By Taylor Ott
As a long-time Lady Gaga stan, one of the most interesting things to me about Gaga’s music has always been the way in which her Catholic background provides context and language for so much of her work. Sometimes it is a prominent part of the subject material, sometimes it shows up in the music video imagery, and sometimes it just provides an apt metaphor – but religious language is frequently present to some extent. After the stripped-down album Joanne and her much-acclaimed version of A Star is Born, Lady Gaga recently returned to her dance-pop roots with her newest album, Chromatica. As in previous dance albums like The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Artpop, Chromatica is not boiling over with theological imagery. But it is still peppered throughout, and there’s something new about it here when compared to songs like “Born This Way” or “Judas”: she’s speaking like an outsider now.
Studies have revealed for some time now that Millennials are leaving Catholicism (as well as some Protestant denominations) en masse largely because of the institution’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people. Lady Gaga, herself openly bisexual and a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, is well-poised to be one of them. By my count, four of the tracks on Chromatica show her movement away from the religious institution of Catholicism, though like others of her generation, not necessarily away from God or the sacred.
“Rain on Me”
Ariana Grande, who has dabbled in feminist theology herself, joined Mother Monster for this hit single. The primary metaphor operating in this song is rain/water and it takes on several meanings, one of which is baptism (Ariana sings “Let it wash away my sins”). But while the rain retains some redemptive quality, it’s not straightforward salvation by any means. The rain is not their first preference (“I’d rather be dry”), it’s harmful in some way (“Water like misery”), and it’s something to be challenged as one might challenge an obstacle (“I’m ready, rain on me”). At the very least, baptism gets associated with hardship by proxy; quite possibly, the same element that she finds redemption in is also one that harms her or keeps her from being whole. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be an unusual feeling for a bisexual woman who grew up Catholic.
There’s just a passing reference to theological language in this track, but it’s not insignificant. A line in the second verse goes “Dragon’s eyes watch, goddess breathing/Give me something to believe in” – now, I’m at a loss about the dragon eyes, but reference to a goddess could be read as consistent with her collaboration with the “God is a woman” singer and a recent Instagram post in which Gaga called God “she.” In my estimation, it’s also the first time that Gaga has used theological language so far outside what is thought of as traditional Christianity. Prior songs like “Judas” got playful with Christian imagery, but these were still fundamentally based on existing, mainstream Christian tropes. This, on the other hand, recalls strains of feminist theology that either reclaim feminine God-language from within the tradition or that tap into non-Christian traditions that use feminine names for the sacred (as Rosemary Radford Ruether does in Sexism and God-Talk, for instance). Where “Judas” and “Born This Way” took classic sexist and homophobic images and flipped them on their heads, “Enigma” uproots the images altogether – Lady Gaga is now looking outside the core of the institutional tradition to find “something to believe in.”
“Sine from Above”
One of several collaborations on the album, this one pairs up Lady Gaga with her mentor, Elton John, and it is probably not by accident that lyrics about losing hope and finding it again are heard in the voices of two queer artists. Gaga’s verse seems to reflect on feeling abandoned by her faith, and if we listen to it seriously, it should be taken as nothing short of an indictment of the institutional Church she grew up in:
“When I was young
I prayed for lightning
My mother said it would come and find me
I found myself without a prayer
I lost my love and no one cared…
Yeah, I looked
With my face up to the sky but I saw
Yeah, I stared
While my eyes filled up with tears but
There was nothing there…
I heard one sine from above…
And it healed my heart”
We’re clearly talking about a faith context here, but the love lost could reference any number of things – perhaps her sexuality, sexual assault, or mental illness. If the implication here is that God felt absent because of a lack of compassionate response from her faith community, it is difficult to tell which it might be because the institutional Roman Catholic Church has not shown itself to particularly care about any of them. In the absence of RCC responsiveness, she has to look elsewhere for healing – in this case, music proves to be the “sine” she was looking for.
Again, Lady Gaga is not alone in feeling alienated by the Catholic Church. While undeniably personal, her words here might as well represent the swaths of people who rebel against the Church’s treatment of women and the LGBTQ+ community and find themselves feeling exiled from their church because of it. Those with power would do well to take this as a warning that uncompassionate and unjust positions not only push away people from the Church, but risk making God difficult to find.
Given the album’s exilic movement, it’s only proper that we end in Babylon, the place of exile in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a party song with a perspective reversal – the characters hang out with Gaga “ancient city-style” on top of the Tower of Babel as they climb to heaven, presumably the good guys in this version of the story. The lyrics may not demonstrate overwhelming theological depth (and include so many ambiguous pronouns!), but it’s a familiar Gaga-esque move of taking religious imagery, playing with it, turning it upside down, and adding a little “fame monster.” The image of Babylon as the city of exile is a thematic coalescence of every other theological reference on the album.
The good news, though, is that exile does not equal solitude. In “Babylon,” there’s community (everything is “we”), there’s encouragement to keep going and recognition of the value of each person (“Battle for your life”), and there’s even hope of finding God there.
So for all those finding themselves exiled from faith institutions over issues of justice, Chromatica offers a ray of light: you have both God and Mother Monster on your side.
Taylor Ott is a PhD candidate at Fordham University in theological and social ethics. Her doctoral work is on the role of conflict (or more often, the lack thereof) in Catholic social thought, and engages intersectional feminist ethics as a resource for thinking through the presence of conflict in the process of social transformation. She holds a master’s in theology from St. John’s University in Queens and a bachelor’s in psychology from Michigan State University.