A Lady Gaga video serves as far more than a simple visual interpretation of a song. Coming from a musician who fully inhabits her artistic persona on a daily basis, Gaga’s videos are thematic shots across the bow layered with imagery that signals her latest obsessions. Because of her protean, ever-changing sensibilities, “reinvention” barely has any meaning for her. In a body of work defined by constant change, a transition or break can be difficult to see. To clearly mark it would require a video that induces a grandiose shock, a sensory electroconvulsion—and that’s what “Born This Way” provides.
Gaga’s debut, The Fame, and all the visual media that accompanied it were fixated on notions of the spectator: the relationship between artist and audience, of watching and being watched. The Fame Monster and its videos expanded and subverted those concepts, but as the title indicates, the thematic focus remained in familiar space. “Born This Way”—also the title of Gaga’s forthcoming album—marks a shift away from the spectator toward the investigation of identity. It’s not about being seen, but about being.
The video, directed by Nick Knight (who photographed Gaga for the current issue of Vanity Fair), signals this transition by starting off with a creation myth: To form an identity, Gaga must first create the universe. In this psychedelic sequence, Gaga returns to the well of Hitchcockian psychology by underscoring the whole segment with Bernard Herrmann’s theme from Vertigo. There’s a cosmic mythos to it all, with Gaga as “Mother Monster” giving birth to “the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment.” The beautiful organic symmetry of this world is immediately threatened by dualism and the “birth of evil.” As in any good creation myth, this evil is almost ludicrously overdetermined, with a circle of phallic machine guns that ring like church bells—and this is all before the song even begins.
The rest of the video works on repairing this fractured world, and this easy good-vs.-evil dualism is broken down and replaced with something far more complex with its mélange of writhing, commingling bodies and a quality that might be best described as xenomaternal pansexuality. Gaga shuns any sanitized and generic portrayal of diversity; instead, she embraces a sexual energy that’s charged with darkness yet all the more joyous for it. The subdermal tweaks to her face and body, those pointed protrusions in her cheeks and shoulders, physically and symbolically expand not only what is acceptable, but also what is desirable. And the point where she exudes maximum sexual charisma isn’t in her half-naked dancing or when she’s thrusting crotch-first into a mass of painted flesh; it’s when she melds a pink bouffant and a sharp tuxedo to become the kinetic skeletal counterpart to Rick Genest’s Zombie Boy.
In “Born This Way,” Gaga alters and plays with a number of the familiar symbols in her lexicon. The use of eye imagery is still present, but it’s being pushed in a new direction. For Gaga, the eyes have always been a source of identity, but in many ways it was a narrow and passive one: the connection between audience and performer, a relationship of seeing and being seen. Here she’s reaching for something more fully embodied and active, starting with the eyes, but expanding from there. Mother Monster has a third eye; however, it’s not in her forehead, but on her chin, pointing downward to the source of her physical and sexual energy. This transition is made literal with a shot inside a glassy incubation chamber where we start off close on Gaga’s eyes and, after a split-second spiraling transition, we’re staring right at her zippered vulva.
Then there’s the notion of the Monster that finds expression in a great deal of Gaga’s work. It has always represented a diffuse anxiety outside of Gaga, whether it’s the Fame Monster that threatens to consume and change her, or her Little Monsters, the diverse sea of fans bound to her in a complex web of admiration, love, and obsession. But in “Born This Way,” with its focus on physical distortion, creation, and identity, Gaga fully embraces the monstrous as a part of her. She has acknowledged her role as Mother Monster before, but never to the visceral, fully embodied extent that she does here. The things that are monstrous, the things that are different—for Gaga, those are the things that are beautiful.