Lady Gaga has been my “Mommy Monster” since I first saw her video for “Bad Romance,” loaded with enough horror, feminist and silent film references to give a geek like me a complete nerdgasm. Her music has its own fun and strength on its own, but she’s constantly raised the bar with her music videos, usually revealing layers of meaning to her lyrics by the drama playing out in glorious, sublime imagery.
Imagine my delight when I came across Gaga’s newest video, which implants a healthy dose of science fiction on top of her already established cinematic alchemy of classic film and horror/gothic imagery, enlivening the very straightforward message of “Born This Way” with a commentary on the problematic qualities of any utopia, alluding to science fiction masters such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin in content and imagery.
The video starts with a monologue that sounds like something out of Herbert’s Dune, giving a backdrop to a fanciful utopia where an intergalactic Mother Monster gives birth to ultimate and immortal beauty in a cosmos loaded with yonic (feminine) imagery, including a uterine star system. But this utopia is not complete, because, as she notes, her other half is simultaneously giving birth to a phallic and dark evil that imposes a fascism which oppresses the people into subjection. Her images in the “dark side” call back one of her favorite silent film references as the dark mother sits atop a very Metropolis-like steeple in an atmosphere obviously influenced by Lang’s film and referencing Maria herself, the dark mother who attempts to lead astray the oppressed people doomed to work to make the Metropolis a comfortable place for the well-off.
Gaga is quick to point out, however, that this darkness is as much her as the cosmic mother. In fact, she fears that this evil which she struggles against is almost inevitable as she wonders, “How can I protect something so perfect without evil?” She illustrates our tendency as a species to protect good ideas and ruin them by turning them into a form of fascism, forcing people to conform to the vision and thereby taking away the very freedom we aspire to achieve. Even the name of her imagined territory—G.O.A.T. (Government Owned Alien Territory)—alludes to this proclivity to turn people into commodities (livestock) and twist ideas into something oppressive rather than liberating.
The only path, she posits, is the middle way, as the Mother Monster gives birth to an infinite race of androgynous creatures. She addresses the universal nature of our condition—we’re all the same underneath—by donning makeup and dancing with Rick Genest in parts of the video. Of course, not only does this illustrate the way in which we’re the same beneath the skin, but it highlights the uniqueness of Genest’s choice to stand out and express himself by becoming an “illustrated man.” There are many ways in which we express the uniqueness beneath the skin that come out in the way we choose to express ourselves, from how we dress to what we do. Genest may not have been born with zombified tattoos, but he expresses his perspective and personality by choosing to make his skin into a canvas for artists to help him realize his inner perspective (literally!).
There are a multitude of symbols that pop up throughout the video that reflect this “know thyself” theme. The cosmic mother, for example, wears a third eye, not in the standard place (in the space between the other two), but on her chin. The perspective of the third eye is that which sees beyond the physical and transcends the mundane. This is the eye with which we perceive the spiritual world and embrace the “paranormal.” I’m really not sure about her choice in placing it on her chin, other than perhaps for its shock value. We’re accustomed to seeing a third eye between the other two in the classic chakra location, but on the chin? That’s pretty radical.
The lotus flowers in the opening monologue represent the feminine and purity. The lotus has been a sacred symbol in Egypt, India, and all over Asia, representing divinity and purity. In India, creation started with the lotus, as divine creation is initiated here in the same way. Another symbol layered with too much to write about in just a few lines—research all the layers of this one! An explosion of butterflies also accompanies the birth of the infinite creature, a symbol of metamorphosis—the hoped-for metamorphosis that the cosmic child represents.
The beginning and the end of the video are highlighted with pink triangles, symbols of the gay movement that have a rather dark past—Hitler forced gays to wear the pink triangle in World War II in the same way as the Jews were required to wear yellow six-pointed stars. And, of course, there’s the line, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen,” harkening back to one of the communities that first accepted her—the drag queens!
The unicorn and rainbow from the first and last scenes can have a number of meanings, especially against an urban backdrop. We can look at it as the fantastic crossing over into the mundane, a hopeful message that the idyllic dreams of childhood can be realized and embraced in spite of the harsh reality of the modern world, but in all, it’s an optimistic image, a message of hope that things can change and be new again. The rainbow was, after all, a symbol of God’s promise to Noah of a brighter future and a reminder of God’s love for God’s people. The rainbow has always been a symbol of hope or, in some cases, even a symbol of a bridge to transcendence or the realm of the gods (as in Norse mythology).
If we weren’t certain that her Madonna references were intentional before, the closing scenes of the video prove it with her gap-toothed nod to her predecessor and a white-gloved tribute to Michael Jackson. This video illustrates the progression beyond the work of Madonna, however, because the song that influenced this one—“Express Yourself”—was all about a woman who couldn’t feel complete without a man. The words of Gaga’s song, coupled with the imagery of asexual birth, illustrate the ability of every individual to give birth to their own individuality. We have influences and people who we look to for inspiration, and we should acknowledge that fact (as Lady Gaga does constantly), but she points out that we also shouldn’t be afraid to step away and own our individuality. A woman can grasp her power without the need to lay around hoping for a man to do it for her!
There’s so much to this seven minutes of footage that I really don’t think I can do it justice with a short commentary (besides, I want you to watch the video and figure SOME things out for yourself!). MTV actually managed to do a great article they called a “Pop Culture Cheat Sheet”(though some of the references she makes fall well beyond what most would define as “pop culture”) in which fans commented on the plethora of references in her few minutes of music. They caught a few things that I missed, and I was really impressed with some of the references that they gathered, from Michelangelo to H.R. Geiger (which a friend and I discussed, but I didn’t reference in this article). There were so many images caught after the publication of the first article, in fact, that MTV created a second article.
In reading the MTV articles, for example, I found that a number of fans suggest that the gap-toothed image is actually a representation of her earlier struggles when she was called “rabbit teeth” as a child, which makes sense considering the fact that she sheds a tear as she sings with that makeup, and still works nicely within the framework of the entire concept of being “born this way” and owning not only your talents, but your faults as well (or those things that the mainstream sees as faults).
All in all, the message of “Born This Way” is quite straightforward, of course, but the beauty is in how Lady Gaga has expressed this seemingly simple and empowering message by layering on a mythology that references so many archetypes and raises more questions and thoughts with her imagery. She’s taken the art of the music video to new levels before, and this video continues the process, employing the power of the visual medium to add depth to a clear-cut theme, giving her the opportunity to visually represent the deeper questions that are innate in the expression of individuality. We’re torn, constantly, between hope for utopia and fear of its conformity, and she encompasses the fears and hopes that have been expressed in science fiction for the past couple centuries, opening the door to a dialogue where we can express ourselves again and embrace the wonder of the cosmos while examining our place within its vastness.