‘The Fame Monster’: Jesus and Lady Gaga
Mark Norman, GWC Faculty, Biblical Studies, Philosophy
Lth (BISA), Bth Hons (UNISA), Cth, (University of Cambridge) Mth (UNISA), Dth (UNISA).
‘Whoever finds their life will lose it,
and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 10:39)
Jesus and Lady Gaga? Should we dare to compare the two? Should we view them as sharing anything in common? Are they both ‘celebrities’?
One way to answer this question is to define the meaning of the word: ‘celebrity.’ Lady Gaga is a surely a celebrity, but what about Jesus? When He walked on earth, was he a celebrity?
Firstly, celebrities generally need to have talent. Without question both Jesus and Lady Gaga are talented. Evident in the wisdom of his teaching and his miracles as a man, Jesus’ talents were unparalleled in the history of the world.
Lady Gaga, currently 32 years old was born into a New York Italian immigrant family. Since her 2008 debut album, ‘The Fame,’ she has subsequently released five studio albums. Her most recent release is her Oscar nominated collaboration with Bradley Cooper on the movie sound track: ‘A star is Born’ (2018). Estimates suggest that to date she has sold almost 30 million albums (with over 60 million downloads) and her unique combination of radio-friendly, synth driven, electronic pop music with catchy melodies has captured audiences from all over the globe. She is worth approximately three hundred million Dollars. Now despite possible reservations regarding her lifestyle, one cannot deny she has an incredible voice. Just listen to the YouTube video of her singing ‘Million Reasons’ (from her album, ‘Joanne’) during the 2017 Super Bowl half time show, and you will appreciate her vocal power and range. This lady can sure sing!
Secondly, celebrities need a following. But what about Bible times? Were there individuals living during Bible times regarded as celebrities? Interestingly, we don’t find many ‘celebrities’ in Scripture – certainly not in the contemporary sense of that word. But there are some exceptions to this.
Doubtlessly, David in his day and in his own way, was Israel’s chief ‘celebrity.’ But what about Jesus? Was Jesus as ‘celebrity?’ Consider Mark 1:27 and 6:31. He had an enormous following, indeed, a following beggaring belief. With this in mind, what would happen if Jesus decided to return to a large city today in order to begin a new public ministry? How about New York? We can speculate that if the Son of God were to arrive in New York tomorrow in order to perform miracles similar to those he performed in Galilee two thousand years ago, his celebrity status would be of such a nature that the highways and the airports would become jam-packed. New York would quickly become unnavigable; the Manhattan bridge would be packed and there would be all-round chaos. Think of those professional, celebrity ‘agents’ pushing in around him, falling over each other in order to offer Jesus a ‘lucrative’ contract: A talk show? A movie? What about (in league with big-business pharmaceutical consortiums) a multimedia-driven partnership offering ‘health,’ ‘wealth’ and eternal ‘well-being?’ What about campaigning for Mayor under the rubric: ‘Make New York Whole Again!’
Of course, the Bible does not forbid the decision to start a public singing career. Talented Christians such as Michael W. Smith have successfully managed to combine singing and celebrity status. Yet Jesus was always reluctant to embrace the crowds uncritically. In fact, on those notable occasions when the crowds seemed to follow him for what they could get out of him, he deliberately chose to withdraw. Aware of their fickleness, He would not allow the crowds to dictate his agenda. He is even recorded as referring to the crowds as a ‘wicked and adulterous generation’ (Luke 9:41). As a consequence, during his public ministry, Jesus was always very much aware that He needed to carefully and prayerfully think through His own priorities, especially at potential turning points in his ministry when the crowds beckoned (Mark 1:35). Often, such as in Mark 1:38, He deliberately left the clamouring crowds behind in order to pursue a higher purpose, the need to preach the Gospel. Certainly by his final journey to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane and then to the Cross, most had deserted him. Ultimately, He knew that his life’s calling would sever him from the crowds, not unite them behind him.
Thus, Jesus knew very well that popular culture only acknowledges those celebrity figures who march to its tune, who acknowledge its own priorities and ideologies. Lady Gaga, of course, is sensitive to this, as reflected in her music. In his letters, even Paul the Apostle had to deal with this kind of pressure, particularly at Corinth. The Ancient Greeks also had very specific ideas regarding the kind of celebrities they would choose to support; they had their own market place for the personality cult. Scholarship has shown that when it comes to the Corinth of Paul’s day, there were more than 25 different cults and religions available for people to choose from. And again, all those wishing to sign up as would-be celebrities would have to uncritically adopt the secular values of the city. But for the sake of Christ, Paul refused to sign up and subsequently insisted on supporting himself financially for his first few months in Corinth. Then, throughout his tenure in the city, he wisely (and much to the Corinthian’s annoyance) refused to accept any payment from them. He knew that often ‘he who pays the piper, dictates the tune.’
Thirdly, celebrity often leads to controversy. If Lady Gaga learned anything from Madonna, it is that controversy sells… Today, celebrities are well aware that they need to walk a careful, balanced, marketing tight-rope. On the one hand, in order to succeed, they need to stand out from the crowd, whilst simultaneously on the other, they need to adopt its values. In this regard, Lady Gaga has succeeded and she enjoys the attention. She is one of the most controversial celebrities of the 2000s and she knows how to make an entrance. All of her statements and activities are carefully crafted and scripted. Firstly, of course, there are her outlandish outfits. She arrived at the 2010 MTV Awards wearing a dress made of raw meat – notoriously termed the ‘Meat Dress’ – a brilliant marketing stunt. She turned up at the Grammys in an ‘egg carriage.’ Then there are her claims to be bisexual, and her ongoing conflict with Madonna.
Jesus’ own message and ministry also aroused controversy, but this was of a nature very different to that surrounding Lady Gaga. As we have seen, most importantly, Jesus did not go out of his way to court controversy for its own sake but he knew that the Gospel message would remain controversial in itself as it confronts the world regarding sin and the need for repentance. The Cross was particularly offensive as it appeared to portray Jesus as weak, a ‘loser.’
Fourth, celebrities frequently pay a price. In 2017, Lady Gaga decided to release a ‘tell-all’ video documentary, called ‘Five Foot 2,’ on Netflix. The idea was for a camera operator to follow her for some months during the recording of her then new album, ‘Joanne’ (2017). Viewers are treated to various ‘navel-gazing’ sessions during which Gaga speaks of her ‘melt-downs,’ her use of prescription drugs, and her frustration with her fans. Despite enjoying its trappings – such the Lamborghini and her spectacular New York apartment overlooking Central Park – she acknowledges that fame is not exactly what she hoped it would be. She says:
‘It is lonely, it is isolating, and it is very psychologically challenging because fame changes the way you’re viewed by people. For me, it feels very unnatural, but complicated because I know it is my destiny to be a performer.’
As one watches the documentary, it becomes evident that Gaga’s celebrity status is a gilded trap from which its almost impossible to escape. The more she serves the insatiable demands of her fans for new bizarre outfits and adventurous stunts on stage, the more she feels the pressure to deliver. After all, how does one just turn away from the attention, the adulation? All the money? Evidently, it takes an enormous amount of time, energy and effort to keep up appearances. She constantly appears to be stressed out. After all, the show must go on. The film shows that much of the time on most days, her apartment is filled with various agents, physical therapists (she suffers from fibromyalgia) and make-up experts (Gaga is constantly being made up). She employs them to turn her from Stefani Germanotta into her celebrity persona, her alter ego: the inimitable Lady Gaga. Taking it all in, the viewer cannot help but ask ‘which is which?’ ’Who is who?’ Who is the real person? Is it Stefani or is it Gaga? And will the ‘old’ Stefani ever return? Probably not.
From the beginnings of His public ministry, Jesus’ identity and message remained constant. The stress he endured was not the result of his need to satisfy the crowds, but to fulfil the will of his Father in saving humanity. His disciples struggled to accept this. Even when Peter finally came to realise that Jesus was the hoped-for Christ his own opinion of who this Christ needed to be, differed radically from Jesus’ own understanding (Mark 8:29-33).
If we are Christians, we too are called to minister to the world, but not adopt its values. As such, and as sinners, we need to follow Jesus’ example; we too need to be self-reflective, self-aware. Even the believer’s heart is deceitful and wicked. Deep down we all have a deep need for love and acceptance. Maybe even to be (dare we admit it) a ‘celebrity’? Again, the Bible does not condemn fame in and of itself: Billy Graham was famous! Yet we need to be careful.
Sure, Jesus loved the ‘crowds’ and so should we. After all, they needed him. They need Him today, they need to be saved. But if we truly intend to minister the Gospel to the world, our effectiveness crucially depends on us not being ‘of the world.’ Talented, gifted believers, growing successful ministries of whatever nature, need to specifically bear this in mind. They are the ones who will often be tempted to bow to the pressures of the fans in the audience, the market-place, the popular culture. But as we have seen, we cannot simultaneously serve Jesus and the world, as ironically, in order to address and love the world, the minister needs to adopt a certain stance somewhat distanced from it.
As believers we therefore need to carefully reflect on any potentially new ‘door’ which might open for us. We must carefully consider each new opportunity coming our way, particularly opportunities which threaten to change our priorities. Certainly, God has granted us the power to choose, but we should choose wisely and prayerfully.
We should not only ask: ‘What should I do?’ But we should also ask: Why do I want to do what I do, and for whom do I really intend doing it?’