Lady Gaga, the Youth Pastor

For her encore, Lady Gaga brought her youth group up on stage. (Photo by Courtney Perry)

Last night, I ended up at the Lady Gaga concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Friends of ours — friends in their 60’s, I might add — couldn’t use their tickets and gave them to Courtney and me. I didn’t go into the Gaga show as a “Little Monster,” or even as a particular fan. I, of course, had heard her music, because it is ubiquitous. And I don’t hate pop music.

What I did know about Gaga came from a brilliant essay by James Parker in The Atlantic, calling her “The Last Pop Star“:

In the current generation of Pop divas—Ke$ha, Rihanna, Shakira, Britney, Katy Perry, Beyoncé herself—there’s no match for the alienness of Gaga. Pop in 2010 is thoroughly pornographized and tattoo-demented; the mainstream, as you may have noticed, is not very mainstream anymore. But there perches Lady Gaga, in paradoxical elegance, her plumage bristling, with an uncanny feel for just how much of her freakery we are prepared to absorb. She has successfully managed the rumor that she is a hermaphrodite. (She’s not.) Sweetly and demurely, she has ridden the couch of Ellen DeGeneres: “Who doesn’t love Ellen?” she cooed to the audience. The culture will not victimize her. Rather the reverse: with songs like “Paparazzi” she is, as English soccer commentators are fond of observing in the wake of a particularly jarring early tackle, “getting her retaliation in first.” Watching her stalk onstage with her retinue, one has a particular sensation—of aberrant sensibilities on the march, rive gauche visions, a whole underworld of transgression breaking the surface.

That is very much the experience I had last night when she walked on stage. The concert was sensory overload: a huge set, a dozen scantily clad dancers, lights and fog and strobes, and Gaga getting rear-mounted on a motorcycle by another woman. She shouted repeatedly, “I don’t give a fuck!” and told us that she’d birthed us from her “monster pussy.”

But Gaga seemed to know that this concert wasn’t really about the music. I suspect she might even know that her music isn’t that good. In fact, she spent more time talking to the crowd than any performer I’ve ever seen.

She told us that we were brave to be there. She told us that she loves us and that we’re beautiful. She told us that we should see her face in the toilet when we’re throwing up today from our “Gaga hangover.” She cried — really cried — when she told us about her grandfather. She called a girl in the crowd on her mobile phone and sang a song to her from her piano.

And the people loved it. All the Little Monsters went crazy every time Gaga spoke.

But it really came home to me during the encore. Gaga came out in a robe with a hood on. She walked to the front of the stage and chose seven fans from the Monster Pit just in front of her, and security helped them on stage. She had hundreds of fans to choose from, so it was interesting that she chose all teenagers. And not just any teenagers. She chose specific teenagers, teenagers I recognized from my two decades as a youth pastor. They were misfits. They were gay and edgy and left-out and scorned at their high schools.

These seven teenagers climbed on stage and cried and hugged Gaga and sang along with her at the tops of their lungs. As the StarTribune reviewer Jon Bream wrote this morning,

For the encore of “Marry the Night,” she handpicked seven fans from the audience to join her onstage. Even though the rendition of the big dance hit turned out to be all introduction without the big disco climax, this presentation made it clear why Gaga, even though she’s no longer hot, still matters to her Little Monsters: Those seven fans followed her around like she was the Pied Piper of the misfits and the misunderstood.

As the song ended, Gaga and those seven fans descended through a trap door in the stage. Her disciples went into the tomb with her, presumably to be taken backstage for more love from their savior.

And then it occurred to me: Lady Gaga is a youth pastor. She is reaching out to kids who are marginalized, and telling them that it’s okay that they were born that way. She’s shouting that they shouldn’t give a fuck if their parents don’t approve of their sexuality or if the jocks at school pick on them.

Gaga is preaching that teenagers should have grace with themselves and with each other.

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  • Awesome! When you mentioned last night (during your concert live-tweeting) that you were going to write about this, I couldn’t wait to read it today. I wasn’t disappointed! Ever since her song Judas I’ve been intrigued by her “theology.” I don’t have anything intelligent to add…I’ll let your more learn-ed readers discuss further. 😀

  • Damn. I’ve never really been “into” her music, but this post kind of made me tear up a little. As the father of a 12 and a 13 year old, wow, thanks for this.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Yep: Lady Gaga is exhibit A, B, and C in the Religion & Popular Culture class I’m teaching right now. I started the semester with the “sermon” of “Born this Way,” with the creation myth that begins her video for the song.

  • Curtis

    A friend of mine likes to refer to these instances as “the Gospel without the commercial”. Although I’m not sure is the the one that coined that phrase.

    Myself, I’ve been particularly taken by the gospel-without-commercial work being done by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, mostly because they are #2 on the local pop radio station this week, and my 12-year-old son is really into them.

    The Gospel is out there today in a lot of forms that most Christians are blind to.

    • ben w

      Curtis, what do you mean when you say “the gospel”?

      • Curtis

        God’s love, lived in community and relationship with others. 1 John 4:7-12.

  • Tony,

    After I heard u were going to GaGa I mentioned you on twitter in hopes the you would do a blog post about her & the theological implications of her art. Thanks for the post although I gotta be honest, I was hoping you would delve into her stuff like JUDAS or edge of glory. I especially was hoping you would delve into the parts of her music where she utilizes Luciferian/Masonic imagery. I am fascinated with any intersection between religion & pop culture & GaGa is about as Pop as it gets. I was also hoping you would talk about her supposed satanic influence & how she supposedly sayed “Thank Lucifer” in some interviews in the past. Remember that creepy post you did about the Mormon church & it’s crossover w/ Masonic rituals? I remember you saying you don’t like secrets. Mormon’s beliefs about Lucifer are interesting to say the least but I find it peculiar that GaGa would draw on “Luciferian” themes, thank Lucifer publicly, & perhaps hide these secrets in her music & you didn’t touch on ANY of those things!

    Instead you wrote a blog post that calls her a youth pastor because she tells kids to not give a Fuck what their parents think about their sexuality.

    I was hoping u would get into some of those topics.

    Did I set my hopes too high?

    • Daniel, I don’t know her lyrics, and I sure as hell couldn’t make them out at the concert. I’m not going to delve into her lyrics and interviews to research a post. I wrote about what I experienced, which was the concert. And I found the connection between her and her fans to be the most interesting part of that night.

      But it seems like you’ve got a post in you about these things! 🙂

  • toddh

    Ahh… very good. I was wondering where you were going with this post. I see it now.

  • Rick Bennett

    And just like most youth pastors steal all their ideas and sermons from youth specialities and others more talented people, she steals all her musical ideas from Madonna and Elton John.

    Just like most of their sermons are full of fluff and should be relegated to the dustbin of history so will all of her songs.

    Just like all their sermons sound the same, so do all her songs.

    She is a youth pastor!

  • pgregory70

    My disclaimer: Not that familiar with Lady Gaga’s music. Tony, what you describe in this post is interesting. To me, it seems she is just a really good entertainer (you allude to the fact that she probably knows her songs are not that good) and willing to do whatever shocks ones conscious (to me, that’s why she’s so popular). The encore is interesting, however. Maybe Lady Gaga was a “misfit” growing up (whatever that means). It would definitely explain her “I don’t give a fuck” expressions and the encore, right?

    Whatever the case, she definitely knows how to make money – so if nothing else, she’s a extremely wise business woman. Good for her!

    Nice post! The more I think about it. They more I agree with it.

  • I love Lady Gaga. I don’t own any of her music. I do love the work she has done to reach out to the misfits. Her message isn’t merely, “it’s okay to be a misfit monster,” rather she screams out “it’s amazing being a misfit/monster!”

    • pgregory70

      Hey Ric, you use the word “work”. Does she have a non-profit or formalized organization targeting youth? I’m seriously wondering, as I really don’t know that much about her. Thanks.

      • Not youth, misfits. The wikipedia page on her describes her activism and philanthropy.

  • Tony,

    Thanks for the response. I completely understand. I think you’ve inspired me to blog more.

    Also I hope my initial comment didn’t seem too harsh. Your work has been a big influence on me & I wouldn’t want to seem like a jerk:)

  • Pingback: Lady Gaga Is Preaching the Gospel of Tolerance - Lady Gaga | Born this way()

  • I enjoyed reading this, because I don’t know much of anything about Lady Gaga, yet Klout continues to list her as my top influencer. Thanks for some insight into her.

  • Tony,

    I’m not 100% up on Gaga, and have not attended a concert… but I resonate with your sense that she is shepherding our youth culture especially those that have been cast out and/or marginalized by the culture and by the church.


    I can’t help but feel pity for those who follow her, they may find someone who relates to them, but that someone is not Jesus and that is what the gospel is all about. Jesus came to die and save us yes, but also to show us what the Kingdom of God is like. Gay or straight, I don’t see the message of Jesus saying its ok to be ok with whatever way you were born. I was born a prideful and easily angered Italian… but I can’t find anything in the gospels that tell me to just accept the way I am and become more prideful and angry because I was born that way. No matter what your argument is for the nature of men and women… if it’s not as Jesus exemplified on the earth, we are called to turn back to God and His kingdom. This kingdom acceptance of all types of people including this prideful and angry Italian is not the end result, but just the beginning. Jesus then asks us to follow Him, for the purpose of becoming more like Him, so we can reveal to the world what an amazing God the ONE true God is. So He accepts us and allows us to come into the tomb with Him… but the gospel story is about us coming out of that tomb different human beings than when we went in. Jesus accepted and loved the woman at the well whom everyone has shunned and cast out… but he also called her to the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from being killed according to the law, he flipped the script on everyone in the crowd calling for her death… and when she realized what He had done for her she was no doubt pleasantly surprised… Yet, Jesus told her to go and leave her life of sin. I doubt this is the message Gaga sends to her followers, and this is the problem with the church and families letting our culture disciple the youth of our generation. May Gaga find the fullness of truth and then display this truth to her followers, because a message that says I was born this way and proud of it no matter the context only speaks loudly into a culture that continues to become more narcissistic. I suspect this is not what Jesus had in mind when he called those who follow Him to count the cost of putting Him first and die to themselves daily on their own cross.