The National Catholic Review
Jon M. Sweeney
Lady Gaga's fascination with Christian imagery
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Here is what happens when you declare yourself a legend before becoming one: anything you do as an artist is destined to be anticlimactic. Lady Gaga’s new album, Born This Way, released in May, was highly touted even before its release. A tweet from Gaga herself proclaimed it as “the anthem for our generation.” But perhaps she is too wrapped up in her own personal cocktail of influences and passions to create anything truly anthemic. Maybe her calling is to be a phenomenon for this generation. The music is consistently surprising even after the first few listens, and to Gaga’s credit, there is not a conventional moment on “Born This Way.”

The songs are an eclectic mix of manifesto-like intonations behind loud industrial beats, risqué techno dance music, 1980s-style anthems, with a lavish use of foreign accents and Catholic motifs. Overtly Christian imagery crops up often, and two songs take Christian tropes as a central theme: “Judas” and “Bloody Mary.” These both twist familiar Bible stories into metaphors that fit what is presented as Gaga’s own experience.

The message of “Judas” becomes clear in one line: “Jesus is my virtue/ But Judas is the demon I cling to—I cling to!” The singer wants to be good and wants forgiveness, but struggles to give up the pleasure of sin. We’ve heard this before, as early as St. Paul and St. Augustine. Hers is a struggle that any honest Christian will recognize: to uphold one’s virtue and be “good” amid a reality brimming with temptations to be “bad.” Gaga personifies the dilemma in the characters of Jesus and Judas—the savior and the tempted, or here the tempter—addressed as possible lovers.

In the music video, Gaga swaggers around an overheated party in the Jerusalem dusk with Jesus on her arm (a handsome male model wearing a gold crown of thorns), exchanging charged glances with Judas, who moves aggressively through the crowd, cozying up to every woman on the floor. The disciples are part of a biker gang, with Judas the meanest and scraggliest looking among them. The beautifully shot video has plenty of poetic moments that take their inspiration from fashion photography.

Public controversy, however, has centered around the fact that Gaga dares to use this subject matter at all, much less make it sexy and stylish. This shows, of course, the influence of Madonna, the first pop artist to use Catholic imagery to such effect in the 1980s. (She also was able to provoke bishops and pastors to denounce her from the pulpit.) Many critics have dubbed Lady Gaga a mere Madonna wannabe, and the recent amplification of her religious imagery serves to strengthen that connection.

The message of “Bloody Mary” is similar to that of “Judas.” It is a soft, throbbing song with intriguingly brief string parts, a few screams and a Gregorian choir (perfect —can’t you just imagine it, in stark gloom, a worship service: “GA-GA... GA-GA...”). The song is sung as if by Mary Magdalene herself, which makes sense if you have ever read Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Tempta-tion of Christ. For both Kazantzakis and Gaga, Jesus and the Magdalene were lovers. Gaga’s chorus goes:

I’ll dance dance dance

With my hands hands hands

Above my head head head like

     Jesus said

I’m gonna dance dance dance

With my hands hands hands

Above my head, dance together

Forgive him before he’s dead

     because

I won’t cry for you

I won’t crucify the things you

     do

I won’t cry for you

When you’re gone I’ll still be

     bloody Mary.

This sounds like a cryptic personal confession. Another lyric runs: “When Punk-tius comes to kill the king upon his throne/ I’m ready for their stones.” There is plenty of wordplay on this album, as well as foreign-language play. “Punk-tius” is a strange conglomeration of the name Pontius Pilate with punk spliced onto the front. There is no easy way to account for this; sometimes Lady Gaga is too bizarre to be exactly irreverent. But again, Mary pines for Jesus in sensual ways that go far beyond the biblical events the song describes. Another line goes, “And when you’re gone, I’ll tell them my religion’s you.” There is a faithful passion in that voice, looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

What makes Lady Gaga consistently interesting among pop stars is her willingness to embrace unusual imagery and concepts and to use them successfully in a mass-marketable way. She has raised the bar for her diva rivals in ways that echo the controversies sparked nearly 30 years ago by Madonna. Both Madonna and Lady Gaga (her real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) were raised in Italian-American Roman Catholic families. (Germanotta attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in New York City as a young woman). Their trajectories are also similar. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album (1984) also dripped with the artist’s self-recriminations as well as self-comparisons to the Blessed Mother.

Gaga’s shape-shifting ability, like Madonna’s, is a perfect one for marketing. When she poses in a blessing posture, with her hands outstretched (is she praying the Rosary or reaching for a man?), it is simply another bit of fashion. It is understandable that these gestures can be viewed as irreverent.

But in the end, the best way to approach such flirtations with Catholicism may be not to consider whether they are offensive, but to ask whether the artist is using them purely for effect or as part of a personal dialogue. Gaga is no longer a practicing Catholic, but she does profess a Christian faith. For this reason, and also because her album is so fiercely passionate, preaching honest self-expression ardently if somewhat heretically, it seems clear that Gaga still cares about her God.

Jon M. Sweeney, author of Verily, Verily: The King James Bible—400 Years of Influence and Beauty, wrote this review with the help of his daughter, Clelia Sweeney, a sophomore at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in

Comments

umay cool | 8/26/2011 - 11:44pm
Lady Gaga Born This Way lyrics : It doesn't matter if you love him or capital H-I-M Just put your paws up 'Cause you were born this way,Lady Gaga's little uggs monsters gave high marks to the lyrics to "Born This Way," with one fan calling Gaga "our generation's John Lennon
C Walter Mattingly | 8/19/2011 - 9:06am

While it's impossible to discern the soul state of any person, it is possible to theorize what brilliant marketers such as Madonna and her protege, Lady Gaga, have targeted. America has presented a possible, charitable, interpretation of such motivation. I present a more critical, but perhaps more plausible, scenario.


In a social millieu of frenzied sensationalism, it becomes increasingly difficult to capture and adequately provide for the insatiable appetites and dwindling attention spans of the unbridledly hedonistic members of an ostentatious culture. (After all, Oscar Wilde's love that dare not speak its name is now a social justice movement.) Madonna has been a particularly brilliant marketer. After promoting rumors (facts?) of turning her chauffeured limo into Cleopatra's barge and cruising the city streets to pick up some lucky brother standing on the corner and providing him with a few moments of backseat entertainment before redepositing him out the other door onto the same street corner, after the cone tassle bras and harem outfit had become de rigeur, she likely realized that mere sex tramp/harem slave girl had a limited shelf life.  But she recognized that confusing the image of Virgin and Whore, as less coherent but more sensational, had more staying power before her audience. Madonna, and her mimic, Lady Gaga, have ridden this combo all the way to the bank. Madonna may or may not be a saint in disguise, but she is certainly a brilliant market and truly great capitalist. Forbes ranked her as the greatest marketing genius in the US one year.

Mary Messinger | 8/15/2011 - 10:19pm
Great article! Thanks for keeping us informed. I have heard another singer (Katy Perry)comment on how Gaga should not put sex and religion together in her songs. I did not hear the song for my children (11,11,9) think she is creepy looking and scarey. I watched the video and she is lost and seems like she is crying for help. Does she not know where/how Judas is in Hell? Guess that does not scare her enough. Music and music videos need to change. What got her?
D T NOLET | 8/13/2011 - 11:00pm

Thanks for this article.  I enjoy Lady Gaga's music and she is a dynamic and creative performance artist.  


She expresses her self, and sometimes, a message in her work.


I agree with Mr. Sweeney that she still cares about God.  


In her new single, "You and I" she sings: 


We got a whole lot of money, but we still pay rent
‘Cause you can’t buy a house in Heaven
There’s only three men that I'll serve my whole life
It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ


and in "Born this way":


I'm beautiful in my way, 'Cause God makes no mistakes


I'm on the right track baby - I was born this way.


I think the Catholic imagery means that her Catholic faith (whether practiced or not) is still a part of who she is.  

John Lyons | 8/10/2011 - 3:44pm
What a tour de force when it comes to taking the most positive spin imaginable and giving someone the greatest benefit of the doubt.

To refuse to take offense when it's offered with glee is either a brilliant bit of social Jujitzu or it's epic wishful thinking.

Either way, I'd love to have to write about any right-wing iconiclast the same way.
Shawn Kazubowski-Houston | 8/8/2011 - 9:38pm

Very balanced engagement with Lady Gaga's music.... and enlightening! Thanks!

Boreta Singleton | 8/8/2011 - 11:58am
Thanks Mr. Sweeney for this great article. As a teacher, I hear my students discuss Lady Gaga and her music frequently. I do not listen closely to the lyrics fo her songs, but I will from now on!

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