Lady Gaga is back with "Born This Way," and yet again, we will try to deconstruct it. Last time, we explored the ins and outs and all the subtle imagery, influences, and meaning behind Gaga's music video for "Telephone." Her latest is just as controversial and confusing as "Telephone"—but it's also perhaps the most concept-driven video she's released so far.
Initial reports and feedback for the video—which premiered Monday on VEVO—ran the gamut from "the most epic video she's ever done" to "what the hell is going on" and "God, this is gross." Clocking in at almost seven and a half minutes, we think there's more to the story than others give her credit for. Lady G herself wrote the script and treatment for the video, while famed British fashion photographer Nick Knight was brought on to direct, along with choreographer Laurieann Gibson, and Nicole Formichetti, who styled the video. While "Telephone" was a meditation in pop art and exhibited Gaga as a modern-day Dadaist of sorts, "BTW" sees the star moving forward into surrealism, acknowledging Salvador Dali and expressionist Francis Bacon as inspirations. With the songs on her last album, Gaga navigated the trappings of fame, excess, and societal expectations all the while campaigning for female strength. She still does this, but with "Born This Way" she chooses to build a new world entirely rather than attempting to fit anyone else's mold.
Our journey into Lady Gaga's space-age utopia opens with some telling, very Gaga imagery set against the opening music from Vertigo, scored by Bernard Herrmann. The film was directed by the master of psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock, who is one of the singer's noted inspirations. The clip opens with an inverted pink triangle, a symbol for gay rights, but originally used as badge required to be worn by homosexual men in Nazi concentration camps. In case you've been living under a rock, "BTW" is about gender equality and gay rights, so no surprise here.
Within the triangle, we see a city skyline (a heavy nod to Metropolis, but more on that later) and...a unicorn. Whee! The unicorn matters for several reasons: not just campy and fun, the unicorn serves as a metaphor for strength in the Hebrew Bible—depicted as "powerful, fierce, wild"—which is what Gaga is championing here. Perhaps even more interesting is the unicorn's medieval significance: The creature was popularized during that time through a story about a unicorn who was tamed by a virgin maiden; the unicorn became a symbol for the relationship between Virgin Mary and Christ—pure love and immaculate conception. And, wouldn't you know it, Lady Gaga describes the process of recording "Born this Way" to Vogue in their latest issue, saying: "the gates just opened, and the songs kept coming. It was like an immaculate conception."
Next we have a series of triangles compounding on top of each other, forming a series of "V" signs. A frequently used symbol by Gaga (remember her Pussy Wagon in "Telephone"?), V is for vagina, speaking to another one of Gaga's themes: gender equality.
"This is the manifesto of Mother Monster," Gaga greets us. She's channeling Fritz Lang's 1927 expressionist film, Metropolis—the background behind her regal getup reminiscent of the futuristic cityscape we see in the movie. (Yes, Janelle Monae has also been inspired by Lang for both of her albums. And Beyonce...but we can't really explain that one.) Metropolis depicts a futuristic dystopia in which there is a split between two social classes; an android named Maria (a copy of a real-life girl) is used to incite a revolt among the worker classes. This isn't the first time that Lady Gaga has recreated images from Metropolis—David LaChapelle shot her for Rolling Stone as an android against the famous backdrop in 2009. Her headdress, neck regalia, and wardrobe is an ode to her dearly departed friend and frequent source of inspiration, Alexander McQueen, featuring looks that honor his breathtaking final collection.
There are all sorts of conspiracy theories surrounding Gaga's possible involvement with the Illuminati—a secret society once formed during the Enlightenment, that is now known as a supposed conspiratorial group trying to establish a "New World Order." While it's highly unlikely she's on a mission to brainwash America or control world events, you can bet that she's playing with the imagery to make her own statement about the superficiality of fame and consumer-driven mass culture. So yeah, she uses occult symbolism. Whatever.
Oh, also, her hair is also shaped like a Pope hat. She's God.
The stars are shaped like a uterus!! FEMINISTS, UNITE! A slight rainbow of gay pride emits underneath Gaga as she spreads her arms in the shape of her glowing womb. Alternately, Gaga is also signaling her role as the "Mother" through some crucifixion imagery, likely in the vein of painter Francis Bacon, whom she lists as an inspiration for "BTW." Gaga is ready to die and be reborn for her Little Monsters seeking refuge from various forms of discrimination.
The most obvious and striking image, however is Gaga's birthing scene and how clearly it draws from Salvador Dali's "Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man." Gaga must be a big fan of the Surrealist Manifesto, because her work clearly echoes the mission of the surrealists. Regarded as a revolutionary movement in the name of non-conformity, surrealism frequently uses juxtaposition, absurdism, and elements of the unconscious to make a case for an escape from rationalism and social/societal restrictions. Dali's painting features a figure emerging out an egg-shaped globe from North America, while an androgynous figure stands with a scared child, watching his birth. The painting is said to be a commentary on World War II and of the "man/America struggling to be born" as a new world power, crushing Europe with its hand. Gaga plays with the WWII imagery throughout her video; her goal to create a "new race" is no doubt controversial language to use—but she takes the violent and scarred imagery of our world's past and flips it around to mean the exact opposite of what it did in the Holocaust. Gaga champions a race which is built upon the equality and celebration of all different people, creeds, orientations, and walks of life.
Disgusting gooey birthing scene—TMI is not something this girl understands. A visual interpretation of what Gaga thinks the "mitosis of the future" looks like. High school biology will remind you that mitosis is the process of a single cell dividing into two identical cells. In Gaga-land, this is speaking to the "two ultimate forces" in humanity: Good and Evil.
As the eternal mother, Gaga is exercising her power as a woman and giver of life, literally birthing a new race. The "V" imagery here is another hit-you-over-the-head reference for a vagina, signaling her strength as a woman, and then butterflies fly out from her loins. Illuminati enthusiasts will likely rejoice in the butterfly imagery, which The Vigilant Citizen refers to as a reference to Project Monarch, thought to be a part of Project MK-Ultra, the secret, illegal CIA operation during the 1950s-70s that used various methods to control individuals' mental states and alter brain functions—what Illuminati refer to as "mind control." Project Monarch is dismissed by almost all scholars as there is little to no evidence of its existence, but it is said to be a traumatic mind control technique that creates a dissociation within the individual, who then develops a new personality. Followers of this theory see the butterfly as a symbol for mind control and transformation.
Our guess is that the butterflies represent metamorphosis , renewal, and the "boundless freedom" that Gaga's utopia will feature. The heart formed between Gaga's legs is just another reminder of the most important tenant of Gaga culture: Love thyself.
Gaga pushes for a race which "bears no prejudice, no judgment." While the new race she's pushing for sounds like a good one, the image we see is somewhat troubling; it's hard not to see the sea of white figures and wonder how this is any different than Hitler's plan for a "master race"—and at the same time, we see the birth of Evil. Bodies writhe on top of each other in a scene of the underworld that's portrayed in the works of Bosch,Rodin, Hans Memling, and Jan van Eyck, not to mention a resemblance to Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
This birth gives rise to the Evil Gaga—sitting atop her trademark lightning bolts, she delivers forth a huge gun. The gun functions in the video as it would in reality, taking away life—it strips Gaga of her more worldly beauty, leaving her as a skeleton or a ghost of a person.
This isn't the first time we've seen a glammed-out Gaga rocking a firearm. But unlike the small, yellow pistol she clumsily plays around with in "Video Phone," here Gaga is controlled, dark, and busting out the big guns—literally. The bodies on the ground behind her almost seem to resemble swastikas, a controversial move, but Gaga has a purpose! She does! Just like her appropriation of the pink triangle, Gaga attempts to take another stigmatized emblem and take back ownership of its meaning. Here, she harkens back to the Sanskrit swastika—a symbol of good luck and well-being. "It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-i-m/Just put your paws up/'Cause you were born this way, baby," she proclaims! Equality for all—no matter what religion, faith, or belief you hold!
There's also definite visual homage to Madonna's "Express Yourself" video, which everybody needs to get over because Gaga just really loves Madge, okay? Also, they're both borrowing from Fritz Lang, anyway, so...wash.
In the vein of her idols, Gaga simultaneously asserts her sexuality and averts it with a good ol' crotch grab. In "Telephone" she put an end to rumors of having a penis, but she continues to play with juxtapositions of sexual expectations and gender roles. She's practically naked, clad in skimpy lingerie, her hair is sexed up, and her makeup is bombshell-in-overdrive. Yet she's barefoot and primal, grabbing junk that she doesn't have, and dancing aggressively.
Our heroine is dancing her heart out, and it's obvious that she's enjoying it; but this can be problematic for some. If she's such a feminist, so publicly pushing a pro-woman agenda, why is she dancing around in an itty-bitty bikini? She's embraced androgyny and loves artists like Marilyn Manson—and she does play that up here—but in truth, she tends to waver on her stance as a feminist. It's known that in the past, she's both rejected and embraced the label, instead focusing on her hope to create a more inclusive and peaceful community at large. For Gaga, the idea that she couldn't dance around in her lingerie for the sake of feminism is exactly the opposite of what the word means to her. She wants to dress like a dude with masculine shoulders and play the alpha role, but she also wants to shimmy and show off her body. Gaga knows that sex sells, and everything about her career is a self-reflexive meditation on the very things she finds wrong with society. Go on, girl. Do your thing.
Gaga's third eye is a traditionally colored indigo, known as the "ajna chakra" or the "inner eye," which is known in Hinduism and Buddhism as a gate to higher consciousness. In these faiths, the symbol for the ajna chakra is an inverted triangle within a circle—the triangle metaphor includes not only protection for those struggling with sexual equality but equality on all fronts. While the inner eye is found on one's forehead, Gaga's is on her chin—similar to the look Madonna had going on in "Bedtime Story."
Even made up as a skeleton, Gagaloo manages to somehow look charming. She wears a suit in yet another "Express Yourself" nod, playing with the notion of gender and grabbing her crotch like Madonna, while rocking her famous high ponytail. At the core of it, though, isn't everyone—"no matter gay, straight or bi/lesbian, transgendered life"—just flesh and bone? Gaga enlists the help of Zombie Boy, Rick Genest, a Canadian model who elected to tattoo his face and body as skeleton to prove that fact. (He was featured in a video for designer Thierry Mugler's show, for which Gaga supplied a song.) It's part Dia de los Muertos, part celebration of the basic elements that unite us all—our humanity, our structure (literally), and our faith.
Gaga will save you, Little Monsters! Here Gaga continues to play up her role as both one of the tangled mess of other people in the world, and at the same time elevated to the level of protector or saint. This pose specifically seems to recall Bernini's "The Ecstasy of Saint Therese," depicting a state of—ahem—divine joy. Gaga's always been about sexual empowerment, and invoking religious and spiritual imagery grants those very human feelings a sense of legitimacy. There are also hints of painter Caravaggio's work (particularly of a busty Virgin Mary) and the way he plays with juxtapositions of light and dark, beauty and the slightly grotesque—both frequently used by Gaga.
Gaga speaks the language of teenage boys everywhere, using a "jerk-off" hand gesture to signal a big F-off to all the haters—don't listen to those who don't believe in you, boo!
This moment of unity and reaching out to a God "who makes no mistakes" is a scene of solidarity among both the straight and LGBTQ communities. You were born this way, Gaga assures us, and that makes you right. Gaga scholar Meghan Blalock points out over at Gaga Stigmata that the Queen of Pop is paying tribute to Alvin Ailey's 1960 modern ballet, Revelations. A dance performance in three movements, Revelations is a tribute to traditional slave rituals: "Dancers stick together in close formations and look to the sky, reaching with open hands and using their entire bodies to stretch upward, signifying that they are asking God and their faith for strength and guidance." Blalock notes that even down to the lighting, Gaga echoes Ailey's direction by using low lighting with the emphasis on their outstretched arms and open palms. It's a vulnerable pose, but Gaga challenges her Little Monsters—anyone who has felt out of place or struggled with their identity—to surrender to a higher power: Mother Monster.
In keeping with tradition, she throws up an "All-Seeing Eye"—you can take it as another sign of Illuminati symbolism if you must, or that Gaga believes she is a divine force watching over her loyal fans. The way her dancers are clawing at her reckons her as a deity, and we later see her as a clouded figure, lit up by a halo of light.
Gaga signs off with explicit tributes to Michael Jackson and Madonna—one a misunderstood musical legend, the other a gap-toothed quirky girl, much like Ms. Stefani Germanotta herself. The unthinkable and awesome combination of Michael Jackson + Madonna + Lady Gaga just might equal a unicorn, which is exactly what we see riding off into the metropolis. This time, though, the pink triangle around it is right-side-up, the way it was meant to be. And Lady Gaga is there to burst anyone's bubble who would dare to question that.