album that Christians will (and should) find uncomfortable. The use of Christian imagery is the most obvious issue Christians will have, but I don’t think it should be the most significant. Underneath that, the album levels some strong accusations at Christians, especially the way we treat minorities, particularly gay people. And it presents an alternative – find the truth in yourself: assert your identity and be who you want to be (the assumption being that Christianity will judge you and reject you). And people like the message – there’s a reason she’s sold 1.11 million copies. As a Christian, I don’t just need to be able to point out where she’s wrong, or to condemn her message. I need to be able to communicate the truth about a loving God who wants people to know him, who accepts people as they are, but loves them too much to let them stay as they are. Born This Way seems to offer a hope and acceptance, but in reality, we have better news.
Some of my other Lady Gaga Posts