Okay, true confessions time: I showed my 14 year-old son Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video.
No, it wasn't a mistake and yes, I'd do it again. You might be asking, "Who is Lady Gaga?" Or maybe you're shaking your head and tut-tutting to yourself, "What in the world was she thinking?"
First, I should point out that nearly every teenager in this country has heard of Lady Gaga. Yes, even yours. Even if you tell me that your homeschooled daughter rarely leaves the pristine confines of your 500-acre ranch in Wyoming, I'll still insist that I'm right.
Blame it on the People magazine sitting on the empty chair at the dentist's office, or even blame the little screens above the check-out counter or gas pump whose job it is to keep us distracted, sell us things, and feed our culture's desperate, insatiable hunger for celebrity gossip.
You could even blame Time magazine for exposing your child to Lady Gaga. Just a few weeks ago, the magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Why did they honor her that way, this singer with the bizarre fashion sense and lyrics that include "Don't be dirty ice cream, baby" and lots of "rah-rah-ah-ah-ah"s and "GaGa, ooh la la"s?
(It may have something to do with the 15 million albums and 40 million singles she's sold. Just one week after her latest video, Alejandro, was posted on YouTube, it had already been watched 20 million times.)
My point is that she's a huge presence in popular culture right now and had I not showed my son "Telephone," he likely would have seen it at a friend's house or while flipping through the cable channels at his grandparents' house, sooner or later.
You're probably wondering what this big lead up is all about. How bad could it be? Well, "Telephone" is thick with raunchy sexual material, bad language, and even clunky product placement. (While making sandwiches, Lady Gaga is careful that the Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip labels squarely face the camera.)
In it, singer Beyoncé plays a character who bails Lady Gaga out from a rather … ahem … unconventional prison. Together they drive to a diner and poison its customers who, near the end of the video, lie dead around them as they do a big dance number.
If this makes you want to see it, let me recommend that you avoid the "official explicit version." Actually, I've never seen that one, but having seen the "official clean version," I feel qualified to say so.
One afternoon, when his younger siblings weren't home, I asked my son if he'd seen "Telephone." He hadn't, but it heard it being described at the lunch table. I asked him if he'd like to see it. He shrugged, either because he's more into artists like Jack Johnson and Coldplay or because he didn't expect I'd show it to him. But I did. We skimmed through, pausing to talk.
I asked him questions.
Are prisons really like this?
Do you find the video respectful of women? What does it communicate about same sex relationships?
Is sexuality dirty? Does this make sexuality seem dirty?
Is Lady Gaga making a statement, actually showing how silly celebrity worship is, by acting out in such extreme ways?
What's the message here? Is there one?
Do you know what nihilism means?
What's clever or beautiful about this video?
What draws you in?
In what way can the words that we pray every week at church, the ones about respecting the dignity of every person and about seeing and serving Christ in them, relate here?
My son and I had a good long talk.
He talked about the lack of expression on Lady Gaga's face, both when she was in the prison and after the killing spree. We talked about what makes people unplug from their feelings. Abuse? Disappointment? Despair?
He said that the outrageous costume pieces (such as the sunglasses constructed of burning cigarettes) make him want to keep watching to see what bizarre or "random" thing will come next. (Yes, me too.) We agreed that the music draws us in, even when the lyrics are vapid.
We talked about how we feel when we watch U2's "Vertigo." We both love the song and have watched the video several times. The way the blowing wind seems to disintegrate the band members as huge torrents of color stream behind them is visually stunning. And, after we watch it, we feel that difficult-to-define sense that it's good to be alive. "You give me something I can feel … "
I said that after watching "Telephone" for the first time, I felt a little sour. I don't want to accept a world where murderers stare blankly at their victims and then start to dance. I like to connect love and romance with sexuality and not see a kind of brittle sexual exchange glamorized.
My son nodded.
But, I said, it's not Lady Gaga's job only to paint beautiful pictures. She aims to shock, to stun, to disturb. And she succeeds. Some of Lady Gaga's biggest fans compare her work to that of avant-garde painters. If I wouldn't shove my son into a gallery full of Kandinskys or Mondrians without giving him some context, how can I choose to ignore pieces of art or music that occupy a central place in his environment?
I want my children to know that I'm not shockable and that we can talk about anything. But, more than that, I want them to seek authentically after God, engaging with culture, contributing to it, and finding true joy by seeing Christ in others. And I don't believe that pretending Lady Gaga and raunchy music videos don't exist is the way to do that.
Laura Leonard previous wrote on Lady Gaga's comments on abstinence. Jennifer Grant is a journalist, freelance writer, and mother of four who writes a column and feature stories for the Chicago Tribune. Find her online at www.jennifercgrant.com.