May 9, 2011


Gaga Seals It With a Kiss

One of Lady Gaga's strengths as an artist is her ability to trigger associations—to conceal allusions to other songs and images and sounds within her own, whether she's doing it intentionally or not. That's particularly true of "Judas," even beyond its formal resemblance to a few of her earlier hits (the wordless parts are effectively "Bad Romance" inside-out).

The most obvious association here is the way she underscores the resemblance of her voice and self-presentation to Madonna's. If "Born This Way" was a homage to "Express Yourself" first and "Like a Prayer" second, "Judas" is much more about the latter. She even makes use of Madonna's trick of using religious iconography in a way that seems secular and then doubles back to the sacred: Gaga calls herself a "holy fool," and that's precisely the role she's playing here.

Beyond that, though, Gaga's persona is much more theatrical than Madonna's has usually been, and "Judas" is very much a song in a persona. Specifically, it's a song in which Gaga plays the role of Mary Magdalene, as the video she and Laurieann Gibson have made for it makes clear. (Speaking of theatrical songs about that cluster of characters, you can compare "Judas"'s general tone to Judas's song "Heaven on Their Minds" from Jesus Christ Superstar—that link is to Carl Anderson's performance of it from the 1973 movie version.)

"Judas" isn't the first hit song to revolve around a version of Mary Magdalene, either, and if you play it next to Sandra's 1985 European hit "Maria Magdalena," it doesn't sound like 25 years have passed. In fact, the most surprising thing about "Judas" in the context of Lady Gaga's body of work is what a new wave song it is. The shape of its chorus hints at Stock/Aitken/Waterman songs like Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky" (SAW never wrote a song about Judas, although they're said to have written songs for Judas Priest). And the choppy, snarling bass tone and trilling synth part of Gaga's "Judas" have identifiable if distant cousins in the performance of "Girlfriend Is Better" that appeared in Talking Heads' concert movie Stop Making Sense.

Some of its associations are even stronger. The last time somebody had a dance hit with an uncomfortable, minor-key song about a sexually charged personal relationship with Christianity, it was 1989: Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," whose basically-sung-on-one-note chorus echoes "Judas"'s basically-sung-on-one-note verse. Gaga's "Judas" modulates her voice on the pre-chorus ("I'll bring him down... a king with no crown") to a kind of insistent dancehall-reggae punch. And what's the last dancehall-reggae-derived pop hit to have had religious implications? Right: orthodox Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu's 2005 song "King Without a Crown."

The most unusual thing about the version of "Judas" in the video is its interruption: right in the middle of its bridge, the song abruptly cuts off, giving way to a series of quick-cut scenes of Gaga's Mary Magdalene in various contexts, then crashes back in again. That's a neat trick, and not without precedent. Back in 1986, another classic new wave song, New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle," had a video directed by fine artist Robert Longo.

For its first two-thirds, it's a nicely edited if not particularly unusual collection of quick cuts, close-ups, video effects and slow-motion shots of businessmen falling through space (alluding to Longo's "Men in the Cities" series of paintings).

About two and a half minutes into "Bizarre Love Triangle," though, the music suddenly stops, and we see three people, shot in black and white, two of whom are snapping tensely at each other: "I don't believe in reincarnation, because I refuse to come back as a bug or as a rabbit." "You know, you're a real up person." Then, with a synthesizer flourish, the final chorus of the song brings the video as we've known it back.

Is there a connection between New Order's video and Lady Gaga's? It seems like a pure coincidence, an editing gesture two directors happened upon a quarter of a century apart, and it might be. But in Gaga's work, everything resonates, even if it's not directly connected. New Order's Bernard Sumner sings about getting down on his knees and praying—an uncharacteristic gesture for a dance song. And Gaga's video brings out the subtext of her song about spiritual decisions being a choice between Judas and Jesus as lovers: a bizarre love triangle if ever there was one.