Lady Gaga is courting controversy once again—of course—with the second single from her Born This Way release. Just as Madonna once shook up the music world's spiritual status quo with "Like a Prayer" (in 1989), so is Gaga in 2011 as she appropriates a tragic character from the gospels and reshapes his narrative.
The story this time has Mary Magdalene confessing her love for the duplicitous disciple. Over and over again we hear Gaga-as-Mary sing, "I'm in love with Judas, Judas."
It's a bad romance indeed, and Mary knows it. Yet she says, "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." Then, as if admitting her folly even after she gives into it, she rationalizes, "I'm just a holy fool, oh baby, it's so cruel."
The next lines seem to be directed at Jesus: "I'll bring Him down, bring Him down, down/A King with no crown, King with no crown."
Catholic League president Bill Donohue is not impressed. "Lady Gaga tries to continue to shock Catholics and Christians in general: she dresses as a nun, she gets raped, she swallows the rosary," he said in an official statement. "She has now morphed into a caricature of herself. She is falling short. She wants to shock, does she actually believe her own BS?"
The question is crass, but it may be worth trying to answer. Take a look at the last—and most lyrically problematic—verse in the song: "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 offensed/Or wear ear condom next time."
I'm sure there are many possible interpretations for Gaga's bizarre mixture of spiritual and sexual wordplay here. So we'll settle for her own. In a widely publicized interview with Britain's NME magazine, Gaga said this about her need—or not—for repentance: "People say I am trashy or pretentious or this and that. ['Judas' is] my way of saying, 'I've already crossed the line. I won't even try to repent. Nor should I."
Her video, not surprisingly, amps up these themes. It imagines Jesus and His disciples as a biker gang, with Gaga riding with Jesus but lusting after Judas. Jesus' leather-clad posse ends up at a roadhouse of sorts called the "Electric Chapel," where Gaga keeps sidling up to the quiet and reserved Christ even as she clearly longs to be with the beer-guzzling, womanizing Judas.
Those images marinate in Gaga's sensual sensibilities: One scene pictures her with Jesus and Judas in a bathtub-like basin, where Gaga washes their feet … while writhing and dancing.
In the end, a mob stones her.
If Gaga intends for any sort of serious point to poke through all the sensationalism—and that's a big if—it seems to be about the battle between our good impulses and the ones we know are wrong. Mary knows that Jesus deserves her loyalty, but Judas is the one she really wants. "I wanna love you," she sings to Jesus. "But something's pulling me away from you/Jesus is my virtue/And Judas is the demon I cling to."
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gaga's creative director, Laurieann Gibson, suggests that's how the video should be interpreted. "It went through several changes and late-night debates because at one point, there were two completely different views and I was like, 'Listen, I don't want lightning to strike me! I believe in the gospel and I'm not going there,'" Gibson said. "And it was amazing because to have that conversation about salvation, peace and the search for the truth in a room of non-believers and believers, to me, that was saying God is active in a big way. And the place that it came to is surreal."
Gibson also believes Gaga's creative team succeeded at steering clear of sacrilege or blasphemy. "We don't touch on things that we have no right touching upon, but the inspiration and the soul and idea that out of your oppression, your darkness, your Judas, you can come into the marvelous light. So it's about the inspiration and to never give up."
But remember that Gaga says it is about giving up—and giving in. She told MTV, "'Judas' is a metaphor and an analogy about forgiveness and betrayal and things that haunt you in your life and how I believe that it's the darkness in your life that ultimately shines and illuminates the greater light that you have upon you." Then, in a separate interview with USA Today, she added, "It's meant more to celebrate faith than it is to challenge it."
Is it? Can anything Gaga says really be taken at face value anymore? I'll not answer that. But even if we avoid judging her motives, we're still left with the results: an underwear- and lingerie-clad woman vamping for the illicit lover who's luring her away from Jesus Himself. Her final choice? Judas.