The argument that “I was born that way.” has a lot of currency in our current philosophical, political and sociological landscape. Unfortunately, no one gets off that easy….
I like to think I’m a cultured kind of guy, especially for my age. In my degree I majored in literature, my wife and I like to go see chamber orchestras whenever we can, I go out of my way to see foreign films and I like to swirl and engage my olfactory sense when drinking wine. However, though I might occasionally spend my Saturday afternoon listening to Mahler while reading prize-winning fiction, I am still a bit partial to some simple, catchy, shallow, commercial pop music.
And it doesn’t get any more simple, catchy, shallow and commercial (and popular) than Lady Gaga. Say what you will about her sense of fashion, her image, her morality; Bad Romance is one of the finest pop songs of the last decade.
A lot of ink, paper and digital words have been spent on Lady Gaga since her emergence a few years ago – there’s been plenty of criticism along with the praise. This year, around the time Gaga was in Australia promoting her new album, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a debate about Lady Gaga’s value as a role model (you can find it here). The article contains a few different perspectives, all of which are interesting and thought provoking, however when I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder if this issue of Lady Gaga’s place as a role model is actually missing the point.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot to be said about her hypersexualised image and her relentless promotion of the drinking and clubbing lifestyle; we need to be vigilant about resisting these types of messages, especially when they’re being presented to young people. What I found interesting, though, was that though there were plenty of people out there raising issues with the specifics of Gaga’s image, there was virtually no questioning whatsoever of her overall ethos. Read any article about Gaga or any interview with her and inevitably she will talk about the central theme of her music and her personality (that she has a theme for her personality raises a whole bunch of questions that I think I’m going to avoid for the sake of brevity). It’s actually right there in the title of her newest album – Born This Way. Lady Gaga says that her main purpose is to spread the message of self-acceptance and love and that whoever you are, wherever you are, you were born that way and that’s okay. That all seems pretty good, right? Self acceptance and respect is important, that’s true. I think, though, that there is something quite insidious going on with Gaga’s message that is very easy to miss if you’re not careful. There’s a sense of complacency in her message; the implication that you were ‘born this way’ and that’s the end of it. Whatever your shortcomings are, that’s who you are and that’s the way it is. There appears to be very little room for self-improvement and growth and that, for me, is an incredibly damaging message to be sending.
We all have personality traits and habits that we are, for lack of a better term, born with (for the sake of simplicity I’m going to pass over the complex nature/nurture thing that makes up who we are, suffice to say it is complex and the upshot is that regardless of causation, there are things about us that have developed out of our control), but that is surely not an excuse to work at improving ourselves.
I, for example, am rather partial to delicious beef burgers and I have been known to eat far more of them than I really should for the sake of my health. I did not just decide I liked burgers, I was ‘born that way’, but that doesn’t mean I should indulge my tastes all that time. I should still work on tempering my tastes and ensure I eat vegetables and salad and fruit etc. More importantly, I should really try and develop my tastes so that I am more inclined to eat healthily because I like it, not just because I should. Or take a more serious example – perhaps I have a temper, or I’m impulsive and I like to gamble – is it reasonable to say I’m not responsible for my particular vice because I was ‘born this way’? Extreme, perhaps, ‘born this way’ and ‘accept yourself’ are just platitudes after all. Nonetheless, how you think matters and the way you see yourself as a human person is important. These platitudes leave the door open for complacency and abdication of responsibility.
This ethos is not especially original, of course. In many ways it is the prevalent mode of thinking in the modern western world. The idea that the individual is king; you must accept yourself and high self esteem is the all important measure of your mental and spiritual well-being. But this is not the Christian message. Jesus’ message, as much as it is about love and acceptance, also hinges on dissatisfaction with the world, with injustice and, above all else, with sin. The Gaga worldview has no time for sin, but without sin there is no need for a redemption.
I am reminded of the grand conclusion to C.S. Lewis’ dynamite essay The Weight of Glory where he says “you have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” This is what it is to be made in the image and likeness of God. We cannot just ‘accept ourselves’ and be ‘born this way’, for we are destined to share eternal glory with our creator. Our goal is sainthood, not self-satisfaction, and sainthood is hard work.
Contrast this with Lady Gaga’s most recent single, The Edge of Glory, where her version of glory appears to be a mix of drinks, clubs and one night stands.
Cheap, temporary thrills or redemption and eternal life with the hosts of heaven…I know which one I’d prefer.
Samuel Mullins is a graduate with Honours in Creative Communication from the University of Canberra. He worked in Youth Ministry for over 5 years. He was married in 2010 and now lives in Wollongong with his wife. He spends his spare time reading, writing and pondering the deep questions of life.
Nature or nurture? What do you think?