The following piece is the sixth in our series on Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.
Eight months ago, Lady Gaga released “Alejandro” to great hoopla over its religious imagery, and over its (apparent) similarities to Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” (musically) and “Vogue” (choreographically). Now she’s gifted us with “Born This Way,” a film with far more expansive religious imagery, and whose main controversies are the graphic birth scenes and inevitable debate over whether the song is a Madonna knockoff of “Express Yourself” (musically) and “Vogue” (the spoken/rapped lyrics).
“Born This Way” is not a narrative sequel to “Alejandro” (as “Telephone” follows the narrative line of “Paparazzi”). Rather, when compared with “Alejandro,” “Born This Way” reveals major conceptual pivots in Gaga’s aesthetic, and dramatic evolution in her approaches to certain themes. The most notable evolutions between the two videos are found in Gaga’s depiction of female power figure(s) and protagonists, in the progression from a closed gay community to an open inclusive community, and in a seeming shift away from the treatment of religion solely as a means of social and political oppression to a more catholic spirituality as a source of solace and strength.
Compare, for example, how the communities of the two films are shot and introduced. “Alejandro” is shot in cold low lighting, which matches its tonal darkness that stems from being a grievously sad story set in a bleak militant dystopia where solace in any form is in very short supply. Soldiers march bearing emblems of the Holocaust and its horrific human toll, which, as we well know, was justified by institutionalized racism and homophobia.
In contrast, “Born This Way” is shot in warm low-light that simulates birthing environments. The dancers are seen kneeling, in preparation for their births into full-grown offspring of the Eternal Mother. It is as joyous and celebratory as “Alejandro” is sorrowful and elegiac. While “Born this Way” is a liberation birth dance, “Alejandro” is a dirge, and an angry one at that.
“Born This Way” is strikingly different from “Alejandro” in tone and subtext, but a more careful examination of common elements and character types reveals them to be companion pieces that signify a change in Gaga’s overall project.
Institutional Religion vs. Popular Spirituality
An important distinction between “Alejandro” and “Born This Way” lies Gaga’s depiction of religion and faith. To the extent that “Alejandro” is, in part, about faith and freedom, it is both springboard and study in contrast to the philosophy behind “Born This Way.” Whereas the faith of “Alejandro” serves as sanctuary, escape, and justification for oppression, the faith of “Born This Way” functions as respite, solace, and a catalyst for liberation. The faith of “Alejandro” deals in stasis and death; “Born This Way,” in life and rebirth.
“Alejandro” presents faith in the context of a specific religious institution, which is rigid, controlling, and oppressive. It is faith in doctrine; it is a faith in which the light of divinity has gone out. The iconography in “Alejandro” is explicitly Christian, and of the Catholic variety. Crosses, crucifixes, rosaries, and nuns serve up an abundance of controversy. This Christian imagery is accompanied by symbols of oppression. For instance, a helmeted soldier and Gaga-as-nun are strung up like puppets, signifying that religious faith is a kind of bondage (and not the fun kind) – a sardonic twist in a film laden with lots of sex but no pleasure.
In contrast, “Born This Way” depicts faith as affirmative – something that can be called upon as a source of strength and comfort. More importantly, perhaps, the faith here is independent of any explicit religion or doctrine. The video contains a plethora of religious/spiritual images, however they are nondenominational: eastern and esoteric imagery abound while the cross is used only sparingly. From the upright and inverted triangles replete in both political and esoteric meaning, to the Eternal Mother’s lotuses, butterflies, and Third Eye chakra, “Born this Way” signals a shift away from religion (e.g. the Catholic Church) to a more universal, dare we say “catholic” (katholikos) expression of faith. Lyrically, Gaga invokes God explicitly (God makes no mistakes) and implicitly (Capital HIM), not as a basis for oppression but a spiritual affirmation of one’s own inherent divinity.
Two Faces of Liberation
The driving narratives of both “Alejandro” and “Born This Way” is a quest for acceptance liberation, but from opening to closing shots, those quests take place in very different worlds, and seek opposing kinds of freedom. These differences are largely functions of Gaga’s evolving artistic/political intentions and messages in the two videos.
“Alejandro” was created in the context of the debate over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Although the video never overtly addresses the issue, it is nonetheless an impassioned plea for the abolition of policies, regulations, and laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people. Institutional liberation requires the rejection of religious influence behind every homophobic law and policy. On the surface it appears to be a denial of faith, but what it really requires is a change in the way people exercise their faith.
“Born This Way” is the Gospel of Gaga, which advocates for self-actualized liberation: self-acceptance, self-respect, self-empowerment. To achieve it requires no institutional acquiescence, no defeat of personal opponents or bullies (in fact, there’s not a hint of any adversarial personal or institutional relationships). It is an act of faith to embrace ourselves with full belief that we are exactly as we were meant to be, whether we consider ourselves to be divinely created or not. It is an article of faith to say, “I am beautiful, I am perfect in my own way,” and walk by that faith, live by it.
What Gaga seeks in “Alejandro” is escape, not self-liberation. She uses religion to avoid dealing with her grief and her frustrated relationships. In “Born This Way” Gaga seeks to find and express the liberation that is already hers by birthright. The Gaga of “Alejandro” desperately looks outside herself for freedom in other people and things, and uses sex to force her way to acceptance by a group that doesn’t really want her. The Gaga of “Born This Way” seeks her freedom within, and shares the quest and celebration of this freedom with kindred folk.
The Goddess/Queen Archetype
“Born This Way” begins with a Creation Myth, a Gaga Genesis tale. The Eternal Mother is a figure of Light, giver of life, protector of her young. We first see the back of her head, bearing a face that evokes both Metropolis as well as the faces on her offspring. The opening sequence accompanying the narrative is among the most visually powerful in Gaga’s oeuvre, particularly the skyward turn toward G.O.A.T., where constellations form a pair of ovaries. There, the Eternal Mother is the womb, and the vaginal birth canal is an amber-lit translucent ramp. She is attended by a midwife, and flanked on both sides by dancers in soft shadows. Note the recurrent appearance of the letter “V” visually framed in different ways, which reinforces time and again that “No, I don’t have a penis. I have a vagina. Now watch me put it to work.”
Her nature is procreative. She is chained to her birthing throne, her hoof-like feet raised in stirrups, but is otherwise not confined or restricted. At the birth of evil, she herself is torn in two, the Evil Mother sitting atop a lightning bolt ziggurat, birthing twin skeletal figures and an AK-47 (I’ll see your machine gun bra, and raise you a rapid-fire monster gun). Her corollary in “Alejandro,” the cyborg queen, trains an army of soldiers; the Evil Mother gives birth to the weapons with which to equip this army. While the army is not explicitly defined as evil, the birthing of their weapons is an act that promotes death instead of life. Rather than retaliate, the Eternal Mother wonders, “How can I protect such perfection without evil?” This is the essential nature and the moral challenge she passes on to her children.
The Dark Queen of “Alejandro” is as menacing and lustful as the Eternal Mother is protective and nurturing. She is an insectile cyborg vampire who exists in darkness and who rules a dystopia redolent with militarism.
She lusts after Alejandro’s barb-wired heart, stroking her red lips as the heart passes by in a funeral procession. This lust takes on added meaning as she opens her mouth and flashes gold fangs. She hides her eyes behind steampunk goggles, sardonically opening each lens one at a time to sing “she won’t look at you.” She’s malevolent and uncomfortably seductive, even though she never participates directly in the rampant sexual performances.
She is attended by a sleeping armed soldier and a high-ranking officer who peers over her shoulder as she reviews the troops. Under her watchful gaze, the soldiers perform their martial drills and Spartan training against the backdrop of a screen where images of war and violence are projected. The training exercises militarize sexuality and sexualize militarism. The eroticism is muted by their aggression and violent movements as the soldiers circle, embrace, shove, choke, and slam each other to the ground. These are the Cyborg Queen’s offspring. But she’s not birthing a new type of humanity; she’s overseeing the training of an all-too-familiar master race of soldiers.
The Innocent Starchild vs. The Nun
In a vast nursery of gestating heads in translucent wombs, one Starchild has already begun to mature and take complete form. She is the new race in its infancy. Her wide-eyed look and playful nature speak of virginal innocence and oneness with oneself. She has not yet had to fight the battles for self-acceptance and respect that her older siblings are engaged in. She’s just a baby. She still remembers who and what she is. She is spiritual by her very nature. Like her Eternal Mother, she’s a creature of Light.
In contrast, the nun of “Alejandro” represents the grieving woman who buried Alejandro’s love. She flees to religion for solace, not only from her grief, but also from other unfulfilling relationships that require more than she wants to give (“Don’t want to talk, don‘t want to touch, just smoke my cigarette and hush”). Dressed in passionate red, she ingests rosary as an act of communion, and prays for release from the love/attraction of these men.
When she is dressed in pure white and bearing St Peter’s Crosses (papal symbol of humility), she seems to have achieved the spiritual release and wisdom sought by her red novice. She also appears free of the lust that drives Gaga to bed and dominate the soldier in the barracks. But lust is imposed on her by the soldiers: they surround and force her into a violent group grope in which she eventually sacrifices her religious purity for not-entirely-mutual sexual desire. In a clearly wry moment during the orgy/rape scene, however, the white nun’s cross over her crotch is revealed to be an arrow pointing to her vagina, as if to say…no no, gay boys, it goes in HERE! It’s also a sight gag: See, I have a vagina. No penis.
The Essential Gagas
To perform the central character in both videos, Gaga literally strips herself down to the essentials. In “Alejandro,” director Steven Klein forced her to cut her hair and appear without makeup, to make her feel more vulnerable in keeping with her character. In the barracks scene, she wears only a nude set of Calvin Klein underwear, silk hose, and pumps with a sensibly high heel of perhaps four inches. Her eyebrows are bleached and she wears virtually no makeup except for dark lipstick, giving her a pale, ethereal, fragile look. Even at her most sexually aggressive, she seems almost doll-like, the kind you would take home, put up on your shelf, and dust occasionally.
The Gaga of “Born This Way” is also minimally costumed and makeup. Most shocking is that Gaga gives up shoes and stockings altogether. She dances barefoot, wearing only a half-sole dance shoe for added stability and traction. In stark contrast, this Gaga is fierce and muscular, both physically and emotionally. This is not some porcelain doll, this is a strong woman fighting for her freedom from prejudice and condemnation, and celebrating her liberation.
The Pas de deux
In “Alejandro,” Gaga seeks to gain acceptance within the group of soldiers through sexual domination. The scene is highly sexual, yet not erotic: desperation and frustration characterize the mood.
None of the characters in this scene derive any kind of pleasure or even sexual release. Gaga’s partner responds to her advances with violent aggression bordering on rape. Both force themselves into this sexual pas de deux, and neither is satisfied by it.
In “Born This Way” Gaga partners with model Rick Genest (Rico), aka Zombie Boy, in a playful, joyful pas de deux. Using one of her favorite motifs, the mirrored performance, Gaga’s makeup mimics Rico’s whole-body tattoos, and she wears a matching Mugler tuxedo (which may reference her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone, instead of Madonna as some surmise). Alternately coltish and fiercely passionate, Gaga uses Rico as partner and sometimes prop, while he remains largely impassive as one would expect a non-hungry zombie to do.
Gaga’s relationship to the dance company is quite different in the two films. In “Born This Way,” she celebrates and embraces them in relationships that are non-sexual; they share a common origin, quest, and struggle. This company is as diverse with respect to race, gender, class and fashion as is the human family at large, reinforcing “Born This Way” as anthem and ode to inclusivity.
More importantly, Gaga is the featured dancer, and dances solo throughout the video. BTW has been called Gaga’s liberation album, and this is certainly reflected in her movement, and her fiercely joyous personae.
In “Alexandro,” Gaga’s relationship to the company is fraught with desperate attempts to engage them either as sex partners or as comrades. Gaga has described this as trying to have the same kind of relationship with gay men as they have with each other, but they don’t want her. The dance revolves around the company, not around her. Compared to the rich diversity of “Born This Way,” the dancers in “Alejandro” are homogenous with respect to race (and possibly, gender) and fashion. This homogeneity visually reinforces the film’s German subtext and connection to fascism, which cannot wholly be separated from the notion of a master race that is exclusive by its very definition.
Group Hugs, Gropes and Orgies
“Born This Way” features a number of group scenes in which Gaga lies in a tangle of bodies, touching and being touched, stroking and being stroked.
In some scenes, they lie in amniotic fluid/Mugler latex goo, recalling their common origin as the Eternal Mother’s children. These scenes are highly sensual but not explicitly sexual.
The orgy scene in “Alejandro” is violent and blatantly sexual. The soldier/dancers surround the nun in white, grab her, push her, shove her, toss her, hoist her in the air and throw her down to couple with a soldier on the floor.
In its own queer way, this scene is related to a rite of passage by which Gaga earns acceptance as a soldier. In a decidedly Fosse-inspired ensemble dance, she sheds her Liza with a Z vest, and dons a bra with machine guns attached.
In the end, she gains acceptance not by becoming more herself, but by becoming more like them. It’s not liberation; it’s surrender and resignation. In the closing shot, the red nun’s features dissolve, as if her embrace of religion has consumed her from within.
The trajectory from “Alejandro” to “Born This Way” signals something of a quantum leap for Gaga musically and narratively. There’s a clear progression in how she creatively, politically, and spiritually portrays female power. Does this reflect a shift in Gaga’s interpretation and/or depiction of a more conventionally recognizable feminist philosophy? More likely, it is a deeper reflection of how she has long defined her personal and artistic mission statement:
“Women are strong and fragile. Women are beautiful and ugly. We are soft spoken and loud, all at once. There is something mind-controlling about the way we’re taught to view women, and my work is both visually and musically a rejection of those things. But more importantly, it is a quest.”
Showstudio.com, In Camera with Lady Gaga, May 2010
Rather than adopting a more recognizable feminist stance, her depiction of the female in “Born This Way” signals a broadening of her visual and musical vocabulary as she pursues her own quest for defining and empowering her own femaleness.
There’s also a clear shift in how she has chosen to shape her stance on LGBTQ equality. The militancy of “Alejandro” clearly stems from its ties to the policy of DADT, which was repealed not long before “Born This Way” was filmed. The song itself was written months before this political watershed, and we all surely know there are battles yet to come for equality on all fronts (marriage, adoption rights, etc.). It is unlikely that Gaga will abandon her strong political activism and advocacy on these issues, but she is striking at the heart of how we become victims of legalized bigotry and social bullying in the first place. Our oppression begins with believing that we are as others define us. When we accept that we are inherently less than because of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, etc., oppression is easy, whether it is institutional or social.
“Born This Way” also lacks the open attack on religious institutions (specifically the Catholic Church) that foster homophobia and misogyny, and that drive the legal codification of these prejudices. Instead, once again, she broadens her visual and lyrical vocabularies of faith and spirituality to make them as inclusive as the narration of the song itself. No doubt, she will continue to personally and artistically confront religious institutions that promote bigotry, but what she has done in “Born This Way” is to enrich the soil of spiritual alternatives in which this generation can grow and thrive without needing the approval of church or state.
Ultimately, with “Born This Way,” Gaga has shifted the frontline of activism. She has taken the battle away from a focus on outside forces and opponents, and instead towards a deep inward embrace of our inherent self-worth that needs no approval or institutional acceptance, thereby strengthening us both personally and in community. Considering the physical, visual, and musical energy of “Born This Way,” it is clear that the artist has experienced some kind of major leap forward on all fronts. A Hallelujah moment.
Cheryl Helm is an old transgressive hippie, devoutly politically incorrect to all corners. She sold her soul to rock and roll in the 50s, picked up her first good electric guitar from Patti Smith’s husband (Fred “Sonic” Smith, RIP) in the late 60s, and never looked back. “Rock n roll, bitches, do or die,” as Gaga says. She’s written poetry, prose, the L-Word fan fiction, essays, editorials, music criticism, and some things she can’t quite define. She’s written alone and with others, published in obscure ancient feminist literary journals no one ever heard of, as well as alternative presses, newspapers, Creem Magazine in its glory days, blogs, fan forums, leaving digital traces behind like glitter.
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