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
I’m gonna dance dance dance
With my hands hands hands
Above my head, dance together
Forgive him before he’s dead
I won’t cry for you
I won’t crucify the things you
I won’t cry for you
When you’re gone I’ll still be
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.