The National Catholic Review

In the midst of all the important things going on in the church and the world, is there room for another word on Lady Gaga? If influential theories of popular culture are correct, there is more reason than ever, because popular media culture -- for better and for worse -- contributes to creating an aural, visual and tactile "home base" for many people (including many religious people). 

In a recent post, I asked who has been thinking theologically about Lady Gaga. I am happy to share with you, with the writers' permission, three thoughtful responses. For those readers who are from younger generations, or who work with or are related to younger generations, perhaps these reflections will spark conversation.  Thank you to Jessica Coblentz, Maggi Van Dorn, and Rachel Bundang.

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Jessica Coblentz is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard. She plans to begin a PhD in Theology at Boston College in the fall:

“A different lover is not a sin”—the affirming message about sexuality in Gaga’s “Born This Way” is quite amenable to the views of most young adult Catholics I know.  As such, the real theological impact of her work resides not in the content of her position on sexuality, but in her willingness to proclaim it.  As evidenced by the lyrics of “Born This Way” and this recent video clip, it is her ethos of “authenticity” that commands Gaga to say it.  And she’s not hesitant to articulate this “authenticity” in theological language, too.  As my generation engages Gaga’s unabashed performance of “authenticity,” hearing her imperative to revere this in others and responding to her command to go and do like likewise, I wonder how our theological conversations—about sexuality and any number of topics—will change.

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Maggi Van Dorn is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School, with interests in art, spirituality and social justice:

You can’t deny that in all of her jaw-dropping regalia, Lady Gaga makes you look and think twice.  Fans respond to her performance art because it bears a message people are starving to hear- You are beautiful in all of your strangeness- in the way they need to hear it: acted out, performed, and ritualized.

While the church claims a tradition of unconditional love and integrated ritual practice, the explosive fandom of Lady Gaga reveals a big pastoral deficit in the way we practice love and acceptance, especially for those continually marginalized by church and society.  One would hope our efforts to understand, celebrate and love would be so provocative. 

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Rachel Bundang, PhD is the ethicist on the Religious Studies faculty at the Marymount School in New York City:

Mother Monster, Our Lady (Gaga) of Freaks

I like Gaga and have a critical appreciation for her. True, her aesthetic roots lie in Madonna, disco, and Warhol, but she has real skills in music performance; one need only see her NYU student revues on YouTube as proof. By contrast, Madonna came from the dance world (early in her career, much was made of her studying with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey), so her notions of performance are rooted in the idea of body as expressive, visible, physical spectacle.

To bring in the notion of incarnation as Fr. Martinez did regarding LGBTQ issues is to talk about Gaga’s own embodiment of her beliefs, experiences, and hopes to her fans.  Her self-presentation, media savvy, and visual/performative sensibility make her sometimes fantastic and larger than life, arguably at the expense of her music:  the music is simply a vehicle for the fame so that she becomes a living, breathing icon (idol?) of intentional outré-ness.

But to think about incarnation in another way, imagine Gaga performing unplugged and sans makeup as her natural-born self. She would then be not the Gaga sanctified and worshipped as “Mother Monster” on a (media) pedestal, but the Gaga-who-walks-among-us, the one who knows and understands the pain of being freak, outcast, and reject. The closest she comes is in her acoustic solo performance of “Speechless”. That she is always “on” in public and so craves fame is an insistence on not being overlooked or forgotten, though some think it also suggests a lack of humility or an attempt to compensate for some other unknown need or desire.

The underlying (and not strictly theological) questions are: is incarnation here about becoming/being one’s fullest self or one’s simplest, most essential self?  A generous yet careful (feminist theological) reading of her work would be that we are all responsible for our flourishing.

I teach students with backgrounds much like hers, and the aspiring artists among them regard her as a model. More than her beats or lyrics—however progressive or inclusive they aim to be in spreading the gospel of dignity and respect, which themselves are the backbone of Catholic social teaching—what they seem to respond to most strongly in her is her performance of sheer force of will– her visually arresting ability to entrance and dominate, in all her outrageousness.

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Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Cross-posted to Rock and Theology, because it was born this way

Comments

Paul Kelley | 5/6/2011 - 1:11pm
It's nice to see a Catholic school graduate doing well.
Anonymous | 5/5/2011 - 1:19am
"what they seem to respond to most strongly in her is her performance of sheer force of will– her visually arresting ability to entrance and dominate"

Nitsche would admire this will to power (even in such a sentimentalized form); however, a Christian must work against such nonsense. The choice is no longer limited between victim or victimizer; Christ (through the Incarnation) has shown us the way of truth, the way of God.
Anonymous | 5/5/2011 - 1:08am
"The underlying (and not strictly theological) questions are: is incarnation here about becoming/being one’s fullest self or one’s simplest, most essential self?  A generous yet careful (feminist theological) reading of her work would be that we are all responsible for our flourishing."

Yikes.

Only in a terribly therapeutic culture such as our could the universal, transcendent reality of the Incarnation be inverted and used as an allegory by performers (and liberal priests and academics, who have no excuse!) for the pursuit of radical self-affirmation and something akin to the banality of "human potential movement." 

The total self-giving/self-denying love of God is taken by our therapists and entertainers and twisted for navel-gazing, self-actualization and empowerment...sigh...

Gaga seeks authenticity, but it is a false authenticity (quote from Charles Taylor in the Ethics of Authenticity:)

"The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define himself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-deafeating in the modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfilment in opposition to the demands of society or nature which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered "narcissistic" forms are indeed shallow and trivialized (flattened and narrowed as Alan Bloom says). But this is not because they belong to the cutlure of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance and hence to court trivialization."
Maggie Hendricks | 5/5/2011 - 12:47am
What lovely reflections on Lady Gaga. Thank you. Her music and authenticity have always spoken to me.

To David, my Christian Doctrine professor taught me that a theologian's job is to relate theology and doctrine to what's going on in the world. (I wish I could post the stick figure drawing he used to explain it.) Sometimes that means discussing the death of Osama bin Laden in the light of Jesus' directive to forgive, and others, it's discussing authenticity and the image of God through the prism of Lady Gaga.
Michael Casey | 5/5/2011 - 9:02am
   I have to admit that I'm lost  on the Gaga logic. From what I can grasp she seems to present herself as some patron saint of "other"ness,  the ultimate outsider/freak. O.K., I've got that, and find it admirable to a point.
    But Lady Gaga craves fame like nobody I've ever seen, and is open about this craving. In fact she is rich and famous beyond imagination, has millions of followers, and plays the business game pretty well.  So she seems to be doing exactly what she claims to be outside of, and doing it well.  In reality, she's about as "other" as Donald Trump or any other true insider. 
      I don't know about the religious stuff. I'm guessing it's just another fame/money grab like her other schticks.  Don't get me wrong. I admire people who are as successful and widely accepted as Gaga- she should be proud of her amazing fame. Just don't pretend you're "different" and don't try to pawn some softball philosophy to justify it. Be proud, Gaga: you're a talented player in a tough capitalist system, the true insider, popular, worshipped and loaded.
     But "other"? "Outsider"?  Not so much.
PJ Johnston | 5/5/2011 - 5:25am
I liked the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags in the background!

At least the celebrant was a Lutheran.  If the celebrant were Catholic, it would have been a Bad RomanMass...
PJ Johnston | 5/5/2011 - 1:43am
http://queerbiblestudy.blogspot.com/2011/03/lady-gaga-mass.html

You really need to check out the Lady Gaga Mass.  It is inspiring!