In an earlier post about Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video, I discussed her particular way of overcoming shame. Based on Sigmund Freud’s idea of the artist as someone who retreats from hated reality but finds a way back through his or her artistic gifts, I suggested that Lady Gaga “has managed to take profound shame and make it into something aesthetic and compelling. By putting her shame on display — she’s not afraid to make herself look ugly, or to expose herself in ways that other people might find ‘shameless’ — she has in a sense triumphed over that shame.” In Lady Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video, she returns to this theme and elaborates upon it. Although her latest effort ostensibly deals with the issue of trauma, dig a little deeper and you’ll see it’s really about shame.
Lady Gaga begins the video with an explanatory monolog:
“When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened; it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it. Clinical psychology tells us that trauma is arguably the ultimate killer. Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics. They can be lost forever. It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again. It’s not that I’ve been dishonest; it’s just that I loathe reality.”
Many artists might describe their lives as an unfinished painting, but few would go on to define the artistic process as one of filling in the “ugly” holes. As I discussed in that earlier post, she often talks about feelings of personal ugliness and of being a “loser” — it’s one of her central themes. Although she doesn’t always use the word, she’s usually talking about shame.
Lady Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video next explores the question of beauty and ugliness with alternating scenes: a naked Lady Gaga suffering a sort of nervous breakdown in her apartment, after hearing the news that she has been dropped by her label, with Lady Gaga as ballerina, performing to Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ sonata. Ugliness vs. beauty is surely the central theme of her life and work: how do you take something ugly and painful (here, the sense of being a rejected loser) and transform it into a work of art?
As she explains in her interview for MTV, when discussing that breakdown scene, “it was intensely important to me that it not be too beautiful”; once again, she’s not afraid to make herself unattractive. The ballet sequence is “twisted and strange,” she tells us — not a complete denial of ugliness, but rather an infusion of beauty with the underlying pain. “I was never the perfect dancer, I was always the broken bird in the background. The video is about the broken bird being brought to the front of the class.”
Lady Gaga’s entire career is about the broken bird being brought to the front of the class. Instead of running from shame and the sense of her internal damage, she puts it center stage. It’s not a form of denial because her creations aren’t purely beautiful, as if to cover over and hide the underlying pain. Instead, Lady’s Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video, like all of her videos, is “twisted and strange”, exquisite and ugly, painful and uplifting. With a sense of humor and with honesty, she faces her shame, the humiliation of rejection, her sense of inner ugliness, and then transforms them into art.
For Lady Gaga, the healing of shame doesn’t mean some idealized sort of recovery where you completely erase that shame and its effects; instead it involves acceptance of your damage and internal darkness (“marrying the night”) and then making the very best of it you can.