What appears to be a demo version of a new Lady Gaga song, titled either “Burqa” or “Aura” or some combination of both, has leaked in advance of the release of her forthcoming album ARTPOP, and the results are both musically and politically disconcerting. Analogizing wearing a burqa to seeking privacy as a celebrity, she sings:
I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choiceMy veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my faceYou want to fancy me cause . . . woman to loveBut in the bedroom, the size of them’s more than enoughDo 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 loveDo you wanna peak underneath the cover?Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the auraBehind the aura, behind the aura, behind the auraEnigma popstar is funShe wear burqa for fashionIt’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion
As Carmen Rios writes, “Instead of giving insight into a heritage that already exists, she superimposes her own desires — to be seen as sexual in a specific way — onto women who never asked for it. She reduces a religious and cultural tradition to a sexual ploy; the burqa becomes a way for Gaga to seem coy and mysterious. To Lady Gaga, the burqa is a sexual accessory, instead of a garment with layers of significance that she doesn’t have the experience to understand or the right to play with.”
But while the song may come as a shock to those who see Lady Gaga as a progressive advocate, its sensibilities aren’t exactly new to Lady Gaga’s work. While she does a great deal of political work, often in ways I find admirable, her explicitly political songs have often been some of her most awkward work, particularly when it comes to her handling of race, and
“Born This Way,” her now-famous equality anthem, is at its strongest in the beginning when it’s a personal narrative about the support Gaga’s fictionalized narrator got from her mother, and when it invokes a kind of camp sensibility. But the song’s so eager to include everyone that it ends up with some lyrics that artistically and politically clumsy at best, like the “Whether you’re broke or evergreen / You’re black, white, beige, chola descent / You’re Lebanese, you’re orient / Whether life’s disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied, or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today / ’cause baby you were born this way.” It was clear then that Gaga didn’t have a fantastic sense that there might be some language, like “chola” or “orient,” that it might have been wise for her to avoid using even if it fit her rhyme scheme, if her primary goal is to lay out a vision of intersectional solidarity. And as that actual vision goes, “Subway kid, rejoice your truth / In the religion of the insecure / I must be myself, respect my youth” may be good longitudinal self-help advice, but it’s hardly an immediate remedy for people who are being violently bullied, or who are disadvantaged or disenfranchised by law and custom:
From the same album comes the truly cringe-inducing “Americano,” an ostensible marriage equality track, which features her doing a rather awkward Spanish accent, and singing lyrics like “I don’t speak your, I don’t speak your language oh no /I don’t speak your, I won’t speak your Jesus Christo / I don’t speak your, I don’t speak your Americano.” Once again, it might be more effective to speak about the challenges binational couples, many of whom were forced to live abroad because the Defense of Marriage Act prevented the non-U.S.-born partners from becoming American citizens, by bringing in another voice, someone who could actually speak in Spanish, and not implying that such a character would use pidgin English. And while Gaga frequently represents Catholicism as both a powerfully magnetic force in her own life and as a source of sexual repression, given the large number of religious people who have done a great deal of work to support marriage equality, Gaga once again offered up a simplistic political message rather than a rich and nuanced one:
The best political song Lady Gaga’s ever released, in fact, probably wouldn’t be identified as such. “Monster,” from her third EP, The Fame Monster, sounds in many ways like a party track in keeping with Gaga’s previous smashes, like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” But its night-out narrative takes a far darker turn. While out at the club, Gaga locks eyes with a guy who’s clearly into her. “I asked my girlfriend if she’d seen you round before / She mumbled something while we got down on the floor baby / We might’ve fucked not really sure, don’t quite recall,” she says. The implication is clear: Gaga’s friend may have had sex with the guy while she was unable to give consent. And what happens next is ugly and frightening. “I wanna Just Dance / But he took me home instead / Uh oh! There was a monster in my bed / We french kissed on a subway train / He tore my clothes right off / He ate my heart then he ate my brain,” Gaga explains. That smooth slide from consent to rape is horrifying. And “He ate my heart and then he ate my brain” is a beautiful illustration of the visceral horror of sexual predation:
There’s no question that as an advocate, Lady Gaga’s done enormous good in raising the profile of issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality, and Russia’s anti-gay laws. I just wish that her songs were as nuanced and effective as her political work can be. Using your power in service of others is a generous act. Speaking for others in your music in a way that doesn’t recognize the difference between elevating their voices and subsuming them, is less noble, and less musically effective.