Israel had many prophets, but today the church isn’t adding anyone’s words to the Biblical canon. When did God stop speaking? Did humanity stop needing prophets once Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Perhaps a better question is: when did we refuse to see the prophets in our midst? Pop star Lady Gaga is more than an entertainer, she is a prophetic voice of today. Through her fashion and performance art, Lady Gaga functions as prophet for secular USAmerica, which can aid the church in learning how to better engage contemporary USAmerican culture. This piece will define the traditional role of the prophet, evaluate how Lady Gaga can be understood to fulfill such a role within USAmerican culture, and reflect on the ways that Gaga’s work as a prophet questions the church’s engagement of today’s culture.
The primary role of a prophet is to fight injustice. Dan Allender explains that a prophet is one who actively stands outside of society in order to critique the injustices within society, with the hope of bringing about sociocultural change and reconciling groups of people who have been opposed to one another. The prophet “creates a vision for the future and exposes the reality of the present” by provoking her or his audience. Traditional tools of the prophet include “piercing narrative, powerful images, prescient poetry” and a willingness to “bear the consequence of being viewed as an enemy of the status quo.” Such artistry and suffering is employed by the prophet to create a compelling vision of what the situation could be if justice were carried out, if love and mercy were lived.
Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga’s prophetic work against injustice against the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community. She came out as bisexual to both acceptance and criticism from the queer community: she has been “accused of not being gay enough” to claim bisexuality nor to be a representative voice. However, claiming bisexuality to a national audience, regardless of the depth of its truthfulness, was a prophetic move: Gaga chose to align herself with the marginalized, removing herself from the hetero-normative mainstream culture. As many prophets before her, she actively stands outside of the cultural norm in order to actively engage and critique culture’s treatment of a marginalized people.
“Born This Way” Live Performance
Lady Gaga adopts the prophet’s work of reconciling groups by working to reconcile LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals, who often have been viewed as oppositional. “Born This Way,” the chart-topping track on an album of the same name, has been accepted by many within the queer community as a new anthem, much like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Cher’s “Believe” have been in the past. What is significant about the song is its overt shout-out to the LGBTQ community; even more significant is that she includes heterosexuals:
“No matter gay, straight, or bi,
lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track, baby,
I was born to survive.”
This is more than an effort to speak on behalf of LGBTQ individuals, more than a matter of advancing rights for the gay community. The lyrics of “Born This Way” unites the LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. Live performances of the piece end with Gaga and her male and female dance company bending towards one another in a circular, all-embracing hug. The performance offers an image that speaks to a vision of what our reality could be, one in which gay individuals are not only equal, but lovingly included. Her image calls us toward the possible reality in which we are one, united humanity that includes multiple sexualities and sexual orientations.
Prophets must bear the consequence of provoking controversy and disrupting the status quo. As a result of Lady Gaga’s involvement with the LGBTQ community, many rumors have been started in an attempt to slander and shame her. One of the most direct attacks on her sexuality has been the rumor that she has a penis. Rather than retaliating (and effectively proving that she would be ashamed to be part of the transgendered community), Gaga claims to love the rumor. She states: “‘This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life: to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.’” If fans believe her to be transgendered and still come to her performances, listen to her music, and support her work, Gaga takes it as a hopeful sign for future inclusion of transgendered individuals in society. Rather than suffer, Gaga reframes the consequence into a cause for celebration.
Another consequence has been the protestors who gather outside of Monster Balls, Lady Gaga’s stadium concerts. One writer recalls a concert in Nashville in which picketers held signs “urging ‘homosexuals’ and other ‘sinners’ to ‘repent’.” During the show, Gaga shouted from stage, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” before launching into a raucous performance, “as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face.” Prophet Gaga practices a living theology; rather than discussing abstractions, she moves into actions.
The Meat Dress
Lady Gaga has also served as a prophet is in the conversation of gender. In this realm, Gaga exposes the reality of the present by reflecting back to her audience what the present really looks like. She holds up a mirror, and the reflection is startling. Gaga as prophet “exposes the hardness of the heart.” One of the most notable examples is the ‘meat dress’, which Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Feminist Kate Durbin notes that “masculinists see but a piece of meat, so Gaga gives them exactly what they ‘see’ – a piece of meat. In order, of course, that the Male Gaze might ‘see’ itself.” The powerful fashion image of a celebrity wearing raw beef holds up a critical mirror to the way members of USAmerican society view and objectify women.
Some of her other fashion pieces have been similarly tied to society’s treatment of women. Lady Gaga has worn many weapon-inspired bras, including a flame-thrower bra in the music video for “Bad Romance,” a ‘gun bra’ in her video for “Alejandro,” and a ‘fire bra’ to the Much Music Awards and on the cover of GQ magazine. Durbin states that, like many women, Gaga’s “breasts were seen as a weapon, therefore she was going to literally turn them into that.” Gaga hears the narrative society tells women and exposes the flaws and pain in the narrative through constructing a powerful fashion image.
An equally blatant statement about gender was the introduction of Gaga’s alter-ego, Jo Calderone, at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The opening monologue made it clear that this performer was not Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone: “Gaga? Yeah, her,” Jo says while pointing to some vague distance; Gaga is not here. To further emphasize the opposition between Gaga and Jo, he informs the audience, “She [Gaga] left me [Jo].” Gaga, according to Jo, groups him in with other men: “She said I’m just like the last one.” Jo, for his part, dances in a company comprised entirely of men; the audience does not see a single woman on stage during the performance. This is not an image of a woman who includes masculinity into her being. Instead, she is one body, portraying both a female and a male who are in opposition to one another. Similarly, the viewers are one humanity in opposition to one another as a result of the gender divide. The audience knows it to be absurd for Gaga to critique Jo, just as it is equally absurd for Jo to feel left out from Gaga’s life, since they are one and the same. The audience can then look back on themselves and see that they create divides within the one humanity, divides where there should be unity. Gaga-versus-Jo is a picture of humanity, a mirror for how we relate across the sexes.
An additional role of the prophet is to expose idolatry. James Danaher writes that in today’s USAmerican culture “what we recognize and revere about a person is their celebrity status.” USAmericans unknowingly idolize celebrity and the formation of identity that leads to celebrity status. We join the game, attempting to construct an identity for ourselves to gain some amount of fame. At the same time, we hate celebrities for their status and for having the resources to continually re-create their identities, so eventually we demand their destruction.
Gaga, while seeming to be part of the system that perpetuates obsession with celebrity and identity construction, undermines the system and shows that it leads to death and destruction. In her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga opens by naming the idol USAmericans have come to worship, and recognizes her potential position as sacrifice: “I pray the fame won’t take my life.” The fame is the god that this society has made, and it demands ritual sacrifice. By the end of the show, Gaga is covered in blood and hanging from a rope, enacting her own death. She had explained the performance idea to her label by asking “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don’t we show them?” By walking, willingly, to her own enacted death, she showed the audience what they do to celebrities: demand violent destruction. The image does what prophetic images are meant to do, which is to “disrupt denial and expose the subtle and overt idolatry of the heart.” Having shown the audience her destruction, Gaga is then free of the audience’s demands on identity because she has fulfilled that identity and shown that it leads to death. After that moment, all her work is free to be performed without inhibition because it is enacted in the shadow of her own death. The audience are no longer able to impose an identity on her; it is she who identifies herself with true identity/ies.
According to Allender, an important piece of the work for a prophet is to be a “servant of the church who stands outside the church in order to invite those who appear to be in it to return to true worship.” Lady Gaga’s work as a prophet within the secular community questions and critiques the church, inviting its members to return to what we too-often refuse to see as good news and worship. Gaga, in acting as a secular prophet, aligns herself with the marginalized people of the LGBTQ community. The church should be convicted: we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, and instead are the ones excluding and condemning. As Gaga reconciles and unifies queer and straight peoples, the church creates divides with hateful language on picket signs. Gaga’s work asks the church: what is a loving response to individuals, regardless of sexual orientation? Her scream of Jesus’s love followed by dance questions: what would action look like on your part? Can you ever stop the debates over scripture and sin long enough to act?
Gaga’s use of fashion and performance art raise questions of communication. Gaga confronts the culture through symbols that it fluently understands: music, performance, and fashion. The church insists on using scripture as its primary form of engagement, but for many people in USAmerica, the text does not carry authority over their lives. How could the church better engage culture on its own terms? What would happen if we ceased to articulate and defend every position, and made room for a conversation through image and action that made sense to today’s culture, within and outside of the church?
2009 VMA Performance
Finally, Gaga’s enacted death to expose the idolatry of celebrity questions the way the church teaches the narrative of Jesus crucified. We often have sermons trying to explain what Jesus did, but her bloody performance and murderous stare ask: how would the church enact the narrative? Pastors try to educate congregants by explaining the historical context of the cross, but what if they moved the narrative into the context of today’s culture? What would we critique? What idols would we expose? How can the church live into the story of life, nonviolent death, and resurrection in a way that speaks to the contemporary world?
The prophet known as Lady Gaga is doing God’s work in secular USAmerica. Rather than fight her, the church would be wise to allow itself to be critiqued by her exposures and educated by her forms of communication. After all, God has often provided prophets who have worked outside the church to invite the church itself to repentance; we should not be surprised that the Living God is still speaking, should not be startled to see a prophet in our midst. The proper response might be gratitude and worship: perhaps a dance would be appropriate.
This piece was originally written for Cultural Exegesis: Pop Culture and the Kingdom, taught by Kj Swanson and Jev Forsberg. Students were asked to use a piece of culture to inform theology.