I am late to the Lady Gaga party. Or the Lady Gaga surreal, 24-hour, glitter-bombed extravaganza, as it were. When I began my 5k training last fall, I needed something upbeat and motivating to run to, meaning something entirely unlike anything on my mandolin-heavy iPod playlist. I created a Pandora station on my fancy phone, combining ‘80s pop with contemporary dance music: Go-Gos meets Gaga. Whenever I turned it on, the first song was almost inevitably Lady Gaga, and it was perfect to get me going. It was slick, fast, and surprisingly funny.
One of the things I appreciate about Lady Gaga, as a performer, is that she hasn’t waited around to ironically morph into a gay icon. She just went right out there and grabbed that baton out of Madonna’s gnarled hands. So although our running time together didn’t turn me into a huge fan, it was easy enough for me to recognize the singer when a recent radio flip brought me to “Born This Way.” Who else would be chanting, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen?” Fondly remembering our glory days last October, I kept the radio tuned into the song, and I found myself grinning. The lyrics are a celebration of differences, a call to pride for anyone who feels judged or dismissed because of who they are. Honestly, it gave me goosebumps. Not so much because it was a great song – although it is pretty catchy – but because I could imagine millions of teenagers hearing those words and feeling like maybe it wasn’t always going to be so hard to be themselves. And that maybe, someday, it would even be awesome.
Because my all-Americana radio station recently betrayed me by going to conservative talk, I went ahead and programmed a Top 40 station into its place. About one out of every four times I go past it, Pink’s new single, “Raise Your Glass,” is playing (the other three times it’s poor edited Cee-Lo). Although it’s to a slightly different audience, the song is like “Born This Way” in its mission to bring the outsiders in. If “Born This Way” is directed to the glee club, “Raise Your Glass” speaks to the art room rogues. The point, however, is the same. Embrace what makes you different. Don’t let judgment break you. Take “freak” as a compliment.
What strikes me most about these songs is that they’re so popular. There have always been anthems for the lost or disenfranchised, but they tended to be so empathetic as to just make things worse (see: Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” entire oeuvre of R.E.M.). No one was dancing to them at prom. In my day, the kids on the edges found music on the edges – Violent Femmes on one side, Metallica on the other. What I find so fascinating and encouraging about this trend (because yes, there are even more, but I have to draw the line at getting philosophical about Katy Perry) is that it’s so mainstream. A kid in Willmar, Minnesota who has never in his life heard the word “transgendered” spoken out loud can hear it sung on American Top 40. And if that’s too broad to attract the true outcasts, my hope is that the message of the music is drilling itself into the kids in the middle. They’re silly songs, party songs, practically disco songs, but when so many teenagers (and younger) are still struggling to survive the pain and isolation they feel every day, what’s the harm in throwing them a party?