By Peter Kline
The fame and riches earned
With you I’d watch them all be burned
– Lady Gaga, “The Queen”
I wasn’t planning on it, but I guess I’m giving up Lady Gaga for Lent.
Just a few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, the day Christians begin the season of Lent by having ashes smeared on their foreheads and hearing the words, “from dust you have come, to dust you shall return,” Lady Gaga announced that the Born This Way Ball had crumbled to dust. It wasn’t postponed; it wasn’t rescheduled. It was done. Gone. No more.
And why? Because a bit of flesh in Gaga’s right hip had come undone. Flesh does that. It comes undone. It gathers itself into the most beautiful forms, the most magnificent spectacles – of power, bodies, movement, pleasure, glory. But no matter how splendid or glorious, flesh always comes undone. Always. It always returns to the dust of which it is made.
We might be tempted to forget that Lady Gaga is made of flesh. “Lady Gaga” is, after all, a much more encompassing phenomenon than a particular 26-year-old fleshy body. Lady Gaga is the name of an event, a million-faced monster that shows itself in a seemingly infinite explosion of digital images and videos, aural landscapes, tweets, tumblrs, and a thousand other named and unnamed forms. Gaga has seeped her way into every crevice of that mysterious, eternity-like realm called the Internet. She lives there, breathes there, gives herself there. Her fans meet her there, touch her there, love her there. But the Internet is not flesh, exactly. Certainly it lives and pulses with energy. It also breaks down and comes undone. But it is not made of the tender and vulnerable stuff that gives us so much pleasure and pain.
To be sure, Gaga’s art challenges any easy dichotomy between what we might think of as a fleshy body and the multiple ways such a body is represented and extended into images, videos, sounds, costumes, and characters. Those extensions, for Gaga, those multiple worlds that she creates and inhabits and that are created around her, just are her self, her body. She was born this way. But what does it mean that all of those worlds can be shaken to their core when a small bit of tissue in her right hip tears ever so slightly? Is the massive universe and spectacle that is Lady Gaga really dependent on something so precarious, something so obviously fleshy? Are our lives really so fragile? Can it all come to end so quickly?
What if Lady Gaga were never to walk again, or dance again, or get on stage again and throw her body around wildly and passionately? What would that mean? Just how much is dependent on her being able-bodied? Would we still love her with such extreme devotion if she became permanently disabled? How would we love her? How would she love us? Would her extraordinary ability to create and inhabit digital worlds be enough? Or do we need her body, her flesh, her ligaments and tendons and hip sockets?
So yes, I’m giving up Lady Gaga for Lent. But not because I’m pious. I wouldn’t have chosen this had it not been forced on me. Against my will, I have to live with a desire that will go unfulfilled – the desire to see her flesh, to follow the movements of her body with my own eyes, to hear her scream and sing and preach with my own ears, to breathe the air of a shared space, to experience the energy and love of a shared moment. And I mourn that loss.
I’ve seen her in the flesh before. At the Monster Ball two years ago. It was then that I really saw and encountered her for the first time. My love for Gaga was birthed in the flesh, in the deeply bodily and erotic experience of seeing her live. There are those who love Gaga but have never seen her live. I’m not sure I would love her if I hadn’t been around her flesh. Or at least my love would be very different. Probably less visceral. Less obsessive. Less personally transformative. Seeing Gaga’s flesh made such an impact on me that I had to transform my own flesh in response. The Halloween following the Monster Ball, I dressed up in Lady Gaga drag. It wasn’t just a costume. Her flesh had touched my flesh in such a way that my flesh had in someway become her flesh. I am Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is me.
I purchased tickets for the Born This Way Ball that was supposed to take place in Nasvhille on March 10. I probably paid too much for them. I was late to work on the day I bought the tickets because I was hovering over my computer to buy them the instant they went on sale. I canceled a church service I lead on Sunday evenings so I could get my religion that evening from Gaga instead. But now March 10 sits on my calendar like any other date. Regular, nothing special, no longer a holy-day as it had been for several months.
This is, I suppose, what Lent is supposed to be about – letting those things die that we cherish and cling to most passionately, even and especially those things that give us our deepest sense of identity. It is a time to remember that nothing survives, that our lives are vapor, here today, gone tomorrow. The idea, however, is not to induce shame or despair about our lives or our passions. To remember that you and I and all the world are dust, are nothing, is precisely the way into passion, into life. The promise of Lent is that when you give up everything, every attempt to secure your life, it will all be returned to you – just not as a possession, but rather as a gift, one you can neither anticipate nor control. To live life in openness to the world as gift is to exist precariously, but also passionately, on the edge of glory.
So I have to give up Lady Gaga. I have to let the Born This Way Ball return to dust. But this is not because I no longer love her and desire her flesh. I do. But I have to let it be flesh. Is this not the lesson Gaga has been teaching us all along? That identity is not stable but exists in a continual moment of birth, death, and re-birth? That pain, loss, tears, and blood are the stuff of life? Perhaps from the beginning she has been teaching us to die – so that we might be reborn. Now we have to let her do it.
None of this is to lessen the sorrow of Gaga’s tour being canceled. For me, that sorrow is very real. More so because I hadn’t planned on experiencing the Born This Way Ball alone. Part of what I love about Lady Gaga is the way she has connected me to other people. One of those people is Zoë, the nine-year-old daughter of my best friend. We were planning on attending the Born This Way Ball together. Zoë and I share a passionate love of Lady Gaga. We have matching Lady Gaga lunch boxes. We have frequent conversations about our favorite Lady Gaga songs and what we would say to her if we ever got to meet her – Zoë says she would say, “You are so punk!!” She adored seeing me in Gaga drag. I am Zoë’s guitar teacher, and without fail every lesson ends with an extended wandering around YouTube looking for the latest Lady Gaga videos. Zoë says sometimes that the thing she wants most in life is to meet Lady Gaga. When I texted my friend and told him that the tour had been cancelled, his first response was, “Zoë is going to be pissed!” He tells me that when he gave her the news, she collapsed into a heap on the floor and just wept.