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Tuesday, February 15, 2011


A confession: I love Lady Gaga.

I love her intelligence, her savvy sense of the entertainment marketplace, the brilliant way she takes a theme and develops it in words, music and visual art, and the outrageous way she keeps pushing the boundaries.

Yes, she is often both crude and vulgar - so unlike the rest of what constitutes entertainment in our culture - but, like Madonna before her, she is very smart about how she uses it to both express herself as well as satisfy the "fame monster" that, if we are honest, lives in all of us.

And, if the bottom line of success has a dollar sign in front of it, she is very, very successful.

Comparisons between Gaga and Madonna are inevitable. Both women come from Italian, Roman Catholic families - Madonna Louise Ciccone from a working class family in Detroit and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta from an Upper West Side hardworking middle class family.

Both women were educated by nuns - Madonna in parochial schools in Detroit and Gaga at the posh Convent of the Sacred Heart, 91st Street, from which notables like the Kennedy, Vanderbilt and Hilton women also graduated.

I find the Italian-Roman Catholic parallel fascinating - especially since an undercurrent theme in the artistic expressive lives of both Madonna and Gaga have to do with images of women and power, religion and success and fame.

Madonna has been surprisingly vulnerable in her honesty about the impact the death of her mother - at age 30, when she was only 5 years old - has had on her life, her sense of self, her relationships with men and her music and her art.

Lady Gaga has also spoken of how she felt alone and like an outsider as she was growing up, and has made several references to having been taunted and bullied at school for being different from the other girls.

Both women seem to have an understanding of and appreciation for the psyche and sensibilities of gay men, who are a huge part of their audience.

Indeed, both walk the line of androgyny in their costumes and both have more than hinted at their sexual dalliances with other women, forming a bond with gay men, alliances with bisexual men and women, the fondness of some lesbian women all the while enticing the sexual fantasies of many heterosexual men.

Gaga and Madonna weave themes of art, sex, and religion into their work, with Madonna adding the provocative elements of social issues and politics.

Gaga is only 23 years old. I'm sure these last two elements will begin to appear in future work as she, like Madonna, reinvents herself.

It is the image of the post-modern woman which both women project that both fascinates and intrigues me. In many ways, they present the classical stereotypes of women in power - using men and their fantasies about "the virgin whore" for financial gain and social power.

And yet they are both not afraid to show their vulnerabilities - Madonna with her two divorces and three children, and Gaga with her efforts to repair her relationship with her father, recently helping him to get the open heart surgery he needed.

Madonna has also become a superstar of spirituality - taking us with her as she moved from a rejection of her Roman Catholic roots to a sojourn with debauchery, through Eastern spirituality and now in full embrace of Jewish mysticism.

I suspect we'll see a similar trajectory for Lady Gaga. I couldn't help but chuckle - as I watched the replays of her now-infamous "Egg" performance of her new hit "Born This Way" at the Grammy Award Show the other night - that, when she had a momentary, minor slip, as she quickly recovered, she made the sign of the cross.

As a former Roman Catholic girl, I understand. The nuns of our youth continue to loom large in our present reality - as well as our future.

What messages about being a woman do these two women send to young girls? I think that's yet to be revealed.

Madonna's controversial video "What it's like for a girl" gave one message. Lady Gaga's video of "Telephone" with Beyonce - which featured an ending which was an homage to "Thelma and Louise" as both women drove their car off a cliff rather than "go back" - gave yet another.
 I remember my mother's deep concern about my fascination with Dale Evans. One Christmas, she even bought me a Dale Evans outfit - complete with fringed vest and skirt, cowboy print shirt, cowboy boots and cowboy hat.

Her concern increased, however, when I insisted - rather loudly - that I was not a "cow girl", but rather, a "cowboy girl".

Even at age six or seven, I think I intuitively understood something about gender politics. I didn't want to be a 'cow girl'. I understood that 'cowboys' had the real power, but I didn't want to give up my status as a female. So, 'cowboy girl' it was.

My mother, just as intuitively, understood more what I was saying than even I did. In her instinctive impulse to protect me, she insisted that, when I was dressed in my Dale Evans outfit, I was a 'cow girl'.

When I refused, I lost the privilege to wear my cowboy girl outfit. This apple didn't fall far from the tree of strong women from which I had blossomed. Even when I wasn't dressed as Dale Evans, I continued to call myself a 'cowboy girl'.

I suppose an argument could be made for the socio-cultural, political revolution caused by a seemingly innocent cultural icon as Dale Evans.

Well, at least at one time, in one little girl.

Who knows what reaction - or, counter-reaction - pop icons like Madonna and Gaga will have on this generation of young women?

You know what? I think "the weaker sex" is much stronger than that. I think we can make our own way - remembering that our greatest strength often springs from our most vulnerable, broken places.

Indeed, I think our anxieties about the influence of the entertainment industry gives way too much power to the admittedly powerful force of pop culture.

At the end of the day, I think the love and nurture of family, an understanding of God's love and the support and nurture of community instills more in us - male and female - than the credit we give to the entertainment industry. 

Madonna has been a formidable if not controversial voice for AIDS education and prevention as well as her work on the forefront of the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Lady Gaga has yet to find her voice for social good, but she's young.

After all, she did bless herself when she slipped on stage during her performance at the Grammy's.

Yes, both of these women do and say things that, in the words of Annie Lamott, are enough to cause "Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish."

Never underestimate the formative and transformative power of family and faith.

That, ultimately is the message I hear from these two women - whether they intend to send it or not.

For all their controversy, these two kids "are all right".

And, so will our children and our children's children.

It has ever been thus.


Bill Lambert said...

Lady Gaga is avant garde. I see her in my memories of Dali, only this one can also sing and dance. Like juggling a thousand balloons, only a few break and the total effect is spectacular. (If you let my granddaughter read this I will disavow writing this.)

Ahab said...

"Lady Gaga has yet to find her voice for social good, but she's young."

To the contrary, Lady Gaga has advocated well for LGBT youth.

Matthew said...

I thought Lady Gaga's repeated, relentless and ongoing support for DADT repeal was great, including: going to Maine, talking about it to the media whenever she could, becoming twitter pals with Harry Reid on the issue, etc. She was one of the people that kept the issue alive so waffly democrats couldn't avoid it.

the cajun said...

Confession accepted. Penance (is there penance in the Episcopal Church?) is a very dry Bombay Sapphire Martini WITH vermouth.

Great post. Love you!

JCF said...

What I find amazing, is as anti-gay Christianists and anti-religious LGBTs dig in their heels (heh, just typed "hells") against each other [the latter attacking their LGBT-affirming religious friends, instead of just the phobic former, who deserve it], Gaga is the one insisting BOTH God created us LGBT *and*


And Faith.

Queer Faith.

Go Gaga!

[As I said, only semi-jokingly, at Thinking Anglicans: "U2charist left me cold, but bring on Gagarist!" ;-)]

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - Gaga has redefined avant garde. Not to worry. Your secret is safe with me. Just keep your granddaughter away from this blog.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ahab. Right you are. Thanks for the reminder.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - Amen. Right you are. My memory failed me. My bad. Apologies to Lady Gaga.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, cajun my sweet, dear man. I'll take you up on that penance when I'm in RB the week of March 7th. But, just a whisper of vermouth. I haven't been THAT bad.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Gagacarist! I love it. We could do "Bad Romance" as the processional hymn. "Paparazzi" as the Gradual Hymn. "Poker Face" as the Offertory. "Eh, Eh, (Nothing Else I can say)" as the communion hymn "Telephone" as the post communion hymn and "Just Dance" as the recessional.

Hmm . . . we gotta get "Alejandro" in there someplace. Maybe the Offertory Anthem?

walter said...

..I hear the same message Elizabeth. I will be working on Jorgen Moltmann. In the Name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus The Christ.

Walter Vitale

it's margaret said...

I love Lady Gaga too. I'm gonna love watching her mature --yeppa.

And once my mother said something to the effect --stop that margaret! it's not lady-like.

To which I responded --I am never going to be a lady.

and my mom said, so what will you grow up to be?

and I said without hesitation --a woman.

I think she understood. Immediately.

Love to you Cowboy Girl.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

And, a helluva woman you've become, Margaret. I suppose you can pick out the troublemakers in the nursery.

Anonymous said...

I am glad I wasn't raised religious; people are constantly going on about being ex-this, that and the other; nobody has to recover from agnosticism or atheism.
Plus you dont' have to spend money or time or effort on other peoples' projects and agendas like believers do.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Nixon - Well, Jesus said, "Where your heart is, there also will be your treasure." If you don't share your wealth with the church, I hope you share it in other places that are doing important work to change the world.

JCF said...

We talked about it: they did/celebrated it!

Gaga Mass

Gregory Scaff said...

I really appreciate the originality of Lady Gaga's fashions- what a breath of fresh air in a stale era-rock on!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Your photo appears next to Lady Gaga's at the top of this blog and I see a beautiful similarity in the tilt of the head, the fall of the hair...

Another good Gaga song is "Born This Way."

I wonder what you think of her new video "Judas"?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, she's Italian. I'm Portuguese - and, deeply flattered if you see any similarity beyond that.

I just watched Judas. I'm not overly impressed, actually. I notice she didn't sing it when she performed at MSG for the HBO special. Good call.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I just added a link to this post in the comments on "The Queer Spirituality of Lady Gaga" by theologian Patrick Cheng over at my blog.

A favorite quote from his insights: “Lady Gaga is also a queer spiritual evangelist who refuses to shy away from controversial religious topics. Indeed, the provocative lyrics of several songs in Born This Way challenge, or ‘queer,’ a number of deeply-held theological beliefs.”

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, my dear. I think Patrick is brilliant. How blessed are we to have his voice in our community?

Grace-WorkinProgress said...

I stumbled across your blog a while looking for a picture of sadness. I am glad I did. This post made me think of how in my childhood I insisted on being Batman and made my bf be robin even though he was a boy. Even when Batgirl appeared she was a wus even if I did like her motorcycle. This has been the story of my life, not willing to settle. Not seeing the obvious fences that were put up to keep me out. Being raised in the pentecost prepared me for life on the outside and that is where I have always been I can relate to Lady Gaga.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Glad you found this blog. Hope you come back to visit again. I love Lady Gaga.

Paul (A.) said...

I just LOVE Lady Gaga's quote reported in yesterday's Star-Ledger: "I know you want to talk about sex and cocaine and all of that, but the truth is I don’t want anyone doing drugs, a, and b, honestly you should wait as long as you can to have sex, because as a woman you don’t even begin to enjoy it until your mid-20s. When you’re 17, you don’t even know how to operate what’s going on down there and you shouldn’t try."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - She rocks!

Emma said...

Cowboy girl - I like it!
Have you read Caitlin Moran's Lady Gaga interview? - v interesting analysis, plus Moran is hilarious.

Dom said...

Thanks for a great post! (I'm only a year late in finding it and 3 years late in discovering how good Lady Gaga is.) At age 59 and 1/2, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I love Lady Gaga, but I do. She rocks!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dom - Gaga love is ageless.