The social-media celebrity JoJo Siwa has built an empire by dressing in sparkly rainbow outfits while chattering about individuality and self-acceptance. But when she wanted the world to know that she was queer, she let Lady Gaga do the talking. In a TikTok last month, the 17-year-old Siwa filmed herself grinning and lip-synching to Gaga’s 2011 hit “Born This Way.” In the comments section, fans immediately began congratulating Siwa for coming out. “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track, baby,” Gaga sings—and Siwa, her later posts confirmed, was announcing herself as being somewhere on that list outside of “straight.”
How many other pop songs could do a job like this? How many songs let listeners make a statement, understandable to just about everyone, by simply singing along? A fritzing and fidgeting masterpiece of disco didacticism, “Born This Way” seems to have fulfilled the outrageous ambitions Gaga signaled when she released it 10 years ago this month. She promoted the debut single off her second album by wearing prosthetic cheekbones and hatching from an egg at the Grammys. A seven-minute music video packed with ab-flashing extraterrestrial dancers began with the recitation of “The Manifesto of Mother Monster,” which touts “the beginning of the new race … a race which bears no prejudice.” The song itself salutes not just the LGBTQ community, but also people of various skin colors, nationalities, and abilities, plus “subway kid[s]” and “the insecure.”
“Born This Way” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011, stayed in that spot for six weeks, and then never really left the cultural consciousness. It became the title of Gaga’s best-selling second album and the name of her mental-health nonprofit, which is still active today. It rang out at unlikely venues: Alice Cooper shows, country-music performances, and the 2017 Super Bowl, with Mike Pence in attendance. Today, the single still loops in grocery stores and at socially distanced drag shows. “I want to be remembered for the message behind ‘Born This Way,’” Gaga said in a 2018 Vogue interview when asked about her desired legacy. “I would like to be remembered for believing that people are equal.” Incidents such as Siwa’s coming out—not to mention Gaga’s invitation to sing at Joe Biden’s inclusion-themed inauguration—would seem to suggest that legacy is secure.
Yet at the time of the song’s release, the staying power of “Born This Way” wouldn’t have been taken for granted: Controversy and dismissal swarmed from the start. Gaga’s lyrics about gay acceptance of course invited homophobic outrage, but outside of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church and censors in Malaysia, the loudest knocks on the song didn’t come from conservatives. Rather, the left-leaning pop culture that Gaga had thrived in began to roil. Madonna mocked “Born This Way” for sounding like her song “Express Yourself,” which in turn invited conversation about how many other classic songs “Born This Way” borrowed from. Asian American and Latino commenters understandably took issue with Gaga’s lyrical use of the words Orient and chola. Many queer pundits generally found the song too presumptuous, too pandering, and too simplistic. “The Lady Gaga Backlash Begins,” said the headline to a 2011 Guardian piece that noted “the heavy-handed way that the song assumed stewardship of an entire portion of humanity.” It was one of many similarly titled articles reporting grumbles from onetime Gaga devotees.
The song survived such criticism, but the skepticism didn’t quite end. Rather, the skirmishes around “Born This Way” set the table for a decade of arguing about representation, empowerment, and identity across American culture. After “Born This Way,” queerness became more visible than ever, but its mass ambassadors—whether RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run, or Taylor Swift’s Pride anthem—faced potent criticism about the limits of visibility as a goal in itself.
With all the subtlety of a confetti cannon, Gaga had attacked the notion that pushing a social agenda prevents having a mass audience. But the coalition she sang about proved to be fragile—if it ever really existed at all.