Omid Safi has written a heartfelt editorial for Religion News Service explaining why Lady Gaga’s new song which uses the traditional Muslim burqa — women’s scarf and body covering — is in poor taste. It’s hardly the first time the performer has been accused of poor taste, but in this instance she is being accused of violating the sacred.
Here are some of the lyrics to “Burqa”:
I’m not a wandering slave,
I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
You watch, you fancy me cause there’s always one man to love
But in the bedroom the size of them’s more than enough
But let us not, for one minute, confuse all the #Burqaswag references among her fan (“little monsters”, as she affectionately calls them) as something in any way emancipatory, or actually about the women who choose to wear burqa (or niqab) or are even forced to wear one by dominant patriarchal cultures around them. Gaga’s Burqa outfits (and song, if it is indeed hers) does nothing to share the already existing full humanity of Muslim women, or others who wear (by choice, custom, or force) the burqa. It is merely appropriation of some one else’s clothing by an unimaginably wealthy, white, elite North American woman without in any way altering the reality of the lives of women on whose behalf it pretends to speak.
Later he quotes approvingly Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American Muslim poet, in the context of Lady Gaga’s song (noting that Hammad was not describing Gaga):
Don’t build around me your fetish, fantasy,
Your lustful profanity to cage me in, clip my wings.
Don’t wanna be your exotic.
Your lovin’ of my beauty
ain’t more than funky fornication, plain pink perversion
In fact, nasty necrophilia.
Because my beauty is dead to you…
Please, don’t don’t accuse Lady Gaga of necrophilia. We just don’t know what she’s capable of doing next.
I have a certain sympathy with artists who push boundaries of propriety even to the point where they are accused of breaking rules, being insensitive to the feelings of others, or engaging in sensationalism. There is no written rulebook for the agent provocateur, and each artist has a unique style. And then there are successful exploitations of a cultural opening and unsuccessful forays.
Did Lady Gage misfire? Is her Burqua song so offensive she ought to be criticized for Orientalizing all women who wear the Burqua, harming them in some way? Ought her effort to call attention to the potential for exploitation and oppression in Muslim culture be ridiculed as not “in any way emancipatory”?
The issues are complex and yet what does your heart say? Mine does not go on the offensive against an artist who knows how to use the power of her bully pulpit to shift the tide of public opinion — especially the opinion of youth — in emancipatory ways. Perhaps her flirtation with the Burqua song will be short-lived, a mere exploitation of a sensitive issue, an experiment in testing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say about Islamic tradition in a song. Even so I would not criticize her for trying, nor would I attack anyone such as Safi or Hammad if they are turned off by it. They are also entitled to their reactions.
At Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg doesn’t care much for Burqua and uses its opportunity to just say that Lady Gaga isn’t a very good artist:
There’s no question that as an advocate, Lady Gaga’s done enormous good in raising the profile of issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality, and Russia’s anti-gay laws. I just wish that her songs were as nuanced and effective as her political work can be. Using your power in service of others is a generous act. Speaking for others in your music in a way that doesn’t recognize the difference between elevating their voices and subsuming them, is less noble, and less musically effective.
So you see here’s the crux of where I disagree with this strand of thought in art criticism: Safi and Rosenberg think Gaga is “subsuming” those who are different from her rather than “elevating their voices”. They have an either/or worldview: you’re either lifting THEM up, or you’re stomping on THEM. However, Gaga seems to be both identifying with the other as well as differentiating herself from them clearly by putting her lyrics into her own unique style. Safi’s and Rosenberg’s views are more Green, Gaga’s and mine are more Integral.
To think that you can’t sing about being “born this way” unless you are yourself that way is the worst sort of handcuffing of artists, a denial of the non-dual or causal self in the name of the subtle self or gross self. To think that an artist isn’t allowed her own voice because she’s a “wealthy, white, elite North American woman” is its own sort of unfortunate discrimination. Sometimes Gaga’s lyrics become bland and sappy when they fly too high above the particular, it is true, but when you’re doing work on the frothy edge of popular culture some of that is inevitable.
What I hope is that Lady Gaga will not stop at Burqua, but will continue to take up a truly prophetic calling to use pop music as a vehicle for shifting the cultural views of women throughout the world in more liberating directions, including those Muslim women who are forced to wear garments that violate them. If she keeps going she may not make every critic happy, especially the Green ones, but she will have demonstrated that she is a World Artist capable of delivering a mix of entertainment with enlightenment to audiences across the globe while changing millions of lives in the process.