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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Cross is My Anchor: On Learning to Dance Again

By Peter Kline

This is the sixth piece in our series on “Marry the Night.” For the previous pieces, click here.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
– 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, 25

“Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.” 
                                                                                    – T. Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love

“I wish that I could dance on a single prayer.”
– Lady Gaga, “Scheiße”

“Together, we’ll dance in the dark.”
– Lady Gaga, “Dance in the Dark”

Back in September of this year, we lost a little monster. Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, took his own life because he finally could not shake the messages he heard from his peers that his life was not worth living. Jamey was an avid Lady Gaga fan. Among his last words was an expression of gratitude to Mother Monster for fighting the fight he found he could no longer fight. Jamey was buried in a Lady Gaga t-shirt bearing the words, “Born This Way.”

Suicide, particularly when it strikes young people, forces a mirror up to ourselves and to our world. What kind of world have we created that someone would want to force himself out of it after such a short amount of time? How could it happen that a 14-year-old boy could experience such a profound loss of hope? Why wasn’t this precious and vulnerable child more fiercely protected? I LOATHE REALITY. On September 21, in response to Jamey’s death, Gaga tweeted the following: “The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling. I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone’s life.” During her iHeartRadio set a few days later, she performed “Hair” in tribute to Jamey. “Jamey,” she sang, “you’re not a freak.”

I begin here with a reminder of what is at stake for Gaga in her art: life and death, real bodies, real persons. We miss a great deal in our analysis and reception of her art if we don’t register its driving passion: the yearning to make true the lie that this broken and darkened world is yet worth living in with abandon and joy. I’M A WARRIOR QUEEN/LIVE PASSIONATELY TONIGHT. Just a few days ago, responding to the moving video of another gay teenage boy, Jonah, courageously telling us his story of being bullied and his resolve, despite this, to keep living, Gaga tweeted: “Please everyone, take a moment to watch this. This is why I work so hard, this is why it’s wrong to hate.”

How does beginning here affect how we might view this remarkable new video Gaga has given to us? What we’ve been given is an intimate glimpse into the passion that drives this woman’s work. And I mean “passion” here in its literal sense – suffering. What we see in this video is the story of love being forged through suffering, strength being given in weakness, life finding its anchor in and through death. In an earlier essay, I suggested that Lady Gaga undertakes her art as a work of love for the Jameys and Jonahs of this world, for those who find themselves weak, low, and despised – in a word, monstrous. Where does such love come from? I’M GONNA MAKE IT…YOU KNOW WHY? BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.

Perhaps the answer is this: it is when life ceases to be the pursuit of things and becomes instead the pursuit of nothing – no-thing – that life opens up as hopeful possibility, as new creation ex nihilo, as a movement into the bedazzled darkness of love. LOVE IS THE NEW / DENIM OR BLACK. The line between despair and hope is razor thin. Both face the future anxiously as a kind of empty darkness. The only difference is that whereas despair cowers before the darkness in fear, grasping for some-thing to stabilize the dizzying anxiety (gummy bears? a knife, maybe?), hope leaps forward, dancing into the darkness with an inexplicable expectancy that love is present and that love will come. I’M GONNA MARRY THE DARK / GONNA MAKE LOVE TO THE STARK. Love is the impossible possibility of dancing the night away on the razor, treating it not as the precipice of despair, but as the edge of glory. I’M ON THE EDGE WITH YOU. (And there you have the whole sweep of Born this Way, from its first to its last track).

This video, at its heart, is a story about dancing. It is about losing the ability and the drive to dance, but then finding one’s feet again through love. The video opens with Gaga knocked off her feet, being wheeled into the clinic on a gurney. She comments on her heels CUSTOM GUISEPPE ZANOTTI (a glimpse of what is to come perhaps, a remembering forward), but her feet hang there motionless and stiff. Her whole body lies motionless and stiff. A turn in the video happens when Gaga tells us, “I have nothing left to lose.” “Do you need anything else?” the nurse asks. What does someone who has lost everything need? Some-thing? No, for things will eventually just be lost again. Things don’t bring healing; things don’t bring freedom. “Juste un petite part de la musique,” “Just a little bit of music,” she replies. What Gaga needs are her dancing feet, and so she asks for music, for an invitation to dance. As Beethoven’s Pathétique begins to play, she raises her hands over her head into a dance position and elegantly falls back into her pillow. Even at her bleakest point, stabbed in the back, even surrounded by madness, not least her own, the dance is present, the dance is possible, and she desires its call. But how? How could such possibility be present amid such despair? Notice the crosses on her bed. One at her head (as if a saint’s halo), one at her feet, anchoring her, bearing her burden, loving her. She utters, “I have nothing left to lose,” as the cross cradles her.

(I danced on a Friday when the world turned black 
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on)[i] 

We are then ushered into a dream-like sequence with Gaga dressed as a ballerina. Ballerinas are the most rigorous of dancers. To be a ballerina requires perfection – physical, psychological, emotional. It is significant that Gaga has said on a few occasions that she regards dancing to be her least developed skill. Compared with her musical ability, she thinks of her dancing ability as something of a weakness. And so we find this ballerina standing in impossible shoes, dancing tentatively a dance we’re not sure she can pull off. Gaga has said these shoes represent the “Everest of [her] existence,” the impossible obstacle that occasioned her downfall. In the next scene, we witness the downfall. The call that knocks her off her feet, the anger, the yelling, the destruction, the nothingness of little zeros filling her mouth and covering her body (h/t Laurence Ross). The whole scene comes across as a dance dissolving into chaos. It is interwoven with shots of ballerina Gaga alternatively falling, hanging upside down, lying at the feet of other ballerinas, looking up at them in despair. She finally falls into her bathtub as if dead, drowning in the waters of baptism – “baptized into…death” (Romans 6:3).

Halfway through the video at this point, the decisive turn takes place. Beethoven’s song ends, and we begin to expect Gaga’s own. We’re not told or shown how the turn happens – one could never see the transition from death to resurrection, for it happens “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52) – we just see Gaga sitting in her baptismal/bathtub, somehow raised to life, her hair teal with the transition from brunette to blond, “Marry the Night” gently floating in the background. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). And then the next scene opens and we see them…the heels. Gaga on her own two dancing feet, striding confidently into the dance studio, once again looking up at other dancers, but no longer with the despair of failed perfection. She’s not haughty or over-confident, though; we can still sense some anxiety. But it is an anxiety full of expectancy, not knowing what will come, yet open and ready nonetheless. Notice that the camera focuses on one of the dancers on the balcony, a ballerina. Gaga once again looks up and faces her Everest, the obstacle of perfection. But her face says it all – no downfall this time. I WON’T CRY ANYMORE.

Whence this newfound strength? The courage to “[do] it all over again,” to bedazzle the scraps and fragments of her shattered life? There is writing on the wall in this scene, which typically signals impending judgment or doom. But significantly, the writing here is reversed (h/t Meghan Vicks). What might be a message of judgment is actually a message of hope. But this is hidden from us initially; to see it, we have to look in reverse, a conversion has to take place. The message on the wall itself bears this reversal, this conversion. Flipped around, it reads: “The Cross is my Anchor.” The cross? That instrument of torture, death, and shame? How could this become an anchor, a source of strength? For the New Testament, the cross is a source of strength because the death of Jesus is that moment in history when the tender heart of God is thrown open to the world, never to close. Here God bears eternally the weight and nothingness of the world. Its brokenness and violence are now forever cradled in the outstretched arms of that “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). For those who will relax into such love, as Gaga seems to do in the clinic – I’LL DANCE… / WITH MY HANDS ABOVE MY HEAD… / LIKE JESUS SAID – weakness and brokenness become no longer a threat, no longer an occasion for rivalry or mistrust. Rather, you are free, as Gaga has said in a recent interview about her video, to “trust yourself to make mistakes,” free to face your obstacles, internal and external, with expectancy, with hope, even with laughter. (And of course with a bedazzler).

And so we’re taken out into a moonlit night to watch Gaga marry it, to watch her bedazzle it, to watch her dance out into the darkness with abandon. Initially, we come upon what looks like wreckage and carnage – cars burning, Gaga thrown upside down, hanging out of the Trans Am, knocked off her feet. We’re reminded of the opening scene where Gaga’s feet lie motionless and stiff. But here there is movement, restlessness. Then a surge of life, her legs writhing in search of some ground, some anchor, on which to dance. She flips herself over, and the dance begins. TURN ON THE CAR AND RUN.

The video then moves into what is for me its most moving and significant sequence. We’re taken back into the dance studio to watch how Gaga inhabits and lives into her newfound courage and strength. She enters the company of dancers not out in front, but as one of them, with and among them. There is no presumption that she deserves to be a star. She has to prove herself. Before the dance begins, she lies low, nervously looking up and around, but with a quiet determination. She stands, takes a deep breath, and the dance begins. A break in the dancing occurs, and she looks relieved, but still nervous. What will they think of me? Was I good enough? She wanders around looking for someone to say something to her. Finally someone does, presumably selecting her for a smaller dance group in which she is now out in front – next to the ballerina. The dancing begins again. But then a stumble, a fall. The ballerina, that image of poise and perfection, shows herself less than perfect. She is fragile, broken. A reversal has taken place. It is now the ballerina who lies at Gaga’s feet, looking up in despair. And what is Gaga’s response? She bends down, picks her up, and kisses her. The one who could most easily become an enemy, an object of rivalry and contempt, becomes instead a friend, an occasion to give love. I’M GONNA MARRY THE NIGHT. The dance Gaga now dances is one of love, love for the broken, for the fallen, for the low and despised. Significantly, the ballerina Gaga stoops down to help appears to be transgendered or in drag, a “freak” in the eyes of the world. Marrying her own pain and suffering has freed Gaga to give herself to, to dance with, “the least of these,” to those languishing in their own nights of pain, suffering, and rejection. Her kiss says, “You’re not a freak.”

The dance begins again, and it eventually breaks out into an improvised celebration around Gaga, full of joy. Such joy can’t be contained in a dance studio, and so it spills out into the streets, into the night. Gaga now leads a group of dancers unafraid to be out on the streets at night, unafraid to find joy in the darkness, unafraid to be monstrous. I can’t help but notice her teal lipstick here, the same color as the dye she uses to turn her hair blond. Her mouth once full of the zeros of nothing has been freed to sing, now teal with the promise of joy. THIS IS MY PRAYER / THAT I’LL DIE LIVING JUST AS FREE AS MY HAIR. She pulls off her sunglasses and looks straight at us, as if to say: come dance.

[i] Sydney Carter, “Lord of the Dance,” 1963. Hymn.

Author Bio:
Peter Kline is a Ph.D. candidate in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His real love, though, is a little church in Nashville where he and his wife serve as ministers.

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  1. We know Gaga loves to foreshadow her work and she did it again. With reference to the "The cross is my anchor," go back and look at the video or stills from Bill Clinton foundation performance. Around her neck Gaga is wearing an "anchor cross" (also known as St. Clement's cross and the mariner's cross-St. Clement was excecuted by being weighted and tossed into the Black Sea.)
    There are a couple instances of humor as well. The tall "pink" ballerina is Melissa Emrico, better known as Dina, who was one of Gaga's original female dancers. She's the dancer Gaga accidentally hit in the face with a microphone and knocked out her front teeth. Gaga paid to have them fixed, so I guess this is a "no hard feelings" statement. And near the end of the video during the rapid clips segments, Gaga takes a bite from something and then tosses it the trash.It's a honeybun just like the one she and Beyonce shared in Telephone.

  2. *sniffles* Dammit, something in my eye ... for like five minutes straight.


  3. The parts with the dancing on the car seems like a tribute to the Whitesnake video 'Here I go again', which Gaga placed in her top pop videos countdown, stating:

    And last, for my video countdown, I wanted to choose a song and a video that some may not deem as pop music; Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again” is a music video that changed the landscape of pop forever.”

    “So many rock groups got so much s**t for making popular music. They were told that they sold out; they were told that they were not as hardcore as they used to be. But when that beautiful blonde [sic] girl got on the top of that car and danced, we never thought about any other girl again.”

    “She changed music for us and so did Whitesnake.”

    Lady Gaga changed music for us and so did Lady Gaga.

  4. Great article. You write with such tension and passion, I was pulled right through your analysis on a taut string. Thank you.

  5. beautiful. it's so sad that people don't understand this. that people think she's this messenger of evil, when in reality she's such an enlightened soul. thank you for this.

  6. Her art is about as deep as a Britney Spears video, lowest common denominator. The video is like a C&A advert for edgy.

  7. Thanks for such a beautiful piece. Although I'm not a Christian, your words gave me a lot of peace and showed why Christianity has given a lot of people hope amidst so much suffering. Simply a wondrous interpretation of the video.

  8. This is a great piece, thank you. I was raised Catholic and the Lord of the Dance song has always been very stirring for me. I love how you weave the idea of "determination through ____" <-- some higher calling or higher power. Linking this to the idea that she is AMONG others who are "freaks like her" and therefore not freaks is so well-put. In many of her videos - quite different from, say, a Beyonce-driven Video Phone - Gaga is a member of a community. And you show here how important a community can be to a sense of purpose and courage. Not "things," but the love in community with others. Communion. Nice work.

  9. Thanks, K.M. I appreciate that. Yes, community is so fundamental to what Gaga is doing. This is one of the reasons I'm so fascinated by her. I'm grateful that my interest in her music has put me in contact with people (like you!) I might not otherwise be in conversation with. That is a real gift. Reading your piece made me super-excited to read Freud next semester in a Queer Theory seminar I'll be in.

    And thanks to everyone for the kind comments. They mean a lot.


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