APU Content Type* Everyday Scholar Podcast

The Power of Song Lyrics to Drive Acceptance

Podcast featuring Dr. Jaclyn Maria FowlerDepartment Chair, English and Literature and
L.K. Silvaauthor and faculty member, American Public University

Song lyrics are powerful and transformative. In this episode, Dr. Jackie Fowler talks to APU professor and author L.K. Silva about the song lyrics of Lady Gaga and Sam Smith. Learn how songs can promote self-acceptance and the acceptance of others regardless of differences.

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Dr. Jackie Fowler: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar, I’m Dr. Jackie Fowler. And today we have a special guest, a faculty member from the English and literature department at APU and a writer extraordinaire in her own right. Welcome, L.K. Silva.

L.K. Silva: Thank you. Glad to be back. Today, we’re going to be doing two really special songs. One from Lady Gaga and one from Sam Smith. And I thought that last week’s read, it was a perfect segue going from poetry to song lyrics since they’re so closely related.

[Podcast: Phenomenal Woman: Building Self-Confidence in an Inclusive World]

And so, we are looking at “Born This Way” first by Lady Gaga. One of my favorites, I think it’s a lot of people’s favorites. And we’ll be talking about it. It’ll be fun.

“It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M

It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
‘Cause you were born this way, baby

My mama told me when I was young, “We are all born superstars”
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir
“There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”, she said, “‘Cause He made you perfect, babe
So hold your head up, girl, and you’ll go far”
Listen to me when I say

I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself, and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way

Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
Baby, I was born this way
Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
Right track, baby, I was born this way

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Don’t be (don’t be, don’t be)

Give yourself prudence and love your friends
Subway kid, rejoice your truth
In the religion of the insecure, I must be myself, respect my youth
A different lover is not a sin, believe capital H-I-M
I love my life, I love this record, and
Mi amore vole fe, yah (same DNA)

I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself, and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way

Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
Baby, I was born this way
Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re Black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient’
Whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause, baby, you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi’, lesbian, transgender life
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive
No matter Black, white or beige, chola, or Orient’ made
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to be brave

I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself, and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way, yeah

Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
Baby, I was born this way (born this way)
Ooh, there ain’t no other way, baby, I was born this way
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Oh, L.K. Got to tell you. I love Lady Gaga even went to see her in Dubai.

L.K. Silva: Oh, no way.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: I took my son to see her in Dubai.

L.K. Silva: Oh, that’s so much fun.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: But here’s my question for you. This is a big one. Why do popular song lyrics belong in a serious English classroom?

L.K. Silva: I think song lyrics belong in every classroom and this is going to be a really weird answer. I think the songs are the great unifier. My kids just came back from Coachella and here’s this gigantic music festival that has kids from 16 to 76, all listening, and grooving, and dancing, and loving. And it brings us all together.

And here’s the weird part of the answer, for those of us that are long in tooth like me, we all remember Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function. And I’m Just a Bill. We also know that we can be driving along and hear a song that we haven’t heard for 25 years and start singing the lyrics as if we heard it yesterday.

And I think that speaks volumes about our brain’s capacity to remember thousands of songs, because they touch us. One of the things that I teach in creative writing is when a reader stops feeling, she stops reading. And we listen to songs because they make us feel and that feeling helps us learn acceptance. It helps us understand different things because if you want to learn about a society, past or present, we read their literature, we study their art. And, yeah, we listen to their music. I think that music has the power to unite and the power to heal. And, in a serious classroom, it has the power to open people’s minds.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting what you said. I think to a specific song in my life that has so many meanings for me. I actually don’t know the name of it, but it’s from “Dirty Dancing” and you know the song, “Oh, Sylvia,” you know that song?

L.K. Silva: Yes.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: I can tell you that I have, not just memories, if that song comes on the radio, it’s not just a memory. I am back in college. I rowed crew in college. So, I’m sitting with my boat mates after a hard practice on the floor with a six pack and raw cookie dough watching “Dirty Dancing” or I’m with an old man that I took to see Dirty Dancing. And he stood up with me, God love him, he was in the throes of Alzheimer’s and danced in front of the whole theater with me with “Dirty Dancing.” So I hear what you’re saying. It does connect. It’s a direct connection to our hearts, I think, more than our minds.

L.K. Silva: Absolutely. And what you just explained was that music is transportive like nothing else. It took you right back there. We remember where we were, what we were doing. That memory is almost cellular-deep and that we don’t incorporate more music in our educational system is sad, because if it has the power to move us and to transport us, why wouldn’t we?

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Yeah. Let me ask specifically to the song. Gaga calls out some specific groups. She says, “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgender life, no matter Black, white, beige, chola or Orient-made,” there were more, but why does she call out those groups? Do they matter more than the others?

L.K. Silva: No. I think that the list would be way too long, if she had to go out. What’s interesting is the two terms that she used that can make some people’s hackles go up. And that would be chola and Orient, because of course we stopped calling people of Asian descent Oriental a long time ago.

But I think that she’s trying to run the gamut of color. Notice that she really didn’t put gender in there, color, some races. She does talk about Lebanese, which is funny because lesbians and Lebanese the word so closely related. So it sounds so close together that it’s like, “Did she mean Lebanese or lesbian?” No. I think that one of the things, when you’re looking at the list that she has, this song is actually about self-liberation, right? It’s about self-liberation and a critical stance based on any religious prejudice.

She writes that worshipping God equals loving all of his creations. And by God, I’m pretty sure she means the universal idea of any greater power, but loving all of God’s creatures just the way they are. Whether you are Black, White, Lebanese, gay, lesbian, straight, you love everybody just the way they are. Nobody needs to be fixed. Nobody needs a color change, a gender change, a sexual orientation change. Nobody needs to be fixed, because we’re not broken. God doesn’t create broken beings.

And so, if God doesn’t make mistakes, then each one of us should be loved and embraced and celebrated for who we are and where we come from. And the idea is, she says, “Orient,” somebody from Asia is born Asian, and somebody who is gay or lesbian is born gay or lesbian. God doesn’t make mistakes.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s interesting to hear you put together the idea of God doesn’t make mistakes and self-liberation. It’s not always easy to embrace every aspect of yourself. There are things I wish I could change about myself and let’s say, especially, glaring differences. It’s really hard to embrace them. So, isn’t her message naive, because I mean, if we do get around to this self-liberation, aren’t there always going to be those who try to knock us down.

L.K. Silva: Yeah, but the goal is to get to the point where they’re the minority. That’s the goal. The goal is for all of us in that list to come together and say, “This is about acceptance.” And, I got to tell you, back in the day, the 70s and 80s, when we all had posters in our middle schools and our high schools about the word tolerance and it rankled me so much, because who in the hell wants to be tolerated? This is usually just about people that are different, “To experience tolerance,” really? Because I don’t want to be tolerated, that means you’re putting up with me.

We don’t want to be put up with, we want to be accepted. And by the, we, I mean, those of us that are on the fringes, those of us who are different, those of us that right now are in the minority, who are being told that there’s something wrong with us, because we’re not in the majority.

So, these singers, these songwriters, these playwrights, these writers, these artists, everybody who is working overtime to remind us that different doesn’t mean worse. It doesn’t mean better. It just means different. And so, I think that they’re not naive. I think they’re working really hard so that those people that are judging us, that are tolerating us, eventually become the minority and then eventually become silenced, because they need to be silenced.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Or tolerated.

L.K. Silva: Yeah. Right?

Dr. Jackie Fowler: L.K., last night, I went to see Margaret Atwood speak and she was snarky on stage. And she was funny, she’s 82 years old, and the moderator asked her, “Why as a writer, did she always push the boundaries?” She had a way of intuiting what was coming and hoping it wouldn’t come if she warned us. And I’m thinking particularly of the “Handmaid’s Tale” for instance.

And she talked about creatives, artists, and writers, and musicians, sculptors, any creative mind. They were always the group that were pushing the boundaries. They were always the group that asked for inclusivity. And then she struck a real serious note at the end. And I’m going to bring this serious note up for you because I think I hear what you’re saying. I hear the beauty of it. She said at the very end, “Of course, that’s why the creatives are always the first to be shot when authoritarian governments take over.”

And I wasn’t sure how I felt about the end point, of course, partly because I’m a writer, but also because I felt so inspired by her message. So, what happens? How do we keep fighting when we are in the minority? How don’t we get tired of it?

L.K. Silva: I think that’s a great question because after decades, seriously, decades of coming-out stories, decades of trying to accept biracial couples, so much still hasn’t changed. And so, we need to keep retelling these stories in song, in poetry, in writing, in art, in sculpture, we have to keep telling them again and again until we are at last safe and accepted.

So, it’s never going to be a one-off, especially, when we are pushing the boundaries against religious thought, religious philosophy. And I think that’s why we continue to get songs from these types of writers, from Sam Smith and from Lady Gaga. This came out in 2011.

And so, here we’ve struggled so much in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s to get some acceptance. And right now, we’re back to being afraid. We’re back to the point where, and by the, we, I’m talking about the LGBTQ community. Six years ago, I had no problems reaching across the table and grabbing my partner’s hand and being affectionate.

L.K. Silva: And I didn’t look around wondering if somebody was going to throw a brick at my head or maybe shoot me. Today, I wouldn’t do that. Today, I look around and I’m in Southern California. And I’m looking around making sure that we’re safe, making sure that there isn’t anybody who’s getting irritated by my show of love and affection.

And, I think that we’re going to see more and more of these types of the 1960s rebellion songs that we have to continue to tell these stories. We cannot stop telling the stories because we are not there yet. So, when you ask me about, “Is it naive?” No. When I think of pushing the boundaries, I see us in a little bubble and that we’re all ringing around the bubble, pushing it out, pushing it out, making it bigger and bigger, and bigger. And that’s our job. I think as creative people is to continue to push that out so that the bubble becomes bigger, and here we are. And now, here we are. And we’re back to that.

The bubble got much smaller after the last six years and it’s now a scary place for us. And for us, we’ve seen Asian people being kicked and beaten up in a subway. We have seen African Americans being abused over and over again in a way that is astounding in the 21st century. Astounding.

So, we’re now back to, all right, those creative people, we need to come back and keep telling the stories and keep singing songs, and writing poetry, and doing all of that about acceptance and love and peace and getting along. And that our differences is what makes us all so special. And thank God we have these singers and songwriters and they go anywhere from Taylor Swift to Slipknot are singing songs that are saying, “Look, we need to celebrate.”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Right on. And she’s going to talk to us about Sam Smith’s lyrics.

L.K. Silva: This is a song called “HIM” from “The Thrill of It All.” And it’s actually a story about a boy coming out to a combined father, priest, God figure. And it’s short and sweet, but pretty powerful. I think it’s very impactful.

“Holy Father, we need to talk
I have a secret that I can’t keep
I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted
Please don’t get angry, have faith in me

Say I shouldn’t be here but I can’t give up his touch
It is him I love, it is him
Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us
It is him I love, it is him I love

I walk the streets of Mississippi
I hold my lover by the hand
I feel you staring when he is with me
How can I make you understand?

Say I shouldn’t be here but I can’t give up his touch
It is him I love, it is him
Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us
It is him I love, it is him I love

Oh, I love
No, no, I love
I love
Him I love
Him I love
Him I love
Him I love

Holy Father, judge my sins
I’m not afraid of what they will bring
I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted
I love him”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Oof, that’s powerful, that’s powerful. So, let me talk a little bit about Sam Smith’s song. Inside, there’s a clear, direct appeal to God. And he starts pretty traditionally, “Holy Father.” We think we’re getting a prayer here.

But then he turns the concept of faith on its head. So, he says, “Please, don’t get angry. Have faith in me.” Here’s my question, L.K.: Why does Smith believe God should have faith in him rather than the other way around? I mean, isn’t that what most religions teach that we are supposed to have faith in God?

L.K. Silva: Because I think it’s the concept of love. Have faith in me that I love and that love is pure. And that I’ve made the decision here. I love him. Have faith that I know what I’m doing. Have faith at what you have given me. And if God is love, and I love, is there any wrong in that? Have faith in me.

And I love that line because this is such a personal song for me. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and I waited until I was 28 years old to come out to my parents. And my mother’s singular line that says everything you need to know when she finally found words, her words were this, “I would rather you be alone and miserable than be with another woman.”

Now, I’m so glad that I came out at 28 and not at 18, because at 18, I didn’t have the life experience or the words or the knowledge to actually respond to that. Because who says that to their child? But a lot of people do.

And I was able to say, “Wow, mom. I don’t think that the Lord is going to be pretty happy with you if that’s truly how you feel, because what you’re saying is that,” and this goes back to Lady Gaga’s song, “I’m not a mistake. He didn’t create a broken person. He created somebody capable of loving lots of different people. And isn’t that what we were supposed to do?” And she looked at me and before she could say anything else, I said, “Wasn’t his best friend a whore?” At 18, I wouldn’t had that.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Dang. Not too sure where to go from there.

L.K. Silva: Yeah, exactly. But that’s what I think it is, that the faith that love is love. And I love that that’s become the new mantra across the board when you’re looking at Facebook, how many people have that as their banner because it is, love is love.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Based on what you’ve just told me, L.K., what you’ve just said personally, do you consider “HIM” a prayer?

L.K. Silva: Interesting, I’ve never thought of it that way. Given that he starts off talking to God. It’s interesting. So, “Holy Father, we need to talk,” and that’s why this is questionable because he’s talking to a priest and to God, right? Because is he sitting in a confessional? And is this a confessional that’s happening? I have a secret that I can’t keep. And how sad that it is a secret and that secret, it will eat you up from the inside out.

So, I’m not sure. I think that it’s both a prayer and a confession because he does talk to Holy Father. Remember, however, if we’re looking at it from a Catholic point of view, they call their priest’s father. Not necessarily Holy Father. So, that juxtaposition of Holy and Father and God. And then he starts talking about, “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us.” Now, he’s talking to the priest, the other father, we’re talking about two fathers here, the Holy Father and the fatherly priest. That’s my take on it.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Interesting. How about a biological father?

L.K. Silva: Probably, all of the above. It is him I love. Now, it’s an interesting thing in Gaga’s piece, the lyrics of it are written HIM in all caps, because she’s not actually him with just the capital H, it’s usually referring to a Godhead figure, but all caps, I think she’s talking about the man, the majority, the people that point their fingers and say, “There’s something wrong with you.”

And so, I think that both of these, with the word “him” is interesting. Hers gives a little bit of a different read when you read it because of the all caps. But, yeah, I see him sitting in a confessional when he says I have a secret I can’t keep and I have to tell somebody. And I have to tell you or tell God, or I don’t know. I like that there’s probably three fathers, the dad, the priest and the Holy Father.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: I want to go there because I think this is a really interesting interpretation. Look, if he’s in a confessional, the idea of a confessional in the Catholic faith is that you are telling your prayer in secret, you’re telling your sins in secret to God, through a mediary of the priest, right? It’s secret. And yet, his confession is in a song on an album that was rated one of the 50 best albums of 2017. So, it wasn’t much of a secret. Why is that so powerful?

L.K. Silva: Why is it so powerful that it was a secret?

Dr. Jackie Fowler: He wrote it as a secret. I have a secret to tell.

L.K. Silva: Right.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Right. I can’t keep my secret. And I like your interpretation of it being inside a confessional. But to be honest, it’s not a secret. He published this on an album. He sings this on stage.

L.K. Silva: Right. Right. And what I think is interesting is the book ends of Holy Father. So Holy Father starts off in our first verse and it ends in the last one with, “Holy Father, judge my sins.” So, we know at this point he could just be talking to God, “Judge my sins. I’m not afraid of what they will bring. I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted. I love him. So, I’m not the boy you thought you wanted is to his dad.

And this is why there’s so many layers to this for such a short song. He’s talking to all three of these important figures, male figures, in his life. “I’m not the boy you thought I wanted,” is definitely to his dad. So, is he in a confessional? Is he walking out having this conversation with his God, his priest?

I mean, we could read what he has to say about the song he wrote, but that’s what I love about this is he’s taking them all on, “Don’t you try to tell me that God doesn’t care for us.” Who’s he talking to now? Is he talking to the priest? Is he talking to his dad?

Dr. Jackie Fowler: By doing it this way, do you think he gives himself or he gives his listeners the ability to distance the song from him a little bit? From him, meaning Smith.

L.K. Silva: Yes. Because I don’t think that this was meant to be strictly an autobiographical thing. That’s why he says, “I walk the streets of Mississippi.” Now, he’s not talking about Mississippi. He’s using Mississippi obviously as a metaphor for all intolerant society. “I hold my lover by the hand, I feel you staring when he is with me, how can I make you understand?” So, at this point you’re like, “We’ve all been there.” Now, he’s talking to all of us. And again, not even just gay and straight, we’re talking about even biracial couples that still have issues here in this country of people having problems.

And again, being intolerant of that, we’ve all held our lover by the hand. And it’s one of the envies that we have of straight couples, that you grab each other’s hands when you walk down the beach and you never once look over your shoulder to see if somebody’s going to do something or run at you or spit at you or call you a name. And until you’ve been in that position, until you’ve actually felt fear for showing love, you really can’t get it. And so, “I feel you staring at me when he is with me and how can I make you understand?” How could I make you understand that my love is just like your love. Except that mine has an element of fear in it, that you, as an accepted being will probably never feel.

Dr. Jackie Fowler: It’s powerful. I have one last question for you here. And I don’t know if you did this on purpose, if you chose them because of this, I’m guessing you chose because they have an underlying message that ties them together, but also the word Him ties them together. And, I was interested in your interpretation of the way Lady Gaga uses HIM, capital H-I-M to represent the man, the power structure, right? And I think what’s interesting is that she gives the capital H-I-M almost a religious connotation. So, you can interpret it as God.

But, I think your interpretation is much more interesting because behind the power structure, especially in this country, in the U.S., we have poorly interpreted religious doctrine. We have a group of powerful people, and I certainly don’t mean all people by this, but there is a group of powerful people who interpret the religious aspect of their lives in a way to damage, put people down, and then lifting themselves up through that. Stepping on someone’s back to get to a higher place of power.

I’d like you to take a little bit of time working on that concept of capital H-I-M in Gaga’s song, but then also playing it back into Sam Smith’s song. Even the title of the song is “HIM.” How does it work in each song?

L.K. Silva: When I was reading this, and the funny thing is I have these virtual reality goggles and I’ve been playing two Gaga songs, which is one of the reasons I chose it. Every time she came to it, it doesn’t matter if you love him, lowercase or capital H-I-M. It doesn’t matter, she’s saying, and both of them are saying, again, back to love is love. It doesn’t matter who you love. It doesn’t matter what the religious structure says. And this is what they’re both pushing against, is our number one religion in this country and it’s not the only one. I mean, they’re multiple religions that have issues with certainly the LGBTQ community, but there’s that pushback saying, “How can you judge me? How is it that you don’t accept me?” When you’re willing to say that God doesn’t make mistakes. And I was born this way.

And there’s this weird fundamentalist notion that, “No, you’re not. You weren’t.” So, for her, we are all born superstars. There is nothing wrong with loving who you are and self-love, which is not something that a lot of religions even address. Self-love is as important, if not, the most important love that you have.

And so, that’s what I love about her. It doesn’t matter loving him or the capital H-I-M, it starts with self-love. And I think that’s where she’s going. “I’m beautiful in my way. I’m on the right track.” How often she says the word, I, in this is really about once you have this self-love, you can face the people who say, “I would rather you be alone and miserable than with another woman,” that doesn’t destroy you. It doesn’t break you. It might bend you a little bit, but that self-love is what makes you stand up. Like in the last poem, you stand up and put your head up high and say, “Now, I’m golden. And God loves me.”

And where Sam Smith comes in and he is saying, “I love him. And you can’t tell me that God doesn’t love me.” Nobody can tell you that. And yet there’s multiple religions out there that are doing it every day. And that’s why this is so powerful because he says, “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us. Don’t you try to tell me that God doesn’t care for us.”

And I just love that because in that comes that same self-acceptance. “I know that God loves me,” and Gaga in her song knows that God loves her and she loves herself. And again, it goes right back to phenomenal woman. And this is clearly what so many songs are about is that self-acceptance, that you can face the naysayers and the finger pointers and the judgers if you’re standing with your back erect and your head held high and say, “I know who I am, I know who I love and you aren’t going to bring me down.”

Dr. Jackie Fowler: Today, on the Everyday Scholar, we had faculty and writer extraordinaire, L.K. Silva, with a powerful message for all of us. Thank you, L.K.

L.K. Silva: You bet. It’s always fun, Jackie.

A storyteller at heart, Jaclyn Maria Fowler comes from a long line of raconteurs and wanderers who trace their lineage back to Ireland. She travels to write and writes to travel, following in the footsteps of her ancestors. To pay for her obsessions, she works as Chair of the English Department at the University. She is the author of "It is Myself that I Remake," "No One Radiates Love Alone," and "10,000 Things." Fowler has also had several short stories published, including "The Other Day I Found a Penny in the Street" in the 2020 Colorado Book Award-winning anthology, "Women of the Desert" in the Wanderlust Best of '20 Anthology, and "In the Summer Before Third Grade" in the 2022 Fish Anthology.

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