“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:
- Weird Al consciously created himself as a shock artist, succeeded because of it, and is proud of having done so.
- You can create yourself anew as anything you want.
- 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.