It's been 10 years since Lady Gaga gave birth to Born This Way, her Grammy-nominated and chart-topping second album full of queer dancefloor anthems, iconic visuals and boundary-pushing live performances. PAPER is celebrating its cultural impact by hearing from some of Gaga's closest collaborators, experts and fans.
From the fashion to the stunning visuals and cultural impact that the album had, at the end of the day, it's important to not overlook the truly groundbreaking and delightfully weird pop that formed the soundtrack of the Born This Way era. Lady Gaga's eagerly anticipated sophomore effort after the smash hit success of The Fame Monster, Born This Way undoubtedly had big shoes to fill but didn't feel weighed down by its predecessor's success. A departure from polished glitter-soaked dance pop of "Bad Romance" or "Paparazzi," Born This Way skewed in a more rock-influenced direction with power chords and heavy electric guitars intertwined with sweltering electro bass and synth pyrotechnics to create a mutant pop juggernaut.
For all the unbridled anthem-ism of singles like "Born This Way," "Marry the Night" and "The Edge of Glory," the album also gave rise to some true musical oddities. From the honkytonk swagger of "You and I" to the shades of New Order and electroclash in "Government Hooker," there is no shortage of experimentation and sonic curiosities sprinkled throughout Born This Way, making revisiting the record all the record all that more rewarding of an experience.
So to understand what went into the making of the music of Born This Way, PAPER caught up with one of the album's producers, DJ White Shadow, to dive into the creative climate that birthed that album, the influences and emotions that drove the record's sound and ultimately, its musical legacy as a part of pop culture history.
Given that we're 10 years on from Born This Way, talking about memories from that era, what it was like putting that album together? Perhaps a good place to start is how the record initially came together?
For me, the way they kind of kicked off was, and I'll try to be brief with this part of the story, but I met Matthew Williams when I was deejaying at a really small club in LA on Sunday night. But I was being really weird because it was during the open format time [at clubs] when it was really popular among everybody in LA and I was playing open format everywhere else. But on that Sunday night I was playing straight house music, old house music and old hip hop music and a bunch of eclectic dance records. So Matt Williams came up to me, I had no idea who he was, and he was like, "Yo, this is crazy. What is this?" And he asked me to make a tape for him. Let's skip forward to him using some of the music that I suggested and made for interludes for the first tour, the Monster Ball. So through the process of doing that and a couple of missteps that happened, and it wasn't his fault or her fault, I didn't get paid. It was just general music business things, but he was like, "Yo, this has been such an enjoyable experience and I'm so sorry that you didn't get any money and everybody else get paid but the next time she's recording something, let's have you work on stuff and submit it."
"I ran and threw whatever clean clothes I had in a bag, went right back downtown, got on a bus and just left on tour. Then we were off to the races."
That probably has happened to me 500,000 times in the music business. "Oh, thanks for doing all that work. We're going to call you when there's something that you can make money off of" and it never happens. So, when she started working on Born This Way, untitled at the time, she had blown up, it was an astronomical rise to the top, so he was like, "You want to work on this?" and I was like, "Sure, I'll send you some stuff." I worked on it nonstop for like two weeks just making beats. I called a couple local musicians in Chicago to work on some stuff and just make as many real bussed tracks and ideas as I possibly could. I sent them to her on a Thursday or Friday, and Monday she called me from Matt's phone and was like, "Hey, this is Gaga, I heard everything you said and it's crazy, let's get together.' And I thought somebody was fucking with me because I'm kind of an asshole, I like joking with people and I quite frequently am pulling pranks on people just because I'm an idiot. So I thought it was one of my friends that I told. I thought it was somebody that I knew that got their girlfriend to call and tell me that it was her. So I played it for, like a bunch of people. I actually still have the voicemail somewhere, I recorded it.
She hooked up with Fernando [Garibay] first because Fernando had done "Dance in the Dark" for The Fame Monster and she had just started to work with him on coagulating ideas and producing some records. That was happening maybe two weeks before she was coming to Chicago, which was where I was at the time and then she came and we worked on three songs: "Americano," "Bad Kids" and I want to say "Electric Chapel." Those were the first three to be kind of kicked off in Chicago as ideas. And then she was like, "Oh, these are really cool. This is kind of the direction I want to go in. Do you want to come on the road for a couple weeks and see if you can crank out a couple more?" So I ran and threw whatever clothes I had clean in a bag, went right back downtown and got on a bus and just left on tour. Then we were off to the races.
What was that like? Were you writing more on the road or did things end up at a studio?
So we were never in the studio, like ever. Timberland and Lil Wayne had a bus company that they started where they put a recording studio in the rear of a bus, so we had this bus follow us around and we would just record on this bus, do a show, get back on the bus and keep recording. It's pretty intense, actually. We were always writing and recording, she would run and go do a show and then come right back to the bus. It's crazy because at this particular time, this was my first run at any of this. I obviously know how a studio works and I had been DJing for a long time, producing and making tracks. I wouldn't really say producing, there's a big difference between making tracks and producing. Actually taking something from one track to an actual song; Fernando taught me a lot about that when we were on the road. I was kind of building a plane while I was flying it. It was nonstop work, day and night, and she would go do a show in the middle of all of it. It's crazy when the bar is set that high, every single time she wanted to work, whether I was tired or Fernado tired, or Gabe was tired or whatever, we had to work because she was doing all the work we were doing and also going and performing. I mean like burning 800,000 calories, jumping around like a lunatic, singing "Paparazzi" in front of a 20-story monster. So the work bar was set really, really high.
Diving into the sound of the album, what sorts of inspirations or musical influences were you referencing at the time?
The beauty of the way her mind works is that she has a wide variety of influences that get shuffled up to the front of the deck in equal proportions. So for Born This Way we were listening... and I'm not trying to brag or anything, but I think I know more about music than most people. When I grew up, I would listen to Cinderella, but also LL Cool J, Johnny Paycheck and Christopher Williams. I have a very eclectic taste in music and I'm a bit of a freak about diving in one level deeper or 10 levels deeper than the average music consumer. So when she's like, "I want this to sound like Rock," I could pull a reference of "is this supposed to sound like Kiss Rock or Tool rock or Justice Rock? What are we talking about here?" Then we would hone in on those certain things. So if I had to pick one genre we were listening to that would be like rock. And by that I mean I grew up on Metallica and Megadeth and Kiss, Poison, Cinderella and shit like that. So pop and rock were the big things that we were kind of leaning up against.
"Born This Way" as a track, I think it spent the most time working on. I probably have 125 different versions and I'm not even exaggerating.
That's interesting because I definitely get the rock influence on the album loud and clear but there's also some elements of electroclash and stuff like that.
I think maybe it comes out because of just the nature of the beast. What happens when you stick like the world's biggest pop star into a Cinderella vibe when Cinderella hasn't existed for 30 years. I guess what I'm saying is we could have easily been like, "OK, how do we do 'Paparazzi' 2.0? How do you do 'Pokerface' 2.0?" But that wasn't the vibe like at all. We weren't listening to what was going on in pop music or anybody who was doing anything contemporary. It was all like "do you remember this Lynyrd Skynyrd song?"
What was your own personal favorite track that you worked on on the album?
That's hard to say, it's like asking to pick a favorite child. I like a lot of different songs for different reasons, but "Born This Way" as a track, I think it spent the most time working on. I probably have 125 different versions and I'm not even exaggerating. But when that song kind of came across the plate and we were going through it I knew that it was important. There's not a lot of times in music where you have the ability to take a chance, and I don't think a lot of people understand that. Usually if you come out and you sound like DMX, you're DMX forever, even if it's your seventh album you're still DMX. I don't see that as a criticism, it's a wonderful blessing to be DMX in the first place, but given the strength of who DMX was as a rapper, the whole way he presented this new idea of what rap was supposed to sound like and what the culture behind that was supposed to look like... would you make an impact like that and then all of a sudden, you're riding motorcycles and ATVs? It's very hard to get out of that box to create something different.
So, she had the ability to go and say "Listen, this is what I think is going to change people. I did this song. I'm not going to give you another one of those songs like that, I'm going to create something that's going to change the trajectory of culture." To have the people that are sitting with their green visors and their little typewriter say, "all right, cool" is a big deal, like a monster, monster, monster, big deal for them to agree to that. She had a combination of the stones, as they say, to go and be like "This is what I'm giving you and you can take it or not take it" and then her being big enough to do that. I remember listening to "Born This Way" at the very beginning, I thought "Fuck, what a powerful message this is and how risky it is to deliver." You can't look at this as something that is simple or easy to pass over. You have to take this shit seriously. Let's get this as perfect as humanly possible and deliver this message as perfect as humanly possible. So, to answer your question, I think that "Born This Way" was probably my favorite song off the record. And I'm not just saying that because it's "Born This Way." It's a great song and it's going to be standing the test of time forever and ever and ever and ever.
Did you have any idea while making that song that it would go to have the impact it did?
"She had the ability to go and say 'Listen, this is what I think is going to change people. I'm not going to give you another one of those songs like that, I'm going to create something that's going to change the trajectory of culture.'"
When we first started working on it and the idea had come across the table it was like, "Oh, shit, that's monster. Whatever that is, it's a point. Let's put more weight on that." Fernando started working on and I started working on something and then she [Gaga] started honing in on what it was that she was saying and watching it was like watching a balloon blow up. It's exciting. I think from a very early stage, everybody knew that it was a very important song.
On the flip side of that, from the record, what would you say is one of the more underrated tracks?
Personally, I love "Electric Chapel." And only because I just think it's weird as shit. I think the guitar on that track is really cool and it's understated but big at the same time. I don't know what people consider underrated. I mean, "Bloody Mary" is an amazing song on that record, "Government Hooker" is an amazing song on that record. Even when I'm listening to it, which I did recently, in my head versus a consumer's head... a whole different thing pops up. To me, when I hear the songs, it doesn't necessarily trigger the same emotions that it would for somebody who was the end user. So I start thinking about the fun I had making the songs, what players were involved in how the thing came together. For me, to listen to it 10 years later, you get more distance between yourself in the stories. Like, "Bloody Mary" is a really good song.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm happy when I go back and listen to the album because of the combination of the stories, the music that still holds up and the message that she was trying to get across.
Along those same lines, looking back at the legacy of Born This Way 10 years out now, what stands out for you?
First of all, I feel fucking old. When somebody says something is 10 years old, it's like, "What the fuck are you talking about? Didn't I finish that like three weeks ago?" The second thing is that a couple of things stick out to me. I remember being in a hotel room in Marina del Rey at the hotel when the song came out and waiting up until midnight when Ryan Seacrest played it on whatever radio station he was on and it got released to the world and just melting into a ball of tears. I was so overwhelmed that it was finally out in the world, on the radio, and Ryan Seacrest was talking about. It was like watching your kid go to college. That comes to mind immediately and then sitting there every second, like the first time you put five dollars into the stock market and you're worried every time it goes down at two cents and then it goes up two cents, reading everything critics had to say about it, every person writing about it. There were people that were like, "Fuck this song" and others that were like "This is the great song of all time" and trying to weigh out your emotions as a first-time producer. It was number one for a good number of weeks, that was a cool validation.
"I remember listening to 'Born This Way' at the very beginning, I thought 'fuck, what a powerful message this is and how risky it is to deliver.'"
The big thing is when you start getting messages. People who were listening to the song and were like "This helps me do this;" "This inspired me to do this;" "This got me out of this hole." You start getting all these real world positive experiences that the song had an impact on people's lives. You start feeling like, 'oh, this is great, everything's going awesome' and then it's like "You copied a Madonna song." Like, what the fuck are you talking about? Because, no. Then 12 people are like, "Oh, I wrote that song" and then all this stuff starts coming around. As a young producer, it was really difficult to deal with, to be honest with you.
The impact of the song has been time-tested. In 2019 when they had the 50th anniversary of Pride in New York and I had the opportunity to play on a float in the parade and holy shit man. I would literally live in a tent for the rest of my life had I been given the choice of that or not releasing that song. To watch the impact in real time of that song, in a culturally significant moment, like 50 years of Pride, you can't write that down on a piece of paper and wish for something like that. So take all the money take all the whatever, I don't give a fuck about the context or the bad stuff. Sitting there on that float, touching a button and playing "Born This Way"... mind-blowing. Mind-blowing on 20 million different levels.
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