I’m going to level with you Beatdown: this piece was almost going to be about how much I still love Lady Gaga, how innovative and interesting and important she still is. This morning I realized that I wasn’t writing objectively about the song, but was instead pushing this really obsequious pro-Gaga agenda. This meant I had to start from scratch. I’m sorry for spending so much time writing a draft intended to pull the wool over your eyes, but this is apparently the year of embracing musical anti-heroes and I feel comfortable with the “douchebag footprint” of my Gaga love. That’s why I wish “Judas” was a lot better than it is.
When I started writing I had this complicated thesis that a part of this video was actually Lady Gaga working through and picking apart the misogyny of the Catholic Church and exploring her relationship with organized religion. She wasn’t just writing racy biblical slash fic, she was creating a space to discuss the way women have traditionally been marginalized and silenced in religious texts and creating a space for her own queer religious identity. Which is probably true to some degree, but my analysis went on for much too long and made some conclusions that I’m sure were motivated by a desire to keep Gaga up on that pedestal she’s occupied in my heart for so long.
But “Judas” is terribly written and the video is boring. It’s like a religious version of “Bad Romance” with more outfits. The only high point comes when you realize that she isn’t ripping off Madonna quite as blatantly anymore, unless you feel the fact that Gaga was raised Catholic and sings songs about religion is de facto musical plagiarism. Setting aside the obvious conclusion that Lady Gaga’s Religious Tableau Extravaganza is shaking out to be The Immaculate Concept Album – it is odd how many people I’ve met that have only one thing to say about the New Gaga. “She’s ripping off Madonna!”
Because, of course, women do not find inspiration in the work of other women. Women steal from each other. Radiohead, Bill Hicks, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, Richard Pryor — men — are innovators. When the next generation contains 100 variations on their sound or their comedy, that is the power of influence and the continuance of tradition. But when two women sound alike, that is coded as cultural theft. Because there is so little real estate afforded to anyone other than men in the realm of Internet music criticism, where dudes compete on Twitter to kiss the asses of other “It” music dudes and pause occasionally to tell ladies the real problem is they just don’t make “GREAT ALBUMS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE” while pointing at the “Auto-tuned Sex Vixen of the Moment” as evidence of this, even if that person is doing interesting, complicated work.
This Dude Music Complex augments the way we look at all music that not made by cis men. And it makes us very quick to hold other music to a much higher standard of originality, so that we know it will be pleasing to the dominant. A lady needs to be without influences to be great, she needs to make no references, pitch no homages; she must work twice as hard for half the attention. There are always going to be the people who want to nail Gaga to The Copycat Cross. But there are also going to always be people rolling around talking about how Laura Nyro really deserves the credit for the best parts of Joni Mitchell’s work, and Kate Bush deserves all the credit for the best parts of Tori Amos because they want to trace a line from Bush to Joanna Newsom, then collapse them into one unit of culture they can carry around in their pocket, like a stick from an Ice Cream Novelty that has a joke printed on it.
However, we do need to talk about the implications of Stephanie Germanotta as Lady Gaga’s various “looks” throughout this video. This is the real critical “gravy” of this particular music video, and we’d be silly not to talk about it.
We open on a highway, where men on motorcycles (and one Lady Gaga!) are riding in a pack. As the bikers pass, we get a shot of what is written on the back of their jackets:
Gaga starts singing about being in love with Judas and we cut to a shot of Gaga and Jesus sitting on a motorcycle, in front of whatever color screen they shoot things against these days to add backdrops in later. Gaga is apparently satisfied with the results:
“Honestly, it came out more incredible than I thought it would. It’s so beautiful. It’s like a fresco come to life. We went on set and we just shot the sh*t out of it.”
The Apostles and Co. get to the night club and Jesus is doing his messiah thing and Mary Magdalene/Gaga is like “I’m going to have a rave outside, come get me when you get ready to leave.” And then we have more shots of Gaga on the Motorcycle, which, given the Born This Way album cover and it’s creepy Wheeler overtones, is to be expected. She sings about washing his hair with her feet and being betrayed three times – a reference to the three denials made by Simon Peter, the fisherman.
Gaga then makes a quick change into a bikini with crosses on it and a red waist cape.
Lady Gaga, is also, it should be noted, inside the club with Judas, leading another dance party, in a separate outfit. Judas, played by Norman Reedus, is availing himself of the groupies, getting some of that hot, hot residual Jesus tail, and Jesus is giving him the Eternal Jesus Hate Stare — either because he knows Gaga is hot for him or because he’s jealous himself. Then this outfit happens:
Fun facts about the Sacred Heart! It is a very old Catholic symbol. Lady Gaga’s went to a Catholic Prvate School called “Convent for the Sacred Heart.” Images of a heart pierced by a sword or covered in thorns have been around for hundreds of years. But this really feels like cultural appropriation to me. It feels like Gaga has modified the trajectory of Madonna with a Nitrous Tank of Gwen Stefani’s “Take From World Cultures All That Suits Me” mentality, and it is exactly he opposite of what anyone likes about Lady Gaga.
I went to the Tiger Beatdown backchannel with this question and the picture, asking
Is this a good criticism? Can I simply look at things and say “This feels like an outfit that takes from so many places in order to look like a new outfit, instead of a quilt of White Neocolonialism?”
And Flavia responded
If you want to contextualize it even more in the Latina appropriation, you can also mention her faux shout outs to Cholas in Born this Way. It looks/ feels to me like the Sacred Heart as an “accessory” is part of a larger narrative where she takes what she sees as “suiting” her aesthetic needs and then cultures, religious symbols, nationalities, gender identities, etc, etc, all become a “fashion accessory” more than entities with distinctive, unique characters. And if it was the only/ first time it happened, sure, I would probably let it slide, but paired with her lyrics about Cholas (and other minorities), then it becomes part of a larger and on going problem.
Sady mentioned that parts of Lady Gaga’s upcoming single “Americano” will be in Spanish. Which means that The Gaga Religious Tableau Extravaganza that started with the Swallowed Rosaries of “Alejandro” might actually be annexed by the Lady Gaga Cultural Insensitivity Project, ramped into high gear by the lyrics of “Born This Way” and leading to the outfits above and below this sentence.
Right after this, we had YET. ANOTHER. OUTFIT.
where Gaga is transformed into an executioner with a golden gun that is actually a very large, very heavy lipstick, the red tip of which she smears all over Judas’ face.
Which is an image that carries with it a lot of intersecting levels of critical flashpoints, not the least being the larger culture’s comfort with a man dominating a women but never the reverse, but also the feedback loop that occurs when you try to consider the implications of makeup as a signifier of male humiliation. Is this empowerment? Is this art? Is everyone having fun?
Immediately following we have a jumbled mess of a lyric about the difference between Biblical Context and Cultural Context —
In the most Biblical sense
I am beyond repentance
Fame hooker, prostitute wench
vomits her mind
But in the cultural sense
I just speak in future tense
Judas kiss me if offensed
Or wear ear condom next time
She’s acknowledging that she has a stake in these concepts and traditions, even if she isn’t an Orthodox or Traditional adherent to the faith, which goes back to the lines in “Born This Way” about loving “Him or H.I.M” as a way to discuss the lives of queer people and their rightful place in religious communities — but does so in a way that seems like little more than a clever way to open up another part of the market for her music. Her constant references to loving Jesus feel a little like product placement.
The music stops. Gaga is in a tunnel, wearing a metallic gold dress with an ornate ruffled chest piece and her hair up, looking regal. A tide of water rushes toward her. She is thrown off balance. She looks terrified. At the same time she is also in a tub with Jesus and Judas, and Judas is pouring water down her ass crack. I’d like to talk about the flood for a moment, because I think it might be the most important part of the video. I believe, no bullshit, that this scene is saying something about women being swept out of the narrative of biblical history. Men are the most important part of any biblical story. Women can teach Sunday School or wash someone’s feet, or stand by their man or give birth to the Christ Child as long as they never ask to be seen as important to the story. As long as their part of the story is subservient to the workings of Great Men. If they assert themselves sexually, or step too far out of line, or even turn back to look at something, they end up a pile of feet and hands or a pillar of salt.
Jesus and Judas kiss, but there wasn’t any tongue so I didn’t screencap it. Which is a good guideline for how far Gaga isn’t willing to go with “Judas” and how safe she is playing with this material. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I’m so high on special rights and cultural expectation that the sight of two men not tongue-kissing offends me. Maybe Gaga aims to bring a lot more people into her fold by blending sex with religion in a really boring, palatable way, and wanted to make a video that didn’t offend any future consumers.
Finally, Gaga becomes the Virgin Mother SCENE QUEEN
Which is a comment on the ways the faithful will turn on any woman, even the Virgin herself or her fiercest adherents if she is seen as challenging the Male Hypostatic Union. Or maybe it is a comment on how Gaga sees herself in relation to her critics. It is a depiction of organized violence against women, so it can’t mean nothing, but I also get the feeling that Gaga isn’t making statements to do anything but make statements, and that the only real message of the video is that Lady Gaga can still release interesting music videos, even if she doesn’t have anything interesting to say.