The Common Good

The Gospel According to Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga. Image via http://bit.ly/AjdhWA
Lady Gaga. Image via http://bit.ly/AjdhWA

Okay, I'm going to get real vulnerable with you. Very confessional. At the risk of seriously damaging my reputation with some of you.

I'm a bit of a Lady Gaga fan.

Here's how it happened.

Last Christmas I was reading a variety of end-of-the-year reviews about albums of the year. I don't follow music very closely so I use reviews like this to "catch up." I find well-reviewed albums and then listen to the song samples on iTunes. And if I like what I hear, I'll buy it.

One genre of music I like is dance and club music. I like the beat and the energy. Same reason I like rock. I like music that has a lot of energy.

So, last year a lot of people had Swedish artist Robyn's Body Talk as the best dance album of the year. I listened to it on iTunes, liked what I heard, and downloaded it. And listening to it both Jana and I decided we really liked the album.

So after a month or so, when you start to tire of an album, I started to look around for something similar. And everywhere I checked people were saying that Robyn was the Swedish version of Lady Gaga. This suggested to me that their sounds might be similar. So if I liked Robyn...

So I said to Jana one day, "Don't think I'm crazy, but I'm going to buy a Lady Gaga album." Jana was aghast. All we knew of Lady Gaga was her crazy persona. Odd hair, make-up and dresses. She clearly seemed to be a freak. But I said to Jana, "You know how you like that Robyn album? Well, a lot of people think she sounds like Lady Gaga. So I thought I'd see about that." That was enough.

So I bought Lady Gaga's Born This Way.

I listened to the album on the way back and forth from the prison bible study. It's about 20 minutes there and back, so I was able to listen to almost the whole album. And when I got back home I told Jana, "I've listened to the Lady Gaga album."

"What did you think?"

"Well, I loved it."

She was shocked. And so was I.

Here's my summary assessment: I think Lady Gaga is a pop genius. She is, in my opinion, very much like Michael Jackson and the early Beatles.

And what I mean by that is that Lady Gaga has an incredible ear for catchy tunes. Rarely have I listened to an album where I liked just about every song. I generally like about only 25% of the songs on albums I buy. Even artists I really like. But I like about 85% of the songs on Lady Gaga's albums. Song after song I say, "That's a great song. Turn it up."

Now, I have a lot of friends are who are music snobs. So this post is doing massive damage to my reputation. No doubt my blog readership among academics will plummet. But what can I say? There's no accounting for taste. No acounting whatsoever.

But my shame aside, I writing about Lady Gaga today for a more serious purpose.

During all my reading about Robyn and Lady Gaga I came across some stuff about Lady Gaga that I found interesting, theologically speaking. As I told Jana over the summer, "I'm sort of developing a theological curiosity about Lady Gaga." Jana asked, "How so?"

Well, Lady Gaga calls her fans "monsters." Or "little monsters." And by that she means freaks--the odd, the weird, the lonely, the rejects, the nerds, the castoffs. And you can't help but wonder, in light of the gospels, about that demographic. In my book Unclean I have a chapter on monsters. And I've written about the theology of monsters on this blog. Consequently, Lady Gaga's use of the label "monsters" caught my attention.

Because as I've written, the category "monster" is charged with ambivalence. On the surface the monster is a normative threat--a defilement, a degradation, a location of moral and communal harm. Thus, monsters are expelled from community. And yet, most monster stories suggest that the monster is often a scapegoat. That the monster is more victim than victimizer. Underneath, if we could but see it, the monster is one of us.

So it's theologically apt that Lady Gaga uses the category monster for her fans. Because she's targeting a group that has been cast out of society. Again, she's explicitly embracing the freaks, weirdos and social outcasts. But Gaga, like in the monster stories, has flipped this and made the label "monster" a term of affection, welcome, embrace, community, inclusion and hospitality. (The diminutive "little" signals the playful affection.) This parallels my own interests in Unclean--Can we show hospitality toward monsters? So I'm intrigued by Gaga's community of "little monsters."

More, Gaga's lyrics often explore and deconstruct, in good Girardian fashion, the scapegoating mechanisms at work in the lives of many of her fans. Take, for example, the song "Bad Kid" from Born This Way.

    I’m a bitch, I’m a loser baby maybe I should quit
    I’m a jerk, wish I had the money but I can’t find work
    I’m a brat, I’m a selfish punk, I really should be smacked
    My parents tried until they got divorced ‘cause I ruined their lives

    [Chorus]
    I’m a bad kid and I will survive
    Oh I’m a bad kid, don’t know wrong from right
    I’m a bad kid and this is my life
    One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right
    (This is my life)

    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    A bad kid baby
    (Don’t be insecure)

    I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it
    Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this
    I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd
    I’m so bad and I don’t give a damn, I love it when you’re mad
    When you’re mad, when you’re mad.

    [Chorus]
    I’m a bad kid and I will survive
    Oh I’m a bad kid, don’t know wrong from right
    I’m a bad kid and this is my life
    One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right
    (This is my life)

    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    A bad kid baby
    (Don't be insecure)

    I’m not that typical baby
    I’m a bad kid like my mom and dad made me
    I’m not that cool and you hate me
    I’m a bad kid, that’s the way that they made me

    I’m a bad kid I’m disastrous
    Give me your money or I’ll hold my breath
    I’m a bad kid and I will survive
    One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right

    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
    You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
    A bad kid baby

I've worked with kids like these, as have many of you--the "bad kids." These kids are social and moral "monsters." But Gaga deconstructs the label "bad kid" in the song. These kids are moral monsters not because they are intrinsically evil but because "they don't know right from wrong." More, while on the outside these kids are an objective pain in the ass (that's my professional clinical diagnosis), inside their "heart is pure." Their deviance is due to more to insecurity ("don't be insecure") than depravity.

In short, in this song Gaga is trying to get on the inside of these "monsters," to speak to their brokenness, sadness, loneliness and alienation. To society these are "bad kids." But Gaga sings to them "You're still good to me."

And I ask you, doesn't that sound a whole lot like Jesus?

Gaga calls out to the little monsters. And Jesus eats with with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes.

All this was, for me at least, profoundly illustrated by the recent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old boy from Williamsville, NY, who took his life last week after years of school yard bullying because of Jamey's struggles with his sexuality.

Jamey was a "monster" on his school yard. A social outcast. A freak. A scapegoat.

But Jamey did find a place of community and welcome. And it wasn't at church. Jamey found a home with Lady Gaga and her little monsters as he recounted on his video for the It Gets Better Campaign.

After Jamey's death, Lady Gaga dedicated a song to Jamey, a sort of memorial service for Jamey with his fellow "monsters," in a recent concert. (The YouTube clips of this keep popping up and coming down so it might be hard to find it.) And while some have questioned the wisdom of her doing this, I think her motives were pure and I found the performance, and the love from the crowd, to be quite moving.

Okay. Is Lady Gaga a Christian role model? Do I agree with everything she stands for? Are the motives of advocate celebrities pure? For this post, I don't really care about those questions. Like all of us, Gaga is a mixed bag. But for this post I'd like to a keep a tight focus on one particular aspect of Lady Gaga, her passionate engagement with the "little monsters" of society, her attempt to welcome them and show them warmth, understanding, and respect.

And in this, I can't help but wonder if Lady Gaga isn't shaming the church. Because here's the deal. If kids like Jamey aren't being welcomed by churches or by their schools where are they supposed to go?

This is what I think. I think every Christ-following church should start talking to their youth groups, saying unambiguously: We want you to be a wall of protection for kids like Jamey. Seek out and protect--emotionally and socially--every weird, weak, nerdy, lonely, queer kid at your school. We don't care if they are a goth, or a druggy, or a queer. Doesn't matter. Protect these kids. Churches should train their youth groups to be angels of protection, teaching them to find these kids and say, "Hey, I love you. Jesus loves you. So no one's going to bully you. Not on my watch. Come sit with me at lunch." That's what I think. I think every Christ-following church should start Guardian Angel programs like this, teaching their kids to stick up for kids like Jamey. Not with violence. But with welcome and solidarity. Because it's hard to bully a group. So let's welcome these kids into a halo of protection and friendship.

That's what I think Christians should be doing to change our public schools. We shouldn't be fighting battles over stuff like school prayer. Because you know what I think God thinks about our battles regarding school prayer? I think God is shouting from the heavens, "Why don't you shut the hell up about school prayer and start sticking up for Jamey?"

And if you think my language is strong, sensitive reader, know that I'm just paraphrasing the prophets. Read how the prophets speak about prayer, song, and worship when the People of God allow injustice at the gates. You want God in our public schools? So do I. But guess what? God is already inside our public schools. Standing by kids like Jamey.

So the question isn't, why won't the School Board allow God in our schools? No, the question is, why aren't we joining God on the playground and sticking up for kids like Jamey?

We are a stiff-necked, disobedient and rebellious generation.

When Jamey Rodemeyer heard his peers, in person and online, say "Why don't you kill yourself you queer?" (a fair summary of the stuff he was dealing with) I can't help but assume that he thought that the Christian church supported and endorsed those sentiments. Because even if Christians weren't directly involved in the bullying we certainly were complicit, if only in our collective silence and apathy. "Let the gays protect gay kids," our collective silence declares, "and we'll take care of our own."

And that breaks my heart.

Who will protect the little monsters? Who will speak out for them? Who will welcome them? Who will weep for them?

I know Lady Gaga will.

What about the church?

Richard Beck is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. Richard's area of interest — be it research, writing, or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard's published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.

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