A tweet from Gaga herself proclaimed her new album, Born This Way, released in May, "the anthem for our generation." Well, she is at least a phenomenon of this generation.
The songs are an eclectic mix of Americana manifesto-like intonations behind loud industrial beats, risqué techno dance music, '80s-style anthems, a lavish usage of foreign accents, and ... wait for it ... Catholicism. That's right. Two of the songs, "Judas" and "Bloody Mary," twist biblical stories into metaphors to fit what is presented as Gaga's own experience.
If you are over the age of 40, Lady Gaga probably reminds you of Madonna. Not the Blessed Virgin Mary. The pop artist. "Judas" and "Bloody Mary" clearly demonstrate the Madonna influence on Gaga's work. The "Material Girl" was the first pop star to use Catholic imagery to such effect, back in the 1980s. Many a critic has dubbed Gaga as a Madonna wannabe, and the recent amplification of Christian tropes in her work only serves to cement that connection.
You may remember Madonna's Like a Virgin album (1984), which also dripped with the artist's self-recriminations as well as self-comparisons to the Blessed Mother. Like Gaga today, Madonna was once able to entice bishops and pastors to denounce her from behind pulpits. Some prominent Catholics simply cannot help themselves when it comes to denouncing the young and famous. This time, as usual, the controversy centers not around the fact that Gaga (or Madonna, way back when) dares to use Catholic subject matter, but that they make it sexy and stylish.
The message of "Judas" becomes in one line: "Jesus is my virtue / But Judas is the demon I cling to -- I cling to!" The singer wants to be good, and wants forgiveness, but struggles to give up the pleasure of sin. We've heard this before -- in fact, as early as St. Paul and St. Augustine. Gaga's is a struggle that any honest believer must admit: between upholding one's virtue and being "good" in a reality brimming with "bad," i.e. temptation. Gaga personifies the dilemma is in the characters of Jesus and Judas -- the savior and the tempted, or here the tempter -- and then addressed in terms of a possible lover.
In the music video, Gaga swaggers around a hot, sweaty party in the Jerusalem dusk with Jesus on her arm (a handsome model in a gold crown of thorns), exchanging meaningful glances with Judas, who is moving aggressively through the crowd, cozying up to every girl on the floor. The disciples are all part of a biker gang, with Judas the meanest and scraggliest looking of the bunch.
The message of "Bloody Mary" is similar to that of "Judas." It's a soft, throbbing song with curiously and intriguingly brief string parts, a few screams and a dark Gregorian choir. The song is sung as if by Mary Magdalene herself, and in a way that makes perfect sense if you've ever read Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ." For both Kazantzakis and Gaga, Jesus and the Magdalene were lovers. Gaga's chorus goes:
I'll dance dance dance
With my hands hands hands
Above my head head head like Jesus said
I'm gonna dance dance dance
With my hands hands hands
Above my head, dance together
Forgive him before he's dead because
I won't cry for you
I won't crucify the things you do
I won't cry for you
When you're gone I'll still be bloody Mary.
Those lyrics sound like a personal confession. Gaga is surely playing around with themes that millions of religionists take devoutly and seriously, but she seems somewhat sincere, as well. Then she sings "And when you're gone, I'll tell them my religion's you." There's a faithful passion in that voice, even if it is looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
Both Madonna and Gaga (whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) were raised in Italian-American Roman Catholic families. Germanotta even attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart Academy in New York as a young girl. Their spiritual trajectories seem to be, on the surface anyway, quite similar. No one knows what is happening in the heart and soul of someone else.
Perhaps the best way to approach such flirtations with Catholicism is not to consider whether they are offensive or not, but to ask whether the artist is using them purely for effect or as part of a personal dialogue. Gaga is no longer a practicing Catholic, but in interviews she has professed a Christian faith. For this reason, and because this is an album so fiercely and uninhibitedly passionate, if not original, an album that preaches honest self-expression so ardently, if somewhat heretically, it seems clear that Gaga still truly cares about her God.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author of many books, including 'The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,' coming in March 2012 from Image Books. A longer version of this review appeared in last week's issue of America magazine.