Lady Gaga dropped her new single “911” last week, complete with a rich, surreal music video ripe with abstract symbolism, much of it at least vaguely religious. It begs the question of what happens in the “white light” moments between life and death, fading consciousness, and the duality of the heavens and the earth. It also shines a light on mental health, as Gaga wrote on her Instagram following the release of the video: “This short film is very personal to me, my experience with mental health and the way reality and dreams can interconnect to form heroes within us and all around us. Something that was once my real life every day is now a film, a true story that is now the past and not the present. It’s the poetry of pain.” Nolan Feeney of Billboard described it as “when your body and your brain feel at war with each other.” The video has been dissected and analyzed at length since it dropped, as not one frame is wasted, and each moment in the hallucination, or dream, has its counterpart in “real life,” which is a traffic wreck with several casualties on a busy downtown street outside of a film festival. A robed, saint-like figure with a solemn, madonna-esque countenance and a red cross is revealed to be a paramedic in the waking world of Gaga’s sudden consciousness. An ornate golden throne is a yellow gurney. The mysticism is cast aside and we realize there is just as much modern-day heroism and magic working in the first response teams working on the front lines to save lives.This fixation with Judeo-Christian imagery, perhaps along with her upper West Side upbringing, has led fans to wonder what faith Lady Gaga practices – specifically, if she is Jewish. So, let’s unpack that.
While she clearly has an affinity for the Jewish faith, particularly a love of Israel, Stefani Germanotta is actually a practicing Catholic. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent all-girls Catholic school on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Paris and Nicky Hilton also attended the prestigious school, as well as Gloria Vanderbilt.During her time there, she practiced music and theatre. She snagged several lead roles in school productions, but she was considered something of an eccentric and found herself the target of bullying from the rich, elite girls in her class. In an essay for the Daily Beast, her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, wrote about her experiences at Convent of the Sacred Heart: “She was creative and unequivocally her own person, but her peers didn’t always appreciate the things that made her unique—and different. As a result, they would sometimes taunt, humiliate, or exclude her. It was hurtful for her to experience and heartbreaking for me to watch.”As a result of her problems with bullying, and fans reaching out to share their stories of abuse and self-harm as a result of their own experiences with bullying, Gaga and her mother started the Born This Way Foundation (not to be confused with her makeup line of the same name), a non-profit agency dedicated to normalize and encourage young people to talk openly and honestly about mental health, promoting kindness and bravery.
The Duality of Woman
There may be something about Catholic imagery that just lends itself to pop queendom. Before Lady Gaga was shocking the devout and orthodox, Madonna – her very name a reference to the venerated and saintly Mary, Mother of Christ – was interspersing her own work with overt religious symbolism. “Like a Prayer,” released in 1989, sparked controversy and outrage as she seduced a black saint and depicted burning crosses while a rapturous gospel choir sang over the track. Many people called it a perversion of sacred images, but is that really what is happening when artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga allow their art to be informed by their faith? Or is it their own transformative interpretation of the text and iconography, updated to fit the current generation’s worldview? Consider “Alejandro,” released in 2010 as part of the album The Fame Monster. The video was equal parts futuristic and militaristic with some BDSM flavor as well as those trademark religious overtones. Director Steven Klein broke down the video’s meaning for MTV News, explaining, “It represents the character’s battle between the dark forces of this world and the spiritual salvation of the soul… at the end of the film, she chooses to be a nun, and the reason her mouth and eyes disappear is because she is withdrawing her senses from the world of evil and going inward towards prayer and contemplation.” He added that when Gaga swallows the rosary, it represents “the desire to take in the holy.”So much of Gaga’s work seems to reflect this eternal struggle between her own “good” and “evil” natures, most notably in 2011 when she dedicated an entire song to Judas Iscariot, the apostle who, in Biblical lore, betrayed Jesus by kissing him and addressing him as “rabbi,” identifying him to his captors. On the surface, it’s another bop about a love game or a bad romance, but she’s taken some dogmatic liberties with the classic question of “why do the good girls always want the bad boys?” The song was featured on Born this Way and plays up Gaga’s struggle with her virtue and her vices, her desire to be pure and good while giving into temptation. Over a tribal electro-house beat, Gaga affects the role of Mary Magdalene, though the roles are reversed and it is Judas whose feet she is washing with her hair – played with perfect bad-boy scumbaggery by The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus. The spoken-word bridge is a self-aware, fourth wall-breaking aside as she admits, “in the most Biblical sense/I am beyond repentance/fame hooker, prostitute wench/vomits her mind.” She wonders if this life she has chosen for herself means she cannot be saved, if by becoming a cultural icon herself, if she is not blaspheming in the Biblical definition of the word.