We are happy to have Ellyn vonHuben as a new contributor to the Word on Fire Blog. To begin, Ellyn tells us a bit about herself:
"I am a native of Wisconsin and graduated from Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois with a B.A. in art history, which included a heavy emphasis on religious studies. Marriage, motherhood and conversion to the Catholic Faith are high points in a resume that also includes flophouse concierge, headmistress of an excruciatingly exclusive school, blogger and part-time church secretary."
She will offer poignant commentary on cultural issues from a fresh, new perspective which is in keeping with the Faith and the mission of renewing the mind of the Church. Welcome, Ellyn!
In her inaugural post, Ellyn takes on the cultural sensation of Lady Gaga, offering a Catholic perspective on this popular musician's "Bad Romance," which she defines as "misdirected eros, misappropriation of religious symbolism, and mistaken hyperdulia of the wrong Madonna... all set to an irresistible beat."
It has been hinted, though no official statement has been issued, that the Madams of the Sacred Heart have been none too pleased with one of their alumnae
, the cultural tour de force: Lady Gaga. (No mention is made of her Sacred Heart Passport being revoked.) Can we find anyone who hasn’t heard of her - or at least had some subliminal exposure to her work? I would have to guess that the Sisters’ primary quibble with Gaga is her salacious undulations, smutty lyricism and the attendant dubious publicity…and perhaps a bit of embarrassment over the discernible holes in her religious formation.
So, why should we care? Because Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, is blessed with a rich talent for the pop music genre, and it is doubtful that she will be going away anytime soon. As much as concerned parental authorities like to predict that these ‘bad influences’ are just flash-in-the-pan phenomena, the pans are large and the flashes are sometimes indefinitely prolonged. A prime example is the Beatles (or the Rolling Stones, if you wish), who have not fulfilled the predications that they were just a fad. Or, closer to the topic, Madonna. Gaga disavows the label of “Madonna wannabe,” but the influence is apparent to even the most casual observer.
Madonna, whose work has inspired several decades of adulation and controversy, is running out of shock value and much in the way of original music. Lady Gaga has assumed the mantle of queen of Catholic-girls-gone-bad. Very, very bad.
“Bad,” yes - but her tunes are just so very catchy. The videos are a difficult to watch hodgepodge of imagery thrown at the viewer in hopes that something will titillate. But the music... While on the elliptical or loading the dishwasher, the Gaga on my iPod keeps things moving. Of course, that is part of the problem. Although I am, I hope, a bit too old to be led astray by song lyrics, there are plenty of listeners who aren’t. In any discussion of words and music, you will find the people who say, “It’s just the music I like; I don’t pay attention to what they’re saying.” I know I’ve said it, and I know it is a lie. I’ve taught my children to conjugate Latin verbs to the tune of the Mexican hat dance (try it... amo/amas/amat - amamus/ amatis/amant. Catchy right?) using a tune as a conduit. Content seeps into the brain via the “earworm
,” and as derivative as much of Gaga’s music is, she adds her own splash of originality that keeps the fans interested.
Lyrics are important. Words are important. In the beginning was the Word. What’s the good word? A man is as good as his word. But only say the word and I shall be healed.
What of the words of a performer who has two songs listed in the Boston Public Health Commission’s Top Ten List of Songs with Unhealthy Relationship Ingredients...
a performer who uses her talent with the turn of a phrase in service of an untethered eroticism? I would say that those are the words (and accompanying images) of an artist whose body of work illustrates St. Thomas Aquinas’ pronouncement on lust: “Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.”
No discussion of Lady Gaga can overlook her use of religious imagery. Like many not particularly well-catechized people of her generation, she knows just enough to make her dangerous. There is the longing for the sacred that leaves us open to powerful imagery, but this openness to religious imagery is so easily exploited with the cheapest ploys.
Item 1052 in my trusty Baltimore Catechism
gives a simple definition of sacramentals: “A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion...” There is the problem. The abuse of sacramentals (and sacramental imagery) will excite the opposite of good thoughts and fail to increase devotion. And to the pious, for whom sacramentals do “excite good thoughts by recalling to our minds some special reason for doing good and avoiding evil; especially by reminding us of some holy person, event or thing through which blessings have come to us,” to witness the desecration of these things is an offense that can hardly be dismissed with a “she knows not what she does.” From the cross in the title of The Fame Monster
to the nun’s rubber habit and swallowed rosary in the Alejandro video (trust me, I forced myself to watch all eight minutes and forty-three seconds), it is apparent that Lady Gaga believes that she knows what she does.
Larry King’s recent interview with Gaga, particularly in the discussion of religion, hit me with the effect of those proverbial fingernails on the blackboard: the depressing dismissal of religion for some nebulous spirituality; the blatant misunderstanding of God, his mercies and his Church. However, she certainly knows how to cash in on those affections that distract from and supplant spiritual love.
“Heaven or Hell - I guess I could go either way, couldn’t I?” she replied to Larry’s query regarding the final disposition of her soul. That much she got right. We can hope that through God’s grace - and where sin abounds may grace abound even more - that her prodigious talents and energy be put to better use… for her sake and ours.
“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future” is a popular quote from Oscar Wilde. Gaga has a long way to go. The surprises don’t stop. (Lady Gaga attends Sister’s Sacred Heart Graduation in See-Through Pantsuit! Lady Gaga Banned from New York Yankees Clubhouse! Or Was She?) So let’s keep her in our prayers. Indignant petitions might salve our feelings but have little effect in the face of enormous profits for the music industry. She isn’t my next door neighbor, so there is no hope of me sneaking in to hide a Green Scapular under her mattress. Prayer, though, is the positive action for those appalled, saddened, and/or entertained.
That confidence, the flippant bluster, the kabuki-like costumes - those are a shell separating Stefani Germanotta from the flamboyant, concupiscent Lady Gaga. Our Lord is waiting; he is waiting for Stefani, who “in the waters of Baptism died with Christ and rose with him to new life.” She possesses a heart like all of us; a heart restless until it finds its rest in the Lord. And when she is ready, the message she receives won’t be, “We're sorry. The number you have reached is not in service at this time.”
Ellyn vonHuben is a Blogger for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.