What's the Meaning Behind Lady Gaga's New Video?

What's the Meaning Behind Lady Gaga's New Video? June 14, 2010

(Hint: There is none.)

Frequent Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay offers his take on the music video for Lady Gaga’s new song, “Alejandro,” after the jump.  You can view the video here on the Pop Theology home page.

Lady Gaga’s new video “Alejandro” pushes all the right buttons for a full-on controversy. The fascist imagery, religious symbolism, and sexual acting out are both provocative and a sure-fire formula for success in the pop music industry. So far, Gaga appears to be in for a mega-hit, as all the right voices are playing their roles in the PR Passion play.

Gaga plays the roll of the Important Artist, making a “statement” and being misunderstood in the process. As The Lady Twittered: “So many will try to destroy me. So many, over and over, coming in periods of greatness. Prejudice is a disease. And when they come for you, or refuse your worth, I will be ready for their stones.” Okay.  The director, Steven Klein, plays the role of Collaborator and Defender, carrying out the misunderstood brilliant artist’s vision. As he told MTV News, The video “represents the character’s battle between the dark forces of this world and the spiritual salvation of the Soul”. Whatever.

Katy Perry plays the role of the Rival, adding public drama through backhanded commentary and calling the video blasphemous. Lacking a significant follow-up hit to her lesbionic “I Kissed a Girl” (not blasphemous at all), the lesser singer got her name in the news by dissing the better singer on Twitter: “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.” Right.  Bill Donohue from The Catholic League has cast himself as the Moral Scold, a roll he plays often, and with villainous relish. “[Lady Gaga] has now become the new poster girl for American decadence and Catholic bashing, sans the looks and talent of her role model, [Madonna].” And if anyone knows about American decadence, it’s the Catholic Church.

Not content to stand by while the cultural elites battle it out, the Great American Middle must be heard. “Has Lady Gaga gone too far?” Moms Like Me in Tallahassee want to know. (In case you’re wondering, it’s running about 50/50 between “Love her” and “She’s gone too far.”)

We’ve covered this territory before with many pop artists, most notably Madonna: Is using religious imagery in conjunction with sexuality blasphemous? Do female pop stars who use their sexuality to sell songs empower or degrade women? And my favorite — sure, she’s free to express herself as explicitly as she wants, but what about The Children? Dissertations will be written. Academic cottage industries will be formed. But does it all mean anything?

What’s clear, and to her credit, is that Lady Gaga has revived the music video, a moribund genre that has failed to produce any significant pop culture buzz in nearly twenty years. After the mid-nineties, when MTV stopped playing music videos, there was no longer an incentive for labels to drop millions on a video that would at best get a brief clip on Total Request Live. Videos, rather than being an art form unto themselves, reverted to their former function as advertisements for music. As the recording industry began an implosion brought on by its own arrogance, the collapse of local radio, and the MP3 download, even this commercial function became questionable. The result was less funding, low production values, bored stars and directors, and thousands of static shots of people in fashionable clothes shouting at a fisheye lens on a stationary camera.

Enter Lady Gaga, an artist with an unparalleled knack for self-promotion in the Internet age. Transforming the video into a viral advertisement not just for her music but for a slew of product placements, (everything from high-end vodka to Miracle Whip) she has brought the economic oomph back to the genre, and thus the resources needed to reset the bar for quality. With Gaga, we have witnessed the return of lengthy narratives full of pageantry, passion, and choreography unseen since the days when artists like Madonna, Michael and Janet Jackson, and Prince competed to outdo each other with ever more elaborate productions.

Following in the wake of stunning visual spectacles like “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro” features a Gaga as a steampunk Queen Elizabeth, catwalk-strutting models dressed like fascists, the singer dressed as a latex nun (complete with a cross over her crotch) and shirtless male dancers in black high heels and (inexplicably) Moe Howard haircuts. This video has all the danceable hooks, overwrought artistic pretention, and humorous camp we’ve come to expect in a Lady Gaga video.

Viewers who try to make sense (or offense) of the religious imagery are wasting their time. Religious symbolism in music videos has been drained of meaning since Madonna made the crucifix a fashion item. What we are seeing in Lady Gaga is a reference to references, a never-ending simulacrum built out of pop culture kitsch.  Washing over the viewer in “Alejandro” are essences of David Bowie, Annie Lenox, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Devils, Triumph of the Will, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and of course, the life opus of a certain Italian-American singer from Detroit. (Viewing the video, I’m reminded of Evita, “Erotica,” the Sex book, the cone bra, “Vogue,” “La Isla Bonita,” and “Like a Prayer.” Madge must be either furious or flattered.)

There is no God remaining to be offended in the symbolic language of Christianity as appropriated by pop culture. This includes “secular” and “religious” popular culture. Lady Gaga’s use of the cross is no more exploitative than evangelical corporations who sell “Bible-zines,” Not of This World fashion apparel, and MP3 players in the shape of a cross that can be filled with gospel music or death metal.

Religious people need to learn to see their faith not in symbolism, which can be bought, sold, and manipulated, but in God’s image reflected in the endless creativity of the human spirit. God is there, even as we forge our icons, idols and graven images, not inhabiting the product of our art, but inhabiting the soul of the artist emulating the Creator. Posing feminist, religious, and moral questions of a piece of fluff like “Alejandro” only lends unnecessary depth to a video in which the pleasures lie on the surface. Let’s just say that Lady Gaga has revived an art form and pushed the limits of creativity in her field. For these reasons alone, Gaga is good.

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