In 2011, Lady Gaga released her second studio album, Born This Way. Described as an anthemic melody with sledge-hammering beats, it combines electronic music with a multiplicity of metal, rock ’n’ roll, and pop influences. In an MTV article written by James Dinh in 2010, Gaga characterized her album as “something so much deeper than a wig or lipstick or a fucking meat dress.” Indeed, the album was more complex than anything Lady Gaga had ever produced. In its first week, Born This Way sold 1.108 million copies in the United States, continuing onward to eventually sell more than 8 million copies worldwide (Truong). Gaga’s track also introduced a plethora of singles to the music charts, landing her three Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.
Of all the buzz, it’s her lead single and track title, however, that has everyone talking. “Born This Way” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the 1,000 number-one single in the history of the charts and selling approximately 8.2 million copies by November 2011. According to the article “Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’: The New Gay Anthem?,” Jocelyn Vena writes, “With lyrics like ‘Don’t be a drag, just be a queen’ and ‘No matter gay, straight or bi/lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track baby/I was born to survive,’ it’s clear that Gaga is singing for those in the LGBT community who feel disenfranchised on her new track.” Indeed, critics have praised Gaga’s song as being ‘explicitly pro-gay,’ something relatively new to major-label pop today (Vena). Everything about the single, including its music video, embodies queer as Gaga gives birth to a new race amidst surrealist images (and isn’t the slightest bit subtle about it).
For Lady Gaga, however, queerness goes beyond that of sexuality and gender identification. Aspects of her music video suggest queerness is a characteristic possessed by all, particularly those who do not fit comfortably into mainstream culture. As a result, a variety of visual references–androgynous dress, tattoos, etc.–are used to highlight this message. And while the lyrics of her single directly praise self identity and expression as sources of power and inspiration, Gaga’s music video delves deeper into the complexity of queer persona, visually showcasing queerness within her new race of ‘little monsters.’
Directed by Nick Knight, the introduction begins with a creation myth: to form an identity, Gaga must first create the universe (Moralde). In an article written for Slant Magazine, Oscar Moralde states that a cosmic mythos pervades in Gaga’s psychedelic video sequence, as ‘Mother Monster’ (Gaga) gives birth to “the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment.” Tragically, however, the world is threatened by the subsequently unstoppable ‘birth of evil,’ and the remainder of the video is dedicated to repairing this fractured world. Yet, this good versus evil dualism is broken down and replaced with something far more complex. Gaga isn’t just fighting against the cookie-cutter notion of what society would consider ‘evil.’ She instead “shuns any sanitized and generic portrayal of diversity” (Moralde) and embraces a sexual energy and identity that is both fluid and transversal, stripped of its gender binary, exposing the sexually carnal and powerful instinct that is at society’s core. In response to the video, Moralde notes the allure of Gaga is at its highest when she experiments with both masculinity and femininity:
And the point where she exudes maximum sexual charisma isn’t in her half-naked dancing or when she’s thrusting crotch-first into a mass of painted flesh; it’s when she melds a pink bouffant and a sharp tuxedo to become the kinetic skeletal counterpart to Rick Genest’s Zombie Boy. (“Moralde”)
This sequence is a significant nail in the coffin of Gaga’s overall message. Halfway through the space-aged utopian storyline, Gaga appears on screen, dressed as the beautiful skeletal counterpart, complete with hot pink ponytail, to that of the young man standing in the foreground of the shot: Rick Genest, otherwise known as ‘Zombie Boy.’ It is Genest, not Gaga, that is the focal point of this particular scene. According to his website, “Rick Genest will challenge your sensibilities about what you believe to be beautiful.” That is because over eighty percent of Genest’s body is covered with intricate designs of an entire skeleton, skull included, and is thematically, the depiction of a decomposing corpse, complete with flesh eating insects.
Genest and Gaga play a rather provocative mother/son role within the scene, as Gaga slinks sexily around him, even grabbing her crotch at one point, while bellowing the lyrics “Give yourself prudence/And love your friends/Subway kid, rejoice your truth/In the religion of the insecure/I must be myself, respect my youth.” It is likely that Genest symbolizes Gaga’s ‘little monster,’ as Gaga pulls from her loin the ‘first born’ of her new race in a previous sequence. But why is Genest the figurative son of queerness? Why would Gaga specifically birth Zombie Boy? After all, Genest does not appear androgynous upon first glance.
In the excerpt “Tattoo Me,” Catherine Lundoff believes queers and tattoos go hand in hand:
My guess is that queers get tattooed for the same reasons thats bikers, would-be bikers, and warriors and shamans from different cultures do it. In a world where you’re an outsider, where someone always seems to want to control your boy and what you’re doing with it, a tattoo or piercing is a way to take it back, to say “This is mine.” (127)
The ritual act of body modification is a test of endurance, the ultimate proof of bravery and strength. It is a rite of passage, a visual representation of personal journey and inner strength. As Lundoff describes, “You know that you’re strong enough to go through with it and, by extension, strong enough to take on the rest of the world with its homophobic, sexist, racist crap” (127). Regardless of Genest’s own sexual preferences, his tattoos share a similar message to that of Lundoff’s. Featured on his website’s bio page, Genest describes the meaning behind his Zombie Boy persona:
At his core he is a chiaroscuro of both light and dark–part gentle warrior, part anti-establisment artful dodger, and he has serendipitously become the ‘it’ muse for anyone who believes in a brave new world without judgment. (“Rick Genest”)
It would appear that body modifications go beyond queerness, pointing to a larger social context. For both Lundoff and Genest, tattoos speak out against the overall discrimination, judgement, and ostracism of those who seek to identify with different subcultural codes. For a bisexual-identified lesbian like Lundoff and an underground punk rocker like Genest, tattoos serve as symbolic weaponry against the mainstream social hierarchy of mass conformity.
Indeed, the revival of highly visual ‘primitive’ body modification practices–tattooing, piercings, and scarification–has been growing in recent decades (Vale and Juno). According to Modern Primitives, V. Vale and Andrea Juno discuss the societal implications of the body modification culture and its emerging presence:
Amidst an almost universal feeling of powerlessness to ‘change the world,’ individuals are changing what the do have power over: their own bodies. That shadowy zone between the physical and psychic is being probed for whatever insight and freedom may be reclaimed. By giving visible bodily expression to unknown desires and latent obsessions welling up from within, individuals can provoke change–however inexplicable–in the external world of the social, besides freeing up a creative part of themselves; some part of their essence. (4)
Thus, body modification is becoming an outlet for those who seek to align themselves with the non-dominant ideologies of subcultural societies. In fact, piercings and tattoos may be a more personal way of signifying self-identity than anything else. For example, we are forced to describe ourselves based on a limited number of pre-assembled labels from that of the normative culture. As Vale and Juno suggest, “Something as basic as sex itself is inextricably intertwined with a food of alien images and cues implanted from media programming and advertising” (5). As a result, body modification is the only unique way to claim our own self-identity, because pain is a uniquely personal experience, one of the few uniquely personal experiences left.
Lady’s Gaga’s recruitment of Rick Genest goes well beyond the literal interpretation of his flesh and bone tattoos: Are we not flesh and bone when it’s all said and done? While this may be true, Genest’s ink symbolizes a far more defiant message than that of peace, love, and passivity. His own skin is a literal revolt against normative beauty and conformity. “Born This Way” argues there is no sanitized form of self-expression, no cookie-cutter image of “good,” “right,” or “beautiful,” and Zombie Boy’s role as the first-born of Gaga’s alternative utopia questions these tropes of our society. He is liberated by his markings, freed from standardization through extreme body modification. As a result, Genest is a personal embodiment of queerness. He is powerful, beautiful, and different–everything Gaga encourages her “little monsters” to be. Those who are simply different, should embrace their difference, and this song is indeed an anthem to that.
Dinh, James. “Lady Gaga Says Born This Way Will Be ‘Greatest Album Of This Decade'” MTV News. MTV, 29 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Juno, Andrea, and V. Vale. “Introduction.” Introduction. Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment. San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1989. 4-5. Print.
Lundoff, Catherine. “Tattoo Me.” Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities. By Dawn Atkins. New York: Haworth, 1998. 125-28. Print.
Moralde, Oscar. “Video Review: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”” Slant Magazine. Slant Magazine, 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Truong, Peggy. “Lady Gaga Biopic: 5 Stars Who Could Play the Role [PHOTOS].” International Business Times. IBT Media Inc., 05 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Vena, Jocelyn. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’: The New Gay Anthem?” MTV News. MTV, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
“Zombie Boy–Story.” Rick Genest. Rick Genest, Web. 12 Mar. 2015.