On not being in love with ‘Judas’

My friend Pete Philips has a typically thoughtful and worthwhile guest post on the Church Mouse Blog a little while back, looking at Lady Gaga’s recent single ‘Judas’. Pete lamented the lack of Christian engagement with this song (& they accompanying video), suggesting Lady Gaga is a significant cultural icon whose invocations of Christian themes should be missionally important to us both as guides to where the wider culture stands, and as points of engagement with the wider culture.

Pete was perhaps right to lament the lack of discussion, but I wonder how much of the lack stemmed from what in academia we call a ‘null result’: having given time to investigating something, you sometimes discover that, actually, it wasn’t that interesting, and so probably don’t publish your investigations. I have to say that I don’t find the song that interesting, but then it is probably worth reflecting why. If you missed it (how?!) the video is worth watching:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wagn8Wrmzuc]

The production quality is supreme, the song an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of up-to-the-minute pop (although it doesn’t reach the heights of Gaga’s breakthrough single, ‘Poker Face’ (2008), and certainly not of her anthemic ‘Bad Romance’ (2009) which marked her out as a genuinely great pop performer). Religious images drip off the lyrics, the video, and indeed the CD sleeve (should anybody be so last century as to be still buying CDs…). Is the song about an engagement with religion, though?

At one level, obviously not. Let me first consider it simply as a song (the modern pop song is a complex cultural artefact, that might be encountered via radio or MP3 (or even on CD by dinosaurs…) as a purely audio experience, is most likely to be encountered via video (You Tube; MP4; MTV & equivalents) as a recorded and repeatable AV experience; and will be encountered by some, in live concert, in a different way again. All need to be taken seriously for an adequate reading of the cultural text). Like all great pop songs, the lyrics are sufficiently ambiguous to admit multiple exercises in eisegesis: the song that seemed, when you were x-teen, to narrate your first love affair, was not written about that relationship, but was cleverly crafted to allow you to find in it an expression of those complex emotions for which teenagers cannot find words; ditto the songs about teenage rebellion and angst.

So Gaga’s lyrics: for the one in the middle of a conflicted love triangle – him or him? (or indeed, ‘her or her?’,  or ‘him or her?’) – the contrast in the song between the idealistic desire for Jesus and the persistent love for Judas offers a narrative into which one might read one’s experience; equally, the lyrics do invite a more existential, or even moral, reading: ‘Jesus is my virtue, and Judas is the demon I cling to’ – if this line is taken as determinative, the lyrics express, not a love triangle, but the existential angst of one struggling with a desire to kick a cherished bad habit. Again, one might find a straightforwardly religious meaning – the struggle for faith in the (post)modern world. I suppose that none of these are ‘right’, in the sense of ‘authorial intent’; I suppose that Gaga writes deliberately invocative and imprecise lyrics – great pop lyricists do, and, anyway, it is the zeitgeist in our generation: here are some symbols; can you read something into them?

The video seems to determine the song in a religious direction, with the disciples named explicitly in the colours of the biker gang, and a climatic dramatic moment in the gun pointed at Judas turning out to be a lipstick, painting his lips in readiness for the kiss of betrayal. There are scenes of footwashing, although Gaga (pictured, apparently, as Mary Magdalene) is washing the feet of Jesus and Judas only. The repeated aquatic imagery might be read as a (post?)ironic reference to baptism; water overwhelming Gaga but not changing her actions or nature in any respect. That said, the imagery is all fairly tired: mostly reminiscent of Madonna back in the 80s in its ironic/playful/blasphemous appropriation of Biblical themes; even the camp Jesus, crowned with safe and golden thorns as if dressed for the dancefloor of a gay club, seems boringly borrowed from Wallinger’s Ecce homo – far more powerful and shocking, because of its context. Gaga’s video’s, actually, have generally been triumphs of style over substance. ‘Bad Romance’ was beautifully produced, but seemed mostly to reference rather standard soft sado-masochistic themes, in unsubversive ways. At best, one might say (or hope) that the references were nicely playful, but the result was far more titillating than interesting. ‘Telephone’, her most ambitious video to date, was similarly disappointing: near-naked female prisoners licking the bars of their cells (tired, even if ironic); a pastiche of a road-trip, done infinitely better years back in Thelma and Louise. The cigarette glasses were an arresting image; the pastiches of product placements concerning murder weapons an attempt, if a failing one, to create distance from the cynical placement of a mobile provider early on; the rest, very forgettable.

Which, I suppose, gets me to my main point: the icons of pop culture are those who change its terms of reference – Dylan; Bowie; Marley; Madonna; … – and those who merely instantiate them brilliantly. Which is Lady Gaga? ‘Judas’ suggests to me the latter: there is nothing new here, merely a consummate and arresting rehearsal of things already explored. I am a little conscious that this might be transatlantic cultural imperialism – for whatever reason, the UK has understood the use of religious imagery in a post Christian society far better than the USA (Madonna lives in London; more pertinently, imagine Wallinger’s Ecce homo in a similar public space in New York, never mind Dallas); perhaps Gaga is exhibiting to people in the USA a cultural trope that Europe and Australasia got twenty years ago, and so now find rather tedious, and even old-fashioned?

It’s a magnificent piece of pop ephemera, one I might even use in public a time or two in the next year, but it is not that important. I’m not in love with ‘Judas’.

9 Comments

  1. Terry
    Jul 3, 2011

    Bad Romance is surely the best video of the 21st century so far…

    • Steve H
      Jul 3, 2011

      You think so, Terry? The production values are of course supreme, but the various narrative components don’t obviously interact, and the visual tropes are all pretty tired and boringly sexist (white gimp-mask pvc … chain-mail underwear … naked woman in narrow cage …). I’m open to correction on this, but it looks both pretty and vacuous to me.

      • Terry
        Jul 4, 2011

        I just think there’s a lot of creativity involved in the execution. And when it’s compared to other videos, well… There are far more pretty and vacuous videos out there.

  2. Iain Kattenach
    Jul 3, 2011

    I wonder if this all just washes over the great unwashed of British pop consumers. Quite possibly most British schoolkids don’t know who Jesus was/is, as their teachers are usually not Christians, so Judas is wayyyy beyond them. This would be probably true of schoolkids at Scottish non-denominational schools, few of whom know much of Christianity beyond Baby Jesus, Santa Claus and the Easter bunny.

    I am not trolling here, just would prefer of the UK Christian community would one day wake up to the reality of our very fringe presence in a deeply secular, atheistic, liberal society. ‘Post Christian’ is from where we stand only.

    • Steve H
      Jul 5, 2011

      Welcome, Iain; thanks for stopping by.
      I take your point to a certain extent. In fact, another of the transatlantic differences here might be the general level of Biblical literacy either side of the ‘pond’: in America the references will be heard and understood by many or most; in Britain by only a few (but there will be a few – see coming post on post-Christendom).

  3. Peter K.
    Jul 5, 2011

    I think you are right that Lady Gaga’s art is in general a triumph of style over substance. But just here is where I think she is most interesting, and perhaps most reflective of our age. At one level, I think this is the point of her entirely art-directed life–when any semblance of Substance or Meaning becomes unthinkable or unbelievable (at least in its traditional locations and forms) all that is left is style or form. The substance of her art just is the endless variety and proliferation of style–hence the over the top yet always meticulous fashion, the exquisite production of her music videos and live shows, and her insistence that all of this is not a veil or medium of something else–the fashion, the style just is the point. She has said on numerous occasions that the point of the massive visual saturation that is her art-directed life is so to rivet the attention of the public and media that the possibility of a deeper interrogation into the “real” Gaga, whether it be her “message” or “life” becomes impossible. The goal is to totally empty or hide herself in her form. Even her “message” of self-empowerment or acceptance is simply a message about style. “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M / Just put your paws up.” Real freedom, for her, is the freedom to endlessly style yourself any way you choose. And the styles don’t reference anything other than their own facticity as styles. If there is anything “original” in what Gaga is doing, it is her lived performance of style as substance and her ability to inhabit religious (and other) symbols sheerly for their style value. In this sense she is quite close to the nihilistic streak in some forms of Radical Orthodoxy that claim that it is rhetoric or style all the way down.

    • Steve H
      Jul 5, 2011

      Peter, welcome, and thanks for your comments.
      I am completely convinced by your analysis: Lady Gaga lives life as an endless play of signifiers, refusing the possibility that there is ever any reference beyond the signs (‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ – does she strike you as someone who reads early Derrida for fun?!)
      I suppose the originality here, though, is the knowingness of it. Pop has always had its performers who inhabit or borrow symbols because they seem aesthetically attractive – whether lyrical references to historical icons (‘Waterloo – I was defeated, you won the war…’ ‘Ra-ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine…’), the random borrowing of fashions (Adam Ant was very good at it in his day), or the adoption of misunderstood religious symbolism for no better reason than it felt daring or powerful (Led Zep IV, and every single metal band since…)

  4. Peter K.
    Jul 5, 2011

    In fact, just now watching the Judas video again, it strikes that one could offer the following read: Gaga finds herself a betrayer of Jesus because she has emptied his substance for the sake of the style traction she can get out of him–this is her thirty pieces of silver. Indeed, the video itself is an enactment of this betrayal.

  5. Peter K.
    Jul 5, 2011

    Check out the lyrics from one of the bonus tracks off her new album. “Black Jesus–Amen Fashion”:

    On the runway / Dressed in his best / Amen fashion / On the runway / Work it Black Jesus / Put it on amen fashion / Celebrate oh oh style your passion / Put it on amen fashion / Celebrate oh oh a new compassion / Put it on amen fashion / Celebrate oh oh wear out your vision / Black Jesus Black Jesus Black Jesus / Jesus is the new black

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