Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Twitter scholars often argue over the moment where society reached Peak Gaga. Some point to 2009’s “Bad Romance,” widely considered to be one of her most adored songs and videos to date, as the most Lady Gaga of all Lady Gaga. Others say the meat dress she wore at the 2010 VMAs, or her similarly otherworldly fashion moments following the release of The Fame Monster, should earn this title.
But in 2011, Gaga unveiled “Born This Way.” The singer’s third single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (following “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,”) the track quickly became known as one of her most iconic singles to date, and what many agree is the true moment of Peak Gaga. It had everything fans had come to expect from a Lady Gaga release: a stomping, electro-pop beat; an absolutely insane music video (which clocked in at a whopping 9 minutes); and a pulsating message of empowerment.
To Fernando Garibay, the co-producer behind the song and many of the other tracks on Gaga’s Born This Way parent album, it was more than just another catchy single for Mother Monster to feed to her fans. This was personal for Gaga. “Fifty versions of this song were done to get it to that point,” he recalls. “The song meant more than just, ‘Can this be a pivotal moment in pop history?’ It was more, ‘Can this create change?’ And in order to create change, the content needed to be spectacular.”
Dave Russell, who recorded Gaga’s vocals and mixed the track, says “Born This Way” was the first of the songs to be written and recorded off of the album, which struck him as atypical. “Normally singles come towards the end of making an album project, and in this case here was ‘Born This Way’ leading the way as a spearhead for the album,” he says. “There was a sense of fearlessness when it came to writing some of those songs.”
While the star certainly had her eye on success, her collaborators point to the song’s inclusive message of a divinely bestowed inner power that drove the song’s production forward. The political climate was changing; loud activism in the LGBTQ community continued and led to the implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, and protesters continued to shame the U.S. government for heightened levels of deportation throughout the year.
Garibay explains that while the two were working on the album during Gaga’s Monster Ball tour, the star would come in from her shows distraught over emotional meet-and-greets with fans. “She talked about how there needed to be a voice, and some action, anything we could do,” he says. “We realized that we could do something through song.”
The message of relentless activism through self-actualization permeates the track — the song’s bridge in particular aims to speak to as many perspectives as possible, as the star listed through different races, sexualities and gender expressions. Even today, those lyrics still push past boundaries: Gaga made history at the 2017 Super Bowl, where she became the first person to say the word “transgender” during the live telecast. As Russell puts it, “It gave a big voice to people who could only whisper at that time.”
“Born This Way” was birthed at the height of Gaga’s public saturation — fans had come to expect an event with each of the star’s releases, especially after the culture-breaking moment that was her “Bad Romance” video. As each song and video the singer released added to her mythos and furthered fan fervor, the short drought between the release of her “Alejandro” video and “Born This Way” only made the heart grow fonder.
That anticipation certainly helped the single’s ultimate success — after just over a year of no new Gaga, “Born This Way” became the fastest-selling single in iTunes history at the time, with over one million copies sold in just five days. The song also made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the only song in the superstar’s discography to do so to this day.
Upon its release, the song did become the subject of some criticism. Avid music listeners and commentators noticed striking similarities between “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself”: The melodies had similar chord structures, the tracks operated at the same tempo, and they both featured uplifting, empowering messages. Madonna herself famously referred to Gaga’s track as “reductive” of her own work.
Despite the criticism, Russell says that the song was (and is) a career-defining moment for the star simply due to the strength of the song itself. “A good song doesn’t need bells and whistles thrown at it,” he says. “No matter how much production is thrown at that song, it still stands up on its own.”
Similarly, Garibay has seen firsthand the impact of the single’s musical activism. “I work with a lot of Generation Z artists as well, and they come to me because they realize that with the power of the music we can make together, we can help affect change,” he says. “We were able to make social justice cool and relevant again in pop music.”