A few weeks ago I was sitting in a car with two colleagues driving through the Welsh countryside. We were travelling back from a conference, pretty tired and talking about nothing in particular. Then, suddenly, an expectant hush fell in the car and the radio was turned up – Lady Gaga’s new single Judas was being played for the first time on Radio 1.
I decided to write about it as soon as I got back. Then I changed my mind, because I realised that the video for this song would probably be a lot more controversial than the words. And I wanted to see if I was right before I said anything. I think the jury’s probably still out…
This song is a worthy successor to Bad Romance, both musically and thematically. Musically, you hear it as soon as the “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh” bit kicks in at the beginning, and the “Judas, Juda-a-as” bit takes you straight back to the Bad Romances “rah-rah rah-ah-ah-ah”. And the themes are the same. A bad relationship which she keeps going back to, despite having been betrayed repeatedly. In Judas it’s even more tragic, because of the mention of the Jesus character – there’s someone else who’s much better for her, but for some reason she keeps going back to her Judas.
Some people have reacted strongly to the religious language in the song (although The Guardian’s Tom Ewing notes that it hasn’t caused that much of a stir, and suggests we aren’t really shocked by religious imagery in pop music any more. I agree, and I think the Mail’s use of the word “uproar” may be overstating things slightly!). The song is filled with Biblical ideas and images, but actually it’s far less religious or spiritual in its content than Born This Way. Born This Way was making a statement about the place of minorities (particular gay people) in the world, as people created by God to be who they are. I think Judas just uses the imagery as a (slightly heavy-handed) metaphor for betrayal, and the religious language seems to make it all sound a lot more significant and epic than it really is. The same effect is achieved musically too. There’s a thumping dance section in the middle, followed by a weird spoken section. But then things change completely; things slow down and Gaga sings:
“I wanna love you, But something’s pulling me away from you. Jesus is my virtue, Judas is the demon I cling to…”
It comes like a moment of realisation, or maybe of resignation, that this is the way things are. It makes her choice between these two men into an epic choice, a classic choice between good and evil as she chooses between Jesus and Judas. And as the final choruses kick in, she declares herself a “holy fool” as she declares that she’s still in love with Judas… In reality, she’s taking about two guys, one good, one bad, and she stupidly but knowingly chooses the bad one. But the language and the music make it all sound far more significant.
For me, there are two really interesting moments in the song:
I’m just a Holy fool, oh baby he’s so cruel
But I’m still in love with Judas, baby
What does she mean when she sings about loving Judas? Can she really love someone like that? Or does she really mean something else? It sounds like she’ll have a relationship with this man (perhaps any man?) at any cost. She knows it’s stupid, but she wants a relationship with this man so badly that she’ll ignore all that.
The other section I like is the middle eight, which is pretty bewildering:
In the most Biblical sense, I am beyond repentance
Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind
But in the cultural sense I just speak in future tense
Judas kiss me if offensed, Or wear ear condom next time.
The idea of forgiveness seems to run through the song. She keeps going back to Judas, despite his betrayal, but it also seems like she wants forgiveness herself. And here she says that, in the Biblical sense, she’s beyond repentance. She’s gone to far for redemption. Or maybe she’s just ahead of her time. She explained it to Popjustice like this:
“In terms of traditional views of what a woman is supposed to be I’m beyond the ability to redeem myself. But I don’t want to redeem myself, because in the cultural sense I believe that I’m just before my time. And if you don’t like it, wear an ear condom.”
It sounds like she’s changing tack slightly here – she’s talking more about her life in general, and where the darker parts of her life (including her affair with ‘Judas’) fit in. What I find interesting is that there’s a tension between “the Biblical sense” and “the cultural sense”. One represents judgmental, unforgiving self-righteousness. But if you listen properly (the cultural sense) she’s a visionary, speaking ahead of her time. And you either have to embrace it or stop listening. Here, I think, is where the song picks up more of the themes from Born This Way. Religion represents intolerance and judgmentalism. Really, you’re probably just misunderstood, and if people don’t like you, they can stick it.
The video was released over night – you can watch it on Lady Gaga’s website.
The video repaints Jesus and his disciples as a biker gang (instead of a helmet Jesus wears a gold crown of thorns) with Gaga in the role of Mary Magdalene. There’s a strong implication that Gaga and Jesus are in a relationship, but Judas is always lurking in the background. When the moment comes for Judas to betray Jesus with a kiss, Gaga steps in with a gun to stop him. But when she fires, the gun is really a lipstick which she uses to paint Judas’ lips. She not only fails to stop him, she helps him carry out his act of betrayal.
I can imagine that the video will upset some people, mainly because of the way it portrays Jesus, and because it hints at a relationship between him and Mary Magdalene. But, really, it’s not as controversial as it could have been… What it does do is shift the emphasis of the song slightly. In the lyrics, Jesus is only mentioned once, but he’s featured heavily in the video. It’s a reminder that, in the broken relationships Gaga is singing about, 3 people are involved. And when she keeps going back to Judas, even though she knows it’s a terrible idea, she’s betraying her Jesus too.
To be honest, the best bit about the video is the dance in the chorus, and specifically that one of the moves is making a heart with your hands…