What does unconditional love and acceptance look like in twenty-first century America today? Sometimes, she wears a dress made of raw meat.
To her millions of fans and admirers, Lady Gaga, the 24-year-old pop superstar, represents acceptance and affirmation when their peers, the media, and society as a whole constantly tells them they are not good enough in one way or another. Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, calls her fans her "little monsters," and in return, many of them call her "mother monster."
Consider this exchange from an interview with 60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper:
It's not just the music her fans respond to however: it's also her message, an uplifting mantra of self-empowerment and self acceptance.
"Tonight I want you to let go of all of your insecurities. I want you to reject anyone or anything that ever made you feel that you don't belong. Free yourself of these things tonight! Yeah!!!" she encouraged her fans at one show.
"You're hoping to speak to people who feel different, who feel disconnected?" Cooper asked.
"People who feel disconnected from society or disenfranchised, feel like a freak, feel like you don't belong, like you don't fit in, or you'll never be great," she explained.
Gaga told Elle magazine that her upbringing with her Catholic father and Methodist mother was "“traditional yet psychologically progressive,” and that while she uses her sexuality to advance her art, that the girls and women who look up to her, "should not be like me but be whoever they want to be." She reluctantly accepts that she is something of a feminist, but quickly adds that her message is aimed at both men and women.
She explained to CNN's Larry King that she is not interested in being a traditional pop star, but instead prefers exhorting her fans to "love who they are and helping them to reject prejudice and reject those things that they're taught from society to not like themselves."
Constantly stressing themes of strength and independence, Gaga told the Daily Mail why she is celibate: "I’m single right now and I’ve chosen to be single because I don’t have the time to get to know anybody. So it’s OK not to have sex, it’s OK to get to know people. I’m celibate, celibacy’s fine."
She goes on: "Something I do want to celebrate with my fans is that it’s OK to be whomever it is that you want to be. You don’t have to have sex to feel good about yourself, and if you’re not ready, don’t do it. I remember the cool girls when I was growing up. Everyone started to have sex. But it’s not really cool any more to have sex all the time. It’s cooler to be strong and independent."
Aligning herself to the gay-rights movement, Gaga has said that she identifies with gay individuals who endure bigotry and prejudice from wider society when they choose to be themselves. She was a leading voice in the efforts to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and her new single, "Born This Way," is purported to be an anthem for all who feel marginalized, especially gay youth.
Do these messages of inclusion make Lady Gaga a beacon of traditional Christian morality? Hardly. Her detractors need only perform a quick Google search to find odd stories that will bother traditional moralists. But she has found a way to speak to young people, and old, in ways that makes them feel empowered, accepted, and free to be themselves.
This message, so simple yet so elusive today, is one that echos some central tenets of the Christian faith: the love of neighbor and acceptance of yourself as God created you. Gaga admits that she is on a quest for absolute fame, but if her preaching is genuine, churches have much to learn from her. Why are so many attracted to her? She certainly puts on a good show, and her music is catchy and fresh. Perhaps, though, her message is what resonates most with her fans. The church has preached versions of this message for nearly two millennia, though sometimes it is drowned out by narrower ideas and views. Gaga is bold and unabashed when she tells her fans to love themselves as they are, love others, and to resist the negative messages of a hurtful society. In a way, she is a truly prophetic voice to the millions around the world who yearn for acceptance. Imagine what the church could achieve by preaching its message of love and acceptance as powerfully and forcefully as Gaga preaches hers.