One evening in the spring of 2011, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, more popularly known as Lady Gaga, rolled down the window of her car to talk to a picketer outside a venue where she was about to perform to thousands of adoring fans. The man held a sign which read, “Trust in Christ or End in Hell.” The conversation, which was caught on a cellphone camera, differs from Gaga’s public performances persona only insofar as it dispenses with props or elaborate lighting. Despite the exchange’s evidently unscripted nature, it’s remarkably on-message:
I’m Lady Gaga.
Well, hello, I’m just—
The picketer hands her a business card with the words, “GET OUT OF HELL FREE CARD.” HELL is centered and typed in a bold, angry red.
That’s gonna happen one day, darlin’.
Well, they better open up the gate.
I’m talking to you over here.
I’m listening! You know, we really believe in God at my show.
Yeah, well, your pervert ways don’t quite equate to what God is all about, darlin’.
My pervert ways?
Yeah, you know, the homo stuff.
The homo stuff. Don’t you think it’s hurtful that, um—
Mumbles something unintelligible.
I went to Catholic school for 13 years.
That’s probably most of your problem, that you got raised in a screwy religion.
CUT to Gaga addressing the camera as the car moves on.
What I’m trying to understand is, there’s 3,000 people standing in my line, and nobody standing in your line. Who’s going to hell?
CUT to Gaga, holding up the cellphone in front of a dressing room mirror, later.
But I think what’s mostly confusing is why he printed up these things.
GAGA shows card to camera.
If it was so easy to get out of hell, why don’t we print up a bunch of these guys? Just makes me sad that my fans have to see that. But I know that’s just part of what I’m supposed to do.
ANAHEIM’S HONDA CENTER MIGHT seem like an unlikely stage for such an iconic moment, but there we have it: while her devotees mill in the background, the artist has a sincere conversation with a lone, disagreeable symbol of a prejudice she hopes to eradicate. The picketer is a great villain, a perfect foil. (He isn’t alone, either: Islamic hard-liners have banned Gaga from performing in Indonesia, and Christian groups in the Philippines have tried to do the same, citing the disrespectful and sexual nature of Gaga’s songs, “Judas” in particular. In South Korea, minors are not allowed to attend her shows.) The whole exchange typifies, with extraordinary succinctness, the crusade that Lady Gaga is fighting and the kind of Christian she sees herself to be: welcoming, peaceful, political, steeped in God, in favor of “the homo stuff,” and utterly resistant to the idea that there is any ideological conflict between those last two things.
While the picketer may have deemed her boundary-blurring music as an especially pernicious development of secular modernity and cultural decline, it would only be because he hasn’t studied his history. “Gender-bending and queerness have been present in Christian art and theology since the beginning,” says Mark D. Jordan, a Distinguished University Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes this journal. The virgin martyrs, for example, were described as displaying a “male strength” in defending their faith and chastity until death itself. St. Sebastian was, for centuries, painted as “young, willowy, and lightly rouged.” While these images are not explicitly sexual, they go quite a ways in showing that the male-female binary that we think of as “traditional” is not so very rigid after all, an idea that Gaga runs with, particularly when she’s performing as her male alter ego, Jo Calderone.
Even more importantly, the elaborate stagecraft that goes into Lady Gaga’s shows and videos picks up on a pageantry that is strong within Catholicism. “The liturgy is not just the words of the hymns,” Jordan says. “They include the entire staged performance on the altar. There are the priests swinging censers, the altar boys, and they all have these choreographed rituals they perform for the congregation. The act of worship itself is fundamentally material, all the way down to the Eucharist.”
It is easy to dismiss Gaga’s use of Catholic tropes as mere entertainment. Like Madonna, “the Material Girl” before her, Gaga plays on the recognized symbols of Christianity, a technique that could be for effect, separated from spirituality or belief. In the new book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, J. Jack Halberstam outlines “gaga feminism,” Halberstam’s own philosophy, that uses Gaga as a symbol for an aesthetic and political way of living that is queer, anarchic, liberated, and outrageous. In the book’s closing manifesto, in Point 4 on “creative nonbelieving,” Halberstam claims that one cannot be the gender-bending feminist of the title’s icon and also be religious:
When it comes to gender norms and sexual mores, religion really is the root of all evil, and that cuts across many religions. This is a bit of a problem for a branch of feminism that … takes Lady Gaga as a kind of mascot. She is, of course, like Madonna, thoroughly saturated in Catholic imagery and narratives of sacrifice, virgin/whore oppositions, and Judas-like betrayals. All the more reason, then, for this feminist, this gaga feminist, to flag some of the differences between Lady Gaga and gaga feminism from the get-go—religion is a no-no and God has got to go-go.
It’s a shame Halberstam rejects the complexities of Lady Gaga’s fascinating and ambiguous relationship with Catholicism. It’s also a little bit ironic, given that Point 3 in the manifesto was to “think counterintuitively.” When we do, we find that the Gaga persona is deeply embedded in a vibrant, queer, theological tradition that is as old as Christianity itself, and as relevant now as ever.
To be sure, Lady Gaga’s appropriation—some would say perversion—of religious symbols and narratives can be breathtakingly aggressive. At various points in the music video for her song “Judas,” Gaga lolls around in a tub with a gold thorn-crowned Jesus and his glowering, dingy betrayer, proclaims her “holy fool” love for Judas, and is stoned for—one assumes—adultery with the same. Imagine a love triangle between Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas, except they’re all in the same gonzo choreographed biker gang, and no one’s wearing a shirt. It’s not hard to see why so many religious conservatives are shocked.
What’s even easier to see is why Gaga’s fans—her glue-gunning, glitter-bombing, hair-halo-wearing fans—adore her all the more for it.
GAGA’S BACKSTORY IS AS well known as any other saint’s (or pop star’s). Stephani Germanotta was born to a Catholic father and a Methodist mother on New York’s Upper West Side. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an elite private, Catholic, all-girl’s school. Sacred Heart is legendary in its own right. It has served as the inspiration for a half a dozen fictional prep schools, the most recent of which is Constance Billard School for Girls from “Gossip Girl,” which keeps the uniforms but dispenses with the Catholic-inflected name. Other famous alumnae of Sacred Heart include Elaine Stritch, Caroline Kennedy, and Paris Hilton.
In interviews, Lady Gaga goes out of way to portray herself as an outsider at Sacred Heart, neither a rich kid nor a good girl. “I went to a Catholic, very strict school where we had uniforms,” she told Extra. “They sort of breed artists, I think, because, you know, we feel so confined where we are and we just want to break free.” It’s a funny thing to hear from a woman whose corsets look capable of drawing blood. However, it may not be true that the environment at Sacred Heart was all that traditional—students learned everything from computer science to acting.
After high school, Germanotta attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, dropping out her sophomore year to focus on music. During those early, hungry years, she performed under her given name in burlesque clubs, go-go bars, and concert venues across the city. Success came fairly quickly and producers helped Germanotta form her new identity. In 2006 Germanotta all but disappeared from public view. And Lady Gaga was born.
Six years later, Gaga’s concerts have become more than concerts. They are fantastical affairs where Gaga’s “little monsters,” her pet name for her fans, dress up in replicas of her wildest costumes: piles of translucent bubbles, lobster headdresses, teal leotards with foot-high shoulders, tutus of origami crystals, and silver gowns layered with Saturn’s rings. A particularly ingenious acolyte might outshine the rest by attaching two machine gun barrels to her bra, as Lady Gaga did for the “Alejandro” video.
Why so much devotion? After all, there are plenty of other pop stars making dancehall anthems. But where Rihanna doesn’t ask her fans to do much but buy concert tickets, Lady Gaga offers something to believe in. She’s gone on the record in favor of social acceptance of the LGBTQ community, freedom of sexual and personal expression, and the political rights of the openly gay to marry and serve in the military. Moreover, unlike other celebrities who philanthropize in their spare time, Gaga wraps her admonitions within the entertainment itself. Her act, living at the intersection of camp’s sheer excess, queer theory’s rejection of heteronormative gender roles, and Christ’s admonishment to love our neighbor and the stranger equally, goes well beyond style and stagecraft: “‘There’s nothing wrong with lovin’ who you are’ / She said, ‘Cause he made you perfect, babe,’” she sings on “Born This Way,” the LGBTQ anthem she released almost exactly two months after her confrontation in Anaheim. The message embodied in her lyrics, her videos, her persona, and her political work for gay rights is the same: God don’t make no junk. Even if it’s bisexual. Even if it’s wearing an outfit made of tenderloin.
To a teen struggling to understand his or her developing sexuality and identity in the era of bully-assisted suicides, it’s hard to imagine a more welcome message. In her own words to BBC 1 Radio, she wants to show us, if only for a few hours in a stadium, a new kind of heaven, populated by a new race of people “that bears no prejudice and a race that’s primary sort of ambition in life is to inspire unity and togetherness.”
The observation that Lady Gaga’s creativity is focused on outward kindness and tolerance is not new. Rodney Clapp, in Christian Century, refers to her as “a Kierkegaard in fishnet stockings,” describing the way she reminds her fans that she was a misfit too, and that their differences (physical, sexual, or otherwise) are not just ok, but are evidence of each individual’s specialness, potential, and worth. These are the things that make Gaga’s monsters, well, monsters, though beautiful ones, to be sure. Clapp goes on to make the point that Christ, too, was a monster and a misfit: “A king who rode a donkey, a savior who died, he overturns our ordinary, ideal definitions of divinity and humanity.”
It’s hard to know exactly how attentive Germanotta is to the theological implications of her creed. She’s typically ambiguous in interviews, so our primary texts are either music videos or lyrics such as “I’m just a holy fool, oh baby he’s so cruel, But I’m still in love with Judas, baby.” But we might safely say that it prioritizes wonder over fear (all those “little monsters” wear sparkly headbands instead of fangs, and the guns are never shooting real bullets), expression over obedience, verdant individuality over abasing humility, liberation over submission, and love (or at the very least tolerance) over nearly anything else.
The obstacle you reach in Gaga’s theology is not its haziness. Nor is it the occasional accusation that she’s merely an especially canny exploiter of the watered-down love-speak that stands for Christian practice in some quarters. Rather, it’s the possibility that despite all that outrageous behavior, what look like revolutionary tactics may be, in the end, merely therapeutic. For example, when Gaga talks about social justice, her main defenses of queer youth are either generically compassionate (“don’t you think it’s hurtful?”) or based in individual empowerment (“just love yourself and you’re set”). If social justice is expressed as a purely personal ideology, albeit a friendly and charitable variation, then what gets left out?
Then again, the finer points of doctrine may not matter. It’s unlikely the Vatican will sign on to her hyperactive, wildly sexualized, and indiscriminately tolerant version of liberation theology anytime soon, but she hardly needs their endorsement. Her fame is a medium that transcends pulpit, pew, and priesthood and, in a welcome twist, makes half the argument for permissiveness for her. She needs no blessings, preferring to give her own instead.
Xarissa Holdaway is a senior Web producer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lives in Washington, DC.