"Born This Way" and Beyond: The Inside Story Behind Some of Lady Gaga's Biggest Hits

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Lady Gaga's iconic Born This Way on May 23, an inside look at some of her biggest hits courtesy frequent collaborator DJ White Shadow.

By Billy Nilles May 23, 2021 7:00 AMTags
Watch: Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" Turns 10: E! News Rewind

It was the song that ignited a movement.

Ten years ago, Lady Gaga made a mission statement into a mainstream smash hit with the release of her instantly iconic "Born This Way," the lead single from her second album of the same name. The track, which finds the pop star laying bare her support for all people living exactly as they were born to live, became an anthem for the LGBTQ community as it reached number one in over 25 countries across the world. 

The song also marked the first collaboration with now-longtime writing and production partner Paul Blair (aka DJ White Shadow) to be released in the wild, kickstarting a fruitful partnership that would see the pair work together on both Born This Way and ARTPOP albums, the pop half of the A Star Is Born soundtrack and various other tracks.

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The pair were introduced by Gaga's former creative director Matt Williams, who caught Blair spinning old school and Chicago house music one night in Los Angeles at a time when neither genre getting much play in the clubs and was instantly intrigued. Three months after Blair sent a taped mix to Williams, at Williams' request, he received a call. "He was like, 'I got this artist, Gaga. She's going on tour. She wants music for show changes. Can you make me some stuff like this?' I said, Yeah, man, I got a ton of it,'" Blair told E! News. "So I just fired him off everything that was originally mine. And then they ended up using it for her tour."

That lead to Williams asking Blair to submit some tracks for what would become the Born This Way album. Within a week and a half, he had a handful of tracks ready to send Gaga's way. "She called me back the next day and was like, 'What the f--k is this?' And I was like, 'I don't know,'" he recalled. "And then she called me two days after that and had done some lyrics and melody to 'Bloody Mary,' 'Electric Chapel,' and one other one. I can't remember off the top my head. 'Highway Unicorn (Road to Love),' maybe."

As Gaga was working on the album while also headlining her first arena tour, the two played phone tag "for a while," Blair said. "Then she came to Chicago and I got on a bus, and then I never got off the bus."

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

While summing up a songwriting session with Gaga isn't that easy for Blair—"When you find out, when somebody tells you, you tell me," he said, laughing—he did readily admit that he's never worked with anyone like her. 

"I've been in the room with thousands and thousands of people over the last 10 years," he explained. "And I've never quite witnessed the phenomenon that is Lady Gaga writing songs at a session. Like, for better or for worse, she's unique, as unique of an animal as they come. It's like a combination of drive and talent and ideas. Sometimes, you know, the whole thing is just like you just sit back and wait, watch and wait, because there's nothing you can do. It's like standing in a hurricane with, you know, a rain jacket on. It's like, just wait 'till it happens because you can't understand it while it's spinning around."

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And while the two Gaga albums that bear the majority of Blair's fingerprints—Born This Way and ARTPOP—are quite different from one another, it's not as though they started out that way. "She's never come in and been like, 'I want to make the record that sounds like this' or 'I want to make a record that's about this.' It's always like, she wants to make stuff that makes people happy and makes people feel free and makes people feel empowered," he explained. "It's always the same place in her heart that everything's coming from. So I think every album, even the ones that I didn't participate in, you know, kinda carry that same flag. There might be a little bit of different sauce on the meat, but it's always the same meat, you know?"


And as for why ARTPOP infamously wasn't as warmly received as the rest of Gaga's albums back when it was released in 2013, Blair has some thoughts. "I feel like at the time we were trying to make something that stood out, you know what I mean? So for better or worse, when you stand out..." he said, trailing off. "I think when I kind of got the vibe that it was like, all right, well everybody's like, 'This is not this. And this is not that. And this should have been like this' or 'This song isn't as good as whatever,' it's like, well, okay, that's how you feel about it."

"We were trying to be f--king weird, man," he continued. "And we were trying to like be left of center and try new s--t. And, you know what? We did that. So whether or not it became, you know, the theme song for f--king children show, who gives a s--t, you know? We were not trying to make the 'ba-da-da-da-da' whatever from McDonald's. [Laughs] It was like we were trying to fu--ing weird and, hey, guess what? Mission accomplished."

Speaking with E! News ahead of the ninth anniversary of "Born This Way" in 2019, Blair celebrated with a trip down memory lane, revisiting some of the biggest tracks he's worked with on Gaga over the last decade. (For his thoughts on working on A Star Is Born with the superstar, head over here.)

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"Born This Way" (2011)

While it wasn't the first track they worked on together, the self-empowerment anthem would be the first of their collaborations the world would get a taste of when it was released on Feb. 11, 2011, as the lead single for her third album of the same name. The song reached No. 1 in more than 25 countries and became Gaga's third single to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. In the process, it became an anthem for the LGBTQ community thanks to its explicit lyrical support, surely the first of its kind in mainstream pop music.

"So I think that everything starts somewhere and along the way, like, if I'm intending for me and you to drive from L.A. to Chicago, and our intent is to get Chicago, between the time we leave L.A. and Chicago, we're going to have a lot of experiences that we didn't expect, weren't anticipating or maybe were anticipating but didn't really understand on the way, right?" Blair explained. "So what I'm saying is that I don't think the song was specifically made to be anthemic per se. It's like, you write the song because you want people to shine a light on how people should be."

"Maybe that song wasn't for you," he continued. "Maybe that song was for somebody who was not you, that never met you, that liked the song and then could understand you better. Also maybe it was made for you to understand yourself better and the way that you fit in and maybe it's for you who needed to be understood to understand somebody else that was also born in a way that you didn't understand."

"So I think when we're sitting there talking about the song and how the song should feel, obviously, we wanted to get to Chicago. We wanted to make a song that her fans would appreciate, that we felt was an important message, that sounded a certain way and felt a certain way. But along the way, that song took on such another perspective, I think, for everybody in the room."

And because of that, much attention was paid to getting things exactly right. Blair said that he has over 120 existing versions of the track in his possession, proving the point. "For me, I think out of every song I've ever made in my entire life, that's the most important song I've been a part of making," he explained. "Every time I hear that song, I'm like, 'F--k, this is awesome.' Not only just because of what it what it means, but just, I can remember like specifically sitting there and spending so much time making sure that it was dope. Because we all knew how important it was."

"The Edge of Glory" (2011)

For Born This Way's third single, released just weeks before the album in full on May 23, 2011, this euphoric electro-rock and disco-inspired track was shared, featuring an instantly iconic saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Clemons would die a month after it dropped at the age of 69.

"Her father's a big E Street, Bruce Springsteen guy, you know? So she grew up listening to that. And as I started developing the song, she was like, 'I really want a saxophone solo or really want, you know, [a] solo on this.' I don't even know was first: sax, trumpet, whatever. I don't really remember how that started, but somebody was like, 'Let's call Clarence Clemons, man. See what he says.' And sure as s--t, he came rolling in pretty shortly after," Blair recalled with a laugh. "We were all like, 'Wait a minute.' It was a crazy. I remember I don't think I said one word that whole day to be honest with you because there's certain times where you're standing there and it's like, 'What is happening right now?' I was like, 'Is this dude really sitting here like eating lunch with me and then he's just gonna go play a solo here on this thing that we started making or whatever?'

"It's pretty surreal. And I think that no matter who you are in the world, I don't care how far up the river you are, you still get excited to work with people and see people and talk to people about their musical journey. We're all huge fans of him as an individual musician and then also of the band, so somebody just said, 'Let's try it.' And it happened."

"Electric Chapel" (2011)

Inspiration for this album cut—one of the first instrumentals Gaga responded to when Blair sent her options in their earliest days, immediately writing to it—came from an unlikely source, all things considered. The track, laden with electric guitar, finds the pop star embracing a glam metal sound that also wouldn't be out of place in the dark discos of Berlin. It's a deep cut, but a fan favorite.

"Just this last weekend somebody was like, 'Obviously Michael Jackson's like your favorite musician. Who's your second-favorite musician?' People ask that all the time and it's the hardest question to answer because I have like such a long list, but in different times, I've answered different things. But the one that constantly stays in my top five and usually is usually at number two or number three is Lynyrd Skynyrd," Blair told us. "I f--king love Lynyrd Skynyrd. So I always wanted to make something that kinda had dance stuff and rock stuff in it. And so, I f--k with guitars all the time and at the current time I was working on those things, it just, I don't know, it worked. So I put that guitar in there and did whatever we were doing at the time and I was like, 'Oh, cool. Here's a track.' Sent it off. And then when she sent it back, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is so killer.'"

"Applause" (2013)

For her fourth studio album, ARTPOP, Gaga went off in different directions from Born This Way, diving headfirst into Eurodance and EDM soundscapes. On this, the album's lead single, the electropop is front and center. Peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100, the song finds the pop star analyzing her relationship to fame in perhaps her most obvious way yet. As for how it came to be the first taste of the LP that the public would get remains a sensitive subject.

"I'm going to have to save this one for the VH1 thing for when I'm really old," Blair said, laughing. "But let me tell you this. I love 'Applause.' I think it's just such an energetic song. And it was not intended to be the first single initially. When you're dealing with the machine, and what I mean by machine is there's a lot of people that weigh in on your record, you know, on your art. It's very difficult, I think, for her, for everybody in the business that's an actual writer, you know, songwriter, performer, whatever."

He continued, "Imagine having a baby, the thing pops out of your f--king vagina and then a bunch of people standing over it being like, 'Wait a minute, the nose isn't perfect and the ear is f--king weird.' And you're like, 'God dang, let the thing grow. Trust me a little bit. It's my baby. Let me get it out.' I think that...ARTPOP was a little bit of a square peg. And, you know, the times when you make a square peg and you intend it to be a square peg, and everybody's only used to round holes, there's a little convincing and a little massaging to do. ARTPOP was an unusual bird. So there's some stories in there that are interesting"

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"Do What U Want" (2013)

ARTPOP's second single was this electro-R&B track about, on the surface, sexual submission, but also allowing the public to say whatever they want about her body to keep the rest of herself (her soul, her voice, her heart) her own. Featuring a guest appearance from R. Kelly, the song has drawn criticism in recent years for his involvement, prompting Gaga to pull it entirely from streaming services in January 2019 after Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly revealed new and disturbing allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by the singer. "I can't go back, but I can go forward and continue to support women, men, and people of all sexual identities, and of all races, who are victims of sexual assault," she said in a statement announcing her decision to pull the song. "I'm sorry, both for my poor judgment when I was young, and for not speaking out sooner."

An excellent remix with Christina Aguilera in place of Kelly remains, however.

"I even specifically remember when we wrote it. We were on a bus. We were touring through Europe. And we're just playing weird left-of-center things and I had been on this whole arpeggiator kick," Blair said of the song's inception. "I love Suspiria and all the Dario Argento movies from the 70s and Giorgio Moroder, all the old Italian disco stuff. And I don't even know if we were in Italy or not. We might have even been in Italy. And I was talking about arpeggiators. So I made this track, she wrote this whole song to it and that song probably sat there for like a better part of a year, nine months to a year until we got back to the States and we were finishing the album. I don't even know if we had like the whole record done, right? But it was one of those songs that was sitting there and we're going through stuff and she had mentioned it'd be cool to have some features on the record."

As Blair recalled, it was he who suggested Kelly jump on the track. "It wasn't like we did the record and everybody's like, 'Oh my God, don't put R. Kelly on this. He's an asshole.' I think, dollar for dollar, R. Kelly as a songwriter—not as a human being, but as a songwriter—is one of the most talented people in the last 20 years," he explained, citing hits like "I Believe I Can Fly" and "You Are Not Alone" as instances of Kelly's unimpeachable songwriting prowess.

"I knew a motherf--ker from Chicago that knew R. Kelly, sent them the track. R Kelly sent back the track, we heard it, we were like, 'This is f--king dope.' Gave it to Jimmy [Iovine, former chairman and CEO of Interscope Records]. Jimmy was like, 'This is dope.' Put it on a Beats commercial, f--king sold hundreds of thousands of records," he continued.

As Blair explained, he thinks it's unfair that "everybody who's ever worked with R. Kelly in their whole lives got s--t on" when the allegations came to light. "It doesn't suck as bad as what he did to everybody that he did s--t to," he adds, "and trust me when I tell you, our side of the fence is filled to the brim with love and respect and admiration for humankind in general. All people. So like if there was even a whiff...if we would have even had an indication...we would have changed. We don't need R. Kelly to be on the song for it to be a dope song." 

"When I listen to that song now, it bums me out tremendously because I think that that's one of the best songs I've ever produced. I think it's a very well-written song and her voice on it sounds f--king bonkers," he continued. "So to get it tainted to s--t by somebody's actions that we're completely out of control of—and, listen, that thing went from the bottom all the way through the machine to the very top to the radio. Nobody said s--t to us, right? So it's not just her. I felt really bad when she had to go and say, 'Listen, I'm taking this thing down. I'm doing this and this and that.' But I understand it. It's an unfortunate byproduct of being creative. And I'm not trying to even make an excuse. We just didn't know."

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"Sexxx Dreams" (2013)

A deep cut off ARTPOP, this sexy synthpop track finds Gaga taking fans deep inside her kinkiest dreams. Though it never got the single treatment, the song remains a fan-fave. But it didn't come easy.

"We recorded that in a hotel room. I don't remember what city we were in. But I do remember that we started after her show was over and didn't leave until noon the next day. We were literally up all night on that song the first night," Blair revealed. "She had this idea in her head and wanted to get it out. Had a little part of it before the show. And then she was so stoked about it that, after the show, we all went up in the room, set up, and worked on it for a really, really long time."

He continued, "I think it was one of those things where she knew that she wanted to get that done, but didn't exactly know how to do it right right off the bat. So we just tried like a bazillion, bazillion things and I remember specifically when she did get to where she was going, it was like, 'Oh my god, so dope.' Sometimes when you're trying to explain stuff, even when it's in your head, it's hard to explain it. And that was one of those ones that took a really long time to get to where it was. And then once it got there, we're all like, 'This is great.'

"Gypsy" (2013)

While "Applause" is the track that officially closes out ARTPOP, one gets the sense that this, the penultimate song on the tracklist, might've made a better closer. The song finds Gaga tackling her feelings about fame as well, this time in a more anthemic nature with a Madeon-assisted production that washes over the listener like a wall of sound. Though it's somewhat punctured by not being the album's final seconds, the song builds to a euphoric moment of international shoutouts, rollicking guitar, and irrepressible hand claps—something Blair said was a design imperative across the LP.

"Madeon was mostly in charge of that track. Some of those things when we were doing them, it was a very, very genuine team effort. So it was like you'd do something somewhere, Madeon would come in and start taking it and running with it. Me and Nick [Monson] and Dino [Zisis,] we'd all kind of separate and work on different things at different times. It was a real squad effort."

He continued, "We were in a zone where it was just like, 'F--k it. Anybody who sees the vision, let's put them on the spot here and let it run.' So I think each one of those songs on that record have a special moment. I don't think there's one song on that record that doesn't have a moment, somewhere, somehow. And I think that, for better or for worse, that was kind of the idea of the whole thing, to create something that sounds crazy. It's art. It was art. The whole thing. It was like let's be as artistic as humanly possible. So if we need to put something here, let's do it. Not let somebody tell you what to do or how to do it. Let's just do it. I think that sometimes it turned out to be that kind of thing where it ended up being this wall of sound and really big, really triumphant-feeling stuff."

"The Cure" (2017)

When Gaga stepped in as Coachella headliner in 2017 to replace a pregnant Beyoncé, she marked the occasion with this trop house-inspired one-off single. And if you think it sounds similar to the vibe and lyrical content of some of the Ally pop tracks from A Star Is Born, which Gaga was also working on at the same time with Blair and the song's other co-writers Lukas Nelson, Mark Nilan and Nick Monson, he swears it's just a coincidence.

"I would say you're not completely off base, but here's how things work. Before A Star Is Born came up, we were just writing stuff for whatever. Even before ARTPOP, before Born This Way, after Born This Way,  she just writes and I just make tracks. I mean, that's what we do, right? So I'll send her stuff sometimes or Nick would send her stuff or she'd send us stuff. So there's stuff floating around, going around. 'The Cure,' I wouldn't say was written for the film. It definitely was not written for the film, to go in that direction. It was just like, once one cup gets full, things start spilling out into other cups and you start pouring the water into other cups and maybe there was some cross pollination from one thing to another. But honestly, it wasn't it wasn't written for—it was just a good song."

He continued, "If anything, it's probably my fault because I was probably producing stuff. It's probably more the production stuff than the song stuff, to be honest, if that's how you're feeling, because the way that that came up was just like, 'Yo, we want to do something new at Coachella.' And I was like, 'What about this song?' 'The Cure' is one of my favorite songs I've ever done with her. I love that song. I think it's fu--ing crazy. It's a great song. I think the message is dope. And I think that music sounds dope and I love her voice in it. It was just intended to be a standalone single for the Coachella thing and to do something new and kind of be out there and people kind of just fell in love with it."

(Originally published Feb. 11, 2020, at 3 a.m. PST.)