Considering Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga, age twenty-five, is perhaps the planet’s biggest and most flamboyant pop singer and performance artist. Her second album, 2009’s The Fame Monster, received six Grammy nominations this past year including in the coveted “Album of the Year” category and won awards for “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” for the single “Bad Romance” and “Best Pop Vocal Album.” Her follow-up album, 2011’s Born This Way, received nods for “Album of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Album” as well as “Best Solo Pop Performance” for the song, “Yoü And I.” She opened and closed the Grammy Awards nominations broadcast in November 2011.
While Gaga has had many hit records, “Born this Way,” performed for the first time at the 2011 Grammy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles, set an international record for digital downloads (over one million in its first week) and debuted at number one on the pop charts, holding that position for nearly two months. In “Born This Way” (and the album of the same name) and in her performance at the Grammy Awards (see here: http://tinyurl.com/cressetgaga), you can see Gaga’s training in theater, dance, piano, and voice. Her lyrics demonstrate the development of a positive creative persona designed to affirm the outsider, evocative of God’s blessing on the unique and beautiful diversity of creation. In fact, Lady Gaga’s persona and art offer a challenge to the church to be formed in the shape of a God who bends near to hear people’s cries. In response to the loud rejections of the modern moral order (all those judged “abnormal,” “indecent,” in short, “monsters”), Lady Gaga shows how powerful it is to know that our cries are heard, and that we are claimed as beloved.
Lady Gaga, whose real name is Stephanie Germanotta, grew up in a middle-class Italian Catholic family in New York City. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private all-girls Catholic school. Active in theater and music, she played lead roles in Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Her love of creative arts was a source of frustration for her as well as joy. She recalls being a misfit, feeling like a freak, and being made fun of for her eccentricities. Clearly, however, she had performance in mind. A childhood picture of her on the piano betrays the future Lady Gaga persona as well as one could imagine. With encouragement from her parents, she applied and was accepted to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and their Collaborative Arts Project 21 that focuses on musical theater. She also began a rock band with NYU classmates and friends, gigging around Manhattan, which led to introductions to recording executives. A friend, whose stage name is Lady Starlight, told Germanotta that she was meant to be a performance artist, and together they worked to develop a musical niche for themselves, drawing on inspiration from David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Queen, whose song “Radio Gaga” inspired the stage name, “Lady Gaga.”
After a year, Gaga dropped out of NYU to pursue music fulltime. She moved to Los Angeles to record her first album, The Fame (2008), which was a huge hit, selling over 14 million copies worldwide, and garnering both her first number one single (“Just Dance”) and her first Grammy Awards (for the album in the “Best Dance Album” category and for the single “Poker Face” in the “Best Dance Recording” category). Her second album, The Fame Monster (2009), followed quickly a year later and achieved similar success. She became known for outlandish outfits and dramatic performances, some with strong feminist overtones. Her controversial “meat dress” worn for the MTV Music Video Awards in 2010 directly challenged conventional views of women as sex objects, that is, women referred to in colloquial terms as “raw meat.” Her combination of fashion, dance, theater, and music all fund the outsized persona she inhabits for the sake of her fans. “I don’t want people to see I’m a human being. I don’t even drink water onstage in front of anybody, because I want them to focus on the fantasy of the music and be transported to somewhere else. People can’t do that if you’re just on earth. We need to go to heaven” (Strauss 2010). The thread of fantasy as a healing reality for herself and for her fans is very important in her work. The fact that she is never “out of character” is part of her commitment to cast a fantasy that can become reality as she and her fans live within her counter-cultural imagination.
While early records stayed within typical bounds for pop dance music, her latest album Born This Way (2011) embodies this counter-cultural imagination much more directly. Her commitments to inclusion and diversity emerged as she began to publicly speak on behalf of GLBT rights. Commenting on this shift in her life and her music, she said, “For three years I have been baking cakes—and now I’m going to back a cake that has a bitter jelly” (Strauss 2010). You can taste that bitter jelly in the album Born This Way and its lead song of the same name. The lyrics of the song work the typical categories of rejection in our society: race, class, gender, ability, and sexual orientation, in addition to the generalized bullying and teasing typically suffered by those deemed “misfits.” Taking off from her The Fame Monster album and subsequent worldwide Monster Ball Tour, her fans began calling themselves “little monsters” and Lady Gaga “Mother Monster.” She has, in this persona generally and in this song particularly, offered inclusion to those who feel excluded, community to those who feel isolated, a place to fit for those told they are misfits.
Lady Gaga’s passion for piano and voice, for dance and drama, for justice and mercy, and, of course, for fame, are ultimately rooted in a spiritual soil. This comes out directly and powerfully in the song “Born This Way.” The song begins evoking the love of “capital H-I-M,” a sort of ham-fisted reference to God, before channeling her mother’s teaching that God made her perfect. As a result, Gaga declares, you should hold your head up and believe that in all your particularity you are God’s good creation (“cause God makes no mistakes”). In a recent Christian Century analysis of Lady Gaga titled “From Shame to Fame,” theologian and editor Rodney Clapp suggests a direct parallel to the Gospel message. “To paraphrase Will Campbell,” Clapp writes, “the Gospel message is that we’re all misfits but God loves us anyway” (Clapp 2011). Calling her a “Kierkegaard in fishnet stockings,” Clapp points out how Gaga reminds us of Jesus’ own “lack of fit” and the accusations that he was not at all a proper Messiah, beginning from his ignoble birth among the animals in a stall to his death hung between two criminals on a cross (Clapp 2011).
Lady Gaga is, I want to argue, an example of God’s people singing. Not in church, of course. As with other mainstream Grammy nominees, she sings in quite secular settings, but there, to our great surprise, we not only find God’s child singing but presiding, conferring a God-given new birth to those who are crying out in despair. She presides, we might say, over a baptismal-like death and new birth (even emerging from an egg!). By God’s power and presence she herself has died to a false self, conferred by our social hierarchy, and been born anew to claim an affirmation of her God-given, God-blessed identity and giftedness. And she passes on to her “little monsters” the blessing she herself has received. She empowers them to claim a God-given courage to betray the rejections handed them by the guardians of public decency. As one Gaga fan put it on her website, “You are my inspiration, and got me this far. It’s precarious I know, but your bravery and larger than life persona inspires me to be me. I was born this way, Mother Monster.” This challenge from popular music poses for us the question of whether we, too, have our allegiance with the social order dominating our society, or if we are formed by a God-inspired betrayal of those false labels and an affirmation of our new identity as God’s beloved.
But surely such an understanding of this young pop icon’s performance art is a stretch—presiding over baptismal dying and new birth... really? It may not be so far-fetched once one considers the “baptismal birth” of the people of God in the book of Exodus. There one finds the story of the formation of Israel’s identity, from belonging to Pharaoh to belonging to Yahweh. The story is focused on the Pharaoh’s daughter and how in hearing the cries of Moses she prefigures God’s hearing the cries of Israel. In taking Moses from the water, Pharaoh’s daughter, too, presides over baptismal dying and rising, betraying an identity given by the reigning social order and claiming the “misfit” as “beloved.” Those who have ears to hear, listen!
Christian Scharen is Assistant Professor of Worship and Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Clapp, Rodney. “From Shame to Fame.” Christian Century. Vol. 128, No. 15, (13 July 2011).
Strauss, Neil. “Lady Gaga Tells All,” Rolling Stone. Issue 1108/1109 (21 June 2010).