How 'Born This Way' Was Born: An LGBT Anthem's Pedigree

Jan 30, 2019
Originally published on April 4, 2019 2:59 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


Tim Cox understands the excitement Lady Gaga can generate when she performs live. Now 26, he has been a devoted "little monster" — the artist's nickname for her fans — since he was 15. The first time he saw Gaga sing "Born This Way" in concert, however, he was overwhelmed.

"I broke down," he says. "I was hysterical with joy, with emotion — just completely lost myself in the song."

Adolescence was painful for Cox. He was bullied for being gay before he really understood what the word meant, and grew up feeling like something was terribly wrong with him. Eventually, he found a sense of belonging with other Lady Gaga fans; they talked to each other via a YouTube channel he set up. (In a lot of ways, he says, Lady Gaga saved his life: "I have her signature ... tattooed on my arm, over a scar from a suicide attempt.")

So when "Born this Way" came out, the lyrics felt like a shield against the insecurity he felt about not being accepted: "Because you're not the one saying it anymore. Someone's defending you. And it's in a song that is playing on repeat on the radio, that everyone is talking about.

"All of a sudden, the idea that you were born this way and can't change who you are isn't just something that you feel: It's something the entire world is being forced to understand."

YouTube

Tracy Young, a celebrity DJ and a gay woman, plays pride events and gay parties all over the country. She says the song's driving beat is perfect for the dance floor — but moreover, that anyone who has struggled to come to terms with their sexual identity can connect to the lyrics.

"I think she hit it dead on," Young says. "It's definitely one of those songs that will always be played in every pride stage, and I think that was her intention."

Even Elton John hailed "Born this Way" as "the new gay anthem" when it first came out. But there was also a backlash against it. Some accused Gaga of directly imitating Madonna's hit "Express Yourself." Others said she was exploiting her gay fanbase.

On the latter point, music writer John Savage disagrees. "Obviously Lady Gaga wanted to say something about her gay audience, and what she thought about the position of gay people," he says. "She wanted to do something that was affirmative. I don't think that was cynical."

What not everyone realizes, Savage says, is that Lady Gaga's lyrics have a history, which she knew about.

While compiling a discography of queer music some years ago, Savage unearthed a copy of a song by a singer named Valentino called "I Was Born This Way," which came out in 1975. A few years later, a gospel singer named Carl Bean released his own version of that song.

In a 2011 interview, Lady Gaga told Howard Stern that Bean's recording had been one of her main inspirations. "It's almost like a sermon," Gaga said. "I heard this song, and I just said, 'Man, does that answer every question.' "

YouTube

Bean had been pursuing a music career when Motown asked him to record the song. Now in his 70s, he says he had always known he was gay, so it felt like a perfect fit. "I always say the lyric found me. And it was very natural," he says.

Though he's retired today, Bean also spent many years as a sort of activist pastor: He founded the Unity Fellowship Church, ministered to gays and lesbians and was vocal during the AIDS crisis. Bean says that when he heard Gaga had been inspired by his recording, he was flattered.

"I felt it was a great tribute, and it was the continuation of saving lives," he says. "It has just been a blessing to my life, and it's been a blessing once again to even another generation's life through the take that Gaga did on it."

As much as "Born this Way" has been embraced as a gay anthem, Tim Cox says it is also for anyone who feels outside the mainstream — and that gives it staying power.

"Fifty years from now," he says of Lady Gaga, "when she is not singing anymore, I would not be surprised if the song she is remembered for most is 'Born This Way.' "

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Lady Gaga floated into the Super Bowl halftime show two years ago, she did something that would have been hard to imagine just a decade before. In that most macho venue, Gaga belted out a song that had become an unofficial anthem for the LGBTQ community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Rejoice and love yourself today 'cause, baby, you were born this way. No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track, baby. I was born to survive.

SHAPIRO: For many of Gaga's fans, the lyrics of "Born This Way" were words to live by. As part of our series American Anthem, NPR's Lynn Neary looks back at the song's origins and legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I was born to be brave.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Tim Cox understands the excitement that Lady Gaga can generate when she performs live. Now 26, he's been one of her devoted fans - a little monster as she calls them - since he was 15. The first time he saw Gaga sing "Born This Way" in concert, he was overwhelmed.

TIM COX: I broke down. I was hysterical with joy, with emotion - just completely lost myself in the song.

NEARY: Adolescence was painful for Cox. He was bullied for being gay before he really understood what that meant. He felt like something was wrong with him and contemplated suicide more than once. Eventually, Cox found a sense of belonging with other Lady Gaga fans. They talked to each other via a YouTube channel he set up. In a lot of ways, he says, Lady Gaga saved his life.

COX: I have her signature, autographed, tattooed on my arm over a scar from a suicide attempt.

NEARY: Cox says when "Born This Way" came out, the lyrics felt like a shield against the insecurity he felt about not being accepted.

COX: Because you're not the one saying it anymore. Someone's defending you, and it's in a song, a song that is playing on repeat on the radio that everyone is talking about. And all of a sudden, the idea that you were born this way and can't change who you are isn't just something that you feel. It's something the entire world is being forced to understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) My mama told me when I was young, we are all born superstars. She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir. There's nothing wrong with loving who you are, she said, 'cause he made you perfect, babe. So hold your head up, girl, and you'll go far. Listen to me when I say, I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes. I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.

NEARY: The song has a driving beat, making it perfect for dance clubs. But Tracy Young, a celebrity DJ who plays at gay parties and Pride events around the country, says that's not the only reason people still love the song.

TRACY YOUNG: I think she hit it dead on.

NEARY: Young, a lesbian, says anyone who has struggled to come to terms with their sexual identity responds to those lyrics, born this way. Whether at a dance club or a Pride parade, Young says people love to belt out those words loud and proud.

YOUNG: It's definitely one of those songs that will always be played in every Pride stage, and I think that was her intention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Ooh, there ain't no other way, baby, I was born this way. Now I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.

NEARY: Even though Elton John hailed "Born This Way" as the new gay anthem when it first came out, there was also a backlash against it. Lady Gaga was criticized for imitating Madonna's hit "Express Yourself." She was even accused of exploiting her gay fan base, a charge music writer John Savage dismisses.

JOHN SAVAGE: Obviously, Lady Gaga wanted to say something about her gay audience and what she thought about the position of gay people. She wanted to do something that was affirmative. I don't think that was cynical.

NEARY: What people don't realize, says Savage, is that Lady Gaga's lyrics have a history, which she knew about. While compiling a discography of queer music, Savage unearthed a copy of a song by a singer named Valentino, which came out in 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN THIS WAY")

VALENTINO: (Singing) Just because I'm happy, I'm carefree, and I'm gay, yes, I'm gay. It ain't a fault. It's a fact I was born this way.

NEARY: A few years later, a second version of the song was released by gospel singer Carl Bean. In a 2011 interview, Lady Gaga told Howard Stern that recording was one of the inspirations for her song.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOWARD STERN SHOW")

LADY GAGA: There's a preacher, Carl Bean, in Los Angeles, and I believe he's gay. And he has a song called "Born This Way," and it's, like, this big sort of, like - it's almost like a sermon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN THIS WAY")

CARL BEAN: (Singing) Help me, Lord. Tell the world I was born this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOWARD STERN SHOW")

LADY GAGA: He sings, I was born this way, and I remember - I went online. I was, you know, researching. And I heard this song, and I just said, man, does that answer every question.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN THIS WAY")

BEAN: (Singing) From a little, bitty boy, yeah, yeah. I was born this way, hey, hey, I'm now going to tell the world about it. Yeah. I was born this way.

NEARY: Bean was pursuing a music career when Motown asked him to record the song. He says he had always known that he was gay, so it felt like a perfect fit.

BEAN: I always say the lyric found me and it was very natural.

NEARY: Bean, now a retired pastor, was the founder of Unity Fellowship Church. He ministered to gays and lesbians and was an activist during the AIDS crisis. Bean says when he heard that Gaga was inspired by his recording, he was flattered.

BEAN: I felt it was a great tribute. And it was the continuation of saving lives. So, you know, it has just been a blessing to my life. And it's been a blessing once again to even another generation's life through the take that Gaga did on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Don't be a drag. Just be a queen, whether you're broke or evergreen, you're black, white, beige, chola descent, you're Lebanese, you're Orient. Whether life's disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased, rejoice and love yourself today 'cause, baby, you were born this way.

NEARY: As much as "Born This Way" has been embraced as a gay anthem, Tim Cox says it's also an anthem for anyone who feels outside the mainstream. And he thinks it's the kind of anthem that has staying power.

COX: You know, 50 years from now when she's not singing anymore, I would not be surprised if the song that she's remembered for most is "Born This Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I was born this way. I was born this way. I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN THIS WAY")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Give yourself prudence and love your friends so we can rejoice your truth. In the religion of the insecure, I must be myself, respect my youth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.