Being religious, I am always happy to encounter blasphemy; it shows people still care. Katy Perry, apparently, does not agree: she’s been attacking Lady Gaga’s new music video, “Alejandro,” for combining “sex and spirituality.” This beef appears looks like the latest installation in the long-running American kulturekampf. Perry grew up Christian, is socially conservative (read: homophobic), but also poses topless for Rolling Stone. Gaga is classic blue state: beloved by gays, androgynous, totally artificial, and an almuna of NYU.
I don’t think much of this analysis. Indeed, following Dylan’s skepticism of common media narratives, I suggest that we rethink some old cultural binaries. I’ll do so through a video in which the extremes of sex and religion meet: the following Orthodox parody of Lady Gaga.
The video divides the life cycle of the Orthodox woman into three parts. Domestic, asexual childhood is set to “LoveGame”; troubled adolescence, a time fraught with both troubling sexuality and intense religiosity (“frumming out”), to “Bad Romance”; and the retreat into their marital privacy to “Telephone.”
Jewish parodies of popular culture are, as David Kaufmann points out, nothing new. American-Jewish Parody, as Kauffman shows, achieved a nervous détente with the surrounding culture. On the one hand, the genre suggests anything you might want in the outside world has its Jewish counterpart. For your cell-phone, you can substitute an engagement ring; for your unhealthy sexual relationship, an absent but deeply erotic Messiah. On the other hand, by matching elements from inside with elements from outside, these parodies accentuate the differences: the parody is worthwhile only because of the gap between “some heavy touching” and “a shabbos kugel.” If it’s not clear whether Chagaga’s laughing at Gaga or at Orthodoxy, it’s because, as Judith Butler writes:
“Parody requires a certain ability to identify, approximate, and draw near; it engages an intimacy with the position it appropriates that troubles the voice, the bearing, the performativity of the subject such that the audience or the reader does not quite know where it is you stand, whether you have gone over to the other side, whether you remain on your side, whether you can rehearse that other position without falling prey to it in the midst of the performance.”
Butler’s point explains why the Daily Show’s “faux-sexist” humor is (for me) the tensest part of the show (which has its own gender trouble); parodic jokes are always an instance of the thing they’re parodying, so by necessity, you cannot draw firm lines between parodying sexism (or racism) and performing it. All parody, in a very limited way, involves something like blackface.
Thus, it’s hard to say whether “Chagaga” is propping up traditional gender norms or subverting them. On the one hand, the engagement ring gives a woman the power of Gaga’s cell phone: the power to reject unwanted male advances. The video plots towards marriage, which affords the girls status and security. Similarly, “Telephone” – part of the ingenuity of “Chagaga” is that Gaga’s videos have their own distinct narrative arc – plots towards the freedom of the telephone.
On the other hand, both tichel and telephone depend upon male desire (and control): you can turn off the phone only because you are “busy” in the club (and thus the object of other desire), you have the ring only because a man uses it to ritually purchase you. If rings symbolize acquisition, cell phones metonymize a culture of consumption; Gaga’s freedom in the song boils down to her being a hot commodity. “Chagaga” concerns the places where empowerment and oppression are entangled. Who knows where the celebration ends and the critique begins?
This problem’s already implicit in the video of “Telephone,” which shows Gaga talking on a prison phone. The video is part of the awful “Women in Prison” genre, full of the worst objectification and misogyny; but unlike those movies, which turn prisons into clubs, suggesting that exploitative, repressive places are sites for sexuality, “Telephone” turns a club into a prison, suggesting that a supposedly joyful, free social scene carries its own ugly underside of repression and violence. When you read closely, the video subverts, whereas when you read broadly, it supports.
That’s true for “Chagaga” as well. The first section celebrates the domestic training of girls, who seek maternal approval for cooking and preparing for Shabbos. But it does so against the backdrop of “LoveGame,” in which Gaga says that she “wants to ride on your disco stick,” that she’s “educated in sex,” and climaxes thus:
“I can see you staring there from across the block with a smile on your mouth and your hand on your huh
The story of us — it always starts the same with a boy and a girl and a huh and a game”
In the context of a sexualized childhood, the first part of “Chagaga” isn’t about food; it’s about the calculus of desire. All the speech is directed towards an absent man, who will presumably fulfill the ritual functions (Kiddush, motzi). Cooking connects the children to the wives they become at the end of the video, and it becomes a safe conduit for eroticism. The chollent is “fine” and the girls want a taste of someone’s “knishes.” Later, the mc has a “sweet tooth” and asks, “Could you make me some frum chabushkas?” To my knowledge, “chabushka” is a made-up word; it sounds as if it were Yiddish for some old-world delicacy, but it is actually just a codeword for sex, a symbol with its literal meaning effaced. This erotic energy undermines domestic virginity and innocence but also sits ambiguously besides it; in fact, they depend upon each other.
What does all this have to with Katy Perry’s breasts? We’re encouraged to think of American culture as a battlefield; I’m less bothered by the “battle” than the “field,” the idea that cultural attitudes, values, experiences, and power-relations are distributed across a geographic space such that we can mark off distinctive positions, fortresses, and contested territory. That’s the idea embedded in the language of “blue states” and “red states,” which makes it sound as if our best language for culture comes from Color War. When Katy Perry says that she doesn’t “mix” sex and spirituality, she means that these two things are different places on her cultural map, like Los Angelos and Topeka.
“Chagaga” reveals a deeper truth; cultural positions are inherently entangled and interdependent. American-Jewish assimilation is a microcosm for the way all culture works – through analogy, differentiation, borrowing, parody, subversion and a million other processes, all of which involve the interrelationship of seemingly conflicting parts. Anyone who has ever lusted after the Messiah knows that.