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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ma Ma Ma Marry the Night: The Streetwalker, The Theologian & The Feminist

By Ingrid Pruss

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

Lady Gaga’s performance of “Marry the Night” on the UK television show The X Factor opens with Gaga singing from beneath a lit cross, a sacred symbol that is also a secular mathematical sign, its x and y axes connected with the valentine shape, symbolic both of Saint Valentine who was beheaded and of the only thing that can connect opposition, which is the binding and magnetic force of Love. Lady Gaga’s song manages to link the world of imaginary street-walking, which is the literal meaning of marrying the night, to the world of intimacy with her dark side to achieve wholeness and thereby holiness, or self-actualization, realizing the divine image within. Behind the cross is a full moon. The images Gaga uses in this particular performance of “Marry the Night” carry with them an excess of meaning to achieve polysemy. Gaga uses images and icons from sacred and mythic realms that bring with them residual authority to empower her humanitarian message of not giving up on oneself after facing adversity.

Gaga stands behind an iron grate of a mausoleum, or perhaps the grate of a confessional, her right hand crossed over her heart in profession of truth and/or confession of sin, which St. Augustine believes is ultimately a confession of faith, making her commitment in song to marrying the night, to exploring the streets on her own, to confronting her dark side, to being alone without grieving, to looking at her own otherness and making peace with it, and/or to creating in solitude; she accepts her decision and all the ramifications that go along with it. As the song progresses, she gains ardor and confidence in her words, and acquires the ability to take off the old woman, so to speak, and to put on the new one. She comes to life, resurrected, as her true self, for in her commitment to the Night, she finds her light, akin to those who take the via negativa.

As Gaga exits the crypt or tiny church, like a female Christ rising from the dead, the audience discovers that she, like the medieval Green Knight who exits Camelot’s court in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight holding his head, holds her own head in her own arm; but unlike the Green Knight, who arrives whole and asks for a challenger to decapitate him, Gaga’s decapitated figure arrives onstage a fait accompli, her audience having no clue of her history. Given the gist of the song, and the mythical female images of moon, heart, and night used thus far, the viewer/listener is lead to believe the figure was a victim of some kind of unspecified tragedy at the hands of patriarchy. Moon, heart, and night are common and repeated images in the sonnet sequence tradition, which are a series of poems that create a narrative usually constituting a long and detailed complaint about love. In light of this, Gaga’s trauma when dropped by her first record label wounded her to the core. And in this performance of the song, Gaga picks up her shattered being and commits to move forward by re-investing in her work instead of buying into that company’s evaluation of her.

The audience surmises the body is upper class because of the lace outfit and ornate necklace, but the blood around the neck speaks of female sacrifice that conjures up both suffering in love as well as religious devotion. Once again Gaga uses a host of icons in this performance – from the cross to the grate and the blood – which provides overtones of the sacred to the lyrics. These overtones provide a great deal of power and authority to the overall message of her performance. Matthew Fox writes that Christ is not just the light in everything but He “Is also the wounds in all things.” Furthermore, the decapitated body image conjures up some early French Feminist pieces of writing by Helene Cixous such as “Castration or Decapitation,” for example, which deal with a time in women’s history when woman was threatened with decapitation if she did not follow male orders. Since woman could not be castrated, given her biology, cutting off her head was the next best punishment. Actualizing this threat on two female leaders in front of 180 women, the Chinese General Sun Tse convinced the 180 to repress their desires and follow the King’s commands. In Gaga’s performance, however, the woman refuses repression. Gaga reverses the narrative by resurrecting the decapitated woman.

Additionally, the movement in the song “Marry the Night” from decapitated female to young, active, whole womanhood parallels what Helene Cixous speaks of in her famous Laugh of the Medusa, wherein she writes about “woman’s seizing the occasion so to speak, hence her shattering entry into history which has always been based on her suppression. To write and thus to forge for herself the anti-logos weapon. To become at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system” (264-65). The song reflects the refusal to allow anyone to suppress her energy and to hold her back from exploring what New York, the streets, and her imagination have to offer.

The first three quarters of The X Factor performance portray Gaga as a singing severed head held by the decapitated corpse; the concept of a singing severed head reminds one of Orpheus, the poet that could make the stones move, whose decapitated head recited poetry while floating down the River Lesbos, after being separated from his body. Orpheus is the primary mythic representative of the great patriarchal poet; here, Gaga is the great Goddess of Pop Music.

 Gustave Moreau, Head of Orpheus
Finally, the decapitated head is reminiscent of Kristeva’s concept of abjection, which includes and describes any threat to the integrity of human identity; at the place of the wound, skin breaks open, and what should remain inside – blood – drips outside of the body. Seeing the human body in such a compromised state disturbs people and reminds them of their mortality, making the wound socially unacceptable for public display except perhaps in museum paintings. Interestingly, when individuals hurt, they hole themselves up behind closed doors in hospitals or in their homes to suffer in solitude as if their wounds were something to be ashamed of; however, in Gaga’s performance of this song, she transforms this shame by showing her stigmata so to speak, displaying the major wound of decapitation, the wounding unto the death, and her determination not to allow it to kill her, but to resurrect herself and recover to produce art out of her pain. Her marriage to the Night is a fertile one. The fruit she produces are her performances of her music live, in CDs and on video captured on DVDs. Feeling empowered fuels her excitement at the multiple possibilities ahead of her.

In the lyrics to the song, “Marry the Night,” Gaga refers to the via negativa directly in the words, “Gonna make love to this dark/ I’m a soldier to my own emptiness.[i] Sheldrake and Fox write, “The negative way is the way of darkness, suffering, silence, letting go, and even nothingness. Emptiness. Emptying. All these are prayer: experiencing silence; being emptied of images, verbal, oral, and imaginative; letting go; and suffering. It’s not just about asking to be relieved from our suffering, it’s about entering into the process, to learn” (Fox & Sheldrake 115). Gaga guards her own emptiness; therefore, emptiness is not something to be dreaded and eschewed, but a necessary ingredient of her creative endeavors. Once again Gaga’s diction carries with it dual associations – secular and sacred. The idea of emptiness connects to Christ’s kenosis – His choice to empty Himself of the Godhead to take on human form. It makes perfect sense, that the next line contains the result of this, i.e. the light, or the assertion “I’m a winner.” Gaga willingly enters into the darkness, into the process of letting go in order to learn, and it is inside of that very darkness that she discovers divine energy.

Ma ma ma marry the night
Ma ma ma marry the night

So begins the refrain, which not only stylistically echoes the refrain of Pokerface (Pa-pa-pa –Pokerface)[ii] and Judas (Jud-a-a Jud-a-a) but also sounds like someone saying either, “Mamama Mary, the night,” or “Mamama, marry the night”; the former functions as an address to the Mother Mary or the Virgin Mary, and the latter represents self-encouragement/self-convincing to go ahead with committing herself to the night, whatever that might mean to her – perhaps something frightening. The syllabic repetition of “Ma ma ma” is reminiscent of what feminist critic Julia Kristeva calls the chora, which reflects the child’s early relationship to the mother’s body and its sounds.[iii] Gaga’s inclusion of the alliterations and rhythms of the prelinguistic state in the song’s refrain is an important part of her song since it is a significant step toward wholeness and healing and it forms a significant part of everyone’s personhood. Furthermore, the semiotic is a subtext of discourse repressed by patriarchy and looked down upon as disruptive, contradictory, and meaningless or nonsensical. Gaga’s use of it in the song’s refrain highlights its true nature – its musicality and poetic beauty.

After the first verse and refrain, the very next stanza Gaga sings is sonically altered. The final syllable of every word is met with an echo, which makes one think of the myth of the female character by that very name. In Echo’s adventures with the self-interested Narcissus, her body is totally destroyed by this male’s rejection of her, and all that is left are bones. Her bones are turned into a cave, and she is only able to repeat Narcissus’ last syllable. Unlike Echo, Gaga will not allow anyone to take her life and power away from her. She will guard and protect it all, even her emptiness. She will not give up on life. If there is going to be any echo, it will be of her own voice, not of anyone else’s. Hence, her echo is not one of powerlessness but one of emphasis. The echo in Gaga’s song reveals that she is her own partner. Not only does she not need a man, she can parent herself. Unlike the mythic Echo, who can never again begin her own conversations, Gaga initiates her own language. She can be both parent and child. Analyzing subjectivity in French psycholinguistic feminism, critic Valerie Cetorelli asserts that according to Cixous, “woman’s writing is also an echo of the voice and body of the Mother who dominates the fantasies of the pre-Oedipal baby, providing thus a link to the pre-symbolic union between the self and m/other” (29). Thus, the first step toward healing in this song is a rapprochement in the mother-daughter relationship within herself.

Similar to the song “Judas” in which Judas, according to Gaga, “was not a betrayer [but] was just part of the over-arching destiny of the prophecy,” (qtd. on dtrtministries.com), so too in “Marry the Night” many opposing forces must be confronted, examined, and included in order for Gaga to achieve her creative dreams; she must marry the night in order to have the time and space to create. As she says about “Judas,” “Those things in your life that haunt you are just part of what you must go through in order to become great” (qtd. in Potter). This rich concept explains the visual symbol of the cross at the beginning of the performance that represents the need to own one’s crosses, the crypt or the need to die to one’s self-centeredness, the decapitated body or the need to confront one’s humanity and thus one’s vulnerability, and the need to marry the night or to couple with one’s darkness, in other words, to embrace one’s own otherness. Yin must love Yang. Anima must make peace with Animus as Carl Jung might say, or as Marjorie Garber, quoting postmodern Cuban writer, Severo Sarduy, puts it, in her book Vested Interests, “Transvestism … is probably the best metaphor for what writing really is: …not a woman under whose outward appearance a man must be hiding, ….but rather….the coexistence, in a single body, of masculine and feminine signifiers; the tension, the repulsion, the antagonism, which is created between them…” (Sarduy qtd. in Garber 150). We must have the ability to cross over to the other side in order to be imaginative creators. Marrying the night is one of Gaga’s metaphors for crossing over.

Many fire lit lamps line the stage and mist rises across its surface creating a mysterious and sacred aura. Dancers are silhouetted to appear – on the cusp of reality and fantasy – surreal. The movement in the song “Marry the Night” begins to change – first in the lyrics and then in the action onstage. The shift from decapitated female to young, active, whole womanhood parallels what Helene Cixous speaks of in her famous Laugh of the Medusa when she writes about “woman’s seizing the occasion so to speak, hence her shattering entry into history which has always been based on her suppression. To write and thus to forge for herself the anti-logos weapon. To become at will the taker and initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system” (264-65). The song reflects the refusal to allow anyone to suppress her energy and to hold back from exploring the streets of New York and all they and her imagination have to offer. The lyrics shift from the negative, “I’m not gonna cry anymore” to “Love is the new denim or black” and “Get your engine ready ‘cause I’m coming out front,” as Gaga returns to the crypt/church in her decapitation costume, only to come out transformed in minimalist clothing.

She takes off the dead self, almost molts, and puts on the living self; at this point the music changes to techno and the lights flash much more like Star Wars saber-lights-gone-to-disco-strobes across the entire stage, and Lady Gaga comes out as we are more accustomed to seeing her in a black lace bodysuit and black knee high boots, energized and dancing full throttle. This is Lady Gaga married to the night, working until all hours, in love with what she does and doing it with panache.

Marrying the night allows Gaga to write and to exorcise the spirit of death in order to move forward with newfound fire. When Gaga sings, I can almost hear Helene Cixous reminding those of us who have had the courage to say “no” to repression, shame and fear, those of us who have begun the process of exploring the scary territory on the other side: “We the precocious, the repressed of culture…we are black and we are beautiful” (878). Have you married the night yet?

Works Cited
Cetorelli, Valerie. Re-Thinking Subjectivity in French Psycholinguistic Feminism: A Path through Irigiray, Cixous & Kristeva. Essex Graduate Journal of Sociology. Vol. 10 (2010). 24-41. Web. 27 November 2011.

Cixous, Helene and Annette Kuhn. Castration or Decapitation? Signs. Vol. 7 No.1 (Autumn,
 1981( 41-55). JSTOR. Web. 29 November 2011.

Cixous, Helen and Keith and Paula Cohen. The Laugh of the Medusa. Signs. Vol. 1 No. 4 (Summer, 1976) 875-893. JSTOR. Web. 28 November 2011.

Fox, Matthew. Qtd.in Sermon Notes. 22 March 2009. St. Mark’s Anglican Church. http://www.southhurstville.anglican.asn.au/pdf/Sermon%20090322%20Lent%204.pdf Web. 11 August 2010.

Fox, Matthew and Rupert Sheldrake. Natural Grace: Dialogues on creation, darkness, & the soul in spirituality & science. Image: 1997.

Gaga, Lady. Marry the Night. X-Factor Performance. YouTube. November 2011. Web. 25 November 2011.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. Routledge: 1997. Print.

Potter, Brett David. Lady Gaga: Monstrous Love and Cultural Baptism. Mediation. 15 May 2011. http://theotherjournal.com/mediation/2011/05/15/lady-gaga-monstrous-love-and-cultural-baptism/30 November 2011. Web.

[i] I did not want to skip the image “warrior queen” in the first stanza, which almost makes one think of an Amazonian queen, but because of the length of the paper, I will put the explication here instead of in the text. When Gaga calls herself a warrior, she is using the term metaphorically, reminiscent of what she said in an interview she had with the Wall Street Journal after her performance of “Bad Romance” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. When asked to extrapolate upon her idea of art, she replied as follows: “For me, art is a lie, and the artists are there to create lies we kill when we make it true. Francesco and I were like warriors on stage, trying to make a true moment….Art is life, life is art -– the question is what came first?” (emphasis mine). Here, Gaga’s use of the simile is about fighting as artists or investing all they had in their art to get their message across. The image is not one of violence but is simply a depiction of the struggle and energy it takes to make a single moment of “true” art – art that reveals a sincere message.

[ii] The song “Pokerface” begins with the chorus singing the syllables “ma ma ma ma ma.” For the refrain, Gaga sings, “Pa pa pa pa pa pokerface.” Thus, we have both “mama” and ”papa” in this song. It is difficult for me to believe Gaga was not aware of this. This syllabic repetition reinforces the use of Kristeva’s semiotic/chora.

[iii] Kristeva appropriates the term chora from Plato, but unlike Plato, Kristeva does not conceptualize it to be a preverbal space or type of timeless time prior to history. It is more of a liminal rhythmic experience the child has through the maternal body before that child is subjected to societal constraints. Kristeva does not describe the chora in terms of a container or in terms of containment.

According to Kristeva’s understanding of language acquisition, before a child learns to speak, the child responds to the sounds and rhythms of the mother’s body, her heartbeat and her cooing sounds. This is parallel to the stage when a child gets a sense of whether they are loved by the faces mirrored to them from their mother or caretaker, something psychologist D.W.Winnicott called mirroring, which he found very important to a child’s healthy development. Kristeva emphasizes this pre-syllabic or semiotic period, since whenever language is taught the focus is on the symbolic stage of language acquisition and the semiotic stage is looked down upon as nonsense syllables instead of being seen as the roots of the poetic part of our language.

Author Bio:
Ingrid Pruss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English at Western Connecticut State University where she teaches 16th and 17th century British literature, poetry, critical theory, and women’s studies. Her work has been published in the George Herbert Journal, JAISA, Quay, and online in Seam Ripper. She loves presenting ideas at conferences and is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge through teaching.

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  1. Lady Gaga tweeted before that performace that she would sing her 'head off' for England. Isn't anyone getting Anne Boleyn teas?

  2. It doesn't quite fit into this category of discussion, but is related to the video which is the focus of the whole site at the moment, so I thought I'd mention that when the 'nurse' says, "I remember when I delivered you" she could be speaking (much as the narrator is) from within that moment itself. She was/is there when Gaga was/is delivered/born because the Gaga that we know was/is born just about there and then (or a few scenes later with a bedazzler!)

    Also, "Except my mother is a saint." Mother Monster from which many new Gaga's were birthed was also saintly, while her gun-child (birthed gun?) was not so saintly. Is hospital Gaga related to Mother Monster's gun-child?

  3. More recent beheading theory here:


    Theoretical essays on beheading and cinema. Contents: Dominic Pettman, "What Came First, the Chicken or the Head?" - Eugene Thacker, "Thing and No-Thing" - Alexi Kukuljevic, "Suicide by Decapitation" - Alexander Galloway, "The Painted Peacock" - Evan Calder Williams, "Recapitation" - Nicola Masciandaro, "Decapitating Cinema" - Ed Keller, "Corpus Atomicus." Photographs by Oyku Tekten, Leighton Pierce.



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