“Born This Way” is (Kind of) a Giant Lie

by TomLaPille on June 26, 2011

“Born This Way” is an extremely well-built song. The music is upbeat, catchy, and danceable. The lyrics are uplifting, unchallenging, and engineered to be attractive to open-minded people of any persuasion. I admire it for its craft; all the success it has is more than deserved.

But it’s also (kind of) a giant lie.

Lady Gaga was born Stefani Germanotta. Following a chain of Wikipedia references shows that she spent several years as a clean-cut Catholic schoolgirl who was interested in music and dated clean-cut guys. Her name became Lady Gaga, depending on what you believe, when she received a text message that had autocorrected a misspelling of “Radio Ga Ga” to “Lady Ga Ga”, or as a result of a marketing meeting that was called to craft the persona that Stefani and her manager would pitch to record labels. I’m not particularly interested in learning the truth; either way, the process of learning to live to that new name took years and lots of hard work. The Gaga of “Born This Way” may be who she is now, but she was certainly not actually born that way.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Enter Weird Al Yankovic.

“Perform This Way” is Yankovic’s effortlessly skillful send-up of “Born This Way”. It highlights the obvious artifice in the persona of Lady Gaga; lampoons bizarre things that Lady Gaga has done, like wearing dresses made of meat or bubbles; and makes specific reference to how Gaga’s “…little monsters pay/lots cause I perform this way”. I originally read it as an expression of frustration with Gaga’s popularity, which I found almost offensive. I don’t find Yankovic’s work bothersome in general, but attacking Gaga’s popularity by labeling it shock-driven and shallow rings hollow coming from an artist whose penchant for crazy costumes and spectacle is so well-documented. Such an attack would be so childish, in fact, that I eventually decided that Weird Al was way too smart for that to be his point.

Here is the alternate reading that I now favor:

  1. Weird Al consciously created himself as a shock artist, succeeded because of it, and is proud of having done so.
  2. You can create yourself anew as anything you want.
  3. It is offensively disingenuous for Lady Gaga to hide the artifice behind her persona.

The slow rise of Weird Al as a parody artist is well-documented. From accordion lessons at age six to his first big break on the Dr. Demento show in 1976 to being the opening act for The Monkees to seven platinum records in 2006, Weird Al has been at it for a while and is unambiguously successful. It would be strange for him to not be proud of that.

I get the second point from Yankovic’s reversal of the title of the song. Gaga’s version preaches unconditional self-acceptance; Yankovic denies the relevance of the current self, and is worried only about the performance. A functional definition of identity is beyond the scope of this post, but if Yankovic thought that your current state of existence at any point in the past mattered, he might have mentioned it somewhere in the song.

The biting sarcasm present in Yankovic’s version must be accounted for, of course, which is where I get the third point. Yankovic is clearly frustrated with Gaga for something, but it can’t be for achieving success in exactly the same way that he did. As I noted above, that would be stupid. The only thing I can come up with is that he’s frustrated that she has obscured the path to that success so thoroughly. Yankovic’s lyrics are obessed with Gaga’s artifice; although it is hard to speak with a straight face about a meat dress, I don’t think Yankovic’s tone ever crosses from merely-pointing-it-out to outright mockery. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with what she does, but he wants to make damn sure you know that she’s doing it consciously.

I find “Perform This Way” to be the far more uplifting version of the song. I’m all about accepting who we all are as people, but I’m much more interested in becoming different and better than I am in rationalizing stagnation. Want to be a superstar even though you aren’t one right now? No problem. Act like one, buy a bubble dress, put a porcupine on your head, and go to town. It may not work, but I’m sure it’s a vast improvement over the zero chance that “being yourself” has.

Say It Again

by TomLaPille on May 29, 2011

Recently, I read two books about the creative process: Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Both books explain the process of creating finished, shipped work out of nothing. Both also believe that human creation is the most important endeavor in the world, and they want you to both want to help and have the tools to do so. From ten thousand feet, they are exactly the same book.

Zoom in a little more, though, and they aren’t at all.

Tharp is a choreographer, and the examples from The Creative Habit come from the dance world. Pressfield is a writer, and The War of Art’s examples are all about writing. There is a larger difference between the attitudes that the two authors have toward the creative process. Tharp’s goal is to leave you comfortable enough in your creative skin that you can be free to make things, and she explains her entire creative experience from beginning to end to ease you into comfort. Pressfield has given up on comfort entirely, and wants you to do the same; rather than tell you what creation is like, he casts it as a war, and says that you should treat it as such. It will never be comfortable, he says, and the sooner you give up on comfort, the better off you’ll be. This distinction, of course, comes through in the books’ titles. Tharp wants you to develop a habit; Pressfield wants you to win a never-ending war.

Why is it good that both books exist?

The top-line message of these books is important for the world to hear. We should all be making and sharing art, in whatever form each of us is inspired to make. Therefore, any increase in the number of ways people can hear that message in the world is an improvement.

Different versions of different ideas can also work better for different people. The Creative Habit is friendly, nurturing, and reminiscent of a conversation with a friend who wants to see you succeed. The War of Art is in-your-face, combative, and feels like getting yelled at by a drill sergeant. The latter tone worked much better for me, but your mileage may vary.

The last reason, and to me the most compelling, is that one of the two books is probably better. As humanity moves forward, it continually keeps the best technology it has access to, throwing out less efficient things. Ideas are no different; we keep the ones that work best and forget the rest.

In mathematics and science, the “best” expression of an idea is the most concise one. Einstein’s e = mc^2 and Euler’s e^i(pi) = -1, for example, are equations that would be very difficult to improve on.

The War of Art is a much more concise work than The Creative Habit on many levels. First, it’s much shorter in total. It has fewer chapters. I would guess that its average sentence length is shorter. This suggests that The War of Art will be the longer-enduring version.
I vastly prefer The War of Art to The Creative Habit. Pressfield is a writer, and his attention to craft shows through. Not a word is wasted, and the whole book buzzes with energy. I also enjoy that the combative tone of the book matches his message. Creation is war; just as there is no room for quarter against the resistance, there is no room for a single wasted word in his work.

Everything worthwhile that you say in your work has already been said by someone else. That’s okay. First, if you and someone else both independently wanted to say it, it’s probably worth saying again. Second, we still want your version. It will probably be different, and it might even be better.

This is a Post

May 19, 2011

Two days ago, I posted an entry that explicitly promised another entry the following day about another topic. Yesterday, I procrastinated on writing until I was too low on energy to write. I distracted myself while getting to this point by watching Exit Through The Gift Shop, which was awesome, and reading The Unfettered Mind, [...]

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Identity Crisis, Part One

May 18, 2011

I think we use “identity” to mean two different things. The first form of identity is one of self-description. How would you, or someone else, describe you? Are you a writer? A martial artist? A speaker? I’ve been described as all three of these things. Why am I a writer? Because I leveraged a previous [...]

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I Don’t Care Who You Are

May 16, 2011

I don’t care about who you are. I don’t care that you like writing novels. I don’t care that you like taking pictures of cats and writing funny captions on them. I don’t care that you like to drink and do karaoke at bars. I care about what you do, and specifically what you do for [...]

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Work Tired

May 15, 2011

I am very tired. Today, I went to an SCA fight practice. I was fighting on and off for about two and a half hours in thirty pounds of armor. We were practicing one on one fights, in which my weapon of choice is a greatsword. Everyone I was practicing with was fighting sword and [...]

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