Apr 19, 2011
Lady Gaga doesn’t love Jesus. She’s in love with Judas. She’d wash his feet with her hair. She’s his holy fool, even though he’s betrayed her “after three times,” as a lyric from her new song tells us, letting us sneakily and biblically know that she and the guy who betrayed Jesus in the New Testament are doing it.
Set that sentiment to a driving synth beat, reminiscent of early ’90s Europop, and it’s not just a provocative line. It’s a hit! Inevitably, some Christians—maybe a lot of them–will be offended and even angered by the lyric. That’s part of Lady Gaga’s intent. Yet why should we care if a woman who wears meat in public tries to wreak pop havoc on religion?
In truth, it’s the wrong question. We already do care, huge numbers of us anyway. We have already listened, already absorbed the medium before the message even gets to us. We’ve heard the sound of Gaga in our cars, malls, markets, and dens. That’s the strange and hypnotic power of the pop superstar.
Their authority doesn’t come from scripture or votes or force of arms or money. It rises out of the way that their music envelops us, gets past our natural defenses, before we’ve had a chance to hear the argument it’s making. This is as true of Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Patsy Cline, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, and Kurt Cobain as it is of the latest diva.
Part of the power stems from the nature of pop music itself. At any given moment, without warning, we may hear a song that drives right into us, articulates for us what we’re feeling in a way that no Bible verse, newspaper article, novel, movie, or TV show can.
To take only one example in our own era, who has better distilled the fear, terror, ecstasy, and agony of modern love than Rihanna and Eminem in “Love The Way You Lie.” To me, this song, with its gorgeous refrain, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s all right, because I love the way it hurts,” wrapped around a few tortured lines of rap rage and regret, says more about the state of the country in 2011 than anything The New York Times has reported. It speaks to me beyond the noise about feelings and realities that are otherwise invisible.
I hear that song, and it’s like a punch to my soul. That’s the authority of great pop music, and that’s the key reason why we care what pop artists have to say. All they have to do is get it right in song, and they win more street cred for their opinions than most politicians could ever hope for. They can’t run for office on that cred, but they can make themselves heard.
It would be naïve to think that all of the force resides in the tune, though. In the case of someone like Lady Gaga, money provides a lot of the muscle in the punch. Her songs will be pumped into our lives relentlessly, so that we can’t avoid them. Thanks to the way we live now, highly connected to anything and everything that everyone else cares about, most of us will be forced to reckon with her in one way or another, and so it behooves us, if we’re going to get offended or outraged, to grapple with her lyric a bit.
In other words, the question isn’t whether we should care what pop stars have to say about religion. Millions of us clearly do. The real question is this. What’s the best and smartest way to respond to the questions raised by these astonishing figures in our lives? Are we merely mute receptacles for their ambitions? Or can we, in a sense, sing back?