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.
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.
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.
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.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Cross-posted to Rock and Theology, because it was born this way