Now, taking a lead from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, everyone is comparing Gaga to Madonna. To me Madonna will always be a mediocre talent, but one of her better songs is "Like a Prayer," which came out in 1986. Many conservative culture warriors wrongly considered the video for "Like a Prayer" blasphemous, and are now juxtaposing it with a new video by pop star Gaga. In the video for her song "Alejandro," Gaga is dressed in a red latex nun costume. She swallows a rosary and is depicted in scenes of sadomasochistic sex and Nazi marching troops. As night follows day, conservatives went nuts. Donohue called Lady Gaga a "Madonna wannabe." The rest of the right-wing photosphere fell into place.
They will miss a crucial fact: Madonna's video for "Like a Prayer" is an intelligent and even devout meditation on grace, love, and conscience. Lady Gaga's is lazy trash.
As I will explore in my forthcoming book A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll, Madonna's video is actually a powerful depiction of the vitality of the Catholic saints and their ability to intercede in our lives and give us gifts of courage. In the video, Madonna witnesses a black man falsely accused of a crime. Terrified of the racists in the town, she flees into a church, where she prays to St. Martin de Porres, a black saint. She falls asleep, and in her dream the statue of the saint comes to life, becoming her lover. She wakes up filled with a new bravery. She fingers the real criminals and ends the video jubilantly dancing with a gospel choir.
When "Like a Prayer" was released, it was completely misunderstood by conservatives. A bishop condemned it. So did Donohue. On the other side, liberals mindlessly defended Madonna without understanding the message of the video. The only truly coherent analysis came from Father Andrew Greeley, a liberal Catholic priest. "Like a Prayer" was blasphemous, wrote Greeley in America magazine, "only for the prurient and the sick who come to the video determined to read their own twisted sexual hang-ups into it. Only for those who think that sexual passion is an inappropriate metaphor for divine passion (and thus are pretty hard on Hosea, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Teresa of Avila)."
Lady Gaga's video for "Alejandro" is not just slightly dissimilar to "Like a Prayer" - it's like a fascistic antipode. There is no moral story, no call to conscience. The very language of the bodies is different. In "Like a Prayer," Madonna and the gospel choir dance with freedom and individual joy. They are powered with the power of the Holy Spirit, which gave Madonna the courage to fully respond to the call from her conscience. In "Alejandro," the dancing is militaristic, joyless. The scenes of sadomasochism are cold and dehumanizing; they reek of fascism. The entire thing is cold.
We've gotten to a point in our culture where we expect the "avant-garde" left to embrace absolutely anything that gives them the delicious frisson of transgression - no matter how tired and, well, conservative their tropes have become. Pop singer Katy Perry was right when she tweeted, "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke."
But I want better from my conservative friends. I became a conservative because of the ideas of the movement. Irving Kristol, Thomas Sowell, and Midge Decter are people who rely on facts, common sense, and age-old wisdom about the nature of the human person to come to conclusions about politics. But they are like the worst knee-jerk lefty when it comes to pop culture. I fear most of them have not listened to a record since Pat Boone was a star.
This article was originally published by the Washington Post's On Faith.