Gaga V: 4 Parents

Prince: Shocking parents since 1977

What’s the parental response to Lady Gaga and her peers?  I might not have a platform to speak from – my eldest is eleven so he’s only on the cusp of delving into his popular culture, so my strategies are essentially untested.

My comments come from talking to my peers some two decades on, reflecting on our experiences.  It also comes from being something of a proxy parent to my nephews and nieces who are, by quirk of me being born quite late to my parents, closer to me in age than my siblings.

I spent my teen years in a church environment where it seemed the emphasis was to ‘protect’ us from the ‘world’.  For instance, instead of going to the after-Formal party with the rest of our Year 12 friends, we ended up playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey in the church hall as a youth group.

The first thing I’d suggest is that if it was difficult to cosset us away from the influence of the world as teens in the 1980s it must be far more difficult, perhaps even impossible, today.  My peers and I grew up without the wealth of information that the internet now pipes into our homes.  We grew up without mobile phones, and without letters on the digits of our phones.  If you wanted to communicate something quickly your options were limited.

Our major source of information came from television, where there was generally one television in the home and only a handful of channels to choose from.  Watching television would generally be a family event.  Radio options were limited and fairly banal.  Books are easy to monitor.

The massive fragmentation of media, and the huge range of options for accessing content that has happened over the last few years means the parental task of monitoring and vetting content and information is nearly impossible.

And even if it were possible to control, the act of controlling merely builds a fence around something that becomes a tempting proposition to scale.  For instance, ban your child from listening to Lady Gaga and it could become like a “wet paint” sign.  Who hasn’t touched a park bench to see if the paint is wet?

So what to do?  Rather than building fences perhaps it’s better to walk hand in hand with the child in “forbidden territory” – so you know what’s in there for yourself and can have a constructive dialogue with your kids, informed by the kind of parental wisdom that comes from years and the school of hard knocks.

I guess that’s part of my motivation for writing a series on the interpretation of Gaga.  I’d suggest kids are going to obtain a perspective and world view on their preferences and priorities in popular culture anyway – wouldn’t you rather be an informed voice in the conversation rather than the one saying “don’t do that because I say so”?

Our 'education'.

What does it mean to be properly informed?  In our Youth Group we endured the annual ritual of sitting through the Hells Bells video which was apparently designed to keep us on the straight and narrow.  In reality it became a running joke – mainly because the video seemed more of an attempt to spook parents into a total ban on secular music than an honest and truthful attempt to steer through the stormy waters of popular culture.

My main criticism with Hells Bells was its tendency to take lyrics completely out of context to build a case.  The best example would be my memory of the video showing concert footage of the concluding line of Prince’s song “Temptation”.  There would be no shortage of material to work with to highlight the overtly sexual nature of Prince’s message – why take one line that is a dialogue between Prince and God where he is confessing his struggle with this area of life?

I don’t think the use of hysteria and half-truth is a great way to engage or educate youth.  They have radars highly tuned to filter out “naff”.  I remember a carload of my youth group departing a Hells Bells screening with INXS “Devil Inside” blaring from their car stereo simply to protest the preposterous assertion the song was glorifying demon possession.

If anything Hells Bells probably broadened our horizons and introduced us to obscure bands we’d never have heard of without it (and some of us subsequently bought their music).

The first time I heard the word marijuana was at age 12 during a shock/horror presentation on the evil back masking on Queen’s “Another one bites the dust”.  It was a song I’d heard many times before – it was a bit of a favourite around the office at Youth for Christ Bulawayo.  Apparently the back masking would subliminally plant its message in my mind.  I don’t know about that, but the well-meaning presentation led to me asking some awkward questions of my parents about a substance that was now on my radar *because* of the song and dance about back masking.

These stickers appeared after Tipper Gore heard the lyrics to Darling Nikki in her daughter's bedroom.

Oh well, if back masking is as powerful as they say, the back masking I’ve listened to most is the bridge between Darling Nikki and Purple Rain.  “Hello, how are you? I’m fine. Çuz I know the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon”. Personally it defies my logic that people place so much store on something that sounds like gibberish when it’s overlaid over a song that introduced me to the word “masturbate” and was directly responsible for the introduction of parental advisory stickers on albums.

There’s enough to work with in modern lyrics played forward before freaking out about their potential subliminal influences.  I think a lot of back masking in the 1980s was done purely to attract attention from well-meaning parent action groups.  Highlighting the “dangers” only served to fuel hysteria which generated priceless free publicity.

Nowadays there are sites analyzing the imagery of a Lady Gaga and suggesting she is giving a subliminal message of mind control.  Maybe so, but isn’t there enough to worry about in her lyrics before we need to do a frame by frame analysis of her videos to find conspiracy theories?

At one point in life I came across a “sanctified” tape player.    It had only played Christian music and therefore the owner considered it “pure”.  I guess this is where I digress.  If Jesus was known as the friend of tax-collectors, drunkards and sinners is it too much to ask of us to be appraised of popular culture and able to interpret it in a sensible and constructive way?

What does the slavish and loyal devotion from Gaga’s fans to her message tell us about the state of the next generation of young life and love?

Rather than being at risk of hiding in a sanctimonious huddle, shouldn’t we as Christians be so confident of our salvation that we can collectively stare down worldy excesses and reclaim them by interpreting them within the construct of God’s redemptive purposes for mankind?

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 and then he ate my brain
Monster (in my bed)
– Lady Gaga

It is inevitable that most under 25s are exposed to Lady Gaga’s music and message.  The tunes are so irresistibly catchy that it’s fair to say that (to coin a Gagaism) she’s become the “Monster in their heads”.

Take her next likely single (Monster) and it’s allusions to date rape.  As Christians we could tut-tut at the content and consider prohibition to “protect” our teens from it.  But to do so perhaps also cuts us off from hearing and understanding some of the screams of desperation in our society as families break down and social mores become increasingly rubbery.

Instead, should we be appraising ourselves of the Gaga phenomenon and asking the question – what does the slavish and loyal devotion from Gaga’s fans to her message tell us about the state of the next generation of young life and love?  And how will we Christians pick up the pieces?

Postscript: I’d like to conclude with something my sister wrote to me recently.  I would have been in my early 20s when her children hit their teens.

I will be forever grateful for your advice to me when my kids hit the teen years. You said,’If you want to know how your kids view their world listen to their music.” I took that advice and although I know I made heaps of other mistakes, doing that opened a door of communication with them that I cherished. In fact I miss not having my children close, telling me about their latest songs.

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