I’d like to offer a theological read of Lady Gaga’s project. But let me begin with a little about me and why I’m interested in our current queen of pop.
I’m what you’d call a “religious person.” I attend church on Sundays, I have a seminary degree, I preach and lead worship regularly at my local church as well as at the local jail, and I’m currently studying for a Ph.D. in theology. And yet, I don’t particularly like religion. In fact, I’m often rather disturbed by it – as one is often disturbed by one’s own family, I suppose. I recognize that all religious speech and action – including my own – is always only a hair’s breadth away from ideology and propaganda (and usually it just is ideology and propaganda). In our current cultural and historical moment in the West it cannot help but be this way. Once religious language and institutions lose their taken-for-granted authority – which they have in modernity – all attempts simply to carry on with either the language or the institutions necessarily take on an air of insecurity and desperation about them. (This is not to say that pre-modern religion was any less ideological, only that in modernity we have become self-conscious about the ideological nature of religion).
I say this as someone still committed to Christianity. By “Christianity” I don’t necessarily mean “the Christian religion,” although my commitment to Christianity has and will, I think, be played out amidst all the trappings of “the Christian religion.” Christianity, for me, is reducible to one claim, and my belief in the truth of this one claim is what keeps me wading through all the muck and nonsense of the Christian religion – including, again, the muck and nonsense that I myself produce along the way. The claim is this: that poor peasant from Nazareth named Jesus, executed for blasphemy, is somehow the Mystery at the heart of all things.
And so I’m constantly asking: is there any sense in which religious terms like “God,” “Jesus,” and “worship” can be categories of truthful and liberating (rather than ideological) speech and action? Which is to say, can they be rescued from “religion,” from the quest to secure ourselves against our finitude by pretending that “God” or “transcendence” or “eternity” or “the holy” is within our grasp as some identifiable bit of the world – whether it be a nation, institution, person, text, idea, or ambition?
It is for these reasons that I find myself deeply fascinated and compelled by Lady Gaga’s project – precisely as a religious person, as a theologian. The terms I just mentioned, (“God,” “Jesus,” “worship”), are terms not infrequently employed by Gaga herself. It is the way she inhabits and enacts these categories that compels me. We are often told that there is nothing really new in what Gaga is doing, especially with regard to religious themes and symbols. She is just another disgruntled post-Catholic who employs the images and tropes of religion for shock value. The standard (and by now tired) line is: she’s just doing what Madonna did.
But this is to fail to understand and appreciate Gaga’s project and the role of religion within it. She can’t be categorized or written off as a disgruntled post-Catholic who finds that the only way to deal with her religious upbringing is to profane it. This is a fundamental misreading of her art. There’s something much more subtle going on, a positive and appreciative appropriation of religious identity, but with a twist. Gaga’s performance of religious themes and identity is utterly sincere and serious. She’s not just after shock value. I’m convinced of this. The twist, though, is that this sincerity and seriousness is not entirely sincere or serious about itself.
This is the paradox and irony at the heart of Gaga’s entire project: a kind of earnest flippancy. I remember vividly one of her sermonettes at the particular Monster Ball I attended in Nashville. With a fiery conviction that would outdo any southern preacher, she proclaimed to us: “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” And I have no doubt that she was aware of the signs being picketed about outside the arena before the show, urging “homosexuals” and other “sinners” to “repent.” Gaga assumed the role of counter-preacher, and she wasn’t kidding around. But her sermonette didn’t lead into some moralizing or tear-jerking song. It led into a raucous performance of “Boys, Boys, Boys,” as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face to the tune of a (seemingly) vapid pop song.
It is this holding of one’s convictions firmly but of oneself lightly that is Gaga at her best. It is a posture that embraces finitude, contingency, and freedom. The problem with “convictions” and “ideas” – even and especially good and right ones, like, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” – is that they quickly imbue the holder of the conviction with a felt eternity and transcendence of contingency. We wield our convictions and ideas to shield us from the actuality of life, from the threats of having actually to live with and for others in all their singularity and finitude. (If I’m aware of the plight of the poor, convicted about the injustice of their lot just enough to vote for the politician who has the best ideas about how to help them, that is enough). Gaga seems to intuit something of this, which is why she holds all of her ideas and convictions (and there are a number of them) ironically and absurdly, being always ready to drop the chatter and simply sing and dance with and for her fans.
This is why the performative core of Gaga’s art is constantly undoing its own conceptual pretensions, even and especially with regard to its religious dimensions – in a way that parallels, and here is my central claim, the way in which the performative core of Christianity undoes its own religious pretensions. What is the performative core of Christianity? It’s that mutilated blasphemer dying on a Roman device of torture and execution. What is the performative core of Gaga’s art? It’s that bloodied pop-star hanging dead before the murderous gaze of the MTV audience at the 2009 VMAs. This, I submit, is the central religious image in her entire oeuvre – a figure we’d like to make capital off of (whether religious or cultural), but who instead confronts us with our own violence, and in doing so calls us to freedom.
Jesus was put to death by the religious and political authorities of his day. Gaga was put to death by the cultural authorities of our day. Both died at the hands of those trained in the arts of death: the former at the hands of Roman soldiers; the latter at the hands of the paparazzi. Both walked straight into centers of cultural power to face their deaths: Jesus into Jerusalem, Gaga into Los Angeles. Both submitted to the violence of the powers freely and intentionally. Jesus: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed…” (Mark 8:31). Gaga: “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don't we show them?”
Notice just what this means for how we should understand Gaga’s art: it all takes place under the shadow of its already enacted demise. But this is a demise that she herself has enacted as art. Just here is the subversive or “salvific” move of her entire project. By enacting her own death, by submitting to the death-gaze of the pop-media world and turning it into her own art, she has taken the power of death out of their hands. She has exposed their violence, just thereby subverting it. Her death opens a space of freedom for her art and for her fans, creating space for all those “little monsters” who otherwise would be excluded and ignored by the very cultural powers that Gaga allows to crush her. By death she has overcome death.
This is exactly how the New Testament understands the death of Jesus – just replace “art” with “love,” and “little monsters” with “sinners.” “God shows God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “No one takes [my life] from me,” says Jesus, “but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10: 18). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The apostle Paul taught that Jesus’ death “disarmed the rulers and authorities by putting them to open shame” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus’ death shames the very powers that enact his death, because by turning their violence into his own act of love, he turns their violence against itself. The power of violence is enfolded within his act of love and is thereby rendered impotent and mute. “I’ll just never forget when I spoke with MTV for the first time and I explained the whole performance with them, and I remember the second that I finished, it was crickets.” Gaga’s art makes mute the power that is MTV, and out of this silence emerges the freedom of her music, just as the silence of Holy Saturday gives way to the new song of Easter Sunday.
What I’m claiming is that Lady Gaga is a “parable” of the good news about Jesus I believe in. A parable is an extended metaphor, an indirect enactment or proclamation of some truth. Jesus himself told lots of parables about “the kingdom of God,” and part of what it means to believe that Jesus is not confined to the past, that somehow he continues to be present to us, is that he continues to enact parables among us – even and especially outside of “church,” outside of “religion.” Anywhere that genuine human freedom and liberation is happening, anywhere that the powers are being shamed, there Jesus is alive and at work.
This of course cannot be proven; it can only be believed. But as Gaga herself is wont to say, freedom is living halfway between fantasy and reality, believing in a liberation that cannot be seen or even thought, but that can only be lived, against all odds. Her art, she says again and again, requires a massive faith; it is, she tells us in her recent VMA promo, a “huge lie,” meaning that it is true only in the actual doing of it. “I’m a free bitch” is a not a propositional statement meant to correspond to some state of affairs in the world as we know it. It is a cry of hope, an absurd leap into an impossible possibility. Reflecting on her HBO Special performance at Madison Square Garden, she says, “I look out into that crowd and I’m like, when the fuck did this happen? How did this happen? Who created this? Because I didn’t create this, I for sure didn’t. It’s God. It’s for sure Jesus. It ain’t me because I’m not ridiculous to think for a second that I’m that powerful.”
What exactly did Jesus do? Make her rich and successful? No, not that. Right before saying “It’s for sure Jesus,” Gaga says, “My faith in my creativity and artistry has nothing to do with making it, because we kinda had already made it, right? I mean, when we were playing for nothing downtown, it was still like we’d made it, we still felt like we were superstars.” What she is talking about here is a freedom for creativity and art independent of the powers, independent of the pop-machine. What is astonishing to her, what to her can only be received as a gift from God, is that she has been given to share this freedom for creativity with so many fans. “Little monsters…they are the truth. They are my reason for everything.” Her art has turned into a work of love, and that is a transfiguration no power in this world can produce. “It’s for sure Jesus.”
It is here where Gaga is most intensely religious, invoking Jesus as the driving force behind her art. And yet it is here where religion undoes itself, refusing to be a border or gate-keeper of “the holy,” and instead becoming a total abandonment to the freedom of love. “This is my chance to release / And be brave for you…Tonight I will return / The fame and riches earned / With you I’d watch them all be burned.” Gaga once described her album Born This Way as “bad kids going to church.” That album, we might say, is at its core a sermon about the prodigal generosity of God that is no respecter of religion. “It doesn’t matter if you love him / or capital H-I-M /….God makes no mistakes.” “God,” accordingly, is not some Big Other who demands our servile obedience, but simply and sheerly the Freedom to love every other. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born [this way] of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). That dead pop-star hanging in front the 2009 VMA audience just might be, for those who have ears to hear, an absurd witness to such love.
Let me conclude by citing one of Gaga’s own prayers. This comes from one of the previews to her HBO Special she released a few weeks prior to the special’s airing. In it, she is getting ready for her Madison Square Garden debut, struggling to make sense of it all. After an intense moment of vulnerability about her abiding insecurity, she offers the following:
“Let’s say our own prayer. Dear Lord, thank you so much for the blessings of all of my friends and my family. And thank you for all of the amazing screaming fans that are here tonight. Dear Lord please give me strength to be a winner for all of them and not for myself. Dear Lord remind me to empower not myself, but to empower those around me, because that is my gift. My gift is not self-worship, but my gift is the worship of others. So please help me to be strong, and please help me to know my own strength. Please help me to be brave, Lord. Dear God, give me courage. Do not let me give into those feelings. Do not let me give into my own insecurities. Allow me to walk in your light. Allow me to live and breathe and sing and dance for all the dancers on that stage, for the band, for the music, and for you. Amen.”
In the holy moment following the prayer, she turns and says, “Now I got some shit to do.”
Lady Gaga, “The Queen,” Born This Way, Interscope, 2011.
Lady Gaga, “Born This Way,” Born This Way, Interscope, 2011.
Peter Kline is a doctoral candidate in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. He ministers to prisoners in Nashville.
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