Five Whole Years: Celebrating Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way,’ Her Ambitious and Misunderstood Masterpiece
Where were you when you first heard Born This Way? I was at work (at a company I shall not disclose located in the great city of Seattle, Wash.). The album leaked about a week ahead of its official release. I downloaded it, tried to play it through, and then thought: No. I can’t listen to this for the first time at my desk. I left early and drove to a place I wouldn’t mind mentally associating with the album for the rest of time. It was that kind of event album for most fans — certainly myself — but in a larger cultural sense, it was the litmus test that would prove whether Gaga was a 1.5-album wonder or an icon in the making.
It turned out to be the latter, of course, but not without caveats. First, the facts. Born This Way debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Album 200 with sales of 1.11 million. Many things have been said about the notorious Amazon deal in which the standard edition of the album was sold for $0.99 for two days during the first week, resulting in 440,000 of the total million-plus haul. People still (!) bitch and whine about how those copies shouldn’t count, as if the 660,000 full-price units it moved in addition to the discounted units weren’t already remarkable. Five years later, the joke’s on the haters: we now live in a world in which free streams factor into chart placement (and count toward sales) and top-tier artists give their records away for free. A $0.99 price tag no longer seems too meager; in retrospect, it was shrewdly ahead of the times. You can count on both hands the number of albums currently selling — actually selling, not just being streamed — what Born This Way sold: more than two million copies in the U.S. and more than six million worldwide.
Born This Way spawned four Top 10 singles, one of which, the title track, debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and stayed there for six weeks, giving Gaga her longest stay at the top of that chart. “The Edge of Glory” (No. 3 peak) and “Yoü and I” (No. 6 peak) are both multi-platinum. “Judas” (No. 10 peak) is platinum. Again, all of this happened before streaming factored into chart ranking. Had streaming counted in 2011, it’s very likely several of those songs would have reached higher Hot 100 peaks.
Commercially, Born This Way’s legacy is set; it’s hard to argue otherwise. (Not that this stops a certain brand of person from trying…) But given that the album remains Gaga’s most ambitious artistic and political statement, commercial success is almost besides the point.
Born This Way was an album conceived and written for the fans who helped Lady Gaga become the world-conquering megastar we now know, (in)arguably the greatest of the late-2000s generation. Many of the songs were written in direct response to encounters with fans she had while touring The Fame Monster. She wanted to give something back to the people who had shared a part of themselves with her, so she wrote an album for those fans, most of them very young, who felt worthless, bullied, ugly, and rotten. She wrote it for the nerds and the gay kids and the drama dorks and the punks who also loved pop and the people who were still trying to figure out who they were. She wrote it for people who felt they had nothing but who found some sliver of salvation in music.
Despite the implied meaning of the title, Born This Way is not about coming to terms with yourself exactly as you came into the world. It is an album about politics, both cultural and personal. More convincingly, however, it is an album about identity: the labels we choose or create for ourselves and the selves we aspire to become. Ultimately, then, it is an album about choice and the freedom to choose. You decide who you want to be, who and how you want to love, how you want to look. You decide what’s beautiful. You decide what’s important. You can choose to stay the same, or you can choose to become a new, different, better, messier, crazier version of yourself. If one of the loudest criticisms of Gaga had been that she was not, in fact, “born that way” — as a prosthetic-faced couture-clad alien from the future — then Born This Way was the defiant middle finger (monster talon?) aimed squarely at that narrow way of thinking.
We are living through a time in celebrity culture where normality and relatability are encouraged and rewarded. Every gorgeous, Oscar-winning actress sauntering down the red carpet in a custom Dior gown is going to let you know that she eats and swears just as much as you do. The pop sensation whose last album broke every record imaginable is not-so-secretly exactly like you and your best friend after a you’ve tossed back a few. Life just isn’t complete without your #squad of friends who look and think and talk just like you. Our idols are exactly like us in every way, except the ways in which they’re richer, thinner, more muscular, more powerful, more creative, more savvy, and ultimately more privileged. In her first several incarnations, at least, Gaga rejected that brand of celebrity. This is not to say she didn’t want listeners to relate to her or her music; of course she wanted those things. She simply didn’t go in search of common ground by becoming a mirror image of what she assumed most other people were like. She created a new space for people to congregate by acting larger than life, by pushing everything — her look, her sound, her message— to strange, alien extremes. And then she said, “I invite you to join me in this new world I’ve made for people who aren’t satisfied with the old one.” She used alienation as a means of bringing people together. It worked; millions did join her, and more than a few copied her tactic (or tried to).
Gaga is neither the first nor the last person to write a self-empowerment anthem, but Born This Way is perhaps the only major pop album in recent memory that is so thoroughly, explicitly dedicated to the exploration of self-discovery and -acceptance. It is an inward journey without apology. It’s also an album full of contradictions, not unlike its creator. Its sugary-sweet melodies (the chorus of “Judas”) are intertwined with bone-shattering sledgehammer beats (the rest of “Judas,” most of the album). Its surreal lyrical world (“Bloody Mary”) occasionally melts away to reveal almost shockingly literal platitudes (“Born This Way”). (And then: compare the oh-so-on-the-nose lyrics of “Born This Way” to its transcendently figurative and symbolic video.) It is at once both supremely confident (“Scheiße,” “Highway Unicorn,” “Hair”, “Bad Kids”) and heartbreakingly vulnerable (the lyrical undercurrents in “Scheiße,” “Highway Unicorn,” “Hair,” “Bad Kids”). It is blatantly political (“Americano”) and blatantly sexual (“Government Hooker,” “Heavy Metal Lover”) as it also finds solace in spirituality (“Electric Chapel,” “The Edge of Glory”). It’s an album full of shrieks and yelps (“Government Hooker,” “Bloody Mary”) just as it is a document of Gaga’s underrated (at the time) vocal prowess (“The Edge of Glory,” “The Queen”). It is an album that exists, as Gaga herself would say, halfway between fantasy and reality. Gaga has always understood that fantasy, for some, is just as fulfilling (if not more fulfilling) than reality, that truth can often be found in the lie.
Born This Way is not as polished or immediate or accessible as The Fame Monster, which a large swath of fans will argue, ’til the day they die, was Gaga’s creative peak. But hands down, Born This Way is her most meticulously-curated and potent statement, her grand opus. For whatever its worth, at the top of her game, Gaga chose not to take the easy road and instead went straight for the jugular with an abrasive pop-political rock opera. She’d already conquered this world, and instead of resting on her laurels, she decided to create another. Pop music moved away from Born This Way’s bombast and excess shortly after its release (thanks, most likely, to the success of Adele’s stripped-back 21), but you can find remnants of the album’s messages and sonic landscape on today’s Hot 100: the robotic breeziness of “Heavy Metal Lover,” the unapologetic embracing euphoric ’80s kitsch, the narrative of coming to terms with one’s inner darkness. It may not be Gaga’s most universally beloved album (outside of her her core fan base, anyway), but it is, so far, her most defining.
Because Born This Way was conceived as a love letter for the fans and the people who chose to join Gaga in her new alien world, I thought it would be fitting to ask some fans for their thoughts on the album. Five years later, here’s what Born This Way means to us. I’ll start.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Marry the Night,” “Government Hooker,” “Judas,” “Bloody Mary, “Scheiße,” “Heavy Metal Lover.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I had wanted to hear the album so bad for so long that it almost hurt. My initial reaction was one of feeling overwhelmed. There was so much to take in. I remember loving how heavy and dark it was, and how well it was produced. I remember thinking how Gaga’s powerful voice was more front-and-center than ever. I remember laughing when the iconic “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south” line in “Heavy Metal Lover” came on. I remember feeling glad it was finally out and that it was as good as I wanted it to be.
What Born This Way Means to You: It’s the album of a pop star who actually has something to say. It’s an album that isn’t afraid to be alienating, a quality I have always admired in Gaga. It means you can be whoever you want to be, and you can be as many people as you want to be. It means the ability to transform is within you. It means you should love every part of yourself, even the weird, broken, ugly parts.
Anything Else You’d Like to Add? “Heavy Metal Lover” should have been a single. It would have smashed. The Born This Way Ball was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been too. I still listen to this album all the time. I do songs from Born This Way every time I go to karaoke.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Americano,” “Yoü and I,” “Hair,” “The Edge of Glory,” “Judas.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was still in college when Born This Way was released, so the dance singles (“Born This Way”, “Judas”) were the ones that appealed to me. I remember it being an exciting step ahead in Gaga’s music and I looked forward to what she’d bring to the table to next, and well — we all know how that went.
What Born This Way Means to You? Five years later I find myself listening to album with a greater appreciation for the songs that I used to skip over (“Hair”, “Electric Chapel”) now that Gaga, her musicality and her message have become more distinct over time. It’s so clear in retrospect that her jump from The Fame Monster in 2009 to Born This Way in 2011 was the first big movement away from Gaga being a hitmaker who collaborated with Flo Rida and towards an artist truly expressing her vision.
I myself fall in the middle of the age gap that Gaga was in between making these two albums at 24 years old, which is a strange time in finding your adult voice. I can imagine it was no easy task for Gaga to harness her genius in order to convey her experience, but it’s there, and it sounds just as great as ever.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “The Edge of Glory,” “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Judas,” “Bloody Mary,” “Born This Way,” “Marry The Night.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: Overwhelming joy not only because the record was a smash, but because I found that I could finally relate to something. I felt liberated and strong.
What Born This Way Means to You: For many people, Born This Way gave them serenity in an age of bullying. For me, it liberated me from the depression of living in war. As a Syrian monster, embracing my own struggles and letting them be a part that I’m proud of was my first step toward happiness and finding myself. If ARTPOP honed my talents, then Born This Way defined them.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Judas,” “The Queen,” “Highway Unicorn,” “Marry the Night,” “Bloody Mary,” and “Fashion of His Love.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was very excited, knowing she was putting out an album standing for equality and no judgement, and to be yourself. I was excited to hear slaying songs from a women I have loved since 9 years old!
What Born This Way Means to You: It means love, compassion, being yourself, being free, and no judgement to others. It means a lot to me, she has an album out to help her fans and help inspire others to know that it is okay to be yourself no matter what you do or who you are.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Born This Way”
Your Initial Response to the Album: AWESOME
What Born This Way Means to You: It still means the same thing. It means to accost yourself for you, and not let anyone discriminate you for it. It’s that you are special, and you are amazing because you were born that way and you can’t do anything to change it, even if you tried. It means accept you for you and accept others for them.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Marry the Night,” “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Highway Unicorn.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I have never felt such a strong to be myself the way i did after listening to this album.
What Born This Way Means to Me: Born This Way is a statement. It is about loving who you are. Celebrating each others’ differences and fighting for a world full of acceptance and love.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Born This Way,” “Hair,” “Bad Kids,” “Marry The Night,” and “The Edge of Glory.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was 15 when this album was released, and I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking about how proud I was of gaga and still am for creating something so beautiful. At that point in time, BTW was so different than anything I had ever heard before. I listened to it every single day and would keep “Hair” and “Born This Way” (the song) on repeat. I learned so much from Gaga with this album and I am forever thankful for what she has done and continues to do for me and for all of us fans.
What Born This Way Means to You: I’m now 20 years old and Born This Way still means as much to me today as it did when it first came out. When I look back, I’m reminded of how much Gaga has changed my life.
Anything Else You Want to Add? My love for Gaga continues to grow everyday. I can’t imagine my life without her. She has given us so much more than music and I will always support her. She makes me so happy and I’m more than thankful for her.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Heavy Metal Lover”
Your Initial Response to the Album: It turned me into a Gaga stan.
What Born This Way Means to You: It’s still my fave album of all time.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Bloody Mary,” “Scheiße,” “Marry The Night.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was shocked, it spoke to me in a personal way and I felt like once again Gaga managed to outdo herself. Didn’t listen to anything but it for actual weeks.
What Born This Way Means to You: Born This Way is the message of a famous person who remembers who she was before she got there, it’s a voice of support from a star up in the sky reminding you that nothing is impossible as long as you fight for it and don’t let others bring you down or make you believe you’re not good enough for it.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Heavy Metal Lover,” “The Edge of Glory,” “Bloody Mary,” “Born This Way,” “Judas,” “Scheiße,” “Yoü And I,”
What Born This Way Means to You: This album means so much to me because I was in high school when it came out. I was in the middle of discovering who I was. And on top of that it was a time when I was letting bullies get the best of me. And then this album happened. It changed my life in the most wonderful way. I actually began to love myself. Even the parts of myself others found as “flawed.” I began to respect myself and others.
Anything Else You’d Like to Add? Lady Gaga really changed a lot of minds with this album and saved so many selves. She bred compassion throughout the atmosphere during a time when everyone rejoiced in sucking life and joy out of one another. Thank you Gaga for your most meaningful album to date.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Hair,” “The Edge Of Glory,” “Bloody Mary,” “Born This Way.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I begged my mom to buy it for me when we went to Walmart.
What Born This Way Means to You: Although I’m more of an ARTPOP era type of guy, this album helped me be more expressive and deal with things differently, especially going through high school and I will forever be grateful to that.
Anything Else You’d Like to Add? This is a drawing my friend Katina Roman did of Gaga singing “Marry The Night.”
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Scheiße”
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was already slayed with “Scheiße” at Mugler.
What Born This Way Means to You: It has absolutely changed my life. Now I love my life even when the world is against me. Anything else you might want to add: It’s been 5 years since Lady Gaga hasn’t followed me.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: “Marry The Night” (my fav Gaga song), “The Edge Of Glory,” “Heavy Metal Lover.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: Born This Way is the album that made me fall in love with Gaga. It inspired me and helped me learn to love and accept myself for who I am. I’m so grateful to Gaga for that.
What Born This Way Means to You: Born This Way represents love, bravery, and acceptance. It’s really special to me and helped me get through a lot of hard times. Thank you, Gaga, for Born This Way.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: Every song.
Your Initial Response to the Album: I was younger, but it was how I became a Little Monster. My favorite song was “Yoü & I” because I only knew the singles.
What Born This Way Means to You: BTW has saved my life in many ways since the day I discovered that there were more songs about that than only the singles. Until today, I can’t listen to “Hair” without crying because it sums up my life. Right now I’m obsessed with “Fashion of His Love” and “The Queen,” because when I was younger I didn’t buy the special edition lol. Now these two songs are saving me until LG5 is released and because I realized that I’m not the only one that feels that way.
Anything Else You’d Like to Add? When I get older I hope to become as successful as Gaga, and if I do I wanna make an album just with covers of the songs that were not singles, because I want more people to know them.
Favorite Born This Way Songs: I always change my mind about my favorite song, but i would like to say it is “Americano.”
Your Initial Response to the Album: My first impression on the album when was released it was very good. At the time, I thought Lady Gaga was a genius because she did something that was incredible in my opinion. While the other POP divas were singing about boys or break ups, Lady Gaga brought the important social topics to pop music and made it a big social discussion about prejudice, equality, the right of marriage, feminism, and also she was polemic as always.
What Born This Way Means to You: Five years later, I am still a big fan of her. I would say I am the biggest little monster in the fandom, and I’m sure that this album is the album of my life. The message of acceptance it brings I will take with me to the rest of my life. When it came out I was just a teenager; I was 14 years old and it helped me a lot to make who I am, to believe in myself and believe that I don’t need to be scared of who I am. Everyday I thank God for the existence of Lady Gaga and Born This Way.