The song is Judas. The artist is Lady Gaga. The impact is… well, that depends.
First the song: it’s your basic jilted-lover tune. Girl loves bad-boy. Bad-boy cheats. Girl still drives by his house and calls him late at night (which, on behalf of good-boys everywhere, has always ticked me off). If you are Lady Gaga you’ve really got to work to make that old song new again. Her solution? Appropriate a biblical image – Judas – to tell a story of unrequited love while casting herself as Mary Magdalene. Strictly speaking, she mixes her biblical metaphors, and her theology is not even close. For one thing, Judas and Mary Magdalene were not involved. For another, she conflates Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial – only Peter was a three-time loser. Nevertheless, the hook is great, “I’m just a holy fool, oh baby he’s so cruel; but I’m still in love with Judas, baby.” The metaphor seems to work in a bad folk-theology kind of way, and the song is going to be huge.
Next the artist, who’s not as easy to dissect – unless you ask Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who has a jilted-lover tune of his own. “She’s another one of these ex-Catholic girls who has a problem with her old religion. And for some reason they have to use Holy Week,” Donohue said on Fox News. He continued, “If she has a problem with religion go pick on the Muslims and see how they handle it… do they want Catholics to pick up a machete in order to get their rights?” While I’m not sure any religion has recognized rights in the world of pop music, I think Donohue is correct to assume she knows exactly what she’s doing. What Donohue fails to appreciate is this: it’s not personal, it’s just business.
Lady Gaga is a pop star. People aren’t going to base their lives on her music, they’re going to dress up like in costume and dance to it. To host a rally or go on Fox News and rail against it is to misunderstand the nature of what Gaga is doing. Of course she eggs her critics on, no pun intended. Controversy is what makes the cash register ring. She even went so far as to claim God “gave her” the lyrics and melody to Judas. Yet her claim to be a prophet might not be that far off.
Gaga is the newest in a venerable line of cultural prophets, but it is Madonna who sits atop that heirarchy. At the oft-made comparison to Madonna, Lady Gaga – whose real name is Stephani Joanne Germanotta – gets a little prickly. When asked about Judas’s similarity to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” she argues that the only similarities are the chord progression. When pushed she reacts defensively, “I’m a songwriter. I’ve written loads of music. Why would I try to put out a song and think I’m getting one over on everybody? That’s retarded. What a ridiculous thing to question me about.” She later apologized for the retarded comment. But Madonna and Gaga share something even deeper than sound, sexuality, and chord progressions. They both have an uncanny ability to understand, predict, guide and provoke the culture.
The bridge of the song Judas is telling. “In a biblical sense, I am beyond repentance; Fame hooker, prostitute, wench, vomits her mind. But in the cultural sense, I just speak future tense.” It’s an accurate descriptor. Gaga speaks in future tense. She is a self-professed “media-whore,” a “fame-hooker.” And she’s driven. “I come from New York. I will kill to get what I need,” she once said. Pop music isn’t rock and roll. Pop stars don’t develop; they’re carefully conceived and invented. If Lady Gaga didn’t exist, someone would eventually create her. Every single thing she does, says, wears, and performs is carefully calculated to produce the two postmodern virtues: fame and a marketable product. Her hero is Andy Warhol. She used to carry his books around and quote him verbatim. It’s not about the music, it’s not about the art – it’s all about the celebrity. She’s not making an earth shattering statement. She’s just trying to be huge, and she’s better at it than anyone we’ve seen in a long time.
What I think is somewhat disingenuous about Bill Donohue and others like him is that they are doing a similar thing. His righteous indignation would be more believable if it wasn’t so compromised by his own quest for the spotlight. Sure the neo-burlesque images injected with Christian imagery are concocted to stir up a fuss. (She once swallowed a Rosary in a video while wearing a latex nun outfit). But hitching his cart to her horse doesn’t hurt Donohue’s career either. Moreover, if he wants her to stop, the full frontal attack is just a bad strategy which only fuels the fire. What Christians really ought to do is try to understand the way one woman is able to shape culture so effectively with nothing more than a clear artistic vision and unrelenting passion. Maybe we could actually learn a few things from the Haus of Gaga.
Donohue is well within his right to comment on Gaga’s art. But I think the comments of a Christian should always come from a place of compassion. For one thing she’s 25 years old – just a kid. So what if she’s a Catholic schoolgirl who’s trying to work some things out? That’s what artists do. She works really hard, she writes her own songs, she’s very involved in the production process of both her music and videos, and she’s making it all happen by shear force of will. We should hope that someday she’ll mature, exercise the demons, and put her powers to good use. The nascent form of a more mature message seems to be already present in her work. Her biggest hit to date sports the hook “I’m beautiful in my way, ‘cause God makes no mistakes; I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way.”
It could be worse.
Hopefully Lady Gaga’s message will continue to develop, but for now it’s too early to predict the impact of her art. The video for Judas comes out later this week. It’ll be steamy, there will be a furor, and this confident art school student will never break character as she rides her iconoclastic creation – in full irony – all the way to the bank.
Tim Suttle is a writer and lead pastor at Redemption Church in Olathe, Kansas.