In her new single "Born This Way," Lady Gaga implores listeners "don't be a drag, just be a queen," and says, "it doesn't matter whether you love him or capital H-I-M." The singer has said she wanted to create the ultimate gay anthem, and perhaps she's succeeded. By Friday night, the track had raced to the top of the iTunes charts and gotten a stellar plug from her gay consigliere in cyberspace, Perez Hilton. Rolling Stone also applauded Gaga's effort, with Rob Sheffield giving the song four stars.
Still, among a specific set of urban gay men—many of whom had bought tickets to her shows, worked out at Equinox with her album The Fame Monster blaring in their ears, danced to her music on Fire Island, and discussed her outré wardrobe with a tendency that would alarm even the most pro-gay straight people—the reaction was surprisingly mixed.
Some of the swipes were minor. Aaron Hicklin, the editor of Out (one of the earliest publications to put Gaga on the cover) was the first to break ranks. On Saturday, he took to his Facebook account and wrote a message saying, "Gaga shmaga." He urged friends to go out and buy the new Adele album instead.
On Monday—after Gaga performed the song at the Grammys with a troupe of scantily clad dancers while donning a ponytail reminiscent of early '90s Madonna—Andy Cohen, the Bravo host, wrote on his blog that he found her number "very Blond Ambition meets Express Yourself." This did not appear to be a compliment.
Eric Ord, an openly gay chap working in New York in commercial real estate, said, "I think she sees herself as the gay messiah and it bugs me." According to him, the song would be like "white people writing a song about breaking free from slavery and expecting black people to worship us for it." (To be fair, Lady Gaga has said she's attracted to both men and women.) And Aaron Newbill, a modeling agent, referred to an old quote where Gaga said she wrote the song in 10 minutes. "She should have taken at least 11," he said.
"I sort of liked Gaga more when she sang about dancing as opposed to trying to be the voice of a generation," says a gay party promoter in New York.
Even among Gaga's most reliable demographic—denizens of the gay club world—the reaction was far from uniformly positive. Jared Needle, who with his business partner Josh Wood is the biggest gay party promoter in New York, said, "I find the lyrics cliché and the melody overly Madonna-esque. It seems pretty en vogue at the moment to pander to people's concerns about bullying. It's a good PR move because it's hard to hate a song that speaks to acceptance—unless that dialogue seems forced, inauthentic, and disingenuous. I sort of liked Gaga more when she sang about dancing as opposed to trying to be the voice of a generation."
It's worth noting that artists who get political always get blowback from people who think they ought to stop proselytizing and just entertain. Madonna has heard it numerous times, especially when she approached issues like AIDS and sexuality nearly 25 years ago. So did Bono, back when he and his band sang about Martin Luther King Jr. on "Pride (In the Name of Love)." And at least one gay I know was quick to defend Gaga on the issue of using the song as a marketing ploy. Said Corey Johnson, the political director for Towleroad.com and a consultant who's worked on numerous political campaigns for Democrats, like Howard Dean and Mark Green: "Gaga has used her celebrity to advocate for equality more than anyone else—not just by tweeting but actually going to the state of Maine to activate young people to contact the two moderate Republican senators there and bring discharged veterans to the Video Music Awards. She has walked the walk and I don't second guess it, not even for a moment."
Still, it does seem fair to say that Gaga’s song hits people over the head in a way that Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Prince’s “Sign O the Times” did not. If she was aiming for poetry and metaphor, she came up a little short. Even Johnson said that while he was a "fan" of the song and liked that Gaga spoke both to gays and people who are transgendered, he preferred some of her other tunes, like "Poker Face" and "Telephone."
Lina Bradford, a popular DJ on the scene here in New York (formerly known as the drag performer Girlina) concurred that the song was "cheesy and overproduced." Bradford correctly pointed out that the song is most derivative not of Madonna, but Carl Bean, an openly gay, former disco singer whose most famous record is called "I Was Born This Way," which came out on Motown back in 1977. "If you're going to tap the classics, you better bring it," Bradford said. (For citizens of earth unfamiliar with the parlance of the House of Extravaganza, "bring it" means to deliver something top-notch.)
Bean's version of "I Was Born This Way" did not become a pop hit—it peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard dance charts, and the man who sang it soon moved on from the label—but not without becoming a staple at famous gay clubs like the Loft and The Paradise Garage. In the '80s, Next Plateau, the famed hip-hop label, re-released it. In the mid-'90s, it got remixed on an independent label and, voila—a whole other round of gay pride performances.
Today, Bean is the archbishop and founding pastor of a "98 percent gay" congregation called Unity Fellowship Church Movement, which is based in Los Angeles and has 16 churches nationwide in cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. He's also penned a book called "I Was Born This Way," which was released last summer by Simon & Schuster. Asked what he thought of Gaga's latest song, Bean was diplomatic. After a lengthy pause, he said "Uh, it's dance. I heard it. I can't really critique it. I don't like to judge other artists." He quickly added he takes it as a "compliment" that Gaga did a song that is clearly, on some level, an homage to him.
Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, the famed husband-and-wife songwriting team who penned another track called "Born This Way," for a musical version of E. Lynn Harris' The Invisible Life in the early '90s, also seemed to damn the song with faint praise. During a conference call with them Monday afternoon, Simpson said she thought the reactions against Gaga were a little "harsh," but agreed "she's a little late coming to the party… Just a little."
Not that Simpson minds. She and her husband are in the process of getting their own tune a proper release. "With so many kids confused and committing suicide, we realized it would be a shame not to get [our song] out there," Ashford said. Gaga, he added, could only help—both them and the gays. "She brings attention to the subject matter."
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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.