The Death of Edge: Where's the Real Controversy in Pop?

05/18/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

About two weeks after Christians around the world celebrated the anniversary of Jesus' resurrection, this nation's most "controversial" pop star released the video to "Judas," the pseudo-religious follow-up to the anthemic "Born This Way."

In the song, Lady Gaga declares her love for Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus in those famous, critical moments. In the video, she rides a motorcycle on Jesus' back while batting eyelids at the (clearly) more badass biker Judas.

The Catholic League's Bill Donahue, who can be counted on to take offense and cry bigotry for a whole host of reasons, had this to say about Gaga's latest tour de provocation:

In her "Judas" video, Lady Gaga plays fast and loose with Catholic iconography, and generates several untoward statements, but she typically dances on the line without going over it. Perhaps that is because the video is a mess. Incoherent, it leaves the viewer more perplexed than moved. The faux-baptismal scene is a curious inclusion, as is her apparent fondness for the Jesus character. But if anyone thinks the Catholic League is going to go ballistic over Lady Gaga's latest contribution, they haven't a clue about what really constitutes anti-Catholicism.

You've got to wonder what's going on when the Catholic League's response to our edgiest pop star is essentially "Are you even trying anymore?"

Clearly offending the Catholic Church is not a required step in creating art, and Gaga is a tireless performer and creator, with collaborations with fashion houses that have certainly yielded interesting results. But the video and song plainly took aim at religion, and Gaga herself
has gone so far as to describe a Messianic vision of herself -- the would-be savior of her Little Monsters' right to self-expression.

So, if all we have left are shoes with penis heels and motorcycle-riding disciples, is that enough?

Our rockstars are American Idol judges; our most shocking pop culture moment of the past two years was Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift. 50 Cent and Dr. Dre are making all their money off of Vitamin Water and headphones, respectively.

Another supposedly enigmatic and hyperoffensive entertainer of the moment is Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler, the Creator, the 20-year-old brash leader of the rap group Odd Future. Odd Future, or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All for long, has lyrics that make the Palin-scaring Common seem like James Taylor.

Tyler's lyrics, riddled with anti-gay slurs and rape fantasies are garnering critical acclaim (and even a cautiously admiring profile in the New York Times). It's all seen as so fresh, so daring -- but is it?

If Gaga as pop's Mary Magdalene is Madonna reincarnate, why isn't Tyler as rap's impossible-to-dance-to villain just a recycling of Eminem's early work?

Indeed, the Times' had this to say about Tyler's album "Goblin": "spiteful, internal, confident, vitriolic, vividly bruised stuff, a shocking -- and shockingly good -- album that bears little resemblance to contemporary hip-hop." Couldn't this have been lifted from a review of "The Marshal Mathers LP", Eminem's wake-up call from Detroit in 2000?

Turns out, it could have been. A decade-old review of that Eminem album noted that "Kim," a song the Times describes as a "murder ballad" "follow a respected path in popular music," one that stretches from "The Banks of Ohio" to Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone" to Nick Cave's album, itself entitled "Murder Ballads."

So 2011's rape fantasies are 2000's spouse murders. Progress.

Perhaps one of the more inventive albums of the past few years was actually Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," which lived up to its insane pre-release hype not by seeking to be controversial, but by seeking to evoke honest emotion by invoking a darkness that hasn't yet been seen on tracks that also prove to be enduring club bangers (lest we forget that "All of the Lights," despite the abundance of Rihanna-vamp in the video, is a song about a broken family).

And West did it by taking up the cause of the artist, as he saw it. The cause of himself. He's at his best when he's delving into himself for inspiration, from the passing of his mother's death to the Taylor Swift media-frenzy. If loss pervades his music (even trifling songs like "Gold Digger" are ripe with hints at disloyalty and real pain), it's because he feeds off of his own emotions, rather than creating monstrosities and complicated fantasies (despite the album's name).

Gaga's efforts in the fight against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell" were consistent, but did she have to put on Gloria Steinem glasses to make her point? And has there been any continued pressure in the wake of repeated delays?

It's the difference between Kanye's awareness of the nature of celebrity (from the "G.O.O.D. Music Cypher: "In this game you can never win / because they love you and they hate you then they love you again") and Gaga's relentless beating of the Love-Me-for-Me drum (from her newest single, "Hair": I just wanna be myself / and I want you to love me for who I am / I just wanna be myself / and I want you to know, I am my hair"). One resonates, the other makes you wonder if she changed a few lyrics and re-released "Born This Way".

As Gaga heads down an extremely talent-laden path towards attempting to shock for shock's sake, perhaps musicians can find role models not in true-pop's saccharine Katy Perry or bad boy rappers like Odd Future but in performers like West and Adele who direct their art not at offending us, but at our core.

Stop trying to make it new. Just make it real.