I think my three adolescent children have converted me. It seems I've become a "little monster" -- a fan of Lady Gaga.
I just watched her new "Alejandro" video, in which Gaga, clad in nude underwear and black thigh-highs, simulates intercourse as a dancing team of built, hairless, pulchritudinous and semi-nude young men circumnavigates the bed. In another frame, Gaga wears a red nun's habit adorned with crosses. Later, she wears a black leather brassiere with guns protruding from her two nipple locations. You get the idea.
Whether "Alejandro" is suitable for children is a good question -- and a bit of a moot one, because they will see it. I watched the video before my children did because I knew that they would see it. Later, at my urging, we viewed it together, because I knew they would soon see it. Everyone will see it! The Knights of Columbus and the Catholic League will see it and will not be pleased. But the only sin I find in Gaga's operatic "Alejandro" is a possible transgression against Madonna. (Let us pray that Ms. Ciccone will grant her pardon for the sin of being just the tiniest bit too derivative.) But I, a practicing Catholic who actually prays the rosary, liked it. This Catholic gives "Alejandro" a thumbs up. It's a pop culture tour de force.
In the mid 1980s I taught at an all-boys parochial school in the Bronx. The students at this school were smart, and they were amped on and plugged into all that was going on around them right there in the South Bronx neighborhood where the school was located. Hip-hop was taking off and a whole new dance music culture was emerging. Some of my seniors worked as drivers, porters and doormen in the South Bronx clubs.
One day one of the gentlemen in my AP English class told me I reminded him of some girl singer they'd seen a few years earlier in the clubs -- a "tough white Catholic girl like you." (I was 25, almost a girl. ) The singer was just starting to hit. I didn't know her music and was therefore unable to notice what this remark (compliment?), which I would have taken as an insult then, truly meant.
I learned that she performed in a corset, wearing a lace headband and a large crucifix around her neck. She'd soon take lots of heat for being a Catholic girl gone bad, a public apostate. She'd go on, later, to pose nude, kiss a black man in Franciscan robes on MTV, practice a boiled-down version of Judaic mysticism, perform with a giant cross onstage, bankroll an African orphanage...
1984 was the year "Like a Virgin" debuted. My fellow 25-year-old, blue-collar, ethnic, Catholic white girl Madonna, an Italian-American Catholic girl from a working class family in the mid-west, shocked the Catholic world by writhing about on stage in a bustier with a rosary around her neck, while lampooning maidenhood.
It wasn't my favorite music that year, but Madonna served me well when the topics of heresy, blasphemy and apostasy came up in our studies of texts by Shakespeare, Joyce and Hawthorne. Was Madonna a blasphemer? By today's standards, only the most fanatic Catholics would experience the kind of paroxysms of religious outrage that Madonna's "Like a Virgin" video and tour first evoked a quarter of a century ago. Time tames the ferocity of such expressions.
A fairly conservative priest who used to celebrate mass at a church I attended often included sections from La Divina Commedia in his Lenten homilies. Being a poet and a Dante lover, I thought myself lucky (blessed) to be hearing Dante recited by someone who knew how at nine in the morning in a beautiful church. But most of all I enjoyed the irony involved in hearing from the pulpit, at mass, the verse of a poet who put real-life popes in Hell (in Inferno)! But in his Paradiso is found what may be the most perfect and utterly devout description known to Western Civilization, a meditation faithful by any Roman Catholic measure, of encountering God, Heaven and the Blessed Virgin Mother.
Pope Paul III's Master of Ceremonies claimed Michelangelo's fresco The Last Judgment was so obscene it belonged in a barroom (instead of the Vatican). The "Fig-Leaf Campaign" was mounted by Church leaders after the Council of Trent as a means addressing the problem of nudity in art. In 1565 little pants were painted over the genitals of Michelangelo's nudes in The Last Judgement, which experts believe may be the greatest of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Many of the same Catholics who would see putting pants on Michelangelo's angels as anathema were quick to chastise Madonna for performing on a giant cross. "It's different," they would argue. "Michelangelo was not obscene," they might say. But we can't have it both ways. If we want artists to work at all, we must recognize that the rules governing blasphemy, apostasy and heresy are too subjective to be calculated on some sliding scale relative to perceived degree of genius or lofty ambition. We don't have to like the work, but we have no choice but to recognize that the passage of time soon alters the degree to which a song, sculpture, painting, poem or book will be considered blasphemous.
Ulysses was a novel that was banned in the United States (in 1922) and "tried" in court (1933) for obscenity. In it, Irish Catholic James Joyce waxes prosaic and poetic about whoring priests, mocks the Eucharist, and pokes fun at the sign that hangs above Jesus on the cross, yet one never hears a bishop run his mouth on the evils of James Joyce. (I have it on good authority that some Irish priests count Ulysses among their favorite books!) Yet this most perfect work of literary art is crammed full of allusions, events and imagery that would easily pass for blasphemy today.
Is Lady Gaga in Dante's, James Joyce's or Michelangelo's league? Maybe she thinks she is. But it doesn't matter. The same rules apply. The very young woman born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, now known as Lady Gaga, is an artist who is straining to invent, and if she is baptized Catholic, the Church, and the objects and aspects of the Church, belong to her as much as to any Catholic. I happen to believe imagination is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We know that humor and astonishment give us joy. Is it not possible that God likes a laugh? Is creative ingenuity not a blessing? I think an omniscient God supports the work of the imagination and that working as an artist can be a vocation. I believe that even Catholics who would prefer a world without art (unfortunately there are plenty) can rest assured that the noble aspects of our Roman Catholicism -- and they do, in my opinion, abound -- are not so fragile that satiric, critical, humorous or artful expression can imperil them. It is not for us to protect God from being offended by Lady Gaga.
It's safe to assume that a naked penis in church was as offensive to many Catholics 500 years ago as Lady Gaga deep-throating all five decades of the rosary is today. We have no idea what Jesus would think of "Alejandro," but we do know that the sculptor of our most holy Pietà, in his day, earned the nick-name "inventor of obscenity," and certainly Catholics came to change their minds about him.
Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet