“Government Hooker”: An Introduction to “Judas”
I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel, but I’m still in love with Judas, Baby.
[...] When he comes to me, I am ready/ I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs/ Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain/ Even after three times, he betrays me/ I’ll bring him down, a king with no crown [...]
The fragments above come down to us as the only extant lyrics of Lady Gaga’s as of yet unreleased single, “Judas,” with a reputable provenance – Twittered and pronounced by Gaga herself.
At the “Google goes Gaga” interview, Gaga was seen in the same garb as that worn during the announcement of the Google collaboration. During the interview, Gaga stated that she wore the same clothing because of “branding,” later reiterating that she wanted fans to think of her in a certain way and connect the two visuals – likewise stressing that her project is a gesammtkunstwerk. From this same interview, Fragment B comes down to us with additional confirmation of Biblical and “symbolic” qualities of the song and its music video (to be directed by Gaga and Laurie Ann Gibson [possibly] next week). Following the interview, Gaga was seen at Twitter headquarters, again with a similar hairstyle and the same glasses, but now with large hoop earrings and a gaudy, gem-encrusted gold crucifix.
The large hoop earrings are very similar to those featured in her earlier appearances as a chola, a term cited in “Born This Way” that stereotypically refers to a Hispanic girl who wears tight pants, tank top, large gold-hoop earrings (usually with a name in them), tightly tweezed eyebrows, and long, gelled hair in a pony tail (a comparable term is chonga in the Hispanic community of South Florida, particularly Miami-Dade County).
As a style stereotypically linked with Hispanics whose families have recently migrated to the United States, the image of the gold-hoop earrings is one that signifies a type of conspicuous consumption through the materiality of gold and the added excess of customization, implicit in the inscribed name. While the term chola may be used in a derogatory sense, it also serves as a source of pride and self-identification – a very specific style that unifies self-identified members of such a demographic. Given the clear message of “Born This Way,” Gaga applies the term in the latter sense. Therefore, the upward mobility and marginalized community identity that exists in the valences of the chola is reified in Gaga’s use of the image.
One of the earliest appearances of the chola imagery in Gaga’s work, and by far its first broadcast image via Twitter, was in relation to Gaga’s effort to legalize gay marriage in New York by urging fans to email Senator Grisanti on 5 March 2011.
This image and tweet appeared three days after the debut of “Government Hooker” at the Mugler fashion show in Paris. Right before the fashion show, Gaga tweeted: “Show starting soon fashionmonsters! #parisisburning X Mother Monster.” Gaga used the hashtag #parisisburning as an oblique reference to “vogueing” in the New York drag community, a term made popular by the 1990 documentary of the same title. Paris is Burning, filmed throughout the late-1980s, features the underground drag club culture (referred to as “ball culture,” a name that has strong resonances with Gaga’s own [Fame/Monster] ball culture). The film still carries a strong relevance in contemporary drag culture through the ideas of “reading” and “vogueing” that have recently been widely distributed to the gay community through Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, which often incorporates these routines into its competitions and directly cites the documentary as a source for these crucial drag-tasks. More importantly, the documentary explores the dynamics of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity (primarily black and Hispanic) in these balls and in the wider LGBT community. Thus, the documentary speaks to similar issues that are explored visually in Gaga’s chola fashion.
While these various connections are tangentially relevant to the overall issues of LGBT and multi-racial communities for which Born This Way serves as anthem, chola Gaga was utilized in her tweet (3/5/2011) in connection with a call-to-action. Keeping the debut of “Government Hooker” in mind, the chola-inspired costuming in this context presents an image for the Government Hooker. Gaga’s chola, with all its connotations of conspicuous consumption, marginality, and community identity, becomes the image of the Government Hooker. Here, Gaga depicts her master thesis on her role as a social activist. Gaga prostitutes herself, her fame, and her power for sociopolitical emancipation. In a sense, what the chola does through her fashion identity, Gaga enacts through viral social activism – and most certainly through fashion as well.
Gaga’s costume and appearance in the Mugler fashion show evoked the same nexus of marginality, prostitution, and club-culture identity. However, Nicola Formichetti and Gaga were not citing the usual 1980s club-culture to which Gaga and her inner circle of friends belong. Instead, they visually quoted Weimar Germany cabaret culture, something that Gaga has riffed with in the Cabaret-esque imagery of the “Alejandro” film. During the Mugler show, Gaga is seen on stage in a tight, bondage-like outfit, with striking eye makeup, smoking a cigarette in a grotesque manner. Her body is illuminated in a red glow as she leans against a composite column. The arcade becomes a vaguely turn-of-the-century European street, a characteristic of modern life as depicted in the work of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, but in the red glow it becomes (quite literally) a red-light district.
The particular German quality of the scene is heightened by the inclusion of the Mugler “Scheiße” remix at the beginning of the fashion show, which is heard right before the premier of “Government Hooker.” For her second catwalk, Gaga wears a white dress and hat. Here, the white dress presents the ideal manifestation of the celebrity’s body: a white canvas. It is onto this white body that images are cast; the canvas upon which visual reproduction occurs and images make themselves physically manifest. In the Mugler catwalk, the white costume becomes blood red in the crimson spotlight, and in this moment, Gaga bears a striking resemblance to Otto Dix’s Portrait of Anita Berber (1925), a Weimar cabaret performer, writer, and prostitute.
As a nightlife superstar, Berber was notorious in Weimar Berlin for her cocaine use and bisexuality, often flaunting her female lovers, as well as what some would call her Avant-Garde, sexually charged performances – images of which draw further parallels with Gaga’s Mugler catwalk.
Gaga is possibly well acquainted with Berber’s image, or at least with the similar imagery of Weimar artist Otto Dix. Dix’s paintings and drawings are in most major museums around the world, and his work has recently received much attention in New York. In the past five years, two major exhibitions have taken place in the City: the blockbuster Glitter and Doom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (14 November 2006–19 February 2007), and most recently at the Neue Galerie, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in North America (11 March–30 August 2010). The Anita Berber image was displayed at both exhibitions, and was featured as one of the poster images for the recent Neue Galerie show, as evidenced by the museum’s use of the image on the show’s website.
Therefore, the image of Anita Berber is that of an Avant-Garde club-performer and writer, an activist in her brave and bold sexuality – the very image that Gaga is attempting to convey and develop through the unfolding central thesis of the Born This Way album, but particularly through “Government Hooker.” The image of Gaga as the “Hooker” is given full effect in the Mugler fashion show performance, a performance that translates Gaga’s ontology as that of a hooker. The deeper underpinnings of the Anita Berber character and the overall Weimar aesthetic are later refined and nuanced by the inclusion of chola imagery, which adds to the governmental hooker/activist element. We are seeing two visual vocabularies here to develop the activist/hooker idea: one belonging to interwar Germany, the other belonging to contemporary visual culture.
There is also something anachronistic about the composite columns and ogival, pointed arches of the Gothic arcade in the Mugler fashion show. A strange choice for a fashion show, in fact, some sources criticized the design for concealing the models. Nevertheless, any Medieval art or architectural historian would point out just how perfect Formichetti’s creative design for this catwalk was. In an event that was laden with social media on stage and behind the scenes, the arcade functioned much like a choir screen in a Gothic church by playing with the poetics of concealment and revelation.
Throughout the liturgical performance, the space of the Gothic church constructs a hermeneutics of concealment and revelation that emphasizes the pathos of seeing the sacred mysteries of the religious ceremony.[i] The consecration of the Eucharist, the blood and body of Christ, occur behind the screen of the Gothic church. Throughout this key event in the liturgy, the doors and curtains of the sanctuary and the inner sanctum are carefully open and closed to stress both the manifestation of Christ in the church as well as his heavenly distance. During the Mugler fashion show, as the models proceeded through the space, the primary visual contact and contemplation of their clothing was fragmented and constantly deferred. The arcade played with the phenomenology of the runway, challenging its habitual use by the spectator – they had to make an effort to contemplate, stitching the fragments together in their minds. The viewers were teased, the full ecstasy of the model having been constantly deferred.[ii]
Fashion in this space takes on a religious dimension, a divine process of self-production and communion with a fashion icon. It is the weekly ritual in society, like church, by which the body prepares itself for spiritual emancipation. Fashion and the celebrity icon become the religion of popular culture, by which humanity becomes a better race – free of prejudice. When considering the religious valences of these images, the salvation and emancipation proclaimed by the birthing of Gaga’s new race in the “Born This Way” film suggest a deeply rooted Christian model – especially in light of the upcoming single, “Judas.”
Who is Judas? Judas Iscariot is one of the Twelve Disciples of Christ who betrays Christ by turning him over to the High Priest Caiaphas (who then turns him over to Pontius Pilate and his soldiers) in exchange for thirty pieces of silver [Cf. Matthew 26:14-16; Luke 22:3-6; John 13:27]. The betrayal occurs via a kiss, the infamous Kiss of Judas (depicted below in a Byzantine Gospel Lectionary at Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos, Codex 587, c. 1100). While the Biblical narratives vary, it is generally agreed that after the crucifixion, Judas kills himself due to his guilt and anguish.
For Christianity, Judas plays an important theological/Christological role, as he puts into question the divine will of God and Christ. The Incarnation in the Virgin Mary occurs for the salvation of mankind, to cleanse humanity from the sins of Adam and Eve. This is a process that is referred to as the “economy” (or the divine dispensation). In order for man to be liberated of sin, Christ must be crucified; Judas therefore plays a central role, since without him and his betrayal, the Crucifixion could not occur. The Gospels of John and Matthew both understand Jesus as foreseeing and allowing for the betrayal to take place [Cf. Matthew 26:25 and John 13:27-28]. In the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, these issues are made clear in the development of Judas’s character, and through his confrontation with Jesus in the scene of “The Last Supper.”
This brief history of Judas sketches important issues for the consideration of Gaga’s own Judas. In the “Born This Way” video, as well as in her BTW prosthetics, there is an emphasis on incarnation. Her fashion undergoes a process of incarnation, the literal making flesh of items, such as shoulder pads and high cheekbones. Her birth of a new race presents a myth in which a “birth of magnificent proportions” takes place as a way of liberating humanity from the sins of prejudice. The incarnation of the new race functions similar to that of Christ in the divine dispensation, as a way of cleansing humanity of the sin. One of the Archbishops of Constantinople, Nestorius (c. 386-451), considered Adam to exist as a fallen statue after his succumbing to the devil; and like a king whose statue has been torn down, God re-erected a statue in his image through Christ. Thus, Christ becomes man as the replacement of a degenerate image. Just as evil is the hidden, concealed, and static-infused image of Gaga via a sonogram in the video for “Born This Way,” Adam was a fallen, corrupted image. The new race of humanity in “Born This Way” can be understood as a replacement for the fallen image of humanity, thus playing a role similar to Christ. Therefore, the impending suffering and crucifixion of this wholly pure image always lies in the shadows as a threat, which perhaps is inescapable. Gaga concludes the Manifesto by precisely expressing her concern for the preservation of this new image, as if a threat lurked somewhere – perhaps another Judas?
The dress worn by Mother Monster in the “BTW” video, interestingly enough, is called the “Stained Glass” dress, designed by the London-based artist Petra Storrs. Upon close examination of the dress, one finds a series of images taken from important works of art (such as Raphael’s Galatea  and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne [1523-24]).
The dress features a slit over her womb across which the images on the “stained glass” are mirrored. Right beside this slit, on either side, is a scene of the crucifixion. The video, as I have discussed previously, features an important use of mirroring as a metaphor for birth and self-creation. Thus, the mirroring here demonstrates that the self-creation and production of this race is somehow tied to the crucifixion. Just as Gaga’s image is mirrored and her identity constituted by the unifying slit of the mirror, the birth here is unified through the flower-like slit over her vagina that is tied to the crucifixion imagery. The scene of Christ features prominently in the dress over her life-giving vagina. It reifies the economy of incarnation, reiterating the thesis that the incarnation of Christ, the reinstated icon, occurs so that his crucifixion may occur – so that he may suffer wholly as man and divine, and by doing so cleanse humanity of their sins through his death and resurrection.
Gaga has used similar arguments of sacrifice, death, and resurrection in her previous works. Most prominently, the narrative of “Paparazzi” stages the boyfriend figure as a Judas figure, who with a kiss turns her into those men (the paparazzi) responsible for her demise, but ultimately her resurrection.
Essentially, “Judas” is the “Paper Gangster” of Born This Way. During her 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Gaga stated that people want to see her fail, they want to see her fall, and they want to know what she will look like when she has died. The incarnation of Lady Gaga that is evident in Born This Way also entails an element of the grotesque, of decay, and sacrifice. Not surprisingly Gaga recently said that her hair was falling out from all the bleaching – the bodily processes of the Fame deteriorating her flesh.
However, it is necessary to ask if Gaga’s “Judas” partakes in such a Christomimesis. This cannot be ascertained from our available fragments. Instead, “Judas” is about misdirected attention. The Fame and The Fame Monster took care of the Christomimetic character of the superstar; what Born This Way partakes of is the flesh itself, the bodily incarnation – lust.
Let us turn to Fragment B.1: “When he comes to me, I am ready/ I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs.” This line identifies the speaker, Gaga, as Mary of Bethany (collapsed into the identity of Mary the Magdalene in the Catholic tradition, but not in the East). Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus (who Christ resurrects), is the woman who poured perfume on Christ and wiped his feet with her hair. Then, Fragment B.2: “Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain/ Even after three times, he betrays me.” This suggests a reference to Judas, but it is in fact a reference to Peter, who betrays Christ thrice before the cock crows. The Passion story seems to be collapsed in Gaga’s narrative, wherein the “he” is both Judas and Peter, and the “me” is both Mary of Bethany (or the Magdalene, more than likely) and Christ, since Christ is the betrayed figure.[iii]
The final portion of this fragment is perhaps most perplexing: “I’ll bring him down, a king with no crown.” Is this a reference to Christ, a king without a crown – except the crown of thorns that is mockingly placed upon him? This would make the speaker now Judas, suggesting the presence of various “I”s in the song. This is a technique that Gaga previously utilized in “Paparazzi” to stress the mutual self-creation of the fan and the superstar. Here, we may be seeing the same process – the mutual self-creation of the betrayed and the betrayer. However, perhaps Mary Magdalene is still speaking about Judas.
Fragment A suggests that the speaker is still Mary Magdalene: “I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel, but I’m still in love with Judas, Baby.” Gaga’s lyrics suggest that Mary Magdalene – the sexualized creature of Western legend who recently figured in the popular imagination via the DaVinci Code (2003) as the bride of Christ – is in love with Judas. This is the crux of the reading. “Judas” is about Mary Magdalene loving the wrong person: she is not in love with Jesus, the king of all kings, but has fallen in love with the wrong man – who will inherently bring her down.
In the collapsing of Biblical stories there are three Marys that are merged into a single figure: Mary of Bethany, Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the Prostitute. In Western Christianity (i.e. Catholicism), Mary is the redeemed prostitute who meets Christ, abandons her ways, and goes on to preach the Gospel to the idol-worshippers in Marseilles. Eventually, following the Golden Legend, she becomes a hermit. She resides in the desert, and every day is lifted by angels to receive nourishment from God. While she originally wears a hair shirt (or simply covers herself with her long flowing hair), in artistic representations her hair shirt is sometimes depicted as actual body hair. This is evidenced by Tilman Riemenschneider’s 1490-92 carving of Mary Magdalene being lifted by the angels. Her image also partakes of a similar incarnation of dress into the flesh. Like Gaga’s shoulder-pads that turn into fleshy protrusions, the hair shirt of the Magdalene becomes beastly body hair.
Back in October 2010, possibly right around the time Gaga was writing and recording the songs for the Born This Way, she wore a “Hair Dress” at a performance. The hair shirt of Mary Magdalene is one of the most widely reproduced images in Christian art, and in Western art history as a whole. Therefore, it is unwise to overlook a connection between the two.
Now let us recall Gaga’s crucifix-wearing outfit at her Twitter visit. The gaudy gold Crucifix on Gaga’s hairstyle is a fitting accessory for her to wear the day after she reveals an excerpt from “Judas.” Naturally, the revelation of a portion of one of her upcoming songs was expected to become major headline news. Nevertheless, she has maintained many of the same elements as the chola-inspired “Government Hooker.” After considering the fragments of the song, however, it seems that Gaga is stringing together these various identities to produce a composite image of the Government Hooker and the Judas persona – although not necessarily Judas himself.
“Government Hooker” previewed at the Mugler show amidst a Gothic arcade with what has been called an “electro-pop Gregorian chant,” which added a definite religious resonance to the scenery and the song itself. I do not mean to argue that Gaga has been pushing any religious agenda, but rather structuring an inter-textuality between “Government Hooker” and “Judas.” The citation to Marilyn Monroe in “Government Hooker” via JFK puts her in line with the litany of sacrificial women in “Dance in the Dark,” which I believe structures an added parallel between The Fame and Born This Way. We are struck by a series of strong women throughout history who have in some way or another been close to key political and religious figures, and who have used their sexuality and fame as a way of evangelizing their own gospels: Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, Marilyn Monroe and JFK, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Gaga and the Government. What the song “Judas” questions is complex, but essentially: what happens when the hooker/activist falls for the wrong man? Perhaps for the wrong Gospel? But, perhaps, even more menacing, what if they all somehow fell for the wrong guy? Nicola Formichetti was quite clear in various interviews that the women’s wear show was meant to empower women; these issues, therefore, cannot be overlooked and deserve more attention when the song finally comes out.
The Mugler fashion show was a brilliantly orchestrated media blitz utilizing social technologies to introduce “Government Hooker” through the very mediums that Gaga employs for her social activism. Therefore, it only makes sense that Gaga would visit Twitter with an opulent crucifix that takes on the chola-inspired language of excessive constructions of self-identity. Both Google and Twitter are the nexuses of Gaga/Government Hooker’s potentiality in the social sphere, yet they also present the dangerous proleptic implements of her own passion. Gaga’s Mary Magdalene has assumed the identity of Jesus and fallen for Judas in Formichetti’s Neo-Gothic panopticon, through which a careful process of concealment and revelation is performed. Her fate is uncertain now that the whole process of the divine economy has gone astray.
One may interpolate that the video for “Judas” features similar themes: a gaudy, over-the-top opulence, and aesthetic structures that draw from a Mugler-inspired, Neo-Gothic, medievalizing imagery and fashion. One can suspect that the gold background of the Byzantine icon and of Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn (1962) figures into this image making: an aesthetic that captures both the enlivened spirituality and power of images in the medieval world, yet is combined with the iconicity and typologies of the Warhol superstar in the Late-Capitalist Twitter-sphere. Nevertheless, given the existing precedents, it is only to be expected that the results are much darker – more Zombie Boy, more Gothic arcades, perhaps (The) Cloisters.
A Preface at the Place of an Epilogue
As an art historian of past visual worlds, my documents and sources are often fragmentary, revealing only a portion of the story or the image that must then be extrapolated, interpolated, or restored. As an art historian of present visual worlds, my documents and sources are also fragmentary, particularly when working on matters of popular culture. Access to a figure, such as Lady Gaga, is essentially and by all means impossible. Therefore, standard research practices – interviewing, seeing the creative process in detail, getting a sense of their workshops, etc. – are largely inaccessible. Thus, the scholar must resort to other means of investigation, sometimes merely compiling what seems like an endless list of facts from all available interviews and news reports to reconstruct a mere semblance of research. Additionally, for both the scholar and the fan, the diachronous trickling down of information through the processes of fame and media politics leads us to constantly (pre-)construct narratives and understandings that are later (at least partially) unveiled/fulfilled. Gaga herself provides us with a methodology for understanding the long durée of the hermeneutics of pop culture: “But the birth was not finite but it was infinite.”
Thus, this is an investigation into this proleptic process, whereby the glimmers and flashes of information produce an understanding of a body of work that is teasingly displayed before our eyes. Here I preference the current possible analysis of Lady Gaga’s unreleased “Government Hooker” and her upcoming single “Judas,” not as a prediction of what it may be, but as an analysis of what it is as it exists today. Analyzing it as a completed work, yet one fractionally presented. In other words, my intention is not to predict what may happen, but rather what has proleptically happened. Therefore, this is an interpolation, using an existing data set to produce new information within those points.
[i] This is a subject discussed in depth by art historian Jacqueline Jung in her forthcoming book, The Gothic Screen: Sacred Sculpture and Social Space in the Medieval Cathedral.
[ii] Formichetti’s design plays well with the Neo-Gothic elements of punk and “goth” culture, as exemplified by his use of model Rick Genest (“Zombie Boy”), both Genest and the Gothic arcade. The design and the utilization of Genest additionally speak to a medieval fascination with death and the apocalypse – the impending resurrection of humanity at the Last Judgment.
[iii] What this demonstrates is a development of the popular imagination of the Biblical passion story. The medieval Golden Legend, for example, already confused the various Marys in the Bible and collapsed them into one, despite the rigorous religious scholarship that pervaded medieval society. The Judas theme unifies the Biblical men into an abstracted manifestation of betrayal; after all, this is not a faithful Biblical rendition, but a utilization of this cultural heritage.
Roland Betancourt is a PhD student at Yale University in the History of Art department focusing on Byzantine art and image theory, with an outside concentration in contemporary art and popular culture.
Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Twitter.
Click here to “like” Gaga Stigmata on Facebook.