Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sisters Three

It is a comic novel about a Christian malgrĂ© lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. … That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.
—Flannery O’Connor, Author’s Note to the Second Edition of Wise Blood

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I’ve long had a special liking for music videos that tell a story that’s woven in with the song itself—I can’t see much point in making a music video without that, actually, or conveying an atmosphere of the same kind—and I am, accordingly, very keen on the videos of Lady Gaga and Florence + the Machine. Lately, I’ve been on something of a kick over Lana del Rey, and it so happens that the three of them, very divergent musical styles notwithstanding, have some striking thematic similarities. I want to take a look at songs of theirs that seem to me interestingly parallel: Lana del Rey’s Gods and Monsters

Lady Gaga’s Judas

and Florence + the Machine’s What Kind of Man.

I strongly recommend watching all three videos first, naturally.

The linkage between them lies in two places: first, that all three are singing about unhealthy relationships with men, and second, all three make extensive use of Catholic symbolism.1 Lady Gaga’s Judas is symbolic of an unfaithful man whom she cannot help loving, and Florence’s anonymous male connection is a man whose personal inconsistency and indecision make him a deeply frustrating partner; in Gods and Monsters, the primary manifested dysfunction is on the other end, with Lana del Rey presented as despairingly insecure and driven to numb her anguish by abusing drugs and sex.

Gods and Monsters begins with an ambiguous swirl of stars or fireflies, followed by near-silent shots of a gang with its women, including Lana, that strongly resembles MS13 (an international Latino crime syndicate that originated in Los Angeles). She herself is presented as a pole dancer and stripper, with a dark glamor of loss looming about her. The lines me and God, we don’t get along, so now I sing / No one’s gonna take my soul away and give to me / This is heaven, what I truly want / It’s innocence lost, sung with exquisite melancholy, are highlighted not only by shots of her dancing in the sea-green light of the club, but by a shot of her lover taking a bite from a richly oversaturated red apple—a faint allusion to the Garden of Eden, especially as she and this same lover are presented as Eve and Adam in the video for Body Electric on the same album. The apple, increasingly eaten, is shown twice more, as is a brief shot of Lana holding a snake, which perhaps serves both as a reference to Satan and as a phallic symbol.

This is followed by a scene of the two at home together, spliced with scenes of Lana dancing or else dressed as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and assorted violent actions and images of the male. He too appears gripped by some kind of anguish—we seem him screaming, or burying his face in his hands, sometimes even while holding his gun (which is tattooed on Lana’s abdomen below her heart). This transitions to a slightly more male-dominated series of images, mostly of gang members carousing and showing off; the coherence of the sequence falls apart slightly as the bridge progresses, as though the dissolution of the two lovers is becoming more extreme. In a way, this is accented by two more appearances of Lana as the Virgin, particularly since all three appearances accompany references to sex.

Judas begins a little more slowly (though, in an odd coincidence, this too starts with gang imagery, more along the lines of the Hell’s Angels than Mara Salvatrucha). Christ and the Apostles are represented as leather-vested bikers, each with their names blazoned on the back of their jackets, and Lady Gaga as an extravagant adaptation of St Mary Magdalene: the opening of the video is predominantly in black and white, with only the long yellow hair and purple cloak of the Magdalene in color.2 As we get a better view of Christ and the Magdalene, the black and white gives way to a rococo-like extravagance of gold and silver chains, pendants, and gemstones, including a golden version of the Crown of Thorns. (The complaints of the Catholic League notwithstanding, the Christ or Christ-analogue figure in this video is treated with complete respect throughout—a curious contrast to Madonna’s Like a Prayer, even if this is partly meant as an homage.) The group arrives at a Biblical-style village, what seems from a later shot to be the 'Electric Chapel' that gives its title to another song on the same album, explained by her (and suggested by its own lyrics) as a safe space for love—maybe symbolizing a gay bar, a church, or both. The sweeping reds and violets of Lady Gaga’s most flowing costumes here are striking, and both colors are associated in the Bible with decadent wealth and prostitution, probably an allusion to the traditional characterization of the Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, while most of her other costumes seem to be drawn from Spanish and Latin American depictions of the Magdalene and the Virgin. Judas himself, meanwhile, is shown throughout as drunk, violent, and a womanizer.

The pattern of Lady Gaga’s Magdalene with respect to Judas—sometimes eyeing him or touching him, more frequently thrusting him off or clinging to the Christ figure—is a complement to the lyrics, in which the singer is primarily lamenting her inability to forsake Judas despite his faithlessness: I’m just a holy fool / And baby it’s so cruel / But I’m still in love with Judas, baby … I wanna love you, / But something’s pulling me away from you / Jesus is my virtue / And Judas is the demon I cling to. Shots of Christ and the Magdalene blessing and consoling the habituĂ©s of the Electric Chapel, set beside her gesturing to Peter and then to herself over the line build a house or sink a dead body, remind the viewer of the accusation (so to call it) that Christ regularly socialized with hookers, cronies, and drunks. The crowd around increasingly reach out to Christ beseechingly, while the Gaga-Magdalene finds herself more and more unable to reject Judas. She seems, with Christ’s support, to come close, approaching him wearing a cross and holding a golden gun; but when she tries to shoot Judas, only lipstick emerges from the barrel, and she can do no more than smear his mouth. She falls to her knees between the two, and an interlude, in which she is presented bathing both figures’ feet, alternates with her standing on a rock in front of a breaking wave at night (in a pose that has drawn some comparisons to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus); the reference to the sinful woman of Luke 7 is obvious enough; her finally being overwhelmed by the seawater could represent her inability to withstand her passion for Judas, especially since she is more fully clothed and expressionless in that scene, as if bracing herself to resist; whereas whenever she is shown with the Christ figure, she is far more active and her clothes are more revealing, as if she is more free to be vulnerable. That some of the last shots in the video are of the lipstick-smeared Judas performing his infamous kiss, and Lady Gaga being stoned to death, would seem to reinforce this—she feels that she has let him die, by not ousting Judas. But almost the last shot of all is the Gaga-Magdalene, weeping, falling at Christ’s knees again, and him extending a hand in benediction and kissing her forehead.

The music video for What Kind of Man begins most subtly of the three, with a conversation on a country road between Florence Welch and a male driver, the most prominent male in the video, in whom the others are symbolically summed up—each represents a different strain of his wavering personality. It begins on the theme of the man’s inability, or refusal, to intervene in the pain she experiences: I was on a heavy trip / Trying to cross a canyon with a broken limb. / You were on the other side, like always, / Wondering what to do with life … You were on the other side, like always / You could never make your mind. This is spliced with shots of some of the other male figures, usually in a storm-oriented setting or in a bedroom or bathroom (the two places we are naked and therefore symbolically vulnerable), and with a few shots of Florence herself in the suffering the video deals in. Welch has stated in interviews that the video is meant to allude to parts of the Divine Comedy, and both the sufferings and the apparent cure contain a lot of suggestions of both baptism and exorcism. One of the most arresting images, though it is also among the most brief, is of Florence seated at a dinner table, alone, being abruptly enveloped from beneath by a multitude of human arms.

A full minute passes before the music begins, and it opens with a distant, distorted combination of choir and pipe organ. As this swells and leads into the first spare, haunting lyrics, we see a shot of her, again alone, making her way through a rainstorm to an open church, whose white altar we can see very dimly in the background through a darkened nave. The turning point of the song, in the video, is marked by a sudden car crash, in which we see from within the car that Florence and her lover are in flip over upside down. Here the music becomes bold and loud, changing from organ to electric guitars and sharp percussion. The story-aspect shifts to her in a living room, breathing and swaying; at first she seems to be alone, but she is suddenly surrounded by the group of men representing her lover, who circle around her and pass her between them, with varying imitations of eroticism or violence. This is cut with scenes of her in bed with a lover, and another scene with the group, inside the church, where she is carried to a mattress, apparently unconscious, and the men seat themselves around her, while she thrashes and screams as if being exorcized.

It isn’t until these scenes that we see that her lover, the primary male, has a black eye and a scar on his forehead, as if she struck him with her ringed hand. Around this same time, she picks up the theme of the chorus in the final verse: And with one kiss / You inspired a fire of devotion / That lasts for twenty years. / What kind of man loves like this? … But I can’t beat you / ‘Cause I’m still with you / Oh, mercy I implore / How do you do it? / I think I’m through it, / And I’m back against the wall. The similarity to Judas is obvious, though in my opinion even more powerfully expressed. The mutually unhealthy dynamic is highlighted more than in the other two—it is reminiscent of Florence + the Machine’s earlier song A Kiss With a Fist, about a reciprocally violent relationship. The video closes (almost) on Florence being lifted out of a sea or lake, as if baptized or rescued from drowning, and their maternal tenderness suggests retreat from the chaos introduced by males into a refuge among other women.

The motif shared by these artists is something more than unstable or morbid relationships with men; something more, too, than an interest in Catholic art and symbolism (Catholicism being almost the only religion in the West that is both familiar enough to be communicative, and sufficiently rich in art to have symbols an artist can communicate with). All three, in an ostensibly romantic or erotic context, express the duality of faith. Everyone finds some temptation or other attractive, and sexual desire is always a useful symbol of this, partly because it is near-universal, but mostly because it’s so easy to see how its potency can lead us past boundaries we acknowledge in principle. More than that—and here, though it’s probably coincidental, the fact that darkness and distorted light are used so much in all three videos is an interesting coincidence—we all experience doubt. Neither the atheist nor the priest is exempt from it: Pope Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity, far from being the abstract recitation of brimstone-reeking dogmatica that one might expect from his reputation, opens with an exploration of whether faith is possible in the modern world, and finds in doubt a point of contact between the Christian and the nonbeliever.

Yet all three songs, especially Judas, carry with them the suggestion of an obsession with God, or a being haunted by him, that will never simply go away. At several points in What Kind of Man, we can see Florence and her lover fighting to hold on to one another or get back to one another, through the crowd of men that are at once allegories of his identity and obstacles to his integrity, and it is in the baptismal imagery that the song finds its softening closing. Nor is Lana del Rey’s video exempt. On the surface, it seems more wholly and specifically sacrilegious than the other two—but the persistence of its Christian imagery is in my view suggestive, particularly given her professed Catholicism. Her short film Tropico, which contains her in her Marian costume, as well as the figures of John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus, suggest that she too has an inner multiplicity that cannot be simply dismissed, but that does include the ever-recurring call of holiness.

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1Stefani Germanotta and Lizzie Grant, better known by their state names Lady Gaga and Lana del Rey, are professing if irregular Catholics, and Florence Welch went to a Catholic school as a child.
2I say yellow advisedly. There is no blonde on God’s earth whose hair is that color.

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