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The Artist Abroad

Gago over Lady Gaga

10:28 PM May 27, 2012

New York—I don’t go gaga over Lady Gaga. I never have.

But while there are plenty who do, including many Filipino fans, there are also those who seem to be gago over Gaga. The guardians of public morality and decency in the noble and ever-loyal city of Manila are to be commended for their constant vigilance lest the all-too-earthly (though hardly sublime) pleasures of a Gaga performance distract them and their faithful from the transcendent aim of being accepted to eternity’s pearly gates. Their concern that our feckless youth be waylaid and plunge into hellfire and damnation is unmatched. Surely their belief that they have a special hot line with the divine powers links them to a long tradition of voices that constantly warn humanity of its susceptibility to Satan’s unearthly charms.

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Rock and roll of course fits the bill perfectly: a brand of music that aims directly at the so-called primal impulses of its listeners. Elvis Presley’s gyrations scandalized Puritanical white America, though he was simply copying the black musicians he was familiar with. In his every pelvic thrust they saw unbridled lust. The term ‘rock ’n’ roll’ was after all black slang for intercourse. When the Rolling Stones first emerged on the scene as English rock’s bad boys, all of staid society’s pooh-bahs saw them as druggies out to seduce their virginal daughters, who it turns out were all to willing to be seduced and were in fact as much seducer as seducee. Successors such as the Sex Pistols made no pretense of hiding their contempt of middle-class morality. And Gaga’s theatrics clearly owe a lot to Material Girl Madonna, just look at that bra in the shape of gun barrels.

Of course jazz preceded rock ’n’ roll as the so-called corrupter of youth, a form of music that could only lead one down the path of perdition. Singers such as Billie Holiday and Eartha Kitt were often seen as temptresses for their sultry delivery. And the saxophone, probably the iconic jazz instrument, was singled out for playing the Devil’s music. When this instrument first made its appearance, its Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax was the target of a smear campaign by a group of hypermoralistic individuals who saw him as doing the Devil’s work (paging Dan Brown!).

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In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church banned a musical interval—technically a combination of C and F#, or a tritone—which quickly became known as the Devil’s Interval. The reason apparently was that it induced transcendent feelings in its listeners, leading them to a direct experience of the Divine. If a person could directly access the Divine, what need was there for the Church as an agency for heavenly experience? A similar rationale underlies the Sufi stress on music, which doesn’t sit well with Muslim fundamentalists, and even with some subsects of Sufis. By the way, if you have a chance to attend a Qawwali concert I urge you to do so. I once attended a performance by the now deceased Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in New York, packed with South Asian devotees. It was impossible to sit still and not be caught up in the fervor and intensity of the music. By the concert’s end, folks were dancing in the aisles. It was a moment when one’s religion didn’t matter at all, when the music was the religion.

Not that Lady Gaga’s music comes close to being transcendental, far from it, but the fear of those who would act as our moral guardians and thought police in having their roles undermined is an ancient one, which all petty bureaucrats who hate the thought of losing control are familiar with. In Gaga’s case, the religious right deemed her show pornographic and offensive to Christ because of her advocacy of gay rights. (Homophobes of a religious bent conveniently forget that one of the divine injunctions is to love your neighbor as yourself. And it has always struck me as odd, to say the least, that the portrayal of the Christ that the holier-than-thou crowd favors is someone with no sense of humor and who badly needs their protection. Such generosity on behalf of an omnipotent being is touching but full of irony and ultimately misplaced. A flea defending an elephant has more chances of success relative to a mortal rising up on behalf of the Almighty.)

Many years ago, I remember attending a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and there at the theater were members of the Catholic League, decrying the filmmaker’s interpretation of the Son of God’s last days on earth as blasphemous. It brought back memories of those days when the Archdiocese of Manila would list certain movies as “Condemned,” which you viewed at the risk of losing your soul. By that token, I lost my soul many times over. Most of the time, such movies were a crushing disappointment, not to mention boring. If I were going to sin, I wanted it to be exciting and pleasurable, a sin of blatant commission.

As there are throughout the world, many demons of course plague the good citizens of the republic, with which we are all familiar: the demons of grinding poverty, endemic corruption, human rights violations, exploitation of natural resources, etc. To remedy these will take time and involve more than prayer and press conferences. But perhaps the protesters are not poor enough in spirit to do that. More’s the pity.

2012 copyright L. H. Francia

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TAGS: Beliefs, homosexuality, Lady Gaga, Morality, Music, Norm, People, Religion, Society
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