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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Column: Going gorillas, huh?

What do Kanye West, Jay Z, Blades of Glory, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Madonna and Republican Presidential Primary candidate Rick Santorum all have in common? Well, what do they have in common other than this columnist being a little cray? Bare with me.

In the hit single, “N**gas in Paris,” Jay-Z and Kanye West sample a line from the movie Blades of Glory, critiquing hip hop lyrics: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative … Gets the people going!”

The key word here is provocative. Where Jay and Kanye peg the function of provocation to getting a rise out of the audience, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Madonna put that theory into practice.

At the Grammy Awards, it appeared as though Minaj set out to, as a many in the media put it, out-Gaga Lady Gaga by showing up clad in a Little Red Riding Hood-esque Versace satin, faux Pope-accompanied performance art. The real performance, however, took place on stage where Minaj executed a mock exorcism in front of millions. Taken altogether, entertainment pundits chalked this up to Gaga’s ex-Creative Director Laurieann Gibson working against her through Minaj. Be that as it may, the choice of religion as medium for provocation is important.

Lady Gaga is no stranger herself when it comes to performing religion to “get the people going.” The music video for her single “Judas” features, among other images, Gaga riding in a biker-gang alongside the apostles of Jesus Christ. The video has over 120 million views on YouTube. While there is a sense in which this video is original, Lady Gaga is not the first to mobilize religion in pop.

In modern pop culture, that recognition would go to Madonna. Her performance for the single “Like a Prayer” has been called “church-baiting.” And it’s not hard to see why. This video has burning crosses, crucifixion stigmata and a dream about making love to a saint. The Vatican actually condemned it.

Finally, we have Rick Santorum, who manages to make the people go gorillas without having to out-Gaga anyone. Rick Santorum told Michigan voters he “almost threw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s famous address on the “absolute” separation of church and state. Santorum has been similarly vocal and provocative on the campaign trail as he seeks support from the religious right. As this reaction populated airwaves and Facebook newsfeeds a couple days ago, it was clear that Santorum got folks riled up on both sides of his message.

All of this makes me want to ask: why religion? What is it about provocative statements about religion that get the people going so? My answer is echoed by the Clinton presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Issues of the economy dominate the airwaves and campaign trail. Prevalent in these discussions is the alarming level of economic uncertainty — a catch-all term for the inability of households to know where their next paycheck is coming from, the inability of businesses to know whether they’ll make a profit this quarter, the inability of policymakers to project accurate economic indicators and so on.

That kind of uncertainty really gets to the existential core of some, taking the rug out from under the familiar, the regular and the everyday. For some folks, religion is used to fill in the gaps between what we’re comfortable with and what uncertainty we have to deal with. My guess is that religion becomes an especially sensitive issue during times of economic uncertainty. When Nicki Minaj turns exorcism into spectacle, or when Rick Santorum is calling for a deeply radical recognition of church within state, these acts get even more attention because religion serves a need amplified by the recession.

And sure enough, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” came out in 1989, at the head of the early 1990s recession. Maybe I’m not so cray after all.

If you think RAJIV NARAYAN is the illest because of his realness, prescribe him a treatment at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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