So after listening to Born This Way for almost 24 hours and about 40 times so far, my initial impressions are positive. While distinctly Gaga in Aesthetic, it does chart a different course for this album than either The Fame or Fame Monster. It is decidedly celebratory and meant as an anthem for oppressed people. However, there has been a lot of discussion over the lyrics and the use of words. For example, Orient, Transgendered, Chola, and beige. These words are certainly not up to date with modern parlance and aren’t at the edge of anti-racist rhetoric. While I certainly see this viewpoint, I don’t think they call for completely condemning the entire song. Sure, could Gaga have written better words? Yes, but then it wouldn’t have had the same metric flow that she was looking for. I think that is why she chose to use them, because they fit the space she needed for text. She probably figured that people wouldn’t take her too literally, and would instead embrace the spirit of the song and the message, instead of the specific details of the words. This is how I choose to view the song. She obviously wouldn’t write a song intentionally trying to stereotype people and use oppressive language, but then have the song about anti-oppression. She simply needed words that fit the song metrically, and had to make decisions about which words to use. I might be mistaken, but it seems like she listened to some of the criticism in the space between releasing the lyrics, and releasing the song. I don’t hear transgendered, I hear Transgender. That wouldn’t be that hard of an edit to do at all, and I think that they edited that in to appease people, although I have no factual basis to back that up, besides not hearing Transgenered in the song at all. Also, the lyrics are very religious. While officially printed as “Capital H-I-M” to me, it sounds like “Capital H-i-m”, aka God. In this view, the song takes a very religious tone essentially making it a progressive Christian pop-rock song. This is further displayed by the plagal harmony and IV – I progression I’ll talk about later.
Other people have compared this song to Madonna particularly Express Yourself. I had never heard express yourself, and heard it only after these comparisons had been made. To me, they sound nothing alike. They share a somewhat similar harmonic progression, and supposedly the melodies are nearly identical, but the song aesthetics are very different. Gaga’s song is harsher than Madonnas, which seems to be a very soft song to me. This is evident in the electronic sounds. Gaga’s are very industrial, while Madonnas are soft 80s synth.
Harmonically, they share stepwise root motion as part of the primary progression, but Born This Way extends that concept even further. Born this way is I – VII – IV – I. This sets up very retrograde feel and also a sense of false tonic. The False Tonic comes from the fifth root relationship between VII and IV, it sets up VII as the tonic. Assuming VII as tonic, the progression becomes II or (V/V) – I – V. This is highly retrograde, functionally being PD – T – D. This upsets the assumed function and order of these chords, similar to what Gaga is trying to achieve with the lyrics through anti-oppressive efforts, which try to upset the cultural norms and expectations. The lack of traditional function for the false tonic throws the entire progression into tumult because there is no longer a strong sense of tonic, except through repetition and the expectation that the progression should start on tonic. This in turn makes each chord functionally independent, creating a new meaning for it – exactly the aim of the songs lyrics. Back to analysis of the piece from the real tonic, the step-wise root motion between I and VII basically acts as I to V with the VII taking a somewhat dominant function. Thus in turn it becomes I – V – IV – I; the standard blues progression. Why is this progression used? The I – VII is borrowed from Express Yourself/is a common pop progression, but the addition of the IV makes it wholly unique. The IV also gives it a decidedly plagal feel, and by the end with the inclusion of the organ, definitely gives it a religious mood, almost like a hymn from a black baptist church, but with inclusive rhetoric. This simultaneous borrowing of the I – VII and the IV- I, make it harmonically a blend of pop and a hymn. Harmonically this is a very conservative song in relation to her previous works which are much more harmonically adventurous. As part of this, I find it also intriguing that there are also only major chords in the main progression, in stark contrast to the Fame Monster, and also to the Scheisse Mugler Remix. As we only have one and a half songs released from the album, it is difficult to say what the rest of the album will sound like. There have been rumors about the Born This Way video however. It will be produced by Jonas Akerlund who also did Paparazzi and Telephone. Will this be the third (and final?) episode in the series? It took four and a half days to film, and there are rumors that Gaga’s people were at parties in New York recruiting Trans people to be in the video. I am looking forward to what the video entails if it in fact encompasses all these elements.
The first Gaga song I fell in love with was Poker Face, and since then her other songs I largely initially didn’t like, but then became obsessed with. In contrast, Born This Way I liked immediately, so I don’t know what my thoughts will be on it with further listening. I’ll keep you updated.