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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ways of Reading Gaga III: Ways of Gaga Reading

It always comes as a surprise to me when people argue that Judas is a video and song created just to attack Christians. It should not surprise me, of course: modern Fundamentalist Christianity seems to have decided that its best strategy moving forward is to become an occified relic that has systematically purged itself of all relevancy to the lives of real human beings. I'm not talking here about the barbaric wars against science, sexuality, women's rights, reason, history, all other religions, the Liberal Arts, and so on, despite how evident many of those crusades are in the above video. No, I think those wars are symptomatic of a much deeper problem:

Fundamentalism is terrified of interpretation.

What's bizarre is that this fear of interpretation--this terror of saying that perhaps the Bible cannot be perfectly understood in a literal, single way--runs counter to some of the things that have made the Judeo-Christian tradition so enduring and evocative. I've already talked on here, in very broad terms, about archetypes, and about what it means to create art as part of the interpretive process (in fact, it might be worth reviewing those articles before reading this one, although it's not a prerequisite or anything). Turns out that Christianity has, as part of its artistic tradition, its own particular way of working with those two ideas.

But this is a StIT article, so I'm going to leave that tantalizing idea hanging while we delve into what makes the video for Judas really tick.

The video opens with that same icon I've been pointing out all along: it's a red cross on a (largely) bleached-white background. This is the third video so far where we've seen this kind of iconography, which says to me that Gaga's slowly but surely developing her own set of symbols to place within her videos and performances. And part of that language of symbols is Christian iconography. So, right from the get-go this video is tied to Alejandro and Bad Romance--fittingly, as it shares many of the same dualistic themes running through her other work.

Rather than picking this apart chronologically, I'm going to make some general statements about the artistic choices here and their thematic purpose. What I hope comes out of this is evidence that Gaga has done her homework here. Take the way she depicts Christ and the Apostles. They are, of course, a biker gang.

Which is perfect.
Think about it, Christ was not someone within the orthodoxy. He was kind of a bad boy, if you really think about it. He hung around with poor people, cripples, lepers, prostitutes, wenches, people that weren't happy with Roman or Church rule... these weren't exactly the high and noble class we're talking about. These were outsiders. This was a guy that was born in a manger because his family couldn't get anyplace else to stay, who had a bunch of fishermen as his disciples. This is real rebel stuff. So, I love the biker aesthetic. It's a way of reinforcing just how revolutionary Jesus was.

Which, speaking of revolutionary--notice how Jesus is decidedly not a white Anglo-Saxon European. I'm not sure how historically accurate Gaga's replacement is race-wise, but it's still significant to me that such a replacement was made, simply because, again, it undermines this idea of white Christian hegemony. It's another way of reinforcing the idea of Christ as an outsider.

Once past the stylistic choices we can start delving into the particular characters of Christ, Judas, and--I assume this is what Gaga's going for here--Mary Magdalene.

Pictured: Jesus, A Pop Star, And Some Douchebag
 Judas is the easiest character to get ahold of here, and his characterization does not seem to be anything that a Christian--fundamentalist or otherwise--would have a problem with. He is, in short, an asshole. One of the best moments of the video is when he pours a can of wine on Gaga's back and casually tosses it behind him. This is an uncouth creep. And yet... he is still part of the Disciples. As shifty a character as he is, the others do not seem to view him as someone capable of a full on betrayal. Is this extrapolating a lot from the texts? Sure. But I don't think that makes it any stranger than the way the seventh Harry Potter movie particularly emphasizes the themes of power and responsibility. In the Gospels, Judas comes across as an odious character, but still a character horrified, in the end, with how far he fell. That's on display here.

Mary still is in Protective Mode. Christ, on the other hand, knows exactly what's coming...
Mary/Gaga has a much more Gaga-generated personality in the video, being torn between the good of Christ and the evil of Judas. Although she is frequently depicted as standing protectively beside Christ, she often gazes not at Christ but at Judas--her body language shows how torn she is. Interestingly, she is, perhaps, the most human character of the bunch. Notice how, in the kissing scene (a depiction of the moment where Judas kisses Christ, betraying him as the leader of their rebellious group to the watching soldiers) she seems to be in despair, but both Christ and Judas are largely stoic.

This seems to be Christ's characteristic, in fact--he is serene at best and stoic at worst. There is only one moment where he seems to break from serenity, and that is after the kiss scene. This moment actually parallels the gospels, interestingly enough. Check out this passage from Matthew 26:47-50:

When he was speaking, look, Yehuda, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs from the high priests and the elders of the people. And the betrayer told them the signal, which was, "The one I kiss is the man. Seize him."
And at once he came up to Yeshua and said, "Hello, Rabbi."
And he kissed him.
And Yeshua said,
Friend, do what you are here to do.
Then they came and laid their hands on Yeshua and seized him.
There is a sense of stoic resignation and sadness in Christ's response here to Judas's betrayal, especially evident since it comes after a scene where Christ prays to be free from his burden, only to finally conclude that he must go through with the plan, as it were. In Gaga's video, Mary is in the place of the normal human--she cannot understand the terrible necessity of the betrayal and its results. Both Jesus and Judas, however, know exactly what is coming. It's a powerful moment in the Scripture, and I truly feel that Gaga is attempting to faithfully convey that moment here.

The lyrics convey a similar attention to detail. Let's break those down a bit:

When he comes to me I am ready
I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs
Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain
Even after three times he betrays me

Here Gaga is working with some fairly traditional imagery of washing feet as a gesture of religious and ritualistic respect, but because the focus is on Judas and not a more noble figure like Christ she turns it into an image of degradation. The last two lines, interestingly, are not a reference to Judas but to Simon Kefa, who responds to accusations of being associated with Christ essentially with the reponse, "I don't know what you're talking about! Never heard of this Jesus guy! No further questions, move along!" He does this three times, just as Christ predicted, and breaks down when he realizes that Christ was right. Note, though, that here is the first linking of betrayal with forgiveness within the song.

I couldn’t love a man so purely
Even prophets forgave his crooked way
I’ve learned love is like a brick you can
Build a house or sink a dead body

This is the dualism that I mentioned (but didn't bother explaining) earlier. Love here is something that can create or destroy--just as love is mixed with obsession and degradation in Bad Romance, and sex is mixed with militant totalitarian domination in Alejandro. It's a very Blakean notion, actually--that in the midst of the two opposites of Good and Evil, new ideas are created.

In the most Biblical sense,
I am beyond repentance
Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind
But in the cultural sense
I just speak in future tense
Judas, kiss me if offenced,
Or wear an ear condom next time

This is interesting because it draws in part from a common sort of... well, I'm not sure I would call it an error, exactly, but certainly a supplementary interpretation that goes way beyond the main text. That interpretation is that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. In our culture, she's been linked to the story of the crowd of chuckleheads who want to stone a prostitute to death, where Christ essentially steps in and says, listen, go ahead, I've got no beef with stonings, but if you're going to do it, let's have it be started by the person here who is totally without sin. Then presumably everyone sort of shuffled their feet and avoided each other's eyes and finally went home feeling like right chumps.

Pictured: Fans of Fox News
Of course, this isn't what happens at the end of Gaga's video, which says to me that she's very aware of what reception she's going to receive with this song. I wonder, is the guy in the first video I posted totally without sin? Just an idle speculation.

Also, the "wear an ear condom next time" line is hilariously apt, as it charges the listener to just ignore the song if offended while also tying back into Gaga's sexual themes. I love it.

I wanna love you,
But something’s pulling me away from you
Jesus is my virtue,
Judas is the demon I cling to
I cling to

I think this is the most telling set of lines in the song, as it gets back to the point I made waaay back at the beginning of the article: Gaga is working here in a Christian tradition of symbolic types.

See, under this system, Christian (especially early Christian) art uses the juxtaposition of different characters to show parallelism throughout the gospels. So, Jonah, eaten by the whale, is a type of Christ--he predicts Christ's entombment and resurrection. Hercules appears as a type of Samson in some Roman art. Moses and Abraham are also paralleled with Christ. These characters exist as reflections of each other through time and scripture, showing the ultimate unity of the Judeo-Christian myth tradition, and its links with other myths of the time and region.

This video is Gaga's attempt at a kind of modern Typology. She is taking the story of Christ--in particular, the story of his betrayal--and depicting its modern parallels. On the one hand she makes this more concrete by staging the story as a struggle of love between a virtuous man and a jerk. This is the most obvious view of the song.

On the other hand, it can be seen as a far more abstract metaphor for the struggle between the desire to be virtuous and the allure of evil. The video and song use the conflict between Christ and Judas to illustrate the struggle within all humans. Gaga has essentially delved into the Christian myth here and discovered not only its beauty but also its fundamental relevance to her life and, by artistic extension, our own lives.

This is what I mean when I say that the fear of interpretation is leading Fundamentalist Christianity, as an institution, down the path of ossification and, ultimately, total irrelevancy. They have said, in essence, "Our way is the only way of interacting with scripture emotionally and artistically." And, sure, every sect has probably done this to some extent, but never before have I seen such a slavish dedication to the utter stifling of everything that makes The Bible one of the most beautiful, significant, moving works in the entirety of world literature.

Wait, wait, let me say that again.

The Bible is one of the most beautiful, significant, moving works in the entirety of world literature.

And Fundamentalism is entombing it alive.

Whereas Gaga, in contrast, has taken an already deeply moving Biblical story and found a way of making it deeply relevant to her own life and experiences. She is honestly and openly interacting with the Christian tradition in a way that takes account of the basic difficulty of living up to the standard of goodness. I consider that honesty to be the mark of a much purer religious experience than dogmatic purity, because it recognizes that the answers to our questions of good and evil are not always so simple or forthcoming. It recognizes that we, as humans, are not perfect, even though we aspire to match the perfection of Christ... or of our other heroes. And it recognizes that the stories in the Bible are not singular but part of a long tradition of parallel tales--that Lady Gaga can be a type of Mary, and the men in this video represent a type of Christ and a type of Judas. I feel secure, therefore, in calling this a truly beautiful work of Christian art.

So, my charge is essentially this: take a page from Gaga's book. Be open to alternate readings. Explore the meaning of all art, both secular and scriptural. Find meaning for yourself through the creation of symbols, meaningful themes, narratives real and imagined, the play of opposites, and, ultimately, the deep and powerful act of sharing experiences. Because interpretation is not a way of muddying the waters. It is not a way of dissecting and killing the enjoyment of art. It is, itself, an artistic act, and one that can uncover the beauty and power of both a book written two thousand years ago... and a music video created just this year.

It all comes down to the ways that we read.

That's the last Ways of Reading Gaga proper, although there are at least two postscripts--one by me, and one by someone else. Those won't be out for a while though. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

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