The video for Lady Gaga’s song “Judas” has premiered, ending weeks of speculation stirred up by several religious spokespeople who denounced it before seeing it. The video is set in a motorcycle gang; Jesus is the leader, Judas a thuggish member and Gaga is torn by her attraction to both. As a quick first reaction, I find it moving, both artistically and spiritually. What has always fascinated and frustrated me is the disconnect between the Gaga haters and what I, and some of my friends, see in her work. Many of my religious young adult friends love Gaga; most of the rest don’t have any serious problem with her. They understand what she’s trying to do, even if it isn’t their taste. This is true across Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals. So, what is it about Gaga that excites one devout person and intimidates another?
Some insist Gaga exploits Christian and especially Catholic symbols for shock value, rather than admitting they could be part of an honest attempt to wrestle with spiritual issues. I think some critics simply have trouble believing someone like Gaga could be sincere. Or perhaps it’s just the easiest way to dismiss her work. Don’t get me wrong. I cringed watching her dressed in a fetishized nun costume in the Alejandro video, which among her hits so far had the least redeeming value. But I do think she was sincerely trying to express something, to externalize her struggles through the imagery.
In the “Judas” video, Gaga (apparently as Mary Magdalene, though some story lines are blurred together in both the lyrics and the video) rides with Jesus in a motorcycle gang, while pining after bad boy Judas, a beer-guzzling thug who’s also in the gang. We see Gaga turning away from Judas in favor of Jesus again and again. At one point, she washes Jesus’ feet just before the most notable lines in the song:
I wanna love you,
But something’s pulling me away from you.
Jesus is my virtue,
Judas is the demon I cling to.
Lady Gaga’s creative director, Laurieann Gibson, described the creative process the team went through in completing the “Judas” video this way: “It was amazing because to have that conversation about salvation, peace and the search for the truth in a room of non-believers and believers, to me, that was saying God is active in a big way.”
This is not the stuff of pop music. It’s a cultural phenomenon. And that perhaps is where we get to the root of the problem some have with Gaga. Unlike any other current pop star at the global level, Gaga writes about, talks about and openly struggles with spiritual issues in almost every song she writes. Most shocking in our current culture, she mentions Jesus by name. In Judas, she says “Jesus is my virtue.” In “You and I,” about an old boyfriend she calls Nebraska, Gaga says, “There’s only three men I served my whole life / It’s my dad and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.”
So while some may like to dismiss her as disingenuous, it is exactly Gaga’s genuineness that is a threat. While an R&B artist singing crudely about sex is clearly defined in their role outside the spiritual conversation, Gaga dares to jump right into the middle of it. And while she’s there, with a bully pulpit speaking to millions, she dares to say things like, “I’m beautiful in my way, cause God makes no mistakes.” This is much more dangerous in some people’s minds than empty pop music. Gaga calls her fans little monsters, her way of saying we are all fallen, all flawed, and that it is the misfits of society who can teach the comfortable a thing or two about God’s love and compassion. And that’s what she’s doing.