Taking cues from Frank Zappa, the Ramones and Nirvana, Gaga carries the torch for the outsider in pop music.
By James Montgomery
In the 1970s, when disco was in full swing and rock and roll was posturing its way into arenas, four goony, glue-sniffing kids in Forest Hills, Queens, threw on leather jackets and began bashing out two-minute tunes with titles like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Beat on the Brat." They called themselves the Ramones, and not only were they probably the first punk band on planet Earth, but they were most definitely outcasts, in every sense of the world.
Of course, the Ramones certainly weren't the first musical outcasts. Theirs is a legacy that reaches all the way back to the dawn of recorded music, from the likes of the Hoosier Hot Shots and Slim Galliard, scatting madman Cab Calloway and the "shocking" Screamin' Jay Hawkins, to midcentury curios like bizarro bandleader Spike Jones, deep-fried '60s oddballs like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and even contemporaries like the Cramps and the Talking Heads. But unlike any who came before them, the Ramones helped usher in an era — and a genre — in which being odd was championed. It would continue through the 1980s, thanks to the Heads, West Coast punk acts like Black Flag and the Minutemen, and college-radio darlings like R.E.M. — and, of course, the eternally outcast world of heavy metal — then truly break through in the '90s, with the chart-topping success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, and the rise of hip-hop outfits like the Wu-Tang Clan, the Pharcyde and the incomparable Kool Keith.
Of course, in the 2000s, things sort of petered out. Rock and hip hop became increasingly lunkheaded and lumbering, and the meek were shoved from the spotlight. And it bears mention that, even during the outcast heyday, for the most part, established acts — i.e., anyone who had plenty to lose — stayed as far removed from the fringe as possible, or if they dared stray outside their lane, they suffered the consequences (the classic example being, of course, Madonna, who nearly submarined her entire career with the simultaneous release of the Erotica album and its accompaniment, the coffee-table book "Sex"). There's a reason it's called "popular" music, after all.
These days, however, things appear to be changing. For the first time, established pop megastars are embracing those on the fringes of society — and finding success in the process. It all started, appropriately enough, with the rise of Lady Gaga, who made no bones about the fact that her earliest support came from the gay community, and over the past year, through videos like "Alejandro" and her campaign against "don't ask, don't tell," she has become the outcast icon of our time. Others followed suit — like Pink, who scored hits with underdog anthems like "Raise Your Glass" and "F***** Perfect"; Ke$ha, whose "We R Who We R" went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; and even Katy Perry, who dedicated her "Firework" video to the "It Gets Better" campaign — and it truly seems that, for the first time since the 1990s, being an outcast was not only acceptable, it was downright mainstream.
Now, Gaga is poised to return with "Born This Way," the first single from her album of the same name. On Thursday, she released the song's lyrics, and if it's not already the biggest outcast anthem of all time, well, then it probably will be very soon. In fact, there's nary an outsider group Gaga doesn't mention in the song — gays, bisexuals, transgenders, ethnic minorities, the disabled, the bullied, the poor — which makes it, and its near-inevitable chart success, incredibly noteworthy. After all, here is Lady Gaga, currently the biggest artist on the planet, releasing a song that not only calls for acceptance of all people, but drags those who aim to oppress directly into the center of the ring. It is not only fierce, it's downright fearless. Gaga has plenty to lose, but she couldn't care less.
And perhaps "Born This Way" is just the byproduct of the era in which we live, a time when social mores are constantly debated, when boundaries are being expanded and contracted, almost daily, and when it truly seems possible that maybe — just maybe — the outcasts could inherit the earth. After all, Bill Gates was an outcast, Barack Obama was too — and look how things worked out for them. And while this may put the fear of God in some folks, it seems that change is inevitable, and, as it is wont to do, pop music is there to provide the soundtrack to all of that change. Just like in the 1960s, when the biggest rock and folk acts of the day led the charge for social rebellion, so too may Lady Gaga. And she'll do it on the biggest stage imaginable. Of course, that might just be speculation, but it's certainly been a long time coming.
What is your favorite outcast anthem? Let us know in the comments!Related Photos