Gaga is, for the record, very good at harnessing this message. Her new album, Born This Way, works the theme harder than ever, but now with an added commercial bonus: Her own superstar success starts to look like proof that radical self-expression works, that you can be celebrated and rewarded for it. That core idea has been so successful that nearly every other white woman toward the top of the charts has tried it on as well— Ke$ha, Katy Perry, P!nk, all of them telling you to be yourself, bravely and heedlessly, No Matter What Anyone Says.
I don’t want to be cynical about this idea, but there’s something about it that nags at me. It feels incomplete. Yes, it’s a generous sort of freedom to offer people, and there are endless numbers of us who actually need it— people who need that inspiration to trust and follow their own desires. Yes, it’s nicely universal: Tell us to be ourselves and love ourselves, and leave us to sort out the unique and personal question of exactly who we are, anyway. It’s that rare sound of people trying to harness transgression toward healthy and positive ends.
But for me, at least, the thrill of it ends very quickly, and leads straight back into complicated questions. Aren’t “be yourself” and “be what you want to be” totally different instructions?