I remember the first time I saw Lady Gaga perform on TV. She was seated at a very large and very pink piano brimming with plastic bubbles. She had barely tickled the flamingo ivory before strutting center stage to engage in a most bizarre choreography. At the time, Lady Gaga was still becoming the icon she is now, and as I was about to press the worn-out channel button on my remote, a dreadlocked violinist joined in the cacophony. I was stunned to see that New-York-underground-chamber-music-scene-poster-child Daniel Bernard Roumain was shredding his six-string violin to the uncanny “Poker Face.”
In any other circumstance, I would have dismissed Lady Gaga for the banality that I—whether for good or ill—associated with her inflammatory pop spectacle. But Roumain’s presence gave me pause. I’d worked with him in the past and knew his music well. I knew his vision for honoring the history of chamber music while pushing the art forward, and it seemed unlikely his collaboration with Gaga was merely a paycheck he couldn’t refuse.
Since that fateful performance on what was then one of America’s most-watched shows, American Idol, Lady Gaga has proceeded to draw considerable ire and admiration for her, shall we say, unique artistic choices. And it’s not difficult to see why many people find her distasteful. The outrageous outfits, strange choreography, excessive flamboyance of her public face, morally questionable lyrics, obligatory rock star lifestyle, and recreational drug use are all reasons for people concerned about society’s moral decency to dismiss Ms. Gaga. To many, she’s a money-, sex-, and drug-crazed diva offering culture yet another avenue for the worship and practice of vice.
And while I most certainly do not condone the recreational use of cocaine or other mind-altering substances (with the exception of an occasional high-quality, small-batch bourbon), I am convinced that there is more going on in the land of Gaga than meets the corrective lens–enhanced eye. Her fashion schemes, shock tactics, and flagrant gestures are far too elaborate and calculated not to be part of something more purposeful than getting rich, high, and laid.
If the worship of the masses is her endgame—with a dash of selfish pleasure in the mix—her choices seem far too risky, far too likely to jeopardize her goddess-like stature. Major pop stars wishing to stay in the spotlight have to walk a fine line of crazy; if they don’t appear crazy or reckless enough, fans will gravitate to the next one in the queue—normal stars are boring. Yet if pop stars get too crazy, party too hard, or push the envelope too far, we see an inevitable fall from grace or slip into irrelevancy, take for example, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, and to some extent, Madonna.
Gaga’s choices are both radical and intentionally unpredictable. They are not the hypersexualized, predictable moves of Madonna or the borderline insane, highly self-destructive, and often illegal behavior of Spears, Sheen, and Lohan. One thinks long and hard about the decision to wear a meat dress (if only because of the difficulty of maneuvering that meat with any panache at all), arrive at the Oscars in an egg, or collaborate with a highly respected, avant-garde, classical-hip-hop musician.
In order to dive into a deeper understanding of Gaga, one must set aside the conventional notion of a dichotomy between “pop” and “art.” Typically, the academy and institutions like the art media tend to place anything “pop” in the category of “unsophisticated commercialism,” grown only for the populous-at-large and unlikely to have anything meaningful to offer in the realm of “high art.” Often this is a fair presupposition: so-and-so exists for the masses, she is extremely popular among teenagers, her creations seem artistically and musically simplistic, and her image is highly contrived; therefore, she belongs in the pop world and is not to be considered part of the art world.
But as we have already seen, with a moderately less superficial examination, Gaga moves out of step with her pop peers and more in step with several “Artists” (with a capital “A”). Lady Gaga’s confrontational—and even grotesque—oeuvre is not so askew from that of Damien Hirst who preserved a whole shark in a tank of formaldehyde and covered a skull in diamonds. Or that of Andy Warhol, whose work was initially rejected for embracing commercialism and pop imagery but went on to redefine the art world as we know it. Then there’s Carolee Schneemann, whose highly sexualized performance pieces and films explored the objectification of the female body and gender roles during the height of the feminist movement. And the not-to-be-forgotten John Cage, whose compositions aggressively challenged the very idea of music by making music out of everything and sometimes nothing. These artists created work that was at times offensive, brilliant, dehumanizing, and challenging, but it was all “art.” Lady Gaga borrows Schneemann’s sexual questions, Cage’s deconstruction of commonly held artistic definitions, Hirst’s shock factor, and Warhol’s sensationalism and melds them into her creations. Her work, like theirs, needs a full and patient examination before a qualitative conclusion can be reached. This way, the evaluation of the artifact can be distinguished from a judgment about the artist who made it.
All too often, we look at art and see only the faults and failings of the artist or dismiss it because it lacks a simple explanation. We look at a painting by Mark Rothko and we see his despair and not ours. We look at Lady Gaga and fixate on her depravity and famemongering and not our complicity in a culture that condones and elevates this person many have deemed despicable. Instead, art requires deep consideration; it isn’t meant to be quickly absorbed, digested, and wasted. Art has the power to play a prophetic role in the world. In some sense, the artist creates a mirror that shows us truth about our world, our culture, and ourselves that we can’t see any other way.
Perhaps Lady Gaga’s work deals with the nature of fame and its destructive potential. Perhaps it’s about the acquisition of cultural power, about the permission that such power and fame gives one to eschew all commonly held mores and morals, allowing the superstar a continually renewable moral tabula rasa. Maybe she is attempting to fully merge the art and pop worlds by engaging in a piece called “Lady Gaga,” where she is the art, a multiyear performance piece that fully devours her humanity as culture continually worships her and expands her mythos. It’s possible she’s offering a commentary on the fickle and selfish nature of the fan or the music industry and how far one must go to stay on top. Whatever the message (or messages), it will only reveal itself over time. And if Lady Gaga is dismissed because she is gross or disgusting, then whatever society might learn about itself from her work will also be lost.
The religious community seems first in line with protests about Lady Gaga and other controversial artists. We are always ready with a quick dismissal. The apparent disregard of these performers and artists for a Christian moral ethic and their penchant for offending and shocking are more than off-putting to many people of faith. However, an unlikely archetype for Lady Gaga and other “distasteful” artists can be found in the Old Testament. According to the Bible, some 2,600 years ago, a man was brought out of the exiled Jews in Babylon to give them a message. He was a performance artist of sorts, commissioned by God to create works of shock and awe to jar an unholy people out of sin.
Consider some of these acts of Ezekiel. He was commanded not to mourn for the death of his wife (Ezek 24:15–18); he “laid siege” to a drawing of Jerusalem on a clay tablet by lying tied up with ropes on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40 days (Ezek 4:1–6); he ate a scroll (Ezek 3:3); he was muted and bound to his house for seven and a half years and only able to speak when God opened his mouth to prophesy (Ezek 3:22–27); he was told to shave his head and beard—a sign of humiliation and disgrace—burn a third of it, strike a third with sword, and scatter a third to the wind (Ezek 5:1–4). But perhaps the most shocking of all is that Ezekiel was commanded during the 390 days on his side to regularly cook his food over human excrement. Not only is that retching, but it was also a defilement of the Jewish purity laws. Ezekiel didn’t have the stomach for it and so God allowed him to cook his food over cow manure instead (Ezek 4:9–15).
Did these acts raise the same concerns about the degradation of society and culture that we hear about today? Were people up in arms over this repulsive behavior of this so-called prophet? I don’t see how people couldn’t have been concerned with what effect these displays were having on their Jewish culture and their children. The God of the Jews commanded a Jew to defile himself, to seemingly break the very laws that God gave. That is how important the message was and how shocking, horrific, and radical the art piece God told Ezekiel to perform needed to be.
Still, the acts of Ezekiel were not a commentary on Ezekiel’s moral uprightness or corruptness; they existed as a mirror to show Israel its own failings and sins. Ezekiel brought a message to the exiled people of Israel that they had wandered from their God and no longer listened to his voice or walked in the way of righteous. This is the work of the prophet: the prophet brings a message of truth by almost any means necessary. And this is the same role art plays in the world. Though artists are not, necessarily, bringing a message straight from the mouth of God to his people, they often are opening the eyes of culture to a truth and reality that was previously unseen.
Is Lady Gaga’s message one that causes us to question ourselves, the nature of our culture, and our worship of the famous? How far can Lady Gaga go and still be offered fame and adoration? Could she intentionally obliterate our mores? Could she wear masks and plastic and meat dresses? Could she kill? Could she lie on her side for 390 days? Is her message good for culture? Will it spur people on to recognize sin and injustice? What does it say about our culture’s discernment that she is both a contentious figure and a hero to young girls? Is she saying our stars are becoming monsters, that we like it and are creating those monsters ourselves? Are we the paparazzi? Is that part of her message? Is she showing us where this road ends? Does it end with her death?
I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. But I do know that there is more going on in the Lady Gaga experiment than the typical pop garbage many deride. She has taken the language and medium of the Warhols, Cages, and Hirsts and merged it with the pop stardom and media savvy of the Madonnas, Sheens, and Jolies. And she knows that’s precisely what she’s doing. It’s no accident. She has something to say; something more than can be garnered from a few clips you might see on PerezHilton.com and E! Ultimately, I may find her work and message too dehumanizing and destructive to be of value, but I won’t make that conclusion without first continuing to study her p-p-p-poker face.