To help figure out what “Born This Way” is, let’s first rule out exactly what it’s not.
First off, it is not the modern day “I Will Survive”, as Elton John so giddily claimed in his recent Rolling Stone interview. As tempting as it also is to write it off as a modern update of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (as Rob Sheffield does here), it also doesn’t fill that role precisely, because its context is notably different (although, musically, it bears an unabashed similarity).
Instead, what Sheffield does get right is that “Born This Way” finds its power and its force by digging deep into the heart of American disco: shamelessly straightforward pop music with only the slightest wink of self-importance. This is an empowerment anthem to be danced to, inclusive to all, specific to no one. It will set clubs ablaze for the rest of 2011, soar to the top of the charts, and have an extravagantly over-the-top video as we’ve come to expect from Miss Gaga.
When you listen to the radio nowadays, virtually everyone is copying that Eurodisco sound that both Gaga and Britney Spears helped popularize right at the end of the decade (also thanks to you, David Guetta), yet by going even further into the traditions of pop movements past, Gaga is tossing us a bit of a left curve. A collaboration with Fernando Garibay, Jeppe Laursen, and unknown Chicago producer DJ White Shadow instead of her usual standby RedOne, Gaga has inadvertently dropped the “Euro” part of her genre classification and just went straight for the disco half.
Part of what makes “Born This Way” work is the sheer sugar-rush of the whole thing: it breezes from intro to verse to chorus without even breaking a sweat. The chords are eternally married to that earth-shaking backbeat, so no buildup is needed: we’re in the thick of it right from the word go. It’s certainly not what people were expecting from Gaga, but it wisely shows that she’s moving well beyond her “established sound”, and when this disco-throwback shows up on the radio, it’s not going to sound like anything else out there. Expect imitators to follow (in that sense, Lady Gaga is the Apple of pop music).
So even with all of the deserved praise this song is getting, why, then, does the chorus feel like it’s missing something?
As huge as the song is, “Born This Way” stumbles with its chorus, which isn’t merely one of the blandest parts of Miss Gaga’s cannon, but it also apes late ‘70s disco classics a bit too close for comfort. While everyone was assuredly expecting a gigantic new anthem from the Lady (which this is, let’s not forget), the chorus here feels too calculated to be truly effective. Instead of creating something absolutely soaring, Gaga instead went with a melody that was direct and a bit too predictable, offering generic sentiments instead of her own unique spin on the empowerment anthem (which is doubly curious given that this track’s references to paws, drag queens, “capital H-I-M”, and “those of Chola descent” is about as unique and distinctive as you can possibly get on modern radio). Her verses and spoken-word portions have more personality than the beating/thumping heart of the song, which makes this whole experiment sound more like it was a missing track from Cyndi Lauper’s 2008 effort Bring Ya to the Brink than it does a new Lady Gaga disc.
That said, it’s hard to be overtly critical of a song that’s so as delirious a sugar-rush as this is. Of all the “empowerment anthems” that have come out as of late, only Pink’s excellent (and completely different) “Raise Your Glass” deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as “Born This Way”. It does its job well and its solid Gaga, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves: it’s not an instant-classic of a song—just a welcome teaser for what’s to come . . .