The following piece is the third in our series on Lady Gaga's video for "Born This Way." Click here for the first piece, and here for the second.
From the title credits of Hitchcock's Vertigo.
In the opening segment of the video for “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga signifies that she intends to confuse and disorient her viewers by scoring the “Manifesto of Mother Monster” with Bernard Herrmann’s famous musical score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that depicts the complex relationship between Madeleine, a woman who poses as another woman to cover up a murder plot, and John Ferguson, the acrophobic private investigator hired to follow her; their relationship is complicated by their mutual shifting identities. Here, I will argue that “Born This Way” mirrors Vertigo’s themes of multiple identities, disorientation and, ultimately, death.
The spiraled, red hellish realm in Gaga's "Born This Way"
Before launching into my analysis of the video for “Born This Way,” a short summary of Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in order. A woman named Judy is hired by Gavin Elster to act as a stand-in for his wife Madeleine, so that he can weave a dense scenario to cover up his wife’s murder. Elster intends to throw his wife from a tall clock tower, and his scenario relies upon John Ferguson, whom he hires because John suffers from vertigo and is unable to climb high without paralyzing dizzy spells: Elster wants to set up Ferguson as a witness to his wife’s “suicide” from the tower. The theme of multiple identities is furthered by the fact that Ferguson also goes by “Johnny O” and “Scotty,” depending upon who is talking to him. After following and falling in love with “Madeleine,” Ferguson witnesses her plunge to her death from a clock tower. Later, depressed and distraught, he meets Judy, who reminds him of Madeleine because, unbeknownst to Ferguson, she actually is the Madeleine he knew, just with different hair, makeup, and clothing. While Judy posed as Madeleine, she had also fallen in love with Ferguson. She attempts to confess this to him in a letter:
I made a mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you. And I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve, I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again as I am, for myself, and so forget the other and forget the past. But I don't know whether I have the nerve to try.
She then tears apart the letter and throws it away: she has made her choice. She chooses to stay and lie in an attempt to make Ferguson fall in love with her again, not as Madeleine but as Judy. He then implores her to change her clothing, hair, and makeup to re-create the Madeleine he once knew, and whom he still believes is dead; she does so, though unwillingly. She says, “All right then, I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.” It is this series of choices – to walk into danger (let’s not forget that Judy is complicit in a murder here), and to allow another person to change her appearance and thereby play into his fantasy that she is another woman (even though she actually is the person he wants her to be, he just can’t see past the different clothing, hair, and makeup, which is in itself another statement Hitchcock is making about identity) – that directly leads to her death.
Kim Novak as Madeleine, as Ferguson meets her.
Novak as Judy, as Ferguson meets her after (he thinks) Madeleine has committed suicide.
Novak as Madeleine-turned-Judy-turned-Madeleine after Ferguson has rehabilitated her look.
Lady Gaga, like Hitchcock’s Madeleine, plays a number of disparate roles in the short film for “Born This Way”: she is a celestial being, she is narrator, she is Mother Monster, she is evil incarnate, she is Stefani Germanotta, she is the bodiless spawn of herself, and she is a Little Monster. She comes at the viewer from multiple angles, and given her choice of Vertigo as a narrative template, such multiple identities disorient and cause one to wonder which Gaga is the real Gaga, as Hitchcock’s audience must ask which Madeleine is the real Madeleine: which one should be trusted, whose word should be heeded? Which way, in fact, was she born? The question regarding which Lady Gaga is the “real” Lady Gaga is a theme she recently discussed in her interview with 60 Minutes.
Photographers say this to me: “I want to photograph the real you.” And I’m like, what the hell are you looking for? I’m right here. You’ve seen me with no makeup, you’ve asked me about my drug history, my parents, my bank account: I mean, how much more real could I be? This is what I’m really like.
When prodded further about the nature of her identity, she continues.
What is it that you would like to know that you haven’t already asked? You’ve asked me everything you could factually ask me and yet you still feel like you don’t know who I am. That’s because you’re fascinated with my artistry and not with me as anything other than my artistry. That’s all I am. What is it that you’re looking for? What you’re looking for is magic.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock shows that there is indeed a distinction between Madeleine as we first meet her, Judy who was acting like Madeleine, and the Madeleine she later becomes at the request of the person she loves. He leads us to believe that Judy is the “real” person that was hired to play Madeleine, but even that is probably an identity she constructed to hide from law enforcement should the murder ever be discovered. So it would seem that at least two and possibly all of the identities presented in Vertigo are false ones. Conversely, Lady Gaga and “Born This Way” declare that the way you were born is not only your true identity but, in what seems like a contradiction, part of your free choice as a human being. You were physically born, yes, but throughout your life, you can and will choose to be a number of different people – you will be reborn numerous times. Unlike Hitchcock, Gaga says that all of these identities, these “in-finite births,” are equal and true. Like her 2011 Grammy performance, which blatantly references Alvin Ailey’s groundbreaking work Revelations but revamps it to serve the message of “Born This Way,” Gaga utilizes Vertigo and its theme of multiple identities as templates upon which to tell her own version of the story of multiple identities.
The opening “Manifesto of Mother Monster” mimics the title credits of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, not only in Gaga’s adoption of the thematic score from the film, but also in the cinematography. When we first see Gaga in “Born This Way,” the camera descends upon her from above as she spirals inside a glass box.
It appears that her eyes are closed, but the camera soon reveals that what initially seemed to be Gaga’s face is actually a painted mask on the back of her head. When we see her real face, it appears just as painted-on as the mask, with the supernatural addition of a third eye. We are led to question which face is more real, and how important a face is to a person’s essential self.
The opening credits of Vertigo – which, by the way, run the exact same length as the “Manifesto of Mother Monster” and, when played simultaneously, create a dissonance that is incredibly disorienting – touch on this same theme. We see close-ups of sections of a woman’s face (lips, nose, and eyes), but never the face in its entirety. We know – or, rather, think we know – it is a woman only because of the lipstick and eye makeup. Hitchcock, like Gaga, establishes from the beginning a lack of concrete identity based on disorienting and distorting images of a face that will descend into a more disorienting spiral as the film continues.
We then see Lady Gaga giving birth to “in-finite” bodiless heads, one of which is Gaga herself.
And while the births taking place here enact the most literal representation of the goal of “Born This Way” – the birth of “the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom” – the fact that Gaga herself is one of those born presents another theme: the multiple nature of identity, namely that Gaga presents herself as the Mother Monster, and, simultaneously, as the Little Monster. This idea is furthered by the fact that Gaga is also a third party to the birth, serving as the narrator of the Manifesto.
As the eternal mother hovered in the multi-verse, another more terrifying birth took place, the birth of evil. And as she herself split into two, rotating in agony between two ultimate forces, the pendulum of choice began its dance. It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good. But she wondered, “How can I protect something so perfect without evil?”
When Narrator Gaga describes a woman split into two during a battle of good versus evil, she is presumably describing herself – though which “self” is another topic entirely; additionally, she could just as easily be describing the main female character of Vertigo.
Not only do the aforementioned elements of “Born This Way” echo the identity disorientation depicted in Vertigo, but Gaga herself, outside of the video’s narrative confines, figures as Madeleine/Judy. She was born Stefani Germanotta, but became Lady Gaga during her artistic rebirth. She sometimes goes by simply Gaga, and when people first meet her they tend to ask, “What should I call you?” She recently told Anderson Cooper that she prefers to be called Stefani in bed because if someone called out “Lady Gaga” during sex it would “freak her out.” So we have a woman named Stefani presenting herself as Lady Gaga who at times goes by Gaga. In the “Born This Way” film, this trinity of identity is all the more confounded by the presence of so many Gagas. And just as Madeline/Judy both die in Vertigo, Gaga portrays a death at the end of the “Born This Way” film.
At the conclusion of Vertigo, Judy falls from the clock tower when a figure (later revealed to be a nun, which is also interesting considering Gaga’s Catholic upbringing) appears in the shadows, and she falls from the window in fright. At the end of the “Born This Way” video, we see a similar shadowy figure: Gaga, silhouetted, walking in the darkness of a New York City street and wearing jeans, the most pedestrian we’ve possibly ever seen her look.
A shadowy figure approaches Judy in Vertigo.
A shadowy figure approaches the camera in "Born This Way"
Then we see Skeleton Gaga – a copy of Rico Zombie, who is himself the symbol of evil that Gaga gave birth to at the beginning of the video – blowing a gum bubble, and frozen with a look of fear and surprise in her eyes.
Judy's eye's widen in fright as she notices the shadowy figure.
The video's final shot captures skeleton Gaga's widened eyes.
It seems that evil/skeleton Gaga is frozen in a death stare; the significance here is that bubblegum pop has been killed. All of Gaga’s choices have led her to this moment, when she is re-born again, in the shadows of a New York City street, as the person she became when she first stripped her clothing mid-performance and announced herself as Lady Gaga – the original Little Monster – allowing her to now kill, once and for all, the notion that pop music is as valueless as chewing gum. But unlike Judy/Madeleine’s fatal fall from the clock tower in Vertigo, Gaga intends to show that this particular brand of death is a positive one resulting from multiple equal and true identities, and, eventually, one she hopes will set free all the Little Monsters, and, possibly, the whole world.
Meghan Blalock is a writer living in New York City. Her comparative piece for Gaga Stigmata on Lady Gaga's Grammy performance and Alvin Ailey's Revelations was recently cited in The Atlantic. She writes for Gotham magazine, and has also written pieces for the local music blog Sound System NYC, The Rumpus, Southern Living, Gaga Stigmata, Woman's Day, and other publications. Her poetry has also been published in amphibi.us. Her work is viewable here and here.
Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Twitter.
Click here to "like" Gaga Stigmata on Facebook.