Lady Gaga's Cultural Thievery

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Lady Gaga's new single off the forthcoming album ARTPOP leaked online yesterday, and depending on whom you talk to, it's either called "Aura" or "Burqa." Quality of the track aside (music bloggers have mixed opinions), it pretty blatantly sexualizes Muslim women. But that hardly makes it "controversial," which is pretty much as far as our discourse has gotten on the issue.

Look, Taylor Swift's choice of dating partners is controversial. When Miley Cyrus cut all her hair off? That was pretty damn controversial. When a white American pop star fetishizes the women of another culture in order to sell records, that's not controversial. It's unequivocally insensitive, if not worse.

Lady Gaga has worn burqa-like outfits before as a fashion statement. No one is quite sure what to make of them — the Daily Mail wrote that the veiled outfit she wore to a 2012 fashion show courted "controversy," and that she was "treading on dangerous ground." Well, she keeps treading the same ground, without much damage.

The lyrics of Gaga's new single complement the "sexy" burqa-like outfits she has been known to wear (at the same fashion show 2012, she wore a sheer, hot pink burqa with jeweled panties underneath, pictured above). Gaga hasn't confirmed that this leaked single is hers, but it sounds authentic and music blogs are treating it as such. Here are the lyrics to the new song (starting at the bridge, with emphasis added):

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
You want to fancy me cause . . . woman to love

But in the bedroom, the size of them’s more than enough
Do you wanna see me naked, lover?
Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?
Do you wanna touch me, let’s make love

Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura
Behind the aura, behind the aura, behind the aura
Enigma popstar is fun
She wear burqa for fashion
It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion . . . 

Behind the aura, behind the aura,

Behind the curtain, behind the burqa, ARTPOP.

And the audio:

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Gaga's doing a few things here, all of them in questionable taste. She takes on the persona of a woman who wears a burqa, which is a fraught move at best, crass appropriation at worst. She then alludes to the fact that wearing a burqa is a choice for many women and that wearing one can be empowering ("I am a woman of choice"), which betrays a shocking knowledge of, well, pretty much the basic facts about women in Islam.

But then she fetishizes the women who wear the garment ("Do you want to see me naked, lover? Do you want to peek under the cover?"), turning them into sexual objects — which is precisely the opposite of what the burqa is supposed to do. Finally, she tosses off any criticisms that she, as a pop star, might get for donning a burqa ("Enigma popstar is fun/She wear burqa for fashion/It's not a statement as much as just a move of passion").

Basically, Gaga absolves herself from any responsibility by saying she's an "enigma" and is not making a "statement." Famous Americans don't have to worry about cultural complexities. Leave that to women in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. You know, the ones who wear burqas non-ironically.

This obviously isn't the first time a female pop star has used cultural appropriation as a sexy hook for a new single or music video. Earlier this summer, Madonna posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing a chain-link veil resembling a niqab. Apparently the "look" was for a Harper's Bazaar shoot. She captioned the photo, "The Revolution of Love is on . . . Inshallah." Inshallah means "God willing" in Arabic. Earlier, Madonna had practiced the Jewish mystic rites of kabbalah, so perhaps this is all a little confusing. 

Some have speculated that the pop star was trying to make a statement about the oppression of women in predominantly Muslim countries. If she was, it'd be easier to, you know, actually make a statement. Instead of posting some vague, sexy selfie that's destined to get headlines that don't further any cause other than Madonna's own popularity. 

Younger pop stars are learning from Madonna's and Gaga's example. Selena Gomez has been sporting a sexy Hindu look, complete with a bindi and a revealing Arabian Nights-inspired outfit, to promote her single "Come and Get It" this summer. Lady Gaga and Madonna have also worn bindis in the past.


And Miley Cyrus has taken to appropriating a segment of black culture in her new video for her single "We Can't Stop." The star twerks (as she's done before) while black women dance around her. Dodai Stewart of Jezebel wrote of the video: "Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society."  

All four pop stars have been, by all accounts, insanely successful in the music industry. They've sold albums and singles before without having to shamelessly steal from other cultures. It just seems they've figured out that throwing on a bindi, burqa, or grill is a great way to get attention. Maybe we should stop giving it to them. 

Photos by Jonathan Short for the Associated Press, Steve Matthews for Reuters, and via Youtube.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.