“People take me both way too seriously and not seriously enough,” Lady Gaga said in her “60 Minute” segment with Anderson Cooper. Since her debut in 2005, Lady Gaga has quickly made a comfortable place in pop culture as an artist, fashion icon, personality, philanthropist and above all, role model. She has established herself by being blunt and uncensored with the media. Her soon to be released sophomore album includes at least three songs with heavy religious tones and lyrics. The combination between this and her focus on self-love and equality has drawn an alarming amount of outrage from religious leaders. Even before the video’s release on May 5, her newest single, “Judas” was already stirring up controversy. Its name alone harbors history and strong preconceptions that makes “Judas” Gaga’s most controversial song. In a world full of “California Gurls,” “Femme Fatales” and “Cannibals”, a song like “Judas” would be career suicide for any other artist. But this is Gaga, who was quoted saying that the only controversy she sees in the music video is the fact that she was “wearing Christian Lacroix and Chanel in the same frame.” Sacrilegious.
Compositionally, “Judas” follows a similar formula to Gaga’s other hit singles, such as “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro” and “Poker Face.” Two or three repeated hooks, spliced between singsong-talking vocals, with an ’80s influenced electronic beat in the background. Following the darker inspired themes of her triple Grammy Award winning EP, “The Fame Monster,” “Judas” shows the evolution of Gaga as an artist. Long gone are the days of rides on the disco stick, instead we are presented with moody, metaphor-heavy lyrics dealing with more pertinent issues disguised as a dance track.
Ever the equal opportunist, religious themes are not excluded from Lady Gaga’s songs or videos. “Judas” takes this to a controversial extreme. Using the inspiration of Judas Iscariot, the song unfolds the drama of always falling in love with the wrong man, time and time again. The song itself has a rather straightforward arc of betrayal, revenge and always finding yourself back in the dark.
So why the Biblical connection at all? Why carry that metaphorical controversy into literal terms in the video, with Gaga portraying Mary Magdalene in a post-apocalyptic world. “Because it’s Lady Gaga” would be the simplest answer, as the artist has never been shy of creating controversy in the mainstream. A self-proclaimed fan of “aggressive metaphors,” Gaga made it clear in an interview with “E!” that the video “is not meant to be an attack on anyone’s beliefs. I respect and love everybody’s beliefs. It really is just a metaphor.” Why not use the most fundamental figures and stories in Western culture as a metaphor for a tragic love triangle that could have easily been in an episode of “Gossip Girl”?
Isn’t Lady Gaga doing exactly what ministers and pastors write in their sermons every Sunday, relating the Bible to contemporary issues? So why the controversy? Again, the simple answer is: because it’s Lady Gaga. Like “Judas,” people have preconceived expectations of Gaga. Anything she does will immediately be seen as blasphemous or crazy. You swallow one rosary in one music video and suddenly you’re religion’s number one enemy. It doesn’t matter that she released “Born This Way,” an entire song about how God loves everyone for who they are; she is the Antichrist. Nearly a month before the “Judas” videos release, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, released a statement calling the video a “stunt” in order to shock Catholics and Christians.
In a way, Mr. Donohue is correct. While Gaga does genuinely believe in the cultural statements she weaves into her music, getting the public to pay attention to what she wants is all part of the art of fame, and Gaga is a master of fame. She creates this kind of shocking imagery to grab attention, to almost force people to listen, or to at least notice what she’s saying. It’s not hard to imagine that she is prescient to her every action. Since 2005, she has art directed and manufactured her entire life and persona, meticulously planning every outfit, wig, nail adornment, cured flank, controversial lyric and statement. But perhaps that’s giving her too much credit? Who’s to know? She’s an open book, yet an enigma at the same time.
“Judas” isn’t a Sunday school session, nor is it a critique on religion, but a stepping-stone to a whole new way of thinking about the world. Even with the religious overtones, “Judas” doesn’t escape the Lady Gaga mantra: be non-apologetic about who you are, and to love and accept all parts of yourself. Further emphasizing her calculated efforts, instead of ending with the death of Judas or Jesus, the video ends with Gaga stoned to death by a crowd. Anticipating the inedible backlash, she stoned herself before anyone else could. The critics can’t faze her; she is untouchable. It’s safe to say that Lady Gaga and her proactive, and sometimes controversial, message will be around to inspire for years to come. And as the song goes, if you don’t like it, wear an ear condom.