I’ve loved Lady Gaga since I was in a Catholic school skirt curiously, and defiantly, listening to “Teeth” through my earbuds. A lot has changed since November 2009. For one, when she’s not performing, we actually seem to dress a lot like each other now — back in 2009, I never thought that would be a thing. But so much else has changed as well. Boys, and my own body, are no longer wildly foreign to me, my The Fame and The Fame Monster CDs are under the bed in my childhood bedroom, and Lady Gaga’s music has entered a new era with Joanne.
When I was in my late teens, I was a bit of a wreck. I had a lot of displaced sexual energy and unwarranted shame, and I was taking in an unhealthy dose of anxiety on a daily basis. I was striving for perfection, and to do what was expected of me — but once my sweet sixteen rolled around, my Catholic school education and small town upbringing were clashing with everything that I wanted to explore inside me.
Lady Gaga couldn’t have come to the mainstream at a better time.
I craved a strong, brazen, outlandish figure to over-sensationalize what I was ready to claw my way towards. Gaga offered a version of the female experience that others didn’t, and I desperately needed it. When I was 16, I didn’t know where to look for the Courtneys, the Pattis, the Riot Grrrls, or any other musician creating anthems for a female experience that wasn’t dollhouse linear. Gaga’s music was wildly hedonistic, and unapologetic about it.
Songs like “Love Game,” “Poker Face,” and “Teeth” were a playground of kooky fun that stole intimidation away from sex and allowed it to be reclaimed through wacky expressions. “I Like It Rough,” “Speechless,” and “So Happy I Could Die” were anthems for harnessing the unique (and wrongfully shamed) feminine power that lies within vulnerability, sensitivity, and tears. “Paparazzi” and “Monster” centered the woman as the most enthralling character of the “searching for a lover” narrative. Her music allowed me to explore my most laughable desires as a teenager looking for the sexiest “lingerie” at Target with her babysitting money.
When Gaga talked about wanting sex, she was openly seeking guilt-free pleasure.
She defined her sexuality on her own terms, and those terms were never static (as they never should be).
The first time I heard “Bad Romance,” I was drawn to its aggressive and unflinching nature. She wanted “your ugly, your disease,” and at a time when I was too tentative to ask a sex ed question about vaginal discharge. The song oozed self-respect, as she openly discussed her needs, and her needs only. Rather than singing about depending on men (or starring in their wet dream), Gaga’s music evoked actively expressing your sexuality in a way that you desire for yourself and your lifestyle. You determined if love or sex was something you wanted with anyone regardless of their gender identity or sexuality.
It was important to me to hear this on a mainstream pop record as I began to explore the spectrum of my own sexuality.
Still, Gaga’s catalogue touches on a myriad of desires and a more well-rounded female experience. In other words, it’s not all about sex. She talks about wanting it all: love, sex, fame, success, social change, money, fashion, independence, female friendship, and, sometimes, just a drink. In the early days, when she walked out on the red carpet, she held her head up high with no man or partner by her side. When she wore a meat dress or prosthetics, it wasn’t to appeal to that seemingly omnipresent male gaze. She was doing it for her, for us, for me. Men were X’d from the core of that identity, but they were welcome to engage or pursue if they wanted or dared. It shattered the barometer by which my female presence was often measured at that time — you know, whether that school skirt was “to the knee.”
The eccentric and unconventional get-ups in the beginning of her career were often so void of the traditional understandings of “feminine” that they only enhanced the messaging that my womanhood was for me. Free bitch, baby.
By the time Born This Way was released in 2011, I was in college dabbling in lots of new experiences, and many of them were a rejection of the very strict code of ethics that I had been raised with. Songs like “Bloody Mary,” “Electric Chapel,” and, of course, “Judas” were therapeutic and empowering with their repurposing of biblical references and imagery. Born This Way started to own “otherness” as something not only beautiful and useful, but as something communal and celebratory. While many radio listeners are familiar with the title song, Born This Way as an album decrees many other expressions of self-love on its fourteen tracks, like “I’m gonna marry the night, I won’t give up on my life, I’m a warrior queen, Live passionately, tonight.”
The lionizing of pop stars does have its hazards, but the positive influence that pop stars like Gaga can have is undeniable when it comes to being a gateway for a young person without many role models, or a kid who just needs an addictive beat to stop their pain.
However, in the days when I was listening to my The Fame Monster CD, I was drawn to the theatrics — a costume, a confidence I wanted to slip on. I’ve grown so much since then.
When I first listened to “Million Reasons” from her newest album, Joanne, during the Bud Light Dive Bar Tour, and heard Gaga dedicate it to all the men in her life (including her father), I was thoroughly ready to re-ignite my teenage affection for Gaga. “Million Reasons” was the type of cathartic quasi-Gaga-ballad that I have always cherished (like “Dope” and “Speechless”). The track is a reflection on love. And I too, now in my mid-twenties, find myself looking over my shoulder at my early twenties like a woman on a train waving goodbye with her handkerchief. When I heard “Boys, Boys, Boys” by Gaga, there were no men in my life. Eight years later, so many men have come in and out that “Million Reasons” isn’t even long enough to be able to reflect on each one.
Gaga stated crystal clear in all the promo surrounding this album (which doesn’t have the same zaniness or fantastical imagery of early Gaga) that it wasn’t written for me —it was written for a new audience, a profile that I no longer fit into. But in regards to themes and subject matter, I think the beacon is being carried on with Joanne.
I hope that another wave of youth will listen to a song like “Dancin’ In Circles” and bask in the glory of a song that is talking about female masturbation at its core.
I think a song like “John Wayne” has the potential to have the same carnal effect “Love Game” had on me, and “A-Yo” might present the novelty that “Just Dance” did when I didn’t know what it was like to be in the club at 1 a.m.
Gaga’s presence in the mainstream meant a lot to me when I was younger, and it still does.
While many music critics are calling Joanne one of Gaga’s most personal works, I think she has been making strides to use her larger than life fame to send down-to-earth messages for years: Her performance of her song “Til It Happens To You” at the 2016 Oscars, her openness about struggles with mental illness, her efforts to assist in debunking the stigmas around mental health issues, her mourning alongside all of us after the tragedy in Orlando, her brave and encouraging open letter about her PTSD, and her inclusive, yet political, halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl.
Pop culture reflects society and society reflects pop culture, so it’s important to keep tabs on where we’re at in the mainstream. What kind of conversations, stigmas, and imagery are being challenged and/or embraced? Lady Gaga’s utilization of her high-profile platform to work toward equality and mental health awareness has felt like a supportive arm around the shoulder.
“Dance In The Dark” has always been one of my favorite Lady Gaga songs. When I was in high school, it reminded me that I’m just one out of a long tradition of women who dissent from norms — and are not always loved for it. I hope Joanne will assist another much younger woman who is just beginning to explore, allowing her to “Find [her] freedom in the music, Find [her] Jesus, find [her] Kubrick.” I hope it will help her to question what she has been conditioned to accept.
Happy birthday, Lady Gaga.